The story of Malcolm McLaren’s emergence onto the pop music stage is pretty well-known, but as is usual with mythical creatures, any number of variations have presented themselves over the years.
McLaren, owner of a King’s Road shop that first attempted, with the help of partner and designer Vivian Westwood, to cater to the fashion tastes of Teddy Boys, then to Rockers (both unsuccessfully), followed the rapidly disintegrating New York Dolls to Paris and then to New York. Along the way, he convinced them to make him their manager, which meant next to nothing since the band could hardly get a gig of any kind by this time. They famously self-combusted during a club stand in Florida that McLaren had managed to obtain for them, which sent McLaren scurrying back across the pond.
The Dolls’ guitarist and nihilistic heroin addict par excellence Johnny Thunders stated that “Malcolm McLaren is the greatest con man that I ever met.” The events which followed certainly don’t dispel such an assessment.
McLaren’s vision of a great, anarchic, semi-amateur rock band that would be the figurative grapefruit in the starlet face of 1960s and 70s rock star fantasy began to coalesce around the youngsters who populated the Kings Road shop, by now rechristened Sex and selling Westwood’s anti-design, clothing which included t-shirts bearing excerpts from pornographic texts, and a full line of rubber and bondage-wear.
The story of how Malcolm McLaren transformed a group of musicians known as the Swankers into the Sex Pistols, eventually ‘discovering’ punk prototype and vocalist John Lydon and dopey mook Sid Vicious, who became the band’s bass player in name only, is well recounted in rock journalist Julie Burchill’s The Boy Looked At Johnny, the definitive history of the punk movement from the formation of the Sex Pistols through about 1978, by which time the original British punk movement was pretty much over. McLaren welcomed the group’s chaotic disintegration because it allowed him to realize his vision and to move on.
And move on he did, ditching the moribund punk movement for tribal music with New Romantic costuming (Adam and the Ants) and tribal music with a Burmese hottie (BowWowWow). Madame Butterfly, square dancing, it was all grist for Mal’s mill, and it’s hard to imagine that he took any of it too seriously.
Malcolm McLaren’s point of reference wasn’t really rock music at all, but art. Known as an enfant-terrible of the ‘60s art school scene from which he emerged, McLaren loved museums and declared that “I learned all my politics and understanding of the world through the history of art.”
“It’s hard to say just what McLaren does as an artist,” writes Ira Robbins in his 1989 3rd revised edition of The New Trouser Press Record Guide. “He’s more an assembler than a creator, piecing together artifacts from various musical cultures in such a way that at the end of the day, his own input seems invisible. And yet his perspective as a hip outsider has continued to provide a link between his Anglo-American audience and Third World forms. If McLaren’s a musical tourist, these records are his home movies.”
Duck Rock, released on Island in 1983, contained McLaren’s bonafide hit single “Buffalo Gals,” which sets square dance calling over a hip-hop track. He also recorded a girls’ double-dutch rope-skipping crew and featured that over a hip-hop rhythm track. McLaren also explores Appalachian and African music on the LP.
In 1984 he released Fans, which combined hip-hop with famous operatic themes (Carmen , Madame Butterfly), and which again proved that the erstwhile auteur had a certain charm in piecing together these improbable projects. 1985’s Swamp Thing simply combined cast-off bits of his 1982-84 sessions, and as a result is something of a mess.
Malcolm McLaren was that rare rock auteur who recasts the music in his own image, a reflection of his own neuroses and obsessions. One has only to remember that others of this lineage include Phil Spector, Kim Fowley, and Brian Epstein to understand that his impact was immense.
McLaren helped forge the musical landscape of the 1980s even as his former partner, Vivienne Westwood helped forge its visual style. While there are many who would consider him a minor figure, it’s difficult to imagine the pop music landscape without such a colorful mad hatter roaming its bounds. It is characters like McLaren who remind us of both the innocent Absolute Beginners promise of pop music and its cynical manipulation of our deepest dreams and desires in one fell swoop.
I’ll give McLaren the last word. In a special 2002 issue of Q magazine which detailed the history of British punk ’77-’79, he wrote, in the issue’s ‘Afterword”:
“Manifestos are always written after the event. Looking back on punk, its lasting testimony, its manifesto if you like, is it allowed one to be a flamboyant failure rather than a benign success. It made failure a noble pursuit—the music, the fashion, the movement itself, was all one big artistic statement born out of my life and times at art school…I wanted to bridge that gap between art school and the street…From one tiny shop on the Kings Road in Chelsea we had created our own code of living, our own laws, our own identity. In other words, we had created the infrastructure for an alternative society.”