The greatest music debuts of all time #2: Malcolm McLaren’s Buffalo Gals introduces scratching to Britain

“A Buffalo Gal was a pioneer, an adventurer, someone cowboys in the Wild West sang about at barn dances when they were trying to get a girl: that’s what the square dance is on the B-side of the record. Square dancing in the last century was their rock’n’roll, long before rock’n’roll existed. I wanted to show that, exposed properly, it has as much vehemence. There’s a caller, just like a rapper, who’s shouting out the instructions – ‘First Buffalo gal go round the outside’ etc – and everyone follows that movement.” – Malcolm McLaren talking to Smash Hits’ Neil Tennant, 1983

When I look back upon my life, it’s often accompanied by the most vivid flashbacks to my younger self discovering songs, films, images that hinted at there being a much bigger world than the one I occupied at the time. 

And it’s tough to explain the effect these little information time bombs had on me. It was very similar to the feeling I got seeing the cover of an adult magazine, or a glance at the inside of a bar or an adult store as a sheepish someone walked in or out… or even the first time I heard someone mentioning sheaths in public. These were what us Brits used to call condoms in the pre-HIV age of innocence, and my mother, keen not to have to repeat that role with another unplanned child, was asking the receptionist at the doctor’s surgery in Eaglestone if they had any.

All real-life examples, actually, which got my rapidly expanding brain working overtime. I remember endlessly mulling these things over, and imagining in various permutations what the real thing was like: “Steven’s more of a thinker than a talker, isn’t he?” people would often say about me. Of course, that’s only half the story.

When presented with music up until a certain age, you don’t question – you simply accept. David Bowie singing with Bing Crosby didn’t strike me as incongruous at all until a decade after the fact…because I heard it at age 13, and it might have been a Christmas song but it was just music, you know? 

Buffalo Gals was released the same month, November 1982. This hip-hop hoedown certainly expanded my mind, but I never thought to question it. I just eagerly watched the video when it came on, and let it work on me. Hey, they’re doing country dancing, like we did at infant school – funny. Wow, those are some weird outfits, but they’re kind of cool. Why is someone pushing that record back and forth? Is that guy dancing with an umbrella at the end?

Yes, he was, and he was doing that backslide thing we’d seen Jeffrey Daniels from Shalamar do on Top of the Pops just a few months earlier. You know the one…the one Michael Jackson called the moonwalk when he started doing it the following year. We’ll get back to the video later, but I thought you’d like to witness a pretty cringy/hysterical studio performance of McLaren trademark ducking and diving to Buffalo Gals on Dutch music programme Countdown. Bodypoptastic. Maybe.

When you’ve just made the tricky transition to your teens, and it’s still the early Eighties in Thatcher’s Britain, your options were limited when confronted with mind-opening events like this. I couldn’t buy the porn magazine and read it cover to cover. I couldn’t walk into the pub or adult store, and drink it all in.

And I couldn’t do much with songs like this either. I could buy the single, of course, but that’d be like taking the front cover of the magazine home —  enjoyable on one level, but without expanding out from there. I could buy the album, but I was getting my mind expanded a bit too often to spare the expense.

Resources were rather limited at that age. In that third year of the 1980s the Bank of England introduced the 20 pence coin to the UK, and my father took the opportunity to upgrade my pocket money from the tiny and new rather thin heptagon that everybody hated to the larger seven-sider — 50 whole new pence a week!

It’s a rich man’s world, said no sheep ever

Although 1982 was the year I started slowly expanding my singles purchases to acts outside of Adam and the Ants’ insect collective, I didn’t have the means or inclination to invest in a non-Adam album until Dead Or Alive’s Sophisticated Boom Boom and Visage’s Fade To Grey: The Singles Collection in the spring of 1984, followed by David Bowie’s Tonight as the year drew to a close.

And what long-playing opuses would I have opted for in 1982 had I been able? Oh undoubtedly Dare, Sulk, The Anvil, Upstairs At Eric’s and The Lexicon Of Love, he says, with only the slightest touch of post-rationalisation.

By this time, the one pound coin had been introduced to Britain, replacing the well-used £1 notes (a quid, in colloquial terms) that appeared worn and torn almost the moment they went into circulation.

An original 1983 design English pound coin: where there’s muck there’s brass

Being pathetically and pathologically resistant to change is part of the English national psyche, so naturally, everyone hated the new coins when they appeared in 1983 as well. There was an oft-repeated joke that soon became as tired as the bank notes going out of business. 

“Why is the pound coin like the Prime Minister? Because it’s thick, brassy and thinks it’s a sovereign.”

I was rather less vitriolic: the new coin coincided in a further upscale of my pocket money, as well as a pretty considerable rise in living standards after the Falklands War, however artificially manipulated by the government for election-grabbing political purposes that may have been. Well, I was now on a whole pound a week. Thanks Thatch! 

Thirty-five years on, of course, anybody with an internet connection could satisfy their curiosity in a few seconds. I could’ve discovered what was inside that adult magazine. I could not only find out what the inside of that pub looked like, but how it stacked up against all the others in town. I could’ve not only seen the inside of the adult store, but watched, vicariously, videos of every item inside being used and abused. The voyeur of butter destruction then.* 

High Times Crew breaking outside transit police station, Washington Heights, Manhattan, 1980. © Martha Cooper/Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

And I could’ve gone online and thrown myself down that rabbit hole as I learned about Malcolm McLaren, the New York scene, The Sex Pistols, Bow Wow Wow, breakdancing, and cultural imperialism and appropriation. In fact, I may do just that after I’ve finished writing this.

And it’s probably better this way. It’s better to know than not know. But these things just didn’t pique my interest – they fired my infernal imagination. Not really knowing what a bar looked like, I imagined well-dressed bon vivants standing around having lively conversation, occasionally interrupted by a man in a tuxedo, who would step on stage and croon My Way. And smiling barmen would create magic with those rows of bottles behind them, whipping up multicoloured concoctions that tasted amazing and made you feel happier and kept the conversation flowing. It’s perhaps not surprising I ended up not being a barfly, because the bar in my eight-year-old brain remains the unmatched benchmark.

I don’t even know if I can explain what Buffalo Girls made me imagine. It was far more nebulous, but it basically involved a bunch of oddballs. People in strange clothes trying strange things, making strange music in strange ways. Art for art’s sake, if you will, but without the artistic pretension – just a bunch of oddballs being odd together and having a good time. Talking of oddballs…

McLaren got the idea for Buffalo Gals while in Manhattan in the sticky summer heat of August 1981, looking for a support act for his protégés Bow Wow Wow. Finding himself accompanying the artist Michael Holman to an outdoor concert (known as a Block Party) in the South Bronx by Afrika Bambaataa’s Zulu Nation, he was exposed to hip-hop for the first time and discovered the scratching technique he would use on this song.

In mid ’82, the self-styled Fagin of the entertainment industry teamed up with producer Trevor Horn (“He was somebody who could manipulate whatever machinery was necessary to get the satisfactory sound”), to embark upon the ambitious project. He wanted to bring back the original excitement of early rock’n’roll music by tracking it down to its source in Africa and through the music of other cultures, from Native American tribes to the black ghettos of New York. McLaren’s extraordinary results were premiered live on teatime telly, on the 19 November edition of The Tube.

It’s like reconstructing the debris of old pop paraphernalia… what’s exciting about it is that you no longer need to buy guitars. You can choose a friend up the road, put your decks together with a beatbox and make your own records, demoralising [sic] the pop myth and beginning to find a way of using material yourself.”

This episode was notable for being only the third instalment of the new Channel 4’s Friday evening youth music programme, but also because beaming down from foggy Tyneside Newcastle was this remarkable segment marking the occasion when the terms (and concepts of) “scratching”, “break-dancing” and “hip-hop” were introduced to a mass British audience for the first time.

MM’s oversized Buffalo hat was later bought by Pharrell Williams. Dickhead

When the former Pistols svengali talked to The Tube presenter Jools Holland about the elements of new urban music featured on his forthcoming single Buffalo Gals, rap had been bubbling under in the UK with hits for the likes of Sugarhill Gang, Blondie and Grandmaster Flash as well as domestic appropriations by the likes of The Ants, The Clash and Wham!

The country’s first rap club, The Language Lab, was set up in Soho in ’81 by Tom Dixon and Nick Jones, after exposure to the emerging style when their group Funkapolitan provided one of the support slots for The Clash’s cash-in residency at Bonds Casino on Broadway (a notable 17-night stay in NYC that John Lydon recounts in Anger Is An Energy as being “pretty much the last time I saw McLaren.”). Others on the bill included Grandmaster Flash and Melle Mel, who would famously on to do White Lines and many other things.

The Language Lab was at the former premises of the legendary Gargoyle club (Noël Coward’s favourite W1 watering hole had, by the 1970s, become Billy’s, where Steve Strange and Rusty Egan’s hosted their prescient precursor to The Blitz) as Dixon – now, of course, a world-renowned designer – later recalled: “We got a Monday night at Meard Street above Gaz’s Rocking Blues. It was a strip club until 11 o’clock then we would go up with our speakers. It had a little theatre and the strippers would be going down as we were putting our stuff on.”

A year later, in conversation with Holland and clad head-to-toe in clothes designed with Vivienne Westwood, the artful codger — or “a man in his thirties with a shrill voice and a big, daft hat” according to future Pet Shop Boy, Neil Tennant, writing in Smash Hits — provided the breakthrough by celebrating the bold new music as consistent with his abiding principles of punk: that authenticity was achieved through DIY methods and anti-corporate practice. It was clear McLaren had witnessed the sparking of the movement which would soon consume pop culture. You can even hear the whine is in his name, “Miaowl-colm”.

“This was not having to deal with pre-packaged pop product. I like that very much. The idea came to me watching a group of kids in the south Bronx mixing all kinds of records together and talking, singing or hollering over the top. Then the floor broke loose and kids started to spin on their heads or do robotic movements, almost letting an electric wave run through their arms and hit the other side of their fingertips. The whole thing there they term Hip Hop. Scratching is part of DJing practice and breaking is another form of gymnastic dancing which you’re about to see on the video I made in New York.”

At a time when synthpop and New Wave ruled the Top 40, McLaren looked to roots music in the homelands of the rest of the world for inspiration, leaving it to ABC, Dollar and future Frankie Goes To Hollywood producer Trevor Horn to stitch together the aural equivalent of patchwork quilt. Besides the sonic, visual and technological introductions, the most radical aspect of Buffalo Gals lay in its clever collage aesthetic: a brilliant if bewildering fusion feast of scratch and sampling techniques, percolating rhythms and massed vocals. As innovative as it is incoherent, it cleverly combined world and roots music, bass-heavy dance beats, pop hooks and rock riffs.

The genesis of the Art of Noise was right here. In fact four of the five members worked on Buffalo Gals, making it the de facto first AoN record. Horn, Anne Dudley (keyboards), J.J. Jeczalik (Fairlight) and Gary Langan (sound engineering) saw the potential to craft entire compositions from sampled cut-ups, disrupting the traditional rock aesthetic even further with the formation of ZTT and their house arch deconstruction/reconstruction collective less than a year later.

And for audiences outside of the UK, the promotional video for Buffalo Gals almost singlehandedly introduced the holy trinity of hip hop — breakdancing, rapping and graffiti. I say almost, as Blondie’s Rapture film did boast two of the three, even if Debbie Harry’s rap was little more than a gibberish interlude. Too much of that Snow White perhaps.

Despite all the flak this ‘controversial character’ received, McLaren kind of deserved his reputation as a puppet master for alternative Britain – the man with his hand up the arse of our post-punk culture. And, of course, he helped popularise world music years before Paul Simon’s Graceland.

If the United Kingdom was a theme park, Malcolm McLaren would have been the ringmaster for mirror-image England – mythical land of highwaymen and artisans, the Artful Dodger and music hall. Being involved with the Sex Pistols should be enough to win him a place in our hearts, but he should also be cherished like one of those national institutions he loved so much. Either that, or he should have been committed to one.

I met him only briefly, in 1996 at a War Child fundraiser at St. John restaurant in Clerkenwell, sitting next to Madam Sin of Streatham herself, Cynthia Payne. She was as miserable as… well, sin, but in between trying to pump Brian Eno for information about his next Bowie production which failed to materialise (the album not the info) and flirting outrageously with a director from the English National Opera (champers alright for you, Matt?), I found Malcy an engaging and interesting public speaker. And anyway, a record that spawned Neneh Cherry’s Buffalo Stance can only be a good thing.

As for the 13year-old me. Well, short of readies I craftily persuaded my sister to up her cool and buy both Buffalo Gals and The Look of Love, Horn and Dudley’s rather more sophisticated helming for ABC. Well, they were a darned sight better than her solitary previous purchase, Bucks Fizz’s My Camera Never Lies. Still are, in fact.

Perhaps other like-minded folk who glanced at adult magazine covers as a kid will understand. You know it.

Steve Pafford

*In the pre-condom days butter or vaseline are the lubricants of the day for sex of the derrière variety 

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