Friday, April 9, 2010

Malcolm McLaren: An Appreciation

by James Sullivan

Malcolm McLaren concocted the Sex Pistols, yes. He also steered the New York Dolls toward their premature demise, brought hip-hop to London and nicked the drag-queen pose called voguing long before Madonna. The wily impresario, who died today at age 64 after a long bout with cancer, undoubtedly had his fingers in a lot of pies.

If pop in the 21st century is Andy Warhol's version of artistry -- reproductions, distillations, provocation -- McLaren saw it coming a long time ago. "Malcolm McLaren Invented Everything," blared the headline to a 2007 interview feature in Vice magazine. He surely appreciated the hyperbole.

If McLaren saw the
Gaga world coming, it was because he worked in visual terms at least as much as musical. The co-proprietor with then-girlfriend Vivienne Westwood of an early-1970s London shop located on the Kings Road called Let It Rock, he kicked against the supposed ideals of the hippies -- "hippos," he called them -- by reintroducing the Edwardian fashions of the teddy boys of the 1950s, when rock 'n' roll in Britain was an anarchic reaction to the country's squalor and repression.

They soon renamed the shop Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die, which in turn became the bondage-gear boutique Sex and, finally, Seditionaries, where McLaren delighted in the fact that the place was so derelict there were rats running around beneath the cash register. To Westwood's distress, McLaren had a habit of changing the store's theme just as its underground loyalists gave way to a wider, more mainstream clientele. "Whenever it started making money, I closed it down," he recalled.

Managing the New York Dolls, McLaren had an idea that the glammy prepunk band would provide a forum for debating "the politics of boredom," a subject the Sex Pistols, the
Clash (managed by McLaren associate Bernie Rhodes) and countless other punks would soon adopt as their own. He claimed he brought a new, confrontational look back to London from New York, the ripped T-shirts of a New York scenester named Richard Hell, who would soon co-found the bands Television and the Voidoids.

The Sex Pistols, who famously auditioned Johnny Rotten in the Sex shop, where he sang along to
Alice Cooper's 'I'm Eighteen' on the jukebox, brought McLaren his own taste of fame when he was arrested after organizing the group's infamous boat ride down the River Thames during the Queen's Silver Jubilee. In the fictionalized documentary 'The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle,' released in 1980, two years after the Sex Pistols' implosion, McLaren gleefully played himself as the "Embezzler," claiming a Svengali role which Rotten, who would successfully sue his former manager, has loudly disputed over the years.

British music journalist Jon Savage, who wrote 'England's Dreaming,' the definitive book on the Sex Pistols and '70s British punk scene, said in learning about McLaren's death, "Without Malcolm McLaren there would not have been any British punk. He's one of the rare individuals who had a huge impact on the cultural and social life of this nation."

"Frustration is one of the great things in art," McLaren once wrote in a college notebook. "Satisfaction is nothing." Though his greatest achievement, the agitprop Pistols project, flamed out like the celluloid in '
Inglourious Basterds,' McLaren was just lighting his match. Whatever his indescribable forte was, it was not sitting still.

Watch the "Deep In Video" Music Video

In the early '80s, he created Bow Wow Wow -- installing 13-year-old Annabella Lwin as lead singer -- as a New Wave tribal-drum jump-rope crew, helped introduce hip-hop to London with his own 'Duck Rock' album (with artwork by Keith Haring), and dreamed up visual styles ranging from a pirate theme popularized by Adam and the Ants to the multilayered, bag-lady "Buffalo Gals" look named after his bubblegum hip-hop hit. He proposed himself as manager of the young
Red Hot Chili Peppers, then backed out after seeing the band perform. He collaborated with Afrika Bambaataa, Bootsy Collins, Jeff Beck and Fran├žoise Hardy.

In later years, he found other receptacles for his creative juices, threatening to run for mayor of London and co-producing the film version of 'Fast Food Nation.' And his own music, so often charmingly inept and pretentious, hung around:
Eminem and the Coup were two of many rap acts who sampled his songs, and Quentin Tarantino, the music connoisseur, featured McLaren's 'About Her,' a woozy rip-off of the Zombies' 'She's Not There,' on the 'Kill Bill Vol. 2' soundtrack.

As of today, McLaren's otherwise empty homepage still says, "Malcolm will return shortly." For all we know, this master of pop orchestration may be just plotting his next move.

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