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Malcolm McLaren: Agent provocateur of British punk and svengali of the Sex Pistols

Pierre Perrone
Saturday 10 April 2010 00:00 BST

Thirty-five years on from the first rumblings of punk in the UK, the pivotal role the Sex Pistols and their svengali Malcolm McLaren played in shaking up British society cannot be underestimated.

McLaren instigated the group and became its agent provocateur extraordinaire and self-proclaimed arch-manipulator. Throughout 1976 and 1977, the Sex Pistols' not always carefully orchestrated antics attracted lurid headlines and bans from local authorities, while their incendiary singles "Anarchy In The UK" and "God Save The Queen", though barely heard on the radio, inspired a whole movement as hundreds of punk bands formed up and down the land.

Yet, for all his self-aggrandising, their scheming manager borrowed ideas left, right and centre and ultimately failed to control his charges or act in their best interests. The Pistols' first American tour proved so chaotic that the frontman Johnny Rotten – né Lydon – who had always been suspicious of McLaren's modus operandi, walked out in San Francisco in January 1978. The guitarist Steve Jones and the drummer Paul Cook soldiered on and recorded "No One Is Innocent (A Punk Prayer By Ronald Biggs)" in Brazil with Biggs, a member of the Great Train Robbery gang on the run. In a little over two years, a subversive group supposedly fuelled by McLaren's advocacy of Situationism had become little more than cartoon characters in a bad taste punk panto. That turned to tragedy when Sid Vicious, who had replaced the band's bassist and songwriter Glen Matlock in February 1977, died two years later.

Started by soft-porn film-maker Russ Meyer and completed by Julien Temple, The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle mock-documentary attempted to recast McLaren – "The Embezzler" – as a Dickensian, Fagin-like character, who had recruited ruffians like Cook and Jones – true enough! – and had always been pulling the strings. However, the fact that the impresario tried to replace Rotten with Eddie Tudor-Pole, later of Tenpole Tudor, after encouraging Vicious to record a shock-worthy version of Frank Sinatra's "My Way" and cover Eddie Cochran's "Something Else" and "C'mon Everybody" for the Swindle soundtrack that preceded the film, was symptomatic of his failings. Indeed, the Pistols' debacle ended in a case over non-payment of royalties and the disappearance of around £880,000 in the accounts of Glitterbest, McLaren's management company. He settled out of court in 1986.

Born in London in 1946, he had an eccentric childhood and adolescence. His Scottish father left when he was two and, when his mother remarried he didn't get on with his stepfather, the businessman Martin Levi, and was mostly raised by his unconventional maternal grandmother, who instilled a sense of mischief-making that would last his whole life. "To be bad is good, to be good is simply boring," was one of her favourite sayings.

His elder brother Stuart introduced him to early rock'n'roll, sparking off lasting interests in the tragic figures of Cochran, Buddy Holly and Johnny Kidd, and the Teddy Boy fashion he briefly revived in the mid-'70s. To distance himself from his family further, he took to calling himself Malcolm Edwards during the eight years he spent at various art schools, including Harrow Art College, where he met Vivienne Westwood, with whom he had a long and volatile relationship. Their son Joseph was born in 1969 and went on to launch the Agent Provocateur shops and brand of lingerie.

A spell at Croydon College of Art led to a friendship with the artist Jamie Reid, who went on to design many of the Pistols' singles and album covers, and shared his fascination for Situationism, the movement which combined Marx and Dada and attacked the consumer society.

In 1970, Westwood and McLaren opened a boutique called Let It Rock at 430 King's Road, London. Its original clientèle of Teddy Boys was soon supplemented by musicians, including members of the New York Dolls who dropped in during their second visit to Britain in 1973, after it was renamed Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die. He befriended them and followed them to the States after their second album, Too Much Too Soon, the following year.

"It was my raison d'être to be in New York. I ran away from London. I was just bored. The New York Dolls were an adventure I wanted to have," he told Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, the authors of Please Kill Me – The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. "I tried to throw politics into the mill. There was the whole notion of the politics of boredom, and this whole idea of dressing the Dolls up in red vinyl and throwing them Mao's Red Book. I just loved fucking with that kind of pop-trash culture of Warhol, which was so goddam Catholic, and so boring, and so pretentiously American, where everything had to be a product, everything had to be disposable. I thought, Fuck it, I'm gonna try and make the Dolls totally the opposite. I'm not going to make them disposable. I'm going to give them a serious political point."

Unfortunately, the Better Red Than Dead tour went down badly in the US and the Dolls floundered on the alcoholism of bassist Arthur "Killer" Kane and the heroin addiction of guitarist Johnny Thunders and drummer Jerry Nolan. However, McLaren had already spotted Richard Hell, a New York poet and musician, who had been in the groups Neon Boys and Television and would go on to write the punk anthem "Blank Generation". "I just thought Hell was incredible," he recalled. "Here was a guy all deconstructed, torn down, looking like he'd just crawled out of a drain hole, covered in slime, looking like he hadn't slept or washed in years, and looking like he didn't really give a fuck about you! He was this wonderful, bored, drained, scarred, dirty guy with a torn and ripped T-shirt. I don't think there was a safety pin there. This look, this image of this guy, this spiky hair, everything about it. There was no question I'd take it back to London. I was going to imitate it and transform it into something more English."

Returning to the UK "like Marco Polo, or Walter Raleigh" as he put it, McLaren renamed the King's Road store SEX, and began selling sado-masochistic gear and designing his own range of T-shirts with subversive slogans. "On that list, there was a name: the Sex Pistols. It came about by the idea of a pistol, a pin-up, a young thing, a better-looking assasin – a sex pistol," he elaborated. "And to launch that idea in the form of a band of kids who could be deduced as being bad was perfect, especially when I discovered those kids had the same anger as I did. The anger was simply about money, that the culture had become corporate. My philosophy was: Fuck you, we don't care if we can't play and don't have very good instruments, we're still doing it."

McLaren toyed with the idea of bringing Hell or Sylvain Sylvain of the Dolls to the UK but soon realised he had the necessary raw ingredients at hand: Matlock, his Saturday shop assistant at SEX, and Cook and Jones, who were always loitering in order to steal things. All they needed was a frontman. Enter Lydon, who proceeded to sing along to an Alice Cooper single on the juke-box and was in.

"I was trying to do with the Sex Pistols what I had failed at with the New York Dolls," he said. "I was taking the nuances of Richard Hell, the faggy pop side of the Dolls, the politics of boredom, and mashing it all together to make a statement, maybe the final statement I would ever make. And piss off this rock and roll scene. I wasn't starting anything new, I was waiting my turn to make the statement I'd been trying to make since I was 14."

Within a year, the Sex Pistols went from supporting Screaming Lord Sutch to upstaging Eddie and the Hot Rods, and causing carnage and mayhem, including their infamous appearance on Bill Grundy's Today programme on Thames Television in December 1976, and fights at Dingwalls, the Nashville and the 100 Club. McLaren seemed oblivious to the downside of the monster he had created: "The violence was magnificent. It was something that gave all those kids a terrific identity, made them proud of their future. So someone got blinded? Well, there are far worse things happening in places with far worse causes. One person blinded, a couple of people badly hurt – the achievement outweighed it completely."

Signed and dropped by EMI and A&M, the Pistols found a home at Richard Branson's Virgin Records which re-promoted "God Save The Queen" to No 2 during the Silver Jubilee Week in June 1977, just behind the Rod Stewart double A-side "I Don't Walk To Talk About It"/"The First Cut Is The Deepest" (though the Pistols were thought to have sold more copies). They made the Top Ten again with "Pretty Vacant" and "Holidays In The Sun" and topped the album charts in November 1977 with Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols – the object of an obscenity court case.

McLaren briefly managed Adam Ant and Boy George and the one-hit wonders Jimmy The Hoover of "Tantalise (Wo Wo Ee Yeh Yeh)" fame. He had his second brush with fame as the mastermind behind Bow Wow Wow, consisting of former members of Adam and the Ants, unashamedly stolen away from their frontman to back the under-age vocalist Annabella Lwin. Like the Ants, Bow Wow Wow borrowed liberally from the Burundi Beat and caused controversy by advocating home-taping with "C30, C60, C90, Go!" and Your Cassette Pet. McLaren co-wrote several of their songs, including their 1982 Top Ten hit "Go Wild In The Country", and talked Lwin into posing naked for the cover of See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah. City All Over! Go Ape Crazy, their 1981 debut, an homage to Manet's Le Déjeuner Sur L'Herbe.

A great self-publicist and a musical magpie, McLaren eventually released singles and albums under his own name. The ebullient hits "Buffalo Gals" and "Double Dutch" and his groundbreaking 1983 album Duck Rock, made with producer Trevor Horn and arranger Anne Dudley, combined hip-hop and what was yet to be called World Music, but failed to credit many of the South African musicians who inspired much of it. The following year, McLaren was on firmer ground with the classically-inspired Fans album and its lead-off single "Madam Butterfly (Un Bel Di Vedremo)" based on the Puccini opera.

In 1991, he assembled a formidable cast, including Tom Jones, Sinead O'Connor, Kirsty McColl, the Happy Mondays and Leigh Bowery, and cast himself as The Narrator in The Ghosts Of Oxford Street, the "alternative" Christmas special he directed for Channel 4. McLaren made more albums, including Waltz Darling (1989), another multi-cultural collage, and Paris (1995), an ode to the city where he lived for many years.

He presented programmes for BBC Radio 2, including looks at Los Angeles and Paris, and a documentary about the British impresario Larry Parnes, an obvious inspiration.

Malcolm Robert Andrew McLaren, manager, songwriter, cultural commentator, artist, film-maker: born Stoke Newington, London 22 January 1946; partner to Vivienne Westwood (one son); died Switzerland 8 April 2010.

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