I’m surprisingly saddened to hear that Malcolm McLaren died this morning in New York at the age of only 64. I’d had no idea that he’d been fighting cancer for some time – it seems he took a sudden turn for the worse over the last few days. His family are naturally said to be devastated, and I send my sympathies to them.
They, and we, have lost a man who was always one of a kind, whatever you thought of him – and most people either loved him or hated him. Or both. Whatever your reaction, he was unique.
Despite the fact that he quite clearly wrote his own myth from day one and then arguably pinched much of Vivienne Westwood’s limelight for many years, as well as the basic truth that his self-importance often outweighed his actual importance to British music, I have always had a sneaking admiration for the old iconoclast and I believe that British music and culture will be lessened by his death.
As with so many people, music is central to my life and I love the energy and anger and fire and inspiration of punk – the genre with which McLaren was always most associated. However, and despite what Malcolm always used to say/think about his role in the process, that whole thing was evolving independently and would have exploded anyway – the first British punk single was, in fact, New Rose by The Damned, who had nothing to do with McLaren.
Anyway, his take on punk was really less about anger and attitude and politics (although all these played a part) and more about a post-modern take on style and image and pose – in fact, his importance really lies, alongside that of Vivienne Westwood, in their King’s Road clothing empire and its continuing impact on British fashion.
Despite his knack of rewriting history, his actual impact on music is also undeniable. OK, so he brought the New York Dolls back to the UK, he played a role in bringing the Sex Pistols together and he kick-started Sid Vicious onto the road to unlikely superstardom, but it was his slightly sneering, gobby, iconoclastic attitude and managerial style that had the biggest impact on the way the British music industry operated.
There had been Svengali types in the industry for as long as it had existed, but the 1960s had seen the emergence of such charismatic and often powerful managers as Brian Epstein, Kit Lambert and Andrew Loog Oldham to challenge the old guard. Malcolm just took these new ideas and methods to their (il)logical conclusions.
Working on the principle that any publicity is good publicity, he prodded and provoked the media and the establishment until he got a reaction, the more outraged the better. He seemed to enjoy saying outrageous things in order to provoke such a reaction, then sit back and watch the hysterics. Most of the legendary stories about the Pistols are true – but they only happened because McLaren knew exactly what buttons to press to provoke people, and then the stories just wrote themselves…
RIP Malcolm. May flights of punk angels wing you to your eternal notoriety.