Number Ones: #22


  • MALCOLM McLAREN Madam Butterfly (Charisma)
  • Week Ending 15th September 1984
  • 3 Weeks At #1


Hip-Hopera, anyone?

That old rascal Malcolm McLaren, the high priest of high concept, turned his gaze away from the ghetto and found his next inspiration in the libretto.

Puccini’s famous Madama Butterfly (ranked the sixth greatest Opera of all-time, according to Wikipedia) told the story of a duplicitous US naval officer and his doomed relationship with a Japanese girl. McLaren’s version sticks to the plot, and doesn’t try to transpose it to some modern-day scenario (unlike his subsequent take on Carmen).

The only contemporary thing about Madam Butterfly (aside from the half-spoken vocals for the verses) is the musical treatment; with the help of future Pet Shop Boys producer Stephen Hague, McLaren constructs a sweeping, hypnotic rhythm track which sustains the record for all of its 6 minutes and 30 seconds. There’s a seductively pretty melody, too, which is able to incorporate some of the classical soprano lines from Puccini’s original (freshly recorded in New York).

It’s ironic that, as somebody who really does not like Opera, I should have loved Madam Butterfly so unequivocally. But…it just works.

Unfortunately, the rest of this McLaren project – the Fans album – was half-baked and criminally brief. Just half a dozen tracks (one of which was a sequel to/reprise of Butterfly), and only a funky take on Carmen (featuring a young, feisty Angie Brown) made any lasting impression. There were grumblings about record label interference, and not having time to fully realise his vision for the album, but perhaps the idea only had a limited potential.

In some ways, Madam Butterfly fulfilled all of that potential by itself.

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