January 22, 1948– Malcolm McLaren:
“Rock ‘n’ Roll doesn’t necessarily mean a band. It doesn’t mean a singer, and it doesn’t mean a lyric, really. It’s that question of trying to be immortal.”
You kids might have heard that I have a serious magazine jones. It all began when I was nine-years-old and I got a subscription to Variety, the showbiz trade paper. I was already very concerned with the weekly grosses of the popular films and I perused the casting notices choosing my next project.
I was introduced to Malcolm McLaren in 1980 in the pages of The Face, the British music, fashion and culture monthly magazine that was all things 1980s.
I was absolutely drawn to him. McLaren was one of the most essential, yet most divisive influences on the styles, sights and sounds of late 20th-century pop culture. He was an impresario and iconoclast. He is most famous as the manager of the Sex Pistols, the punk band that had Britain all a dither in the late 1970s. In 1977, their anti-establishment energy made a curious counterpoint to Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee.
McLaren’s influence was reflected in the work of provocative artists like Damien Hirst and bands like Oasis, The Kooks, and The Clash. He was instrumental in marrying Punk to Fashion with his own line of clothes at his London store Top Shop. Along with Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, McLaren was a true Postmodern Artist. But, his talent was not so much in coming up with ideas, but grabbing other people’s and making them even more successful.
He was one of the first artists in Europe to see the great potential in American Hip-Hop. His hit single Buffalo Gals (1982) introduced the art of scratching to the British listeners. The Sex Pistols’ singer John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), who had a falling out with McLaren before quitting the band in 1978, described him as the evilest man on Earth for his tendency to treat people like art projects or money making commodities. McLaren embraced his Svengali image, giving himself the role of The Embezzler in the punk film The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle (1980). His passing in 2010 melted one of the Music’s most bitter feuds. Lydon:
“For me, Malc was always entertaining. Above all else, he was an entertainer.”
But, he equally had a reputation as a deferential, disarming, dapper English gentleman who was passionate about Art, Music and Clothes. He always looked so stylish in bespoke tweed suits and long scarves. He had a childlike enthusiasm for his projects and pranks.
McLaren was born in Stoke Newington, North London. His father left home when he was two-years-old and McLaren was raised by his grandmother who home-schooled him and gave him platitudes like “It’s good to be bad and it’s bad to be good”, and a strong dislike for the British Royal Family.
He attended a series of art schools in the 1960s. He was often expelled. McLaren was influenced by the French Situationist Movement, a group of social revolutionaries made up of avant-garde artists, intellectuals, and political theorists with a decidedly anti-authoritarian Marxist outlook and an embrace of avant-garde art movements from earlier in the 20th century, especially Dada and Surrealism.
While attending Harrow he met his first great love and muse, Vivienne Westwood, and Jamie Reid, the graphic designer who came up with the artwork for the Sex Pistols’ record covers.
By 1971, McLaren declared that he was seeking to:
“Rescue fashion from commodification by the establishment.”
With Westwood, he opened a boutique on Kings Road in Chelsea, Southwest London, called Let It Rock (they later changed it to Too Fast To Live, Too Young To Die). They sold the already unfashionable Teddy Boy clothing. After a trip to NYC in 1972, McLaren’s music career took off when he became the manager for the Glam-rock band the New York Dolls. He designed their outfits and devised a hammer and sickle logo to help promote them. He developed the shock tactics that he used to far greater success later with the Sex Pistols.
By 1975, the shop had morphed into a subversive S&M boutique called Sex. McLaren:
“We set out to make an environment where we could truthfully run wild. On most days, the shop did not open until the evening and closed within a few hours. The goal was to sell nothing at all.”
McLaren put together a band using three of his regular customers, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock. Lydon was also a customer. He came into the store with his green hair and wearing a “I hate Pink Floyd” tee-shirt, and McLaren decided that Lydon would be the new band’s frontman.
McLaren came up with the name Sex Pistols, thinking that it sounded like “sexy young assassins”, and the band took on the apathy of mid-1970s British Pop. Wearing safety-pinned Westwood designed shirts and bondage trousers, the Sex Pistols played pubs and once did a gig on a boat on the Thames that was raided by the police. Wherever they played, they repeatedly faced problems with organizers and local authorities. Their appearances frequently ended in mayhem. When the Sex Pistol’s single God Save The Queen went to number two on the pop charts during the Queen’s Jubilee week, they were banned from playing most venues.
An infamous, obscenity filled television interview brought tabloid headlines like: “The Filth and The Fury”, and their position as the most controversial, rebellious British band was cemented in 1977 with the addition of John Beverley as Sid Vicious. He later died of a heroin overdose while awaiting trial for the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen at the Chelsea Hotel. The band totally fell apart in early 1978, and the members sued McLaren for mismanagement and unpaid royalties. McLaren simply stated that he had long planned their demise and used this claim as the plot for The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle. He had a particular gift for turning negative notoriety into a promotional tool.
McLaren met a struggling artist, Adam Ant, and suggested that the singer adopt what would become his internationally successful pop look. He was less convinced by Adam Ant’s musical talent, and formed a new backup group, Bow Wow Wow, featuring a 13-year-old girl whom McLaren met at a dry-cleaner and renamed Annabella Lwin. When Lwin posed nude on a record sleeve, it was met with outrage. But, Bow Wow Wow was a hit commercially.
McLaren’s next project was when I really became a fan. His album Duck Rock (1983) included the Top 10 hits Double Dutch and Buffalo Gals, was a big hit on both sides of the Atlantic. Duck Rock was co-written and co-produced by the brilliant Trevor Horn and The World’s Famous Supreme Team (two NYC Hip-Hop radio DJs). Another hit single followed; it was one of his most audacious experiments, Madam Butterfly (1984), a mix of Opera and Electronica. It was expanded into a full length LP Fans (1984), one of my favorite albums of all time.
Playing on my sound system as I compose this column is McLaren’s Waltz Darling (1989), a Funk/Disco/Voguing album. Waltz Darling brought the elements of his earlier albums: spoken verses, lush string arrangements and eclectic mix of genres, and featuring cool musicians like Bootsy Collins and Jeff Beck with a glitzy production aimed at grabbing the American market. The singles, Waltz Darling and Something’s Jumpin’ In Your Shirt became Top-20 hits and Deep In Vogue brought the art of Voguing to the attention of the world, beating Madonna’s Vogue by a year.
McLaren’s career was filled with ups and downs, but his terrific, innovative ideas never left him. He blended Funk and Orchestral music for Waltz Darling and he recorded a concept album Paris (1994), which featured vocals by Catherine Deneuve. He wrote songs for Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 2 (2004), and made a deal to develop projects with Steven Spielberg. An outspoken critic of the fast food industry, he produced the film Fast Food Nation (2006). McLaren presented two series for BBC radio: Malcolm McLaren’s Musical Map Of London and Malcolm McLaren’s Life And Times In L.A.
McLaren was never troubled by the idea of failure:
“We will all be failures. But at least be a magnificent, noble failure. Anyone can be a benign success.”
In 2010, McLaren was taken by Mesothelioma, a particularly gruesome cancer. He was just 64-years-old when he left this world.
McLaren spent the last 30 years of his life trying to explain Punk:
“I never thought the Sex Pistols would be any good. But it didn’t matter if they were bad. That was the point.”
His son with Westwood, Joe Corré, owns and designs for his own store, Agent Provocateur, which also continues to produce and sell McLaren’s own thoroughly English clothing.
Listening to his music today, I am transported back to the 1980s, a time when there was horrible man in The White House, determined to make the super-rich, super-richer, while gay men died of a mysterious new disease, but when the music was especially exciting and highly danceable.