Malcolm McLaren (1946-2010) – Remembering The Former CEO Of Anarchy, Inc.
“ART at its most significant is a Distant Early Warning System that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.”
“All media exist to invest our lives with artificial perceptions and arbitrary values.”
“Art is anything you can get away with.”
The above quotes come from the late great guru of mass media Marshall McLuhan, but they could have just have easily been spoken or silently pondered by the great rock and roll swindler of punk and hip-hop, Malcolm McLaren who succumbed to cancer yesterday in a Swiss hospital, at the age of 64, surrounded by his 37 year-old wife Young Kim and his grown up son Joe Corre.
Back in the time of two of McLaren’s better known charges, the Sex Pistols and Bow Wow Wow, the last truly spontaneous era in “rock ‘n’ roll, man,” I was always taken by the similarity between Malcolm and Marshall. Besides their having cleverly similar names, (they could have shared monogrammed towels!), McLaren can rightly be seen as the in-the- flesh, made manifest version of McLuhan’s great dictum that “advertising is the greatest art form of the 20th century.”
Malcolm McLaren is remembered largely as “an entrepreneur” or a “manager” but such a limited appellations are about as useful as describing P.T. Barnum a “show producer.” McLaren also staged The Greatest Shows on Earth, in his heyday, and up until yesterday, he was a living legend and would have been the first to tell you that. And why, on earth, wouldn’t he take credit for it? The man worked damn hard at becoming Malcolm McLaren. He was many things, culture appropriator, manager, exploiter and charlatan. But you know what, financial matters aside (I’m thinking of the embittered former Sex Pistol Steve Jones), he was never a liar. The whole “punk rock mythos” of being up front when you sell out and being openly greedy and selfish in demanding attention, was not a lie. Unlike most others in the shallow business of show, McLaren’s biggest con was that it wasn’t just a scam, it was all real.
Sure you can read about his accomplishments in well-researched obituaries in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Independent and the BBC News website, where several of those who knew him well say lovely things about him. There’s his former wife and partner in crime, now Dame Vivienne Westwood, who told the BBC, that “when we were young and I fell in love with Malcolm, I thought he was beautiful and I still do. The thought of him dead is really something very sad.”
Even John Lydon, the former Johnny Rotten erred on the sentimental side saying: “I will miss him, and so should you.” While influential UK music journalist Jon Savage confirmed that, if it hadn’t been for McLaren “there would not have been any British punk. He’s one of the rare individuals who had a huge impact on the cultural and social life of this nation.”
He was an artist, in the Andy Warhol sense of the word –which is not to demean either gentleman’s role in shaping the commercial art of their respective eras – and it seems that this is the prism through which we best understand his motives and accomplishments. A product of British 60’s Art Schools, McLaren arrived at the end of the sixties a keen student of the French “situationist” art movement, after stints at London’s Central St Martin’s College of Art, Harrow Art College, South East Essex College (which turfed him out!), Chiswick Polytechnic and finally the Croydon College of Art. He was said to have been very moved by the Paris 1968 student uprising and the notion of using absurdist stunts to effect social change and, one hoped, bolster revolutionary thoughts.
A chance meeting with designer Vivienne Westwood (at Goldsmiths College, London) inspired him to tailor the revolution to her equally provocative fashion ideas. Between 1972 and 1974, the two opened a succession of boutiques in King’s Road, with names like Let It Rock and Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die, before shortening the name to simply, Sex, by 1975.
It is here that the worlds of Fashion, Art and Rock collided as McLaren soon befriended the New York Dolls, who had by 1975, exhausted their first wave of glam fame and were looking for a new direction.
Under McLaren’s brief tutelage, the band were transformed into uniformed red patent leather clad revolutionaries – only there was no revolution. Yet. The Dolls broke up (for a while anyway) but for now, McLaren had developed a taste for the subversive and situationist possibilities offered by the world of rock and roll, all he needed was a blank canvas on which to paint his next music/ marketing masterpiece. Enter John Lydon, literally walking into Sex boutique, who (after his own fave pick Richard Hell was nixed) seemed the ideal front man for a band that had formed around his stock boy Glen Matlock (bass) and his mates Paul Cook (drums) and Steve Jones (guitar). After a bidding war, McLaren proved his clout by snatching an unheard of £40,000 advance, from EMI records, for the newly christened Sex Pistols.
The rest is largely well-documented history. The Pistols go on the Bill Grundy show, act loutishly, drop the F-bomb and get thrown off EMI before the album is even released.
And although even McLaren is panicked by the scandalous appearance, he smells the power of controversy and promptly gets the Pistols a new deal with A&M for £80,000, signed right in front of Buckingham Palace, (see above signing ceremony picture). When A&M succumbed to internal pressures and did an about face which resulted in the Sex Pistols being shown the door, McLaren simply walked them over to Branson’s new Virgin Records label, where they released the incendiary “God Save The Queen” single just in time for Her Majesty’s Silver Jubilee and the groundbreaking album Never Mind The Bollocks Here’s The Sex Pistols. Here’s the clip for “God Save The Queen,” sorry for the bad video quality, the song still slays me though:
And here they are, in all their ragged glory, on Tony Wilson’s “So It Goes” doing “Anarchy In The UK” August 28, 1976.
After two years of continued outrage which included a weird and truncated American tour, the death of Sid Vicious (Matlock’s non-player bass replacement) shortly after the death of Vicious’s girlfriend Nancy Spungen, the Sex Pistols episode was over by 1978, amid bad feelings and lawsuits over funds.
By now a virtuoso of mass media manipulation, McLaren walked away, however, with the keys to the Sex Pistols mythmaking machine. He portrayed himself as the Svengali of Punk in Julien Temple’s film The Great Rock And Roll Swindle.
But McLaren was just getting warmed up. He was about to conquer even wider – mostly less controversial at the time – horizons. Yet now, with benefit of hindsight, it seems clear that he was actually becoming more interested in moving music itself, and not just the fashion, forward. And yet he was scoring on both fronts.
Bow Wow Wow, fronted by teenage Anabella Lwin, brought Burundi drum rhythms to youthful and precocious pop music, resulting in real radio hits like “I Want Candy,” “C30, C60, C90, Go” and “Go Wild In The Country” (1982).
Then, on a business trip to Manhattan in 1982 to promote Bow Wow Wow, Malcolm McLaren stumbled into hip-hop culture when he was invited to a South Bronx party featuring break dancing, graffiti art and a huge African American MC named Afrika Bambaataa. To McLaren, hip-hop was like “black punk rock” and soon after, he made his first foray into the genre with The World Famous Supreme Team and the single “Buffalo Gals”…
… combined girls’ street skipping with South African Township Jive on “Double Dutch”…
and had Keith Haring, among others, contribute artwork to the album Duck Rock.
Crossing cultures had become his new stock-in-trade, and he was soon merging opera – Carmen and Madam Butterfly – with hip-hop inflected pop on the album Fans, and another real hit, “Madame Butterfly.”
In 1989, he formed the Bootzilla Orchestra, with contributions from Jeff Beck and Bootsy Collins, and released the album Waltz Darling, featuring the single “Deep In Vogue” which not only finally merged his early roots in the fashion world with the later beats and club consciousness he’d cultivated in New York, it also set the stage for Madonna’s own hit “Vogue” which borrowed heavily from it.
In the final analysis, Malcolm McLaren was a true artist, a musical agitator who pushed music forward in unseen and untold ways, even if he rarely played a note himself.
“It was this brilliant idea… we made ugliness, beautiful.”
He’d be upset if we didn’t close by letting him speak for himself, so now, ladies and gentlemen, the rock situationist, the former CEO of Anarchy, Inc., the man whose scratch made you itch, Mr. Malcolm McLaren:
P.S. here’s a quote; “Good taste is the first refuge of the non-creative. It is the last-ditch stand of the artist.” Now tell me, who said this, Malcolm McLaren or Marshall McLuhan? Are you sure?
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