Malcolm McLaren

cash from chaos

Malcolm McLaren (1946 – 2010) was an English performer, impresario, self-publicist and manager of the Sex Pistols and the New York Dolls. As a solo artist, McLaren had an innovative career that helped introduce hip hop to the United Kingdom.

About his contribution to music, McLaren has said about himself: ‘I have been called many things: a charlatan, a con man, or, most flatteringly, the culprit responsible for turning British popular culture into nothing more than a cheap marketing gimmick. This is my chance to prove that these accusations are true.’

McLaren’s stepfather and mother owned a rag factory in London’s East End. They lived well but McLaren and his stepfather never got along. He left home in his teens. He went on to attend a number of art colleges through the 1960s, being expelled from several before leaving education entirely in 1971. It was during this time that he began to design clothing, a talent he would later use when he became a boutique owner.

He had been attracted to the Situationist movement, particularly King Mob (a radical group), which promoted absurdist and provocative actions as a way of enacting social change. In 1968 McLaren had tried unsuccessfully to travel to Paris to take part in the demonstrations there. Instead, with Jamie Reid, he took part in a student occupation of Croydon Art School. McLaren would later adopt the movement’s ideas into his promotion for the various pop and rock groups with whom he was soon to involve himself.

In 1971, McLaren and his girlfriend, the designer Vivienne Westwood, opened a London clothing shop called Let It Rock, on Kings Road. The shop sold Teddy Boy clothes and McLaren and Westwood also designed clothing for theatrical and cinematic productions such as ‘That’ll Be The Day’ and ‘Mahler.’ Let It Rock proved a success but McLaren grew disillusioned with the style of shop owing to problems with the Teddy Boys who were the shop’s main customers. The British Teddy Boy (also known as Ted) subculture is typified by young men wearing clothes that were partly inspired by the styles worn by dandies in the Edwardian (Ed) period, styles which Savile Row tailors had attempted to re-introduce in Britain after World War II. The subculture started in London in the 1950s, and rapidly spread across the UK, soon becoming strongly associated with American rock and roll.

McLaren travelled to New York City for a boutique fair in 1972, having already met the group the New York Dolls. That year he renamed the outlet at 430 Kings Road Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die and supplied the group with stage wear. In 1975, McLaren designed red patent leather costumes for the New York Dolls and used a Soviet-style hammer and sickle motif for their stage show, as a provocative means of promoting them. This ploy was not successful and the Dolls soon broke up. In 1975, McLaren returned to Britain, by which time he had renamed the shop SEX, selling punk and S&M inspired clothing. In 1976, SEX was renamed Seditionaries. In 1980 it was reopened under the name World’s End.

By 1976, McLaren had started to manage The Strand, the band that later became the Sex Pistols. He soon convinced them to kick guitarist and songwriter Wally Nightingale out of the band and also introduced them to bassist Glen Matlock (who worked in SEX). His assistant, Bernie Rhodes (soon to be manager of The Clash), spotted John Lydon who was then sporting green hair and torn clothes with the words ‘I hate’ scribbled on his Pink Floyd shirt. His appearance and attitude impressed McLaren and Lydon, now dubbed ‘Johnny Rotten,’ was brought in to audition as a new frontman. Rotten joined and the band were renamed The Sex Pistols (McLaren stated that he wanted them to sound like ‘sexy young assassins’).

McLaren spoke about the state of the music industry in 1976: ‘Rock is fundamentally a young people’s music, right ? And a lot of kids feel cheated. They feel that the music’s been taken away from them by that whole over-25 audience.’

In 1977, the band released ‘God Save the Queen’ during the week of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. McLaren organized a boat trip down the Thames where the Sex Pistols would perform their music outside the Houses of Parliament. The boat was raided by the police and McLaren was arrested, thus achieving his goal to obtain publicity.

The band released their album ‘Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols’ that year and played their last UK gig before embarking upon a US tour in 1978. During his time managing the band McLaren was accused by band members (most notably by John Lydon) of mismanaging them and refusing to pay them when they asked him for money. McLaren kept the Sex Pistols’ contract rights until Lydon took him to court in the 1980s. Lydon won and gained complete control from McLaren in 1987. McLaren and Lydon refused to speak to each other after the band split.

McLaren was approached by Adam Ant to manage Adam and the Ants, following their debut album release in late 1979. Shortly thereafter three members of the band left to form Bow Wow Wow, under McLaren’s management. McLaren continued to manage Ant as he found new band members for Adam and the Ants and worked on a new sound. McLaren was later to manage Jimmy The Hoover, formed in 1982, who gained a support slot on a Bow Wow Wow tour.

Bow Wow Wow was originally created to promote clothing designed by Vivienne Westwood, and McLaren continued to exploit the band members, pressuring the underage lead singer to pose nude for the underage sex magazine he had created entitled ‘Chicken,’ a reference to the magazine’s underage content.

In 1983, McLaren released ‘Duck Rock,’ an album that, in collaboration with producer and co-writer Trevor Horn and The World’s Famous Supreme Team (a duo of Hip-Hop radio disc jockeys from New York City: Divine, The Mastermind and Just Allah, The Superstar), mixed up influences from Africa and the Americas, including hip-hop. The album proved to be highly influential in bringing hip-hop to a wider audience in the UK.

He then turned to electronic music and opera in the 1984 single ‘Madame Butterfly,’ based on the Puccini opera. The track is arranged with drum machines, atmospheric synthesisers and spoken verses. The producer of the single, Stephen Hague, became a much sought after producer in the techno pop genre following his work with McLaren on the following full length LP, ‘Fans.’

McLaren’s 1989 album ‘Waltz Darling,’ was a funk/disco/vogueing inspired album. It incorporated elements of his former albums, i.e. spoken verses, string arrangements and eclectic mix of genres but featured such prominent musicians as Bootsy Collins and Jeff Beck with a glitzy, Louisiana-style production aimed at the US market. The single ‘Deep in Vogue’ brought voguing (a dance that evolved out of the Harlem ballroom scene in the 1960s) to the attention of the world long before Madonna did.

In 1998, McLaren released ‘Buffalo Gals Back 2 Skool,’ an album featuring hip hop artists like Rakim, KRS-One, De La Soul and producer Henri Scars Struck revisiting tracks from the original ‘Duck Rock’ album.

His song ‘About Her,’ based on ‘She’s Not There’ by The Zombies, rose to prominence when used by director Quentin Tarantino in ‘Kill Bill Vol. 2.’ He was accused of plagiarism for this song in 2005 for allegedly copying the work of a French musician, but was cleared of the charges. The song uses Bessie Smith’s ‘St. Louis Blues’ by repeatedly playing the verse, ‘My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea.’

McLaren’s solo work, particularly from the ‘Duck Rock’ period, has also been sampled by other artists. In 1997, Mariah Carey’s ‘Honey’ samples ‘Hey DJ’ In 2002, Eminem released ‘Without Me,’ which sampled, ‘Buffalo Gals.’

During the 1980s, McLaren attempted to make a film called ‘Fashion Beast,’ from a script by comic-book writer Alan Moore. McLaren took the project to New York City in 1986, and was for a time funded through NYC-based nightlife impresario and producer Robert Boykin. Avenue Pictures recommended screenwriter Steve Means to rewrite the Alan Moore script. This was contracted and several drafts written, but the process slowed down with the physical deterioration of producer Boykin, who subsequently died in 1988. The film was never made.

McLaren approached the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 1985, early in their career, expressing interest in managing them, and reinventing the group. After hearing a short live set, McLaren was ‘clearly unimpressed’ according to Chili Peppers frontman Anthony Kiedis. He then proposed to reinvent the group by having them dress in neon surfer-punk clothing, and have them play really stripped-down, basic 1950s rock n’ roll, with all of the emphasis on Kiedis. Although Kiedis was flattered to be considered, he and the band rejected the offer. Kiedis recalled the event, saying ‘It was like the Wizard of Oz had spoken, and what he had said was too ludicrous to take seriously,’ as his proposition was too different from the band’s musical style.

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