In the early-80s, one album – and in particular its mesmerising sleeve – helped bring hip hop to the UK masses. Featuring visions of a punk country and western band, dreams of David Bowie marrying Dolly Parton, mixing square dancing with rap and a little help from Keith Haring, this is the story of how cultural provocateur Malcolm McLaren, assisted by a bunch of innovative former art school students from Watford, took a beatbox and boom! shook the room. Richard Norris reveals all…
“That’s a duck rocker! You can take it for a walk, you can take it anywhere. It’s got wheels on it, it’s got wing mirrors on it, it can receive radio stations from all over the world!”
Malcolm McLaren in conversation with Molly Meldrum, ‘Countdown’ TV show, Australia 1983
In December 2020 British designer and technician Ron West went into his loft and took a picture of an ancient beatbox. It had clearly seen better days – it was shorn of its cattle horns and graffiti lettering – but it was still instantly recognisable. It was the boom box from the cover of Malcolm McLaren’s ground-breaking ‘Duck Rock’ album, which had been hiding in his attic for nearly 40 years.
West posted a picture on the internet, posing the knowing question: ‘What’s this lurking in the corner of the attic?’ Suddenly, all hell broke loose. “It went mad,” says West today. “People told their friends, then a bidding war started.” Was this the original ‘Duck Rocker’? And how come it was languishing in a dusty attic in suburban England?
“It wasn’t the original,” says West, still bemused by the piqued interest. “The original was lost by Malcolm in New York. He got me to make an exact replica, which he used for promotion. One day I liberated it from his office in Denmark Street, and it ended up in the attic for years. All the recent interest got me thinking I should make a couple more.”
Cut to the present day. I’m looking at my own Duck Rocker. It’s also an exact copy of the original, using the same Sanyo boom box. The mirrors, leopard skin fake fur, graffiti and lights that made it so distinctive are all there, as well as details like a teddy boy flick-knife comb and a miniature spirit level. The one new update is Bluetooth, which, when connected to the 40-year-old speakers, packs one hell of a punch. And if you want one yourself, he’s thinking of making a few more.
The story of one of British street culture’s pivotal moments, however, begins almost a decade before the emergence of hip hop, graffiti, turntablism and breakdancing these shores. After a foundation course in Winchester, West went to Watford Art College in the mid-70s, specialising in graphic design. He took up bass guitar and found plenty of people interested in combining art with music. Wire formed at the college, and West started playing with original Wire member George Gill in the Bears, alongside Martin ‘Cally’ Calloman.
Bears drummer Cally was in the same Watford Art School intake as graphic designers Pete Barrett and Nick Egan. These fledgling design students would go on to create hundreds of classic album covers between them, for everyone from Dexys to Tricky to Bob Dylan. They currently have nearly 800 sleeve design credits between them on Discogs.
Art school life was highly inspirational, recalls Cally, thanks to staff including poet, printer and publisher Hansjörg Mayer and artist Peter Schmidt, and visiting lecturers including Brian Eno, Mark Boyle, Gavin Bryars and Eduardo Paolozzi. “There was an absence of closed doors, which came with a great deal of challenge,” says Cally. “We were confronted with different ways of seeing things. Hopefully our own. The removal of assumption, of approval, of limits, really worked at Watford.”
The students flew fast and high, taking opportunities wherever they could. “We had a fanzine called Confidential, and we’d go to labels to get records to review,” explains Nick Egan. “One day at Phonogram, they said: ‘Sit here and wait, we’ll send someone to meet you.’ We thought we were going to be kicked out. Cally was trying to nick the gold records off the wall. These guys came out, introduced us to Seymour Stein from Sire Records, and said: ‘You guys are punks, aren’t you? We’ve got a group called the Ramones, who have a single coming out called ‘Sheena Is a Punk Rocker’. We want to do a T-shirt to go with it, and we want you to individually paint splash each one of them.’ So we took the T-shirts, and painted them on the train, ripping up bits of newspapers and sticking them on the shirts with paper and tape. It was terrible, we didn’t know how to present design work yet. We did most of the T-shirts and dumped the rest in the Thames. One of them recently fetched $18,000 at auction as it’s so rare.”
More design work started coming in. “Nobody commissioned us, we’d get it by association,” says Egan. “We were in our first year at college, with absolutely no track record. We’d go up to people and ask: ‘Why don’t you let us do your record cover?’ One day we were fans, going to see The Clash at Barbarella’s in Birmingham, next thing (Clash manager) Bernie Rhodes is giving us a lift back to London. We thought he was going to tell us to stop following the group around. Instead he told us his manifesto for The Clash, and said he’d like us to design the single cover for ‘White Man In Hammersmith Palais’!”
Eventually, West, Cally, and Egan formed a new band, the Tea Set. West had finished his course but opted to stay on at Watford. “I got loads of job offers as a designer,” he says, “but I wanted to be a pop star! I carried on at college, working as a technician, playing in the band. I’d sometimes go missing for two or three weeks to go on tour.”
The Tea Set recorded a Peel Session and put out a few singles. They toured with The Stranglers and the Skids and supported Iggy Pop and The Clash. Unfortunately, things started to fall apart. Their album was shelved, and singer Egan was soon missing in action, as he was beginning to work closely with a new collaborator – one Malcolm McLaren.
“Malcolm said to Nick he wanted a kind of punk country and western group,” remembers West. “So we got a band together featuring me and (Tea Set guitarist) Nick Haeffner and began to rehearse.”
“Malcolm had this idea that he wanted to persuade Dolly Parton and David Bowie to get married,” recollects Nick Haeffner. “He thought it made perfect sense, as they were on the same record label! He then decided that if that couldn’t happen, he’d put a band together in that spirit.”
The band started rehearsing with a singer called Jane, inspired by cassettes Malcolm gave them. “He was a diligent researcher,” explains Haeffner. “He gave us tapes with tracks like Johnny Burnette’s ‘Cincinnati Fireball’ on them, alongside country tunes you might have known if you were from an older, Irish, 50s generation. Things like Skeeter Davis, or this beautiful creaky Appalachian fiddle song that Malcolm wrote words for. Malcom had been listening to these folk archive recordings and was inspired by them.”
McLaren was particularly enamoured with a Folkways records series he’d found in a Paris library called ‘Dances of the World’s Peoples’, which featured a global selection of dance music alongside an illustrated history of the dance. Its woodcut illustrations were later used by Egan for a Westwood/McLaren show. The idea of ‘Duck Rock’ was taking shape.
Unfortunately, the new band’s rehearsals weren’t going so well. “Malcolm turned up after six weeks and was appalled,” says Haeffner. “He fired the singer on the spot.” The band, now called She Sheriff, got a new vocalist called Pip and worked towards their debut gig, at London’s Barracuda club at 1 Baker Street in April 1982. On the night, the band were decked out in full Westwood/McLaren regalia from the new Nostalgia of Mud collection, including the famed Buffalo hat recently sported by Pharrell Williams. Their songs included a track called ‘I Want To Be A Buffalo Girl’. It didn’t go down too well. The NME’s Mark Cordery didn’t mince his words, writing: ‘Their harmless hoedowns may make a hit single or two, but I’d say Malcolm has lost his touch, if not his marbles.’
“Malcolm rang me up and said: ‘Look, you can stay, the rest can go’,” says West. “We did a couple of demos, with me and Tymon Dogg (The Clash associate) on violin.” One single came out, but the reaction was lukewarm. “He was so pissed off with the She Sheriff thing, he said he was going to get the best people around him and do it property.”
“I was there when he met Trevor Horn”, says Egan. “Trevor asked if him if there was a demo? Malcolm pulled out a 78rpm record of Honduran dance music and said: ‘Here you go, there’s the demo.’ To give Trevor credit, he went: ‘Alright, I’ll go with that.’ Malcolm wanted to mix square dancing and rap, and I couldn’t see how they worked together. He said square dance is an instruction: ‘Take your partners by the hand’, and so is rap. ‘Everybody put your hands in the air’. That was genius. ’Buffalo Gals’ wasn’t like any song you’d heard before. It was totally random, there’s no verse/chorus, no structure with it.’
The ‘Buffalo Gals’ video and the ‘Duck Rock’ album were, particularly in Europe, the first time people had seen graffiti, breaking and hip hop on record and TV.
When it came to the album artwork, frequent New York trips were proving inspirational for Egan, who commissioned Keith Haring to add his distinctive style for the album’s backdrop and master graffiti writer Dondi White to create the ‘Duck Rock’ lettering.
“We were sitting in [old school New York restaurant] Howard Johnson’s in Times Square, me, Malcolm and a guy called Terry Doktor, throwing round ideas,” says Egan. “Malcolm had been to South Africa and saw these Zulus who were using spoons as jewellery, he’d been in central America and seen customised cars, and New York had the boom box, so that’s where the ideas came from.”
Egan tracked down Haring and White in a haphazard manner, racking up a $20,000 hotel bill as he searched the city for them. “There were no cell phones, no internet, you just had to keep going to the clubs to find these people”, he says. “I started to get the vibe much more. I went out with Dondi one night, to do writing on the subway car sidings. We went over this fence with dogs barking. I watched him tag a train. It was the scariest thing I had ever done.”
The sleeve was coming together, however Egan needed something special for the inner sleeve. “I asked Ron West to customise the boom box. Ron was the guy that could fix anything. It was his idea to put the lights and antennas on, he came up with the colours, and Malcolm wanted the horns on it. I could have done it, and stuck it down with glue, but it would have fallen to pieces! Ron was the right person to make it practical, solid and creative. He did a great job.”
“I went completely over the top with it, covering it with anything I could lay my hands on”, says West, smiling. “The aerials came as a job lot from a junk shop, the mirrors and bars came from a motorbike shop. I painted Dondi’s lettering onto Perspex, sprayed it, and cut it out at college. When Nick saw the finished thing, he was amazed. He showed it to Malcolm, who said it should be the front cover.”
West didn’t stop at the one boom box. “I did probably three or four, that were given away as prizes,” he says. “I did one for Gary Crowley, among others.” Aged 19, Crowley had just been hired by Capital Radio and started hosting shows including Tuesday Club and Magic Box and took his beatbox on the first Wham! tour.
“Malcolm came on the show and did me these most amazing jingles’” says Crowley. “He also appeared at our last Tuesday Club show at the Lyceum, with the Bluebells, Bananarama, and Nick Heyward. He gave me a Buffalo hat to wear and tried to teach the audience the dances. They looked at him quizzically… they were waiting for Nick Heyward to come on. There was a little bit of booing. But bless him, he gave as good as he got.”
Audience confusion was to be expected in 1982. Cut up and collage had a long history within the avant-garde, one that these art schooled designers and provocateurs would have been well aware of, but in a wider context, and certainly within popular music, these mix and match layers of ideas were new and radical.
“The album cover reflected that,” says Egan. “If you put a poster on the wall, someone comes and writes on it, then someone sticks another flyer on it. It didn’t matter if Malcolm’s name went off the side, as he told me, this was just one square from a much bigger painting.”
This kind of creative, collaborative blend would become standard in dance and electronic music, thanks to incoming technology like the Akai sampler and the MPC, however ‘Duck Rock’ was years ahead of that curve. Its musical travelogue predated the marketing-led rise of ‘world music’. Its use of 105.9FM’s World Famous Supreme Team radio show as a linking device was truly inspirational, and in ‘Buffalo Gals’, Duck Rock had a worldwide hit single and video that is continually referenced and sampled to this day.
Forty years later, the Duck Rocker is back. Nick Egan commissioned West to customize one for the recent Style In Revolt show in Beijing, the first street style exhibition in China. There’s talk of a London show at Saatchi Gallery.
“I’m glad to see that Malcolm is getting credited as being at the forefront of street culture,” says Egan. “It’s one of those things that is so iconic and has hung around for so long. It’s been put in the album cover hall of fame and is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It was so impactful.”