Rock'n'roll reinvents itself every generation. And to the leaders of the revolution comes musical immortality. Not least when the music is matched by harsh new attitudes, provoking and ultimately usurping the previous establishment.
Think Elvis Presley reinventing black music with hip-swaying tight-jeaned rock'n'roll; The Beatles rewriting rock'n'roll with long hair, boots and collarless suits; The Rolling Stones adding rhythm to the blues with even longer hair; the Sex Pistols annihilating prog rock with brash guitars, safety pins and an "I hate Pink Floyd" T-shirt. What did these musical revolutionaries have in common? Managers with attitude. Colonel Parker, Brian Epstein, Andrew Loog Oldham and Malcolm McLaren were visionaries who could see the next wave and who stayed on it long enough to make musical history.
Like all revolutionaries, they were admired and despised in equal measure. As a child, I remember my older Chuck Berry-loving cousins decrying The Beatles' watered-down rock'n'roll. As The Beatles and their followers turned from hate figures of the establishment into the new musical establishment, the stage was set for the evolution of a new species. The long tedious solos of prog rock gave way to punk rock. Instead of musical sophistication and years of practice, anyone could be in a band with the three-chord trick and lyrics of anarchy and hate. As the reaction to Malcolm McLaren's death has showed, some still haven't forgiven him for the Sex Pistols.
Not that he started there. As someone who bought the New York Dolls' first album because it was required listening for fans of David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, I doubt I was even aware they were managed by McLaren. He moulded their sound and style in a New York dry run for the Pistols.
For most people, though, punk could have come from outer space in 1977. It seemed to arrive from nowhere. But it was British. And it was loud. This was the year of the establishment, the Queen's Silver Jubilee with street parties and cucumber sandwiches. But the soundtrack was punk. It was the musical equivalent of a meteorite wiping out the dinosaurs. Never has a single debut album had such a massive impact. But unlike Elvis, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, the Sex Pistols came and went with no more than a handful of songs as their legacy.
They were one-album wonders. Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols is the one must-have album of punk. It shouted defiance and anarchy, guided by McLaren's brilliant eye for a stunt. He got the Pistols to sign their contract in front of Buckingham Palace and perform "Anarchy in the UK" on the Thames next to Parliament. They were Number One and looked set for musical immortality.
But the Sex Pistols were eviscerated by the force of their own impact. Their real impact was on a new generation of musicians who started out as punks, but who have become pillars of the musical establishment – Paul Weller, Elvis Costello and Joe Strummer. It is difficult to imagine any of their music without the Sex Pistols. And, therefore, without Malcolm McLaren.Reuse content