Malcolm McLaren, RIP

     |    Friday, der 9. April 2010

Malcolm McLaren died of cancer on April 8, 2010. He was 64 years old.

McLaren (photo right, with the Sex Pistols) was perhaps most famous for masterminding the pioneering punk rock band Sex Pistols which burst on the scene in 1975 and shook up the pop world with a series of raw, authority-goading singles (plus an album and film). The Pistols imploded in 1978, exhausted by the scandals they created. Lead singer Johnny Rotten would later dispute the significance of McLaren’s contribution.

(BERLIN NOW features the music of McLaren’s most famous project: the Sex Pistols’ “Holidays in the Sun” accompanying images of the Berlin Wall.)

McLaren started out as an art school anarchist and well-situated Situationist. He missed the Paris 1968 demonstrations but succeeded in occupying his art school in Croyden, along with fellow student, future graphic designer Jamie Reid (creator of the infamous “safety pin in Queen Elizabeth II’s nose” cover for the Pistols’ both banned and chart topping “God Save the Queen” single).

After art school, McLaren forged a creative (and romantic) partnership with fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. Together, the two operated a series of boutiques featuring Westwood’s couture, which at various times promoted risqué S/M-style gear, mid-wived a revival of 1950s Teddy Boy fashion, distilled revolutionary political ideas into t-shirt slogans and pioneered the ripped trouser/bondage-inspired attire that would be embraced by British punks.

McLaren’s first brush with the music biz came when he attempted to revive the career of Lower Eastside protopunks the New York Dolls in 1973 (a trial run for managing the Pistols?) by dressing the cross-dressing band in communist chic and red leather. Wasn’t as scandalous as McLaren had hoped.

Post Pistols, McLaren managed a fledgling incarnation of future teen stars Adam and the Ants and was Svengali to Bow Wow Wow. Bow Wow Wow featured three renegade “Ants” and underage Burmese-born singer Annabella Lwin. Their sound was an engaging mixture of bubblegum pop, twangy guitar and African-style drumming. McLaren outfitted the band with an image that advocated music piracy and flirted with child pornography. After Bow Wow Wow and McLaren parted ways, the group recorded some of their best received music  before disbanding in 1983.

Now without other people to manipulate, he turned to the manipulation of sounds. And entered what arguably was his most creative phase. A job as music advisor for porn flicks led to McLaren’s intense interest in various “ethnic” music styles. That inspired the 1983 album “Duck Rock”, which saw McLaren (with the help of producer Trevor Horn) sampling (to the point of almost plundering) South African mbaqanga, Cuban merengue, American minstrel tunes, schoolyard rhymes and old school hiphop.  He also lent his (largely spoken) vocals to the album. (His “singing” debut was in the Sex Pistols film “Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle”.) The album proved highly influential, popularising hiphop and paving the way for the commercial breakthrough of ‘world music’ later in the 1980s.

McLaren later gave opera arias (”Fans”, 1984), waltzes (”Waltz Darling”, 1989) and French chansons and haute couture (”Paris”, 1994) his characteristic deconstructive mashup treatment – fusing original recordings to contemporary beats and his deadpan recited vocals. His exploration of the vogueing subculture predated Madonna’s more famous homage “Vogue”.

As McLaren’s musical career faded, he turned to other pursuits. In 1999, he wrote a manifesto about his vision of London’s future and was widely expected to run for mayor, although he chose not to at the last minute. While McLaren continued to represent the legacy of punk as that vital cultural moment became increasingly domesticated, he also found time to champion new developments like 8bit computer music or appear on Big Brother. And he co-produced Richard Linklater’s (narrative) adaptation of Eric Schlosser’s non-fiction book “Fastfood Nation”.

McLaren’s death came as a surprise, as his ailment was little publicised. He is “survived” by Westwood, their son, fashion designer Joseph Ferdinand Corré and millions of pop cult aficionados fascinated, appalled, but never bored by his envelope-pushing exploits.