Malcolm McLaren was a man with one great and inarguable talent -- he could recognize talent in others that most people couldn't see. Of course, McLaren also had a habit of taking that talent and manipulating it to his own ends, but he was never the sort to shy away from being seen as a villain. McLaren appeared to view himself as some cross between Larry Parnes, the British pop impresario who fashioned the careers of Billy Fury and Mary Wilde, and Fagin, the crafty leader of the criminal children's underground in Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, and as befits a man who at different points in his life sold rubber fetish wear and managed the most hated rock band in the world, he thrived on the positive aspects of negative charisma. If there was ever a man who believed there was no such thing as bad publicity, it was McLaren.
McLaren, who died Thursday in New York City after a bout with cancer, is best known as the man who managed the Sex Pistols and transformed them into music's greatest succes de scandale -- fitting, since McLaren never seemed to be interested in success that didn’t have a touch of scandal in it. After studying art and developing an interest in the political philosophies of situationalism and anarchy, McLaren and his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood opened a shop in 1971 that specialized in clothing for modern day Teddy Boys called Let It Rock.
McLaren met flashy proto-punks the New York Dolls during a trip to the United States; he began designing clothes for the band and became fascinated with the transgressive possibilities of pop music.
Eventually, McLaren and Westwood's shop evolved into a boutique called Sex that sold curious fetish gear along with Westwood's increasingly radical creations, and when the Dolls were on their last legs, McLaren appointed himself their manager and gave them an image makeover. The Dolls were widely seen as junkie transvestites at the time, and McLaren may have been the only man in the world who imagined it would be a good career move to drape them in red leather and have them pretend to be communists.
Drugs and internal dissent soon put an end to the Dolls, but working with the band lit a fire in McLaren, and he decided to get involved with an up and coming group. While McLaren often claimed to have put together the Sex Pistols, that’s not the truth -– Steve Jones and Paul Cook had been trying to get a group off the ground for a while before they were introduced to Glen Matlock, who worked at Sex, and John Lydon, a curious regular visitor to the shop. But McLaren sensed a spark in the ragtag foursome that few would have been likely to recognize, and he had the charm and the nerve to convince EMI Records that the Sex Pistols and the handful of other UK bands following a similar path represented a new youth movement when they were really no more than a tiny cult at the time. That all changed when the Sex Pistols appeared on Bill Grundy's chat show, swore on live TV, and suddenly became either national pariahs or heroes depending on your age and attitude.
McLaren cleverly stoked the fires of the Sex Pistols' bad reputation and kept them in the headlines, and by working closely with designer Jamie Reid, McLaren gave the Sex Pistols' record sleeves, posters and promotional materials a distinct look that made their image just as powerful as their music, a lead many bands would follow. But McLaren's ideas about the Sex Pistols were often at odds with those of the guys in the band (in the documentary "The Filth and the Fury," John Lydon speaks of McLaren with deep disdain and refuses to say his name, simply referring to him as "the manager"), and after Sid Vicious replaced Glen Matlock, one can argue McLaren did a better job of making them infamous than guiding their career. The band proved to be far more profitable after they broke up in 1978, and a court case later determined that McLaren had mismanaged their financial affairs by using the band’s money to finance the movie "The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle." Another sign of McLaren's faulty business acumen can be seen in the story of Bow Wow Wow –- when Adam Ant hired McLaren to give him a career overhaul in 1980, McLaren opted to hire away his band, recruit fourteen-year-old Annabella Lwin as their lead singer/subversive sex symbol, and gave them a new name. While Bow Wow Wow had a few hits (most after they'd thrown off McLaren as manager), Adam Ant went on to assemble a new group, record Kings Of The Wild Frontier and become a genuine international pop star, confirming McLaren clearly bet on the wrong horse.
Given McLaren's healthy ego and love of appearing in public, it was no surprise that he eventually became a recording artist himself, and since he'd helped make a band that "couldn't play" internationally famous, he wasn't about to let his lack of musical skills stop him.
Originally conceived as a musical voyage around the world, McLaren's debut album Duck Rock found its formula when he heard the New York hip-hop crew the World Famous Supreme Team, and he used their rapping and DJ skills to tie together the album's various elements, ranging from square dance calling to township jive. Duck Rock was a prescient fusion of world music and hip-hop, and the song "Buffalo Gals" introduced scratching and other DJ techniques to the pop audience much in the way Blondie's "Rapture" opened the door for rap on rock radio. McLaren himself was ultimately a minor player on his own album, but he assembled the ingredients well, and while he took the star billing, at least the folks who did the real work got their name in the credits.
Malcolm McLaren was a relentlessly self-promoting man who made a career out of taking other people's ideas and running with them -– what can you say about a man who, in his court case with the Sex Pistols, claimed with a straight face that he, not the band, invented punk rock? But McLaren also added a joyous and malevolent touch of his own to everything he worked on, and it's worth noting that when news of his death broke, two men who'd never had much good to say about him during his life stepped forward with affectionate tributes. John Lydon told a reporter, "Above all else (McLaren) was an entertainer and I will miss him, and so should you," while New York Dolls singer David Johansen released a statement saying "Malcolm McLaren was such a marvelous amalgam of exuberation, sensuality, culture, and literacy salted with the essential recognition of his own rascality." Anyone can swipe ideas and piss people off, but it takes a real talent to charm people as their pockets are picked, and Malcolm McLaren should be remembered as just that sort of scoundrel, the Fagin of rock & roll.