Released today in 1984: Madam Butterfly

Chrysalis MALC5

Chrysalis MALC5

Madam Butterfly was the lead single from a typically ambitious album from Malcolm McLaren, Fans. An attempt to fuse opera with modern R&B, it divided the critics. The most balanced of the contemporary reviews came from (rather surprisingly) Sounds, which said that “after a few tingling seconds of uncertainty it becomes clear that this marriage – although arranged by one of the shadiest characters around – was made in Heaven (just off the Old Kent Road, that is)”, and while it was “obviously sacrilege to the opera buff” it was “purely edifying and emotional to those of us who can’t score with Radio 4.”

Of the actual content, the Sounds review gave the best short summary: “The album itself contains a mere six cuts and side one stands head and shoulders above the flip. Kicking off with Madam Butterfly it’s a story you already know, quickly followed by the title cut and finally the foxy bitch Carmen.With Angie B taking the role of the uncontrollable animal, it’s incredible stuff. Side two tells a different story. Boys Chorus shows Mac relating his childhood, spitting out a punky nursery rhyme that nicely sets the tone for the relaxing Lauretta. Finally, Death of Butterfly reveals the return to Japan of the dodgy Lt Pinkerton, a bounder all round.” As indicated, the operas that McLaren chose to include were mainly from Puccini (‘Turandot’, ‘Madama Butterfly’, ‘Gianni Schicchi’), with Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ completing the set. Melody Maker said that it was “a fact that, taken out of context, the purest form of opera singing is the most haunting sound on earth. McLaren knows it and the real genius of his creation here is his decision to use real opera singers performing real opera with utter faithfulness. What he later sticks around it in the way of aggressive rhythms, sharp soul singing (an impressive contribution from Angie B) and his own semi-hysterical rap narration, is another matter entirely. The decorations give the music a whole different perspective, but the basic root remains incontrovertibly genuine and credible. And that root provides a lethal and ultimately triumphant thread through the album.”

The idea of musical fusion – and of pop opera – was not a new one of course. Record Mirror pointed out that McLaren’s “work is all ideas – and nothing could be flashier,” going on to say that “while [he] may steal these ideas from the past, from other cultures, or straight out of his own dustbin, his reverence is never less than playful.” New Musical Express was not as charitable. “Tackie Mackie makes novelty records,” they said. “He can’t sing, he can’t write, he is at most a pedestrian musical arranger and even his status as the fastest gabber in the west has been gunned down by the infinitely wiser, wittier and more scurrilous ZTT operation.” Melody Maker disagreed to an extent, arguing that “cynical, flamboyant and opportunist as he is, McLaren is still a character of rare flair and vision and he’s brilliantly exploited the dramatic potential of opera in a black urban street-sounding setting”. Record Mirror continued along that line: “He meets electric, hillbilly, afro, and yes, opera – with his own schoolboy grin and then sets about making some very good music. It’s hybrid, bastard stuff of course, but it’s full of the wicked turns and naughty tricks that can make pop so wonderful.”

New Musical Express was more cynical, refusing to look at the album as anything other than a vanity project. “He refuses any role so conventional as artist or artisan and suggests himself instead as a catty catalyst hoping to claw the Covent Garden face of opera with New York rap. But Covent Garden is not so easily scandalized and only the most impressionable of disco dancers will be haunted by the ghostly arias … phased in and out of the dialogue from a rapping Mackie and his all-singin’ foil Angie B. For, as with everything Mackie touches, Fans is shoddily done.” As if in answer to this criticism, the Melody Maker concludes: “This is not the revolutionary blend of cultures Malcolm would have us believe it is … but you can dance to it and it is hugely entertaining. Who could ask for anything more?” Sounds declared it “a classic, of course.” But the last word must go to the grumpy old NME: “Fans leaves only one question unanswered: though Puccini and Bizet are the plundered corpses here, how come the record reeks of Gilbert and Sullivan?”

NEW SINGLES on sale from Aug. 20
1982
DEAD OR ALIVE (Pete Burns) The Stranger (Black Eyes BE2)
Gary NUMAN White Boys and Heroes (Beggars Banquet BEG81)
SIMPLE MINDS (Jim Kerr) Glittering Prize (Virgin VS511)
1984
DEPECHE MODE Master And Servant (Mute 7BONG6)
HEAVEN 17 Sunset Now (Virgin VS708)
Malcolm McLAREN Madam Butterfly (Virgin MALC5)
ROMAN HOLLIDAY (Steve Lambert) Fire Me Up (Jive JIVE59)

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