Honesty, openness, integrity, loyalty; all qualities that you are unlikely to find associated with the late Malcolm McLaren.Already aged 30 by 1976 McLaren was a product of the liberal 60’s. Raised to be ‘special’ by his grandmother he felt his role in life was to be anything but boring and to a large extent he achieved this. After being influenced by the Situationist movement and having taken part in direct action politics in a studenty sort of way, by the beginning of the new decade he was ensconced in retail premises in at the ‘wrong’ end of Chelsea’s Kings Road.
Even if he did nothing else the shop which was to become SEX would have given him some sort of minor notoriety in London circles. It catered for anyone requiring fetish or bondage ware but increasing found that some of its clients most notably the ‘Bromley Contingent’ were beginning to wear the shop’s clothing for a fun night out. In addition to that the shop had started producing its own designs usually by McLaren’s partner Vivienne Westwood which were going to prove crucial in the establishment of a ‘punk’ look.
McLaren wasn’t a huge music fan, he had hated the 60’s and his musical blueprint was really derived from the 50’s. In particular Larry Parnes who ran a stable of good looking young lads with names like Vince Eager and Marty Wilde in the early days of British rock and roll. Parnes was all powerful, he groomed his ‘stars’ and told them what to play and how to dress, he even chose their names. It wasn’t long before The Beatles blew this antiquated system apart but though times moved on McLaren did not.
Having been burned badly trying out his management styles on the semi feral New York Dolls he looked for a more pliable group of lads closer to home and subsequently became involved with the Sex Pistols.
As an orthodox manager McLaren was useless but the band didn’t need orthodoxy, in fact any normal careerist manger would have given the rough as a bears arse Pistols a wide berth. McLaren’s skills lay in his ability to think outside the box, he revelled in the absurd and the unorthodox and this would make the Pistols ultimately a memorable but unsuccessful (in terms of sales) band.
He had the right connections in the art’s scene, an early gig involved the band playing at one of Andrew Logan’s parties, an event that meant naff all to most of Britain but was a highlight in the year of the London based creative set. With friends in high places the Pistol’s reputation grew by association, musically they weren’t a patch on The Hot Rods or AC/DC but they weren’t playing the fame game, at least not in an orthodox way and the reason they were not orthodox was due almost entirely to the yin and yang (or at least the Cheech and Chong) of john Lydon and Malcolm McLaren.
It seemed that McLaren was prepared to do anything as long as it wasn’t boring. He booked the early Pistols into apparently inappropriate gigs in the provinces, he sacked the most musical members namely Wally Nightingale and Glen Matlock. He got the band signed to not one but three major labels and he organized the Jubilee Cruise which got him arrested. Finally he had the band tour the most alienating parts of the USA which finally destroyed them. It all looks fun and anarchic and exciting which it probably was, especially if you weren’t a participant. If you were you could be let down badly like not being paid, or in the case of Lydon, being left stranded in America with no way of getting back after the final Pistol’s tour, there’s a reason a lot of his former employees and co-conspirators are willing to badmouth him after all these years.
The thing about being a situationalist is that the main aim to get an anarchic or absurdist result and you can get that by planning or accident. It’s quite possible that McLaren was absolutely terrible at being a manager but the results were so entertaining it didn’t really matter. A ‘proper’ manager would have probably tried to turn the band into U2, the Pistols were altogether more significant but a lot less successful. There’s a real case to be made that without McLaren punk, as we know it would simply not have happened. He presented a style and an attitude and just happened to manage the most notorious British band ever. He gave the band a direction without which the band would have imploded even earlier than they did. Unfortunately McLaren had the last word when he produced the film ‘The Great Rock and Roll Swindle’ where he made the case that the whole thing had been planned all along and even flogging a dead horse was part of the McLaren masterplan. It was a brilliant piece of PR but it wasn’t true.
Without such fantastic raw material he subsequently struggled to produce anything of similar significance, he kept what was left of the Pistols going for as long as possible, apparently he even took singing lessons with the possibility of fronting the band. He then used his magpie abilities with a number of other projects. Some of his anarchic attitudes involved the over sexualisation of children, shocking in the 70’s but a whole lot darker in the new millennium there was also the flirting with nazism which you can take as seriously as you want to, McLaren was slippery to pin down. Ultimately however he followed the way of a lot of innovators falling into the celebrity trap in later life, always good for a pithy soundbite on any documentary on punk.
And maybe that the price you pay for being entertaining.
But perhaps the best last word on McLaren comes from his old comrade in arms Bernie Rhodes giving a eulogy at the former’s funeral.
“If we’re not careful we’re going to turn Malcolm into John Lennon, into a saint. Malcolm was no saint.”
Here he is at his very best