“Madam Butterfly”: Malcolm McLaren’s video filled a Turkish bath with nearly-naked models

By on September 18, 2018

“Music entrepreneur Malcolm McLaren created the Sex Pistols and Adam & the Ants,” says Night Flight’s Pat Prescott during her introduction to his then-new video for “Madam Butterfly,” “and has pioneered the use of different styles of pop music.”

Ms. Prescott also tells us: “McLaren introduces Gilbert & Sullivan to music video with his version of ‘Madam Butterfly,’ spiced with eroticism and light comic opera.”

You can watch this slightly NSFW video in Night Flight’s “Take Off to Eroticism” — which originally aired on November 28, 1984 — over on Night Flight Plus.


We really can’t tell you why Ms. Prescott mentions the Victorian-era theatrical duo Gilbert & Sullivan — instead of the 1904 three-act opera’s actual composer, Giacomo Puccini — or why she mentions “light comic opera” (something Gilbert & Sullivan were known for).

Frankly, we don’t really see anything lightly comic about a steamy bathhouse scenario where nearly-naked and slightly NSFW models are seen lounging around and getting massages.


McLaren gets the credit for writing the track — along with producer/co-composer Robbie Kilgore — and performing this Top Twenty UK hit (#16), based on Puccini’s famous aria “Un bel dì vedremo.”

The track appears on his 1984 album Fans, which featured pop music adaptations of various operas, produced by Stephen Hague (it’s actually more of an EP, consisting of only six songs for a running time of just thirty minutes).


“Madam Butterfly” was really unlike anything else at the time, and it remains so, an atmospheric synth/hip-hop-inspired mixture of spoken word and pop vocals set to a pulsing lo-fi drum-machine beat, while strains of Puccini’s famously haunting operatic aria can be heard wafting along in the background.

McLaren’s own voice can be heard in the character of “Lieutenant Pinkerton,” who tells us the Madama (or Madame, as we spelled it in our chyron) Butterfly story, condensed into a storyline of romantic betrayal and death lasting about five minutes long (down from its true length of nearly three hours).


The Italian libretto is modernized and altered from its original Italian into English (mostly), with contemporary lyrics alternately sung and spoken by McLaren, Debbie Cole, and soprano Betty Ann White.

Pinkerton tells us about marrying “Cho Cho San” in Nagasaki, Japan, and then introduces us to her, as she tells us her part of the story.

Their story — occasionally interrupted by a chorus (“Calling Butterfly, Madam Butterfly/That’s the name he used to give me/He’s my man till the day I die” — goes back and forth, his version and then her version, while we learn what happens.


As Fans album was being released, McLaren’s was simultaneously developing an ambitious fashion collection — with help from his then-partner Andrea Linz and designer Simon Withers — which came to be known as either “Fans” or “FAN MM,” which remained for several months at a design studio he’d set up in London’s King’s Cross neighborhood.

Read more about Malcolm McLaren’s “Madam Butterfly” below.


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The “Madam Butterfly” video was directed by legendary British fashion photographer Terence Donovan (1936-1996), who — we’re sure some of you ’80s video fans have already figured this out — also directed Robert Palmer’s videos for “Addicted to Love” and “Simply Irresistible” (which we told you about here).

Donovan — whose gorgeous print work, decades earlier in the 1960s, appeared in magazines like Vogue and Man About Town — pans and scans his camera in what we’ve read was actually an homage to Deborah Turbeville’s steamy photos that she created for American Vogue in 1975.

The soft-focus erotically-enhanced visuals also reminded us of the work of another British photographer & filmmaker David Hamilton (1933 – 2016), who was noted for photographing often-nude young women and underage girls.


We read the following description online about the video, which offers up quite a lot of good information, should you want to delve into the story deeper:

“A synthesised upright harp provides a dramatic Japanese tone to the track’s seductive vapours, evoking Butterfly’s Nagasaki home. McLaren’s cultural pastiche is the ultimate West-meets-West haute homage to Puccini’s East-meets-West love story. The Moorish fantasy of the Victorian Turkish Baths in England provides the perfect setting for this intermingling of luxury and woe. The scene could perhaps be described using the Japanese word ukiyo, a homophone for ‘sorrowful world’ and ‘floating world.’ The word’s original meaning of impermanence took on hedonistic connotations in 17th Century Japan.”


Madam Butterfly — in which the stereotypical Japanese woman of the title (spoiler alert!) kills herself for the love of an arrogant American man — would, just a few years after McLaren’s video, be given another theatrical interpretation, this time in David Henry Hwang’s 1988 play, M. Butterfly, which turned the original story on its head by revealing the Butterfly character to have, all along, been a Chinese man.


In Hwang’s version, the French official Rene Gallimard allows himself to be seduced by his expectations of Asia and of exotic sexuality.

Thinking he is seducing a Chinese woman with his European charms and masculine expertise, he is in turn deceived by a Maoist male agent who manipulates his cultural blindness and the obsession he has with his own authority.


In 1993, film director David Cronenberg’s movie version of M.Butterfly transformed Hwang’s script into a fairly straight-forward narrative interpretation of the Eastern story which continues to enchant Western audiences.

Watch Malcolm McLaren’s “Madam Butterfly” in Night Flight’s “Take Off to Eroticism” — which also features videos by Prince (“Dirty Mind”), Madonna, Van Halen, Rod Stewart, the Rolling Stones, Laura Branigan, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Queen and more — on Night Flight Plus.


About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.