To understand punk rock empresario Malcolm McLaren, it’s necessary to dig deep into his past. The childhood of McLaren was a turbulent one–not financially, but personally–and this led to a turbulent and controversial life.
McLaren was born in 1946, just after World War II, in North London, son of a Scottish engineer and a Jewish mother descended from wealthy diamond dealers. His father left when McLaren was two, and his mother reportedly had a love affair with prominent financier Charles Clore before remarrying. Unable to get along with his new stepfather, McLaren was soon shuffled off to be raised by his maternal grandmother. She gave him home instruction till the age of nine, instilling in him her eyebrow-raising values that “To be bad is good. To be good is simply boring.”
The restless McLaren left home as soon as he could as a teenager, working a series of jobs and attending a total of six art schools in the intervening years of “finding himself.”
Along the way he developed an interest in certain modern art movements, especially unconventional art such as that of the French Situationists. The Situationists were performance artists who staged provocative and sometimes absurd public events as political statements. (Compare terrorists flying a plane into the Pentagon, with Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies forming a circle around it, chanting and comically trying to levitate it. The Situationists were like the latter.)
McLaren spent the early 1970s designing clothes and running a chain of successful boutiques with his romantic and business partner Vivienne Westwood. Their hip and sometimes outrageous designs caught the fancy of a certain segment of Britain’s youth (the British version of an Andy Warhol crowd, perhaps) who were eager to express their anti-establishment attitudes through fashion. As the decade progressed, McLaren’s designs moved deeper into the sexual or fetish arena, becoming the sort of things that fashion models playing dress up as S&M practitioners might wear.
But McLaren was always looking for new challenges, new modes of expression. His first significant foray into music promotion came in 1974, when he took over the management of the proto-punk rock group the New York Dolls. Despite McLaren’s efforts to make them more controversial by dressing them in red leather outfits and using the Communist hammer and sickle as their logo, the band soon faded away.
What McLaren is best known for, however, is his management of the explosive but short-lived Sex Pistols, who established punk rock as a genre. Here McLaren used what he’d learned from the Situationists to generate attention and controversy for his new charges. Under his guidance, the band came to be associated with angry defiance, drugs, violence, and generally anti-social attitudes and behavior. McLaren engineered a series of publicity stunts culminating in the band performing their obscenity-laced songs at full volume from a boat on the Thames outside Parliament, which resulted in a police raid on the boat and McLaren’s arrest.
The ugliness of the Sex Pistols, though, was not all just stunts to curry the disapproval of the Establishment. The tumultuous career of the band (spanning only between one and two years) was marked by increasing drug abuse and fighting amongst themselves and with McLaren, leading eventually to the drug overdose death of bassist Sid Vicious after he allegedly murdered his girlfriend, the break up of the band, and a protracted legal battle between lead singer Johnny Rotten and McLaren, which McLaren ultimately lost.
McLaren’s work with the Sex Pistols gave him the street cred of a man on the cutting edge of the new music scene. Though none of his subsequent managerial efforts led to bands achieving the culturally volcanic level of influence and notoriety of the Sex Pistols, he did work with some artists that achieved a certain degree of prominence, including Adam Ant–both as a solo artist and as the leader of Adam and the Ants–and Bow Wow Wow. Some hailed him as artistically insightful and highly skilled as a promoter of the outrageous, some blasted him as an egotistical crook who exploited young newcomers to the music business for his own gain, and some recognized that there was a lot of truth to both descriptions.
Starting in the 1980s, McLaren became a performing artist himself. He achieved a certain amount of commercial success, managing to crack the U.K. top ten with his early single Buffalo Gals, and subsequently reaching the charts with several other albums and singles.
He achieved at least as much critical as commercial success for his bold and eclectic blending of seemingly every musical genre from traditional folk to hip hop. He was one of the artists most responsible for introducing hip hop to Britain, and he was voguing before anyone had ever heard of Madonna. He worked not only with newcomers and outlaws, but with the likes of Jeff Beck, Catherine Deneuve, and Yanni.
Along the way, McLaren dabbled in any number of other pursuits, including various film and television projects. He also cashed in on his celebrity as best he could, appearing in reality television shows as himself toward the end of his life.
McLaren was diagnosed with mesothelioma in October 2009, a condition he kept secret from the public. The disease progressed rapidly, and McLaren died just six months later on April 8, 2010.