On 16 December 1982, sandwiched between David Essex’s A Winter’s Tale and Dionne Warwick’s All the Love in the World, Malcolm McLaren’s Buffalo Gals video aired on Top of the Pops for the first time. In a sense, the rest of my life has been a series of attempts at understanding what I saw there. The effects of it were so perplexing to my twelve-year-old mind that it has taken decades of nerd-work, a masters in literary theory and a lengthy psychoanalytic training to come close to processing the enigma. A recent spate of Googling suggests there are others out there like me – early adolescents whose nascent cognitive faculties were sent into overdrive by that bewildering elision of sights and sounds. It introduced “scratching” to a mainstream British audience, it depicted a slightly creepy man dancing badly alongside much cooler people, it mixed futuristic breakdancing with folksy square dancing, while the clothes were a wild clash of graphic, block-coloured sportwear alongside ragged, antique-looking, avant-garde fashion. It all sounds totally normal, even banal, now – like any old ten minutes spent on TikTok – but back then it truly, deeply wasn’t. In a sense that video was the future, I just couldn’t grasp it at the time.
In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud introduces the idea of “overdetermination”. For him, the thing that makes dreams fascinating, and hard to decode, is the fact that the various elements of the dream tend to be associated with multiple, overlapping thoughts and ideas. An image in a dream will never mean just one thing, it will compress several disparate meanings into a single, inscrutable form. The Buffalo Gals video is dreamlike in that every element is hyper-dense with signification. The track’s title seems to have been borrowed from a nineteenth century American song by John Hodges, a minstrel who performed in blackface. It’s unclear whether the song was actually written by him, or whether it’s traditional. While it tended to be adapted according to where it was performed – as in Boston Gals for Boston gigs, suggesting that Buffalo refers to Western New York – the word Buffalo in the McLaren song also echoes Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier, an African American soldier in a segregated army regiment, employed to defend White Americans against Native Americans. Apparently these soldiers were christened Buffalo by Native Americans, who admired their fierce spirit. This is the sense in which the 1980s Buffalo collective of punk-influenced West London fashion people – led by the stylist Ray Petri and including Neneh Cherry and Naomi Campbell – used the term.
Westwood and McLaren were keen to continuously rethink clothes according to their disruptive, anti-hierarchical philosophy
Before you even get past the title you have the notion of a minstrel, the appropriation of an existing song, and the headfuck of colonised and exploited people being forced to fight each other for the benefit of their persecutors. And all this in a song that snatches the innovative music of New York block parties for use as a backdrop to the nasal chirruping of a middle class, North London Jewish 36-year-old. It’s too much to unravel in three minutes and 40 seconds, or even in 40 years. No wonder so many artists, including Public Enemy, Eminem, and of course Neneh Cherry, have sampled the song, perhaps partially as a tribute but also as something like revisiting a crime scene. Is it OK or not OK? A marvel or a horror, or both?
The clothes in the video, too, have a mind-warping complexity. There’s plenty of Adidas, simple vests, t-shirts and baseball caps, the Duchampian readymades of fashion. But then there are also these other clothes from Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s 1982 Nostalgia of Mud collection: billowing, drooping cacophonies in brown, worn with slouchy sack-boots, big-brimmed hats and a thick stripe of face paint from temple to temple.
By 1982 punk had become something like a traditional or folk style, in that tribes of people around the world had adopted it in a fixed or unchanging sense. Whereas the first punks had invented their outfits using things they could easily get their hands on, later punks went out of their way to fastidiously imitate these original looks. Westwood and McLaren were apparently keen to keep things moving and to continuously rethink clothes according to their disruptive, anti-hierarchical philosophy. Rather than setting out to find the next new thing, they dredged up old things, in this case taking elements of traditional Peruvian dress – layered, gathered skirts and shawls in rustic fabrics – mixing it up with vintage-looking bras worn on top of clothes, and all topped off with the oversized Buffalo Mountain hats later resurrected by Pharrell Williams.
The effect on me of seeing this video was to trigger a seemingly insatiable craving. If I couldn’t begin to understand it, maybe I could just be it. And the first way to be it would be to access the right kind of skirt. I obsessed about it for weeks, until it turned out that my birthday money would just about cover a degenerated copy of the Buffalo Gal look that had made its way into Chelsea Girl. But then what?
It was obvious my high-street clothes didn’t have the heft and gravitas of the real thing, so I asked my mother to teach me how to use her sewing machine. From here I would aim to transform my life by accessing older, more serious fabrics and chopping them around till I looked requisitely “weird”. This then meant that I could access older, more serious people, like hairdressers, and hope they would introduce me to ultimately serious people, like nightclub hosts, or even musicians. The plan was a vague success in that I ended up appearing on a pop record (which thoroughly failed to chart).
Somehow this only skimmed the surface of what I’d seen. To get more of a grip on it all I ended up following McLaren in studying Fine Art at Goldsmiths. There I was indoctrinated into the ideology of flamboyant failure. It didn’t matter whether you succeeded or failed, what mattered was that you did things wholeheartedly. I still wholeheartedly agree. From art school I went on to do a masters course where we read psychoanalysis alongside holocaust literature and post-colonial theory. But by this time in the mid-nineties, the eighties were a pure embarrassment. Like childhood sexual games, they had been relegated to the cobwebby attic of remembered experience. Why would you ever go there unless you had to? If anyone had asked my opinion, I would have said Malcolm McLaren was a talentless wanker.
The effect on me of seeing this video was to trigger a seemingly insatiable craving
It wasn’t until a fortnight ago, having just about recovered from Covid (for the first time – so retro!) I found myself with a huge appetite for the early eighties. What was it about Haysi Fantayzee? Whatever happened to Michiko Koshino? Or that small boy called Felix from the cover of The Face? The internet soon swept me into a vortex of McLarendom. I rewatched Buffalo Gals alongside more shameful (yet still joyful) tracks like Something’s Jumpin’ in Your Shirt. I saw interviews where McLaren describes his wonderful-sounding grandmother ranting about the countries coloured in pink on the world maps in his classroom, telling him that one day they would all be given back to their rightful owners. Or his eloquent tirades against the British establishment, and in favour of radical egalitarianism. His wry understanding of the ridiculousness of setting his particular voice to music. And again and again his story about being taught the importance of exquisite failure on his art foundation course in Harrow. Malcolm McLaren understood everything.
Finally, perhaps, I could begin to appreciate the vertiginous complexity of that TOTP moment. It was a sincere attempt at configuring a future in which different cultures, styles and ideas could co-exist and complement each other, and where the future and the past were on friendly terms. Of course it’s a little excruciating. Who would dare to propose something so stupid?
I guess there’s still a lot to be learned from Buffalo Gals.
Anouchka Grose is a psychoanalyst and writer based in London. Her latest book, “Fashion: a Manifesto” (Notting Hill Editions), is out now