The impresario and iconoclast Malcolm McLaren, who died aged 64 from the cancer mesothelioma on Thursday, was one of the pivotal, yet most divisive influences on the styles and sounds of late 20th-century popular culture.
He was best known as the manager of the Sex Pistols, the punk-rock band that swept the UK in 1977, their anti-establishment youth force making a colorful counterpoint to Queen Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee. With his first partner, the designer Vivienne Westwood, he popularized looks from punk to fetish, which still dominate the fashion world.
McLaren’s provocative influence can be detected in everything from Damien Hirst’s art and contrary bands such as the Libertines and Oasis to the mainstream punk clothes on sale in Top Shop. The claim by the British journalist Julie Burchill that “we are all children of Thatcher and McLaren” was not that fanciful. McLaren’s partner, Young Kim, likened him to Andy Warhol, describing him as the ultimate postmodern artist: “I think Malcolm recognized he had changed the culture, he saw he had changed the world.”
He was one of the first Europeans to spot the potential of US hip-hop, and his 1982 hit single Buffalo Gals introduced the art of scratching to the British charts. The former Sex Pistols singer John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), who fell out with McLaren before quitting the band in 1978, described him as the most evil man on Earth for his tendency to treat people like art projects or cash cows. McLaren reveled in this svengali image, casting himself as The Embezzler in the punk film The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle (1980).
His death has melted one of music’s most bitter feuds.
“For me, Malc was always entertaining,” Lydon said. “Above all else, he was an entertainer.”
McLaren was born on Jan. 22, 1946, in Stoke Newington, north London. His father left home when he was two and Malcolm was raised by his grandmother, Rose, who home-schooled him and fed him slogans such as “it’s good to be bad and it’s bad to be good,” along with a general distaste for the royal family.
He attended various art colleges in the 1960s, was influenced by the French situationist movement and at Harrow Art School he met his muse, Westwood (with whom he lost his virginity), and Jamie Reid, the graphic artist who later designed the artwork for the Sex Pistols’ record covers.
By 1971, McLaren was seeking to “rescue fashion from commodification by the establishment,” as he later put it. With Westwood, he opened a boutique on Kings Road in Chelsea, southwest London, called Let It Rock (later renamed Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die), selling then unfashionable Teddy Boy clothing. After a trip to New York in 1972, McLaren’s career in music management began with the camp/aggressive glam band the New York Dolls. Supplying the group with stagewear and using a hammer and sickle logo to promote them, he developed the shock tactics he used to far greater effect later with the Pistols.
By 1975, the shop had transformed into a subversive S&M boutique called Sex (later Seditionaries), and McLaren was putting together another band lineup with three of his customers, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock.
When Lydon walked in, sporting green hair and an “I hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt, they found their frontman. McLaren came up with the Sex Pistols name (he wanted something that sounded like “sexy young assassins”), and together they took on the torpor of mid-1970s British pop.
Wearing safety-pinned Westwood gear and bondage trousers, the Pistols played on a boat on the Thames (it was raided by the police), took God Save the Queen to No. 2 in jubilee week, teased huge sums out of successive record companies and were banned from playing by local councils.
An infamous, swearword-laden TV interview with Bill Grundy led to tabloid headlines such as “the filth and the fury,” and their position as the most controversial, rebellious British pop group was assured, assisted by John Beverley (Sid Vicious), who joined in 1977. He later died of a heroin overdose while awaiting trial for the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. The band fell apart in early 1978, later suing McLaren for mismanagement and royalties, but the svengali simply stated that he planned their demise and used this claim as the plot for The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle.
After working as a consultant for Adam Ant and forming and managing Bow Wow Wow, Mclaren released 1983’s Duck Rock album, included the top 10 hits Double Dutch and Buffalo Gals, the latter cited by Herbie Hancock as the inspiration for his own influential electro single, Rockit.
McLaren scored another hit with one of his most audacious experiments, the 1984 single Madam Butterfly, a mix of opera and electronics.
McLaren continued to record music, co-produced the 2006 film Fast Food Nationand worked on radio and TV programs.
Young Kim and his son by Westwood, Joe Corre, survive him.
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