SEX sells (so do fashion, art, music and controversy): Malcolm McLaren (1946-2010)

“For me Malc was always entertaining, and I hope you remember that. Above all else he was an entertainer and i will miss him, and so should you” – Johnny Rotten

I never got the feeling Malcolm McLaren, who died Wednesday, really gave a shit about music. He was an art student and an entrepreneur, first and foremost — and not necessarily in that order — and he used his art education to channel his rebellious nature, ultimately, into a way to make money. Which he did splendidly — he had homes in both Paris and New York.

But along the way, he accidentally discovered a way to change the image behind the music we’ve been hearing the past 35 years — and, in turn, had more than his say in shaping music as well. Did you ever stop to think how different everyday music, fashion and art would be had he not created the Sex Pistols?

McLaren certainly didn’t invent punk, nor the look. But he was the catalyst through which the style was joined to the sound — and, eventually, to mass culture. And more things than you can count, from colored hair, to stylistically tattered clothing, to artistically arrayed riots of color in everything from cars to advertising displays, to comics — and the widespread musical influence of punk — draws a line through McLaren and his many-named London boutique in the early-to-mid-’70s.

It’s not the first time art collided with music and heavily influenced fashion, nor by far the biggest. That would have been in 1961, when Hamburg photographer Astrid Kirchherr cut the hair of her boyfriend/future late fiance, Beatles guitarist Stu Sutcliffe, then tried the same cut on George Harrison, then the rest of the band, then took their pictures.

But McLaren was looking for a way to make money as a fashion designer in the late ’60s, and tried to combine his loves of fashion of art’s Situationist movement to raise some hell as well, and maybe bring about social change. And, of course, in the wake of The Beatles, the biggest and easiest conduit through which to enact social change for fun and profit was through music.

In 1970, he and then-partner in business and life, Vivienne Westwood, opened a Kings Road boutique in London called Let It Rock. It was reactionary to the hippie culture of the time, selling ’50s records and clothing and attracting a Teddy Boy crowd. But McLaren grew tired of the Teds and found his inspiration on a 1972 visit to New York. A bunch of guys who raided their sisters’ closets and makeup cases and polarized people in all corners. A bunch of guys who were at least as glam as the pretty boys in England but much uglier, complete with a singer who looked like Mick Jagger’s sister. The best and worst band in the 1973 Creem readers’ poll — ladies and gentlemen, the New York Dolls. And McLaren and Westwood changed the name of their boutique to Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die and changed the style of the store to more glam and urban.

From there, it was a natural leap into the music biz. McLaren’s first attempt at managing a band — turning the Dolls into a bunch of fey little communists — was a disaster, and they broke up shortly after. But while he was in New York managing them, he saw a group called the Neon Boys — Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell and Billy Ficca before they started Television (the first rock band to play at CBGB, in 1974). Hell was the guy who brought the safety pins and the torn T-shirts to rock’n’roll. McLaren was the guy who brought the look back to England, renamed the boutique SEX, changed (with Westwood) the store’s focus to bondage gear … and wedded the music and fashion.

Punk, in 1975, was a sound that barely even had a name — and only then because a couple guys, John Holmstrom and Legs McNeil (from Cheshire, Ct., the town next over from where I grew up), decided to start a music magazine; Legs named the mag Punk, and the name somehow became attached to the whole scene. It was basically a bunch of drunks and junkies and their friends on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, playing their stripped-down, often-bad, versions of the top-40 sound they heard on WABC in their Wonder Years. Both the Dolls and Blondie drew some of their influence from those ultra-cool chicks from Queens, The Shangri-Las; The Ramones took their name from a Beatle hotel alias, and their repertoire included “Let’s Dance,” “Do You Wanna Dance,” “Surfin’ Bird” and “California Sun.”

But there was no style to go with the stripped-down, non-glamorous sound (well, not glamorous except for Debbie Harry). And punk was still only a household word in the (using the term loosely) households of the musicians. McLaren went back to London, to his newly re-re-renamed shop, turned the boutique regulars onto both the sight and sound, and then took over managing a band consisting of some customers. And The Strand gradually became the Sex Pistols.

And in Kings Road hanger-on John Lydon — Johnny Rotten — McLaren found the frontman he wanted, the perfect vehicle for his rebellion: a young, bright, unemployed, surly, snarling asshole with bad teeth, colored hair and no bullshit filter from brain to mouth. Someone who could foist chaos on an unsuspecting crowd. Someone who could go from town to town with his skinny little torch and light the rubbish fires of rebellion. Someone who could convincingly sing “Anarchy in the U.K.”

And while The Ramones cut the first punk album (April ’76), and The Damned’s “New Rose” was the first English punk single (October ’76), it was the Pistols who got all the attention — causing fights, causing excitement, swearing on national TV, recording “God Save the Queen” as a gift for Elizabeth II’s jubilee, whipping up the rabble into a colorfully ugly mess. By the time The Ramones came over to celebrate the American bicentennial with a show at London’s Roundhouse, there was a full-on scene raging in England, and the Sex Pistols were the ringleaders and the center ring at the same time.

And McLaren was in the background, whipping up the controversy with the deftness of a puppeteer. The high/low point was his infamous Jubilee boat tripthe Pistols and pals on the Thames, cruising past Parliament, raided by the cops, lots of arrests and unrest. Then he shipped them off to America, where he booked a memorably disastrous tour (including some redneck places he knew would be hostile to them) … and then Lydon, who saw the bullshit for what it was, went through the motions of an encore at San Francisco’s Winterland Jan. 14, 1978 — appropriately singing The Stooges’ “No Fun,” and asking, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” before walking off forever.

McLaren’s grandest experiment was over. Like most brilliant entrepreneurs, he got his, then moved on. But he spent many years afterward life trying to catch the same type of lightning bug he caught in the Pistols — managing Adam & the Ants, turning a 14-year-old Burmese girl, who he renamed Anabella Lwin, into a sex symbol as the singer of Bow Wow Wow, then trying to cash in on hip-hop and later the vogue club scene. No luck.

But his influence is still felt in ways he didn’t envision, for better and worse. The kidnap-ransom-note graphics used to promote the Pistols. Hair coloring and outrageous makeup. ’80s new wave graphics. Comics. Multiple piercings. Pre-ripped clothing as fashion. The McLaren/Westwood boutique supplanted by a cheesy mall chain prepackaging a now-hoary rebellion to younger generations.

And would punk had blown up wildly beyond a few skeevy blocks of Manhattan had McLaren not seen the Dolls on a visit four years before? Maybe. Then again, we all might still be listening to The Eagles and James Taylor.

Just kidding. Seriously.

But you probably do owe Malcolm McLaren a debt of gratitude, whether he cared about your music or not.

One Response to “SEX sells (so do fashion, art, music and controversy): Malcolm McLaren (1946-2010)”

  1. jmucci Says:

    Interesting article Fran….
    McLaren was certainly a character. Definitely the definition of a ranconteur. The only thing is, you didn’t give him enough credit for being in on the forefront of hip hop (or appropriating it for his own uses, if you’re feeling less generous)…”Buffalo Gals” was a seminal song of that time. What he actually contributed to any of his records is still a mystery…but he did actually have a couple of “hits” as they were.
    Anyhow, you certainly don’t see managers like him anymore. Brilliant, inscrutable, always controversial, never to be forgotten….Malcolm McLaren.

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