If you asked me a few weeks ago what I thought of Malcolm McLaren, it would have taken me all of a second to call him an asshole. But McLaren died of a heart attack at 64 last Thursday, and I feel just a tad bit uncomfortable attaching such an appellation to someone who can haunt me. This is, of course, something I will have to get over—denying Malcolm McLaren the title of “asshole,” would be to deprive him of something he worked for all his life. McLaren would have wanted to be called an asshole. He was a magnificent, fearless, gaping asshole whose accomplishments may never be equaled.
Let’s back up. Maybe you’re wondering who this guy was that I have to come up with such florid ways of impugning his character. In short, Malcolm McLaren was an art school dropout, occasional fashion designer and entrepreneur, an unaccomplished musician, and the manager of a few bands, namely, The Sex Pistols. But he was never so unassuming as to only claim credit for things he had actually done, and honestly, his CV certainly doesn’t tell the whole story. From McLaren’s perspective. According to McLaren, he was also the inventor of punk culture. He was lying, but he had more claim to that title than pretty much anyone else.
In all honesty, no one invented punk. The style and the sound emerged bit by bit all over America between the mid-’60s and ’70s, but the first out-and-out punk scene blossomed in downtown New York circa 1974. McLaren’s claim to fame was that he took the art-damaged aesthetic and confrontational attitude of folks like Patti Smith and Richard Hell and sold it to the masses using a few vehicles. The first was SEX, a London boutique McLaren ran with then-girlfriend Vivienne Westwood that hocked bondage gear and mildly offensive t-shirts to people who were fed up with the remnants of hippie culture. The second was The Sex Pistols.
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Something few people seem to know is that The Pistols, often incorrectly cited as the first punk band, were basically a boy band—a group whose lead singer and bassist McLaren recruited on the basis of their fashion sense and attitude rather than anything related to chops. They took punk aesthetics (torn clothes, quasi-political rebelliousness, safety pins) and a message of anarchy, and attached them to overdriven rawk instead of the more sophisticated sounds of New York bands like Television and Suicide. McLaren then orchestrated a series of stunts that got the band a great deal of attention—even if you’ve never bothered to listen to a Sex Pistols song (an experience you’re likely to find deeply disappointing), you’ve probably heard about their profane on-air spats with talk show hosts, their confrontations with the Queen, or their disastrous tour U.S. tour that landed the band in a series of hostile C&W bars in the Deep South. Meanwhile, the band never really went anywhere musically, and due to McLaren’s malevolent leadership, they fell apart less than a year after releasing their first record.
After a few years went by, McLaren started claiming credit for the whole punk thing, disparaging everyone he had worked with, and explaining that he had orchestrated not just the Pistols’ every move, but the rise and fall of the whole scene (he shared an annoying tendency with many of his compatriots—a habit of saying that punk had died at such-and-such a point, that the scene had dried up after he left it). When asked why, he would say he did it to spread chaos, to make money, or for a laugh, depending on his mood. In any case, McLaren was done with punk. He had only been in the scene for the chaos and spectacle.
And he had no interest in the musical inventiveness and political consciousness that came to characterize the post-punk scenes on both sides of the Atlantic in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Instead, he formed the band Bow Wow Wow (yes, the folks who wrote “I Want Candy”), a globo-pop band whose entire image and promotional strategy was based on the winking sexualization of 14-year old lead singer Amanda Lwin. Yes, the man who created The Sex Pistols also came up with the idea for Britney Spears.
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Oh also, he stole that song from some Burundians. For serious.
Of course, McLaren missed the significance of punk entirely. He thought he was selling a stance to sucker kids. He didn’t realize those kids would appropriate and re-define punk rock. He never thought about DIY culture or the democratization of music. He didn’t foresee the creation of communities based on the shared production of new kinds of art. He probably would never have imagined that fierce ethical standards and intense local pride would come to characterize these scenes. McLaren wasn’t planning for punk to outlive him, but, hey, what do you know.
So it’s easy to reject Malcolm McLaren, that great gaping asshole. Certainly most punk kids I know don’t have too many kind words for him. But I think we owe him credit for a few things. For one thing, in 1975, punk was the domain of a few cooler-than-Jesus New York hipsters. But thanks to McLaren, you can now walk into any punk show from Dayton, Ohio to Guayaquil, Ecuador and make some new friends on the basis of a shared culture. Even if he didn’t intend to, Malcolm McLaren got punk into the hands of the people by making it visible. Meanwhile, in rejecting everything, by saying that The Beatles sucked and that the future of rock was bunch of hideous cockney amateurs, McLaren and The Sex Pistols created a vacuum that was soon filled with innovation. When the first wave of punks showed that anything goes, the folks in Wire, Sonic Youth, Crass, and Converge felt free to try anything, to far more interesting results. And pretty much everyone who came after McLaren had a better attitude.
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McLaren wasn’t anything like the pioneer he claimed to be, but he did exemplify an attitude that we could stand to see some more of these days: the punk ethos that music critic Simon Reynolds summarized as a drive to “rip it up and start again.” McLaren and his contemporaries galvanized people to rethink the way they produce and consume music by sensationalizing it, by treating punk as an apocalyptic struggle against decadence. These days, I don’t get the sense that fans have that same half-crazed emotional connection to the direction that pop goes in, which makes life a little less interesting. I’m not one to talk about how great things were back in the day, but it sure would be cool if we had some people willing to make asses of themselves to get us to rethink the role of music in society—especially given the general floating ennui about the future of the industry. In times like these, we could use a heroic asshole to guide us, and it just doesn’t seem like Kanye will cut it.