Key Tracks: Trevor Horn on “Buffalo Gals”

In the early ’80s Trevor Horn was one of the most in-demand producers in the UK. He could basically work on any record he wanted to. But rather than go after an obvious hit he chose to produce the solo record of ex-Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. The album took them to Johannesburg and Tennessee – and the end result was one of the most fascinating records of the decade. We talked at length with Trevor Horn in Madrid last year. Excerpted here is his explanation of how lead single “Buffalo Gals” came to be.

 

 

It was 1982 and I’d just done ABC’s Lexicon of Love, and everyone wanted me to do another record like that. Malcolm McLaren wanted to do his solo album. My wife, who was my manager at the time, said: “You can do Spandau Ballet and you know it’ll be very successful; they’re a very good band. If you do the Malcolm McLaren thing, God knows what’s going to happen ’cause he’s a weird guy.”

Malcolm had been the Sex Pistols’ manager. He was the guy who got them to swear on TV and designed all their clothes. He was an amazing guy to be with. He was so mad in a way, but funny, with great ideas. I had him over. My wife Jill had been a maths teacher and wanted to tell him off for punk rock, basically. To have a go at him. But when we met him we were so taken with him because he had one of those buffalo gals hats, and he had a pair of trousers that hung down at the back that looked as though he’d pooed in them. He looked very strange, but he was so funny and he played me some music that I’d never heard before at the time.

He also told me some stuff that took my breath away. He said all the black kids in New York were listening to Depeche Mode. I was like: “What?” “And they do this thing with records, they scratch records.” And he played me the start of the tape from The World’s Famous Supreme Team, who were two New York guys who basically worked a con on Broadway. They used to do the eggcups with the coin underneath it. The money they got from that they used to spend doing this radio show at 3 AM, which was all designed to get girls. I’d never heard anything like it. Just the idea that people from New York were into Depeche Mode was mind-blowing to me at the time anyway.

Malcolm wanted the single from the album to be “Buffalo Gals.” He played me the Peyote Pete recording of it from the Folkways album, which is basically an old hoedown, country-dancing sort of thing. He wanted it to be the single, and I had a real problem with that. I couldn’t see it. I didn’t know what to do with it. We tried recording it like the Peyote Pete version, down in Tennessee. Malcolm said: “I’ve got a group called The Hilltoppers, they’re gonna come and play.”

So we’re in this studio in Tennessee called Tri-State Studios and The Hilltoppers showed up and they were in a purple VW van that had carpet on the inside, purple carpet. There was a very old Hilltopper who had a hat on saying “the oldest Hilltopper” – he was about 92. And then there were a few children who looked like they might have had interesting parents ’cause they were cross-eyed and a bit strange looking. And they started to play. We set up some mics around the studio and they started to play and they were awful. Malcolm came up to me and said: “This is awful. You’re the producer, get rid of them.” So I had to go over and say: “Guys, that was great, that’ll do for what we need. Thanks very much, here’s $50.” And they were happy enough and off they went in their purple VW.

Malcolm and The Hilltoppers Malcolm and The Hilltoppers

And I said to the guy who owned the studio: “Do you think you can get us any musicians?” In the southern states of America they’re very laid back. “Yeah, yeah, should be able to. Utility pickers.” “Utility pickers, great.” “Gimme some time, I’ll get on the phone.” So a bunch of guys showed up and they all had that slightly tough, hard-bitten American look until they smiled. They set up and they could obviously play really well. They were crazy guys. I remember going to the toilet and there’s about five of them doing great big lines of blow off the sink in the toilet.

“What does wack mean?”

Pretty quickly, I had to put Malcolm into a soundproof area and take him out of the headphones. He had his buffalo hat and he’d just lose his place and throw everyone totally out of sync. They were looking at me like: “What are you gonna do with this?” “I’m gonna do something with it, don’t worry.” And I remember Malcolm saying: “We’ve got the single, great.” And I’m thinking, “We’ve got the single? No way.”

One night at dinner, he said: “I wanna do a scratching record now, a rap called "ET Come Home" about ET.” I said: “Why don’t we do a rapping scratching version of "Buffalo Gals"?” He said: “Yeah!” So he flew those two guys over from New York to England, the Supreme Team. They didn’t know what was going on, they thought Malcolm was some weird guy from God knows where, and they didn’t even bring their decks with them. So we had to get onto the record label in New York and there was three days where we couldn’t do anything while they went to a shop, bought the decks with the Stanton cartridges and they were flown over.

It was one of those things where I didn’t know where to start with them. I said: “The thing you do, scratching the records, is really amazing. I’ve got this thing here called the Fairlight [synthesizer] and it does the same thing with digital audio. Let me show you, the possibilities are endless.” They looked at the Fairlight and were: “No man, that’s wack.” I was: “What does wack mean?” I hadn’t heard all that language at that time. I said to them: “We’re gonna make this rap record so what you need to do is show me what your favourite beat is.” So they showed me their favourite beat. I had this Oberheim rig, which was a DMX, a DSX and a keyboard. It took me hours ’cause I kept going “No no, no, no” to get the swing of it right.

“Nah, we can’t do that – that’s what the Ku Klux Klan dance to.”

After about four hours I had this thing that went [sings beat] and I threw in this bass that went [sings bass], just to give it some bass, and they really liked it. I said: “Now we’ve got to rap this over it.” I showed them the lyrics to “Buffalo Gals” and they went: “Nah, we can’t do that – that’s Ku Klux Klan shit. That’s what the Ku Klux Klan dance to.” I said: “We’re gonna modernise it.” “Nah, we can’t rap that.” “Look, I’ll show you, we can rap it. Gary, I’ll go and do it.” So I went into the studio [raps “Buffalo Gals”] and I looked into the control room and I couldn’t see them. I thought, “Oh, they’ve gone. They’re so pissed off they’ve gone.” So I stopped and I went into the control room. They were both on the floor crying with laughter, they were laughing so hard. They put their arms around me and said: “Trevor, man, don’t be a rapper. Man, you’re shit.” I said: “Is that shit good or shit bad?” “Bad.” “Is bad good?” But anyway, it broke the ice a little bit, which helped, ’cause up till then they hadn’t been sure.

When Malcolm rapped “Buffalo Gals” I had to stand there and punch him in the chest in time with the track, because he’d just go... [sings very fast] “No, Malcolm it’s [thumps chest and sings in time].” “Right, I get it.” So I’m standing there doing this, but after about four takes I start to get tired. I stopped doing it and off he went. He was: “You’ve gotta keep hitting me. Come on, what’s your problem?” “I’m exhausted, Malcolm.” So that’s how we got the vocal.

The record itself, the track, took ages to do ’cause he was trying something much more ambitious. I had Anne Dudley, keyboard player and arranger, doing the music and J.J. from the Art Of Noise was doing the Fairlight. We spent probably two weeks trying to get something that would be good out of Malcolm and the World’s Famous Supreme Team, Anne Dudley and JJ. There are some hilarious outtakes I’ve got somewhere of Supreme Team saying: “Man, Malcolm, you’re a vibe killer. You kill the vibe like nobody.” In the end I just said: “Malcolm, give me one day, just one day of me and the guys and I think I can crack this track.” And we did it. Anne Dudley and myself, Gary Langan and the World’s Famous Supreme Team did it in a day. Malcolm did the vocal.

I always remember when World’s Famous Supreme Team were leaving England to go back to New York they phoned me up and said, “Trevor, we’ve gotta record that song again.” “Why?” “Because the scratching’s wack.” “Does that mean it’s bad? I don’t get you.” “It’s wack.” “Don’t worry about that, it’s fine. It’s a punk record.” They said: “Oh, OK then, can we have the drum machine?” I said: “No, it cost me £2,000. I can’t just give you that.” They said: “OK, bye.” They were gone and I never heard from them again.

Photo credit: Malcolm and The Hilltoppers - www.zttaat.com

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