Though he achieved some degree of success as a performing artist himself, Malcolm McLaren (1946-2010) is best known as the manager and promoter of the short-lived 1970s British punk rock sensation band the Sex Pistols.
McLaren was something of a jack-of-all-trades in the entertainment industry, but above all he was a promoter and empresario skilled at turning other people’s art, rebellion, and counterculturalism into money and notoriety for himself.
Given McLaren’s childhood, it’s perhaps not surprising that he came out neither mainstream nor particularly scrupulous. His father abandoned his family when McLaren was two. Following an alleged love affair with prominent British financier and philanthropist Charles Clore, his mother remarried a man with whom McLaren perpetually clashed. But McLaren spent the bulk of his childhood not in this tumultuous household, but being raised by his grandmother, a wealthy woman whose values can perhaps best be inferred by her reportedly imparting to the young McLaren the life lesson “To be bad is good. To be good is simply boring.”
Home schooled by his grandmother until the age of 9, McLaren eventually kicked around a series of art schools-six all told-staying in each until he grew bored or was booted out. He developed an interest in the French Situationists, a movement that advocated provocative, absurd, publicity-generating behavior as political statement and performance art. (Think Yippies in the United States in the ’60s.) McLaren was one of those that realized that such provocation and controversy had plenty of “all publicity is good publicity” commercial potential, to go along with whatever artistic or political influence it might have.
McLaren spent the early 1970s designing clothes and running a chain of boutiques with partner (business and romantic) Vivienne Westwood. Their increasingly outrageous designs, eventually evolving into something meant to evoke an S&M lifestyle, achieved a high level of success with the ultra-hip crowd.
McLaren’s 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 with red leather outfits and the Communist hammer and sickle as their logo, the band soon faded away.
With the Sex Pistols, though, McLaren’s provocative style of promotion was far more successful. McLaren played up the band members’ angry anti-social attitudes and violent, pro-drug image, engineering a series of publicity stunts designed to make them popular for being hated by all the right people, such as having them perform their obscenity-laden songs at full volume from a boat on the Thames outside Parliament (which, as intended, led to the boat being raided and McLaren and the band members being arrested).
The Sex Pistols proved culturally very influential, though the actual duration of the band was quite brief. In less than two years, bassist Simon Ritchie (Sid Vicious) was dead of a drug overdose after allegedly murdering his girlfriend, the band had broken up, and the surviving band members were convinced they’d been cheated by McLaren. Lead singer John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) in fact sued McLaren for money and control of the band’s name, and ultimately won.
None of McLaren’s subsequent managerial efforts led bands to quite the level of success and notoriety of the Sex Pistols, but he did work with some artists that achieved a certain degree of prominence, including Adam and the Ants, the solo career of the leader of the Ants Stuart Leslie Goddard (Adam Ant), and Bow Wow Wow, which was basically the remaining Ants fronted by Burmese vocalist Annabelle Lwin, who was all of 13 when McLaren discovered her.
McLaren was not uncommonly accused of shady dealings and exploiting naïve newcomers to the music industry in his managerial role.
Meanwhile, McLaren ventured into the role of performing artist himself, with a certain amount of 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, usually in the U.K. only, but in some cases in the U.S. as well.
McLaren’s music as a performer was an eclectic and artistically innovative blend of international music, punk, disco, funk, electronic music, opera, traditional folk music and more, including early hip hop. In fact, McLaren is credited with being one of the artists most responsible for gaining hip hop a following in Great Britain.
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, making television commercials and appearing in reality television shows as himself.
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.
His detractors will point out that McLaren was all about image and show, rather than substance. There’s certainly much truth to that, but image has substantive consequences after all, and even if McLaren’s primary motive was often self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, his was a life that had consequences far beyond that.
Upon McLaren’s death, Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones reacted thusly, in his way summing up the empresario’s life: “I was always next in line when it came to slagging him and calling him a crook. But when I found he was dead, when his son called and told me, I was really saddened by it. Underneath it all I really loved him….[He] was a big key in what happened in punk and with the revolution of it all….The whole thing probably wouldn’t have taken off the way it did without him, there’s no doubt about that. But his downfall is that he spent the rest of his life trying to take credit for all of it.” [Los Angeles Times, April 9, 2010 “Malcolm McLaren dies at 64; Punk Rock’s Godfather Managed the Sex Pistols.”]