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Friday, April 09, 2010


Waltz Darling (An Elegy For Malcolm McLaren)

One of music's seminal figures of the 20th century, Malcolm McLaren, passed away yesterday at the age of 64. It's rough when one of your heroes dies, but McLaren was, to me, one of the great inspirational artists of our day. Tough to take.

Most people know McLaren as the brains behind the British punk gods The Sex Pistols, but McLaren was an astonishingly versatile artist in his own right. From the operatic grandeur of Fans to the dance acculturation of Waltz Darling to the icy elegance of Paris, McLaren adopted styles and genres as readily as others don wardrobes. Jazz, pop, rock, hip-hop, opera, club music...all found their way into McLaren's vision of a musically interconnected world.

In short, he was the Andy Warhol of pop: a cultural ambassador, tour guide, and majestically talented thief. I don't think there's been anyone like him (maybe Bowie?), and I doubt in our rapidly-devolving musical age that there will ever be another.

A sampling of his work:

The first album that connected me to McLaren's genius was 1989's Waltz Darling, an exploration of classical impulses juxtaposed against funk and dance rhythms. Years before Madonna made "Vogue," McLaren recorded the far-superior "Deep In Vogue," collaborating with choreographer Willi Ninja (who would later gain fame from the documentary Paris is Burning). On my iPod at all times, whenever life needs a dance break.

Transmogrified Puccini, spoken word, and a drum machine? It should never have worked, but here it is. 25 years later and still there's nothing like it, the blend of high and low cultures, the simultaneous cultural awareness and appropriation.

It may be difficult today to understand how visionary "Buffalo Girls" (and the album it comes from, Duck Rock), was back in the day -- sampling is ubiquitous in modern music, but it was revolutionary at this time. I remember clubs going insane when this track came on. And underneath it all, a real sense of musicality pervades the track...as does a prescient idea of the power of rap.

"Paris Paris," with its seductive swirls and lush vocal by Catherine Deneuve, is representative of the rich concept album Paris, still in heavy rotation in my house on Sunday mornings while making breakfast. I could swim in this track.

The Sex Pistols. Just imagine -- a world where the Bee Gees are the biggest band in the world, and disco is all the rage. Can you imagine what these guys must have been like? Wow. Stunning.
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