Thursday, April 08, 2010

Malcolm McLaren

Malcolm McLaren, a flamboyant impresario best known as the former manager of The Sex Pistols, passed away at age 64 after a struggle with cancer.

Born in London and raised by his maternal grandmother, in his youth McLaren had already picked up a reputation for being subversive and manipulative. Drifting through several art colleges in the late 60's, he became interested in the tactics of the Situationists, the French-based avant-garde anticapitalists who staged elaborate pranks as a means of spreading their message. McLaren left school for good in 1971 and with his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood opened his first London boutique, Let It Rock. In 1975 he traveled to New York where he met up with glam-rockers The New York Dolls and convinced them to let him manage them. McLaren's promotional ideas, including using a hammer-and-sickle style design motif for their stage show, did not go over well, and the Dolls broke up later that year.

Returning to London, he and Westwood renamed their shop Sex, and began selling punk and S&M gear. The shop became a hangout for bored, frustrated London youths; aggression was in the air. Among this crowd were a number of musicians who felt that the London music scene was becoming much too tame. One day a young man sporting green hair and the words "I HATE" scrawled across the top of his torn Pink Floyd T-shirt strolled in. McLaren dubbed him "Johnny Rotten", and soon he was rehearsing with some other musicians who hung out at Sex, forming a group that soon was known as The Sex Pistols.

Due to the way that their brief career played out, and in large part because of the flamboyant promotion of McLaren and the outrageous behavior he encouraged in the band members, some people today regard The Sex Pistols as a joke. In their early days, though, they made music to be reckoned with. John "Johnny Rotten" Lydon's corrosive vocals expressed the anger and frustration of London youth, supported by Steve Jones' slashing guitar lines and Paul Cook's powerful drumming. Original bassist Glen Matlock was also a competent songwriter. Their debut LP, Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols, remains the greatest punk rock album ever recorded. "God Save The Queen" scandalized the entire United Kingdom, while "Anarchy in the UK" is simply one of the two or three best hard rock songs of all time.

Trouble started with the dismissal of bassist Matlock, allegedly for being too respectable in his music tastes, but perhaps also because he wasn't as easily swayed by McLaren as the other group members. His replacement, Sid Vicious, was the embodiment of punk style but absolutely clueless as a musician. Vicious also brought with him a nasty heroin habit that only intensified during his Pistols tenure. As the quality of the band's performances deteriorated, the focus shifted increasingly to McLaren's stunts, which is perhaps how he wanted it all along. The Sex Pistols broke up at the end of a chaotic American tour, with Lydon snarling at the crowd, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" at the conclusion of the group's final gig in San Francisco. Lydon, Cook and Jones went their separate ways, while commencing a series of lawsuits against their former manager. Sid Vicious went on to die of a heroin overdose.

Malcolm McLaren simply kept on hustling. He briefly managed Adam Ant, as well as taking some of Ant's backing musicians and teaming them up with teen singer Annabella Lwin to form Bow Wow Wow. He put together another Sex Pistols album, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle from odds and ends, serving as the soundtrack to a movie that told the Pistols' story in farcical fashion from McLaren's point of view. He also established a successful music career in his own right, scoring UK hits with "Buffalo Gals" and "Double Dutch". In 1985 he offered to manage the then-unknown Red Hot Chili Peppers, but they turned him down, as he wished to move their music away from its funky roots toward a punk direction.

McLaren continued to diversify during the 90's, composing music for British television and for commercials. He also continued to release solo recordings, and in 1998 attempted to launch a female Chinese pop group, Jungk. He briefly considered running for mayor of London, wrote a number of magazine articles and appeared on British reality TV.

Arguably, McLaren's only real talent was for self-promotion. Yet, smooth talkers with big ideas have always been at the heart of popular culture, and the music world will always find a place for the outrageous likes of those like Malcolm McLaren.