Page last updated at 12:01 GMT, Friday, 9 April 2010 13:01 UK

Malcolm McLaren: The man and the music

By Mark Savage
BBC News entertainment reporter

Malcolm McLaren
McLaren had several hits under his own name in the 1980s

Malcolm McLaren was often branded a genius - but those who knew him also called him charlatan, hustler, plagiarist, pirate and, in the case of Sex Pistol frontman John Lydon, "the most evil person on earth".

His impact on music, fashion, culture and the press was undeniable, however. Columnist Julie Burchill once wrote, "we are all children of Thatcher and McLaren".

He preferred to describe himself as an artist who used the media as his canvas, but McLaren's most notable successes came in the pop charts.

BBC News takes a look at five of his most important records - and what they reveal about the man behind the music.


Punk had its roots in the US garage rock of the 1960s.

Bands like The Stooges and MC5 pioneered the seething malice and slashing guitars that were to define the UK's "Summer of Hate" in 1976.

McLaren had actually managed one of those groups - The New York Dolls - in the early 1970s, trying to shock audiences by dressing them in Maoist costumes and making them play in front of a hammer and sickle flag.

But it was with the Sex Pistols that he honed the punk image and, most importantly, made it marketable.

He dressed the group in the kinky clothes he sold with Vivienne Westwood in their shop, Sex, on London's King's Road. The band's new name (they had been called The Strand) was a crafty piece of cross-marketing.

The music was a mere afterthought. McLaren didn't even expect the Sex Pistols to be any good, he told The Times last year.

"I never thought that could be remotely possible. It never occurred to me. What occurred to me was that it didn't matter if they were bad."


At art school in the 1960s, McLaren had written a manifesto: "Be childish. Be irresponsible. Be disrespectful. Be everything this society hates."

The svengali encouraged his punk proteges to personify that proclamation - and God Save The Queen was the pinnacle of their achievement.

Released with a characteristic sense of mischief on the week of the Queen's Silver Jubilee, it proclaimed: "God save the Queen / She ain't no human being / And there's no future / In England's dreaming".

Sex Pistols
The Sex Pistols only played a handful of gigs before signing a 50,000 record deal

The BBC banned the track and, if that wasn't publicity enough, McLaren arranged for the group to play the song outside Parliament (the "fascist regime" of the lyrics).

Their subsequent arrest only reinforced people's perceptions of the Pistols - both positive and negative - and the song ended up at number two.

It was beaten to the top by Rod Stewart's I Don't Want To Talk About It, although conspiracy theorists still maintain the chart was manipulated to avoid embarrassment to the Queen.

Six months later, the Sex Pistols fell apart - allegedly because of McLaren's plan to fly them to Brazil to hook up with Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs, one publicity stunt too many for Johnny Rotten.

The manager accused his protege of betraying the band's credo - saying he had behaved "like a constructive sissy rather than a destructive lunatic".

The chaotic dissolution of the band had, however, left McLaren with the spoils of two record deals, a sum of around £100,000.

His other manifesto, he later admitted, had been "cash from chaos".


After the Sex Pistols, McLaren's eye for fashion fell upon the New Romantic movement.

He helped to style both Boy George and Adam Ant, and opened a flamboyant, pirate-themed clothes shop called World's End.

McLaren also claimed to have stumbled upon Ant's signature drum sound while working on a porn soundtrack.

The eureka moment, he told The Washington Post in 1989, came when he played the music of a Burundi tribe at the wrong speed.

"I thought, that beat's incredible. It was so powerful. I kept listening to it over and over again. And when I came back to England and took this job, working with Adam, that was the beat."

Bow Wow Wow album cover
Bow Wow Wow's controversial artwork had to be replaced

But McLaren once again proved to be a rather incompetent manager. Soon after he took charge Ant's career, three of the band left to form Bow Wow Wow.

McLaren found them a vocalist - Lolita-esque Burmese-born Annabella Lwin, whom he had discovered in a laundrette.

The band retained the Adam Ant sound, throwing in Balinese chants, Zulu drums and Duane Eddie guitars - years before the explosion of interest in "world music".

Controversy was guaranteed when Lwin, then 14 years old, posed naked for the cover of the band's debut album - See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah. City All Over! Go Ape Crazy - in a photo recreating Manet's Le Dejeuner sur l'Herbe.


McLaren was uncharacteristically modest about his abilities as a musician.

"I'm more of a director, an artist by contractual obligation," he once told the Washington Post.

"I'd like to be able to play something, but then again, I'm sure there are other people that can play it better than me."

McLaren's genius, in all walks of life, was trendspotting. He always had an ear to the ground, listening for the next big thing.

He claimed to have discovered hip-hop while promoting Bow Wow Wow in New York - although the image of the curly-haired ginger eccentric dressed in pirate gear at a sweaty Bronx party is hard to imagine.

Afrika Bambaataa
Hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa took McLaren to the Bronx

"It was like black punk rock," he said. "That was the inspiration behind my song Buffalo Gals which was the first commercial rap / scratch / hip hop record."

He was self-promoting, of course - Grandmaster Flash, The Sugarhill Gang and Blondie had already scored hip-hop hits - but McLaren's Duck Rock album (1983) was hugely influential in bringing the genre to a wider audience.

Buffalo Gals and its follow-up, the Caribbean-flavoured skipping anthem Double Dutch, were hits on both sides of the Atlantic, and marked McLaren's first appearance as a vocalist - much to producer Trevor Horn's dismay.

"He said, 'My God, you can't sing or even hold a note!,'" McLaren told The Times.

"'So what?' I replied. 'The record company's given us the dosh, so let's just do it anyway.'

"Afterwards he told me, 'I've learned one thing from you and it's that, with enough neck, you can get away with murder.'"


By the end of the 1980s, McLaren's commercial sensibilities were beginning to fade.

His Waltz Darling album, which incorporated funk, disco, orchestral music and spoken verse, only made it to number 30 in the charts - but one element showed the svengali could still spot a burgeoning dancefloor trend.

Album track Deep In Vogue was about a dance craze sweeping New York's gay clubs in which participants would strike poses as if they were in a fashion shoot.

But it took Madonna to popularise the craze - with her hit single, Vogue, coming a year later. McLaren had finally gone head-to-head with an artist who had a better grasp of publicity than he did.

Madonna performing Vogue at the MTV Awards
Madonna performing Vogue at the MTV Awards

Typically, McLaren claimed the pop megastar had stolen his idea.

"I found myself on the same bill as Madonna at some Greenpeace concert and I remember her watching my dancers voguing from the side of the stage," he said.

"A few weeks later she had stolen all my dancers, brought out her own single and carried it over into the mainstream. The cheek of her!"

The impresario's future career was filled with glorious musical experiments and excursions into film - but nothing ever quite equalled his glory days with the Sex Pistols.

"It is not a question of peaking. It is just very hard to top it," he told the Arts and Book review in one of his final interviews last November.

"Everything begins to look very small in comparison - unless you come to terms with the idea that small is beautiful you could be traumatised by that."

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