Andy Gill: Drab world of pop needs McLaren's brand of anarchy

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:32

It is hard, if not impossible, to think of another pop-manager-entrepreneur whose passing would leave as much of a void as Malcolm McLaren's. Most music management people are first and foremost hard-headed types with their eye always fixed upon the bottom line, and whose interest in their charges is in strict relation to their own percentage interest in the product.

McLaren, however, was never solely interested in money. Indeed, it's difficult to think of a single business in which he was involved which seemed like a good earner until he got involved. Try persuading your bank manager that bondage trousers and torn T-shirts can make money as haute couture, then imagine how much more difficult it must have been for McLaren setting up the SEX shop with his then-partner Vivienne Westwood in the mid-Seventies. By that time, he had already made his first foray into music management with The New York Dolls, the American glam-rock group whose already marginal appeal he compounded by outfitting them in red leather and having them play under a hammer-and-sickle logo.

This strategy, of piling provocation upon provocation in the hope of fostering outrage, finally secured McLaren his seminal triumph when he created The Sex Pistols, a deliberately incompetent group wearing deliberately ugly clothes and singing deliberately offensive songs. As their records attest, they didn't remain incompetent all that long, and while it's arguable whether they would have been quite as sensational without a frontman as charismatic and gifted as John Lydon, it was McLaren's canny ability to transform disaster into profit – "Cash From Chaos", as his motto put it – which swiftly built the band into the great folk devil of their era. Timed to coincide with the Queen's Silver Jubilee, their second single "God Save The Queen" sought to poison the festivities with its humiliating refrain of "No future!". To promote the record, McLaren organised a boat trip on the River Thames so the band could play outside the Houses Of Parliament; during the ensuing police raid, he made sure he was arrested.

Throughout the band's brief life, and subsequently, McLaren employed tactics learnt during his time at various art colleges in the Sixties, when he became fascinated by the provocative sloganeering and political art events of the Situationist movement. Like them, he constantly tried to challenge conformity and confound the expectations which might pin him down, both as artist and entrepreneur. Accordingly, no sooner was the band's career over than McLaren was trying to poison the punk party too, outlining in the film The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle how the whole Sex Pistols affair had been a brazen attempt to make money through outrage. This interpretation was challenged, most notably by Lydon, whose claims of mismanagement were vindicated when he won unpaid revenues and the rights to the band's back catalogue from McLaren in a 1987 court case.

By then, however, McLaren had moved on to other endeavours, courting further outrage as manager of the group Bow Wow Wow, firstly by encouraging home-taping (the precursor to illegal downloading) with the single "C30, C60, C90, Go", and subsequently by having the band's underage singer Annabella Lwin appear naked in an album-sleeve parody of Manet's Le Déjeuner Sur L'Herbe. When their star waned, he unexpectedly built a successful musical career of his own, developing a reputation as a prescient eclecticist through records such as "Buffalo Gals", which merged together hip-hop and square-dancing; "Madame Butterfly", which crossed opera with electronic music; and "Waltz Darling", which sought the common ground between funk, disco and waltz.

It is not entirely improbable that the time limitations on copyright may have influenced McLaren's decision to mine classical themes by long-dead composers. In all cases, his input was as a production/svengali/narrator working with studio engineers and guest singers and musicians. But by 1994, when he released the concept album Paris, his knack for spotting future trends seemed to have faltered, though he continued to derive income from the use of samples from his records by such as Eminem, Mariah Carey and most recently Amerie.

His appetite for projects remained unslaked, however. He was a producer of the film adaptation of Fast Food Nation, did work in "sound painting", exhibited artworks in New York and Germany, and made radio documentaries for the BBC about London and Los Angeles. But during his final decade, McLaren fell prey to the blight of reality television, damaging his reputation by injudicious appearances in programmes such as The Baron (a competition to choose a celebrity laird of a Scottish isle), Big Brother: Celebrity Hijack (in which he advised the house inmates to get naked and make art) and I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!, in which no sooner had he arrived in Australia than he backed out of the show.

It seemed a rather inglorious conclusion to an otherwise colourful career, and his passing throws into even starker relief the drab, corporate nature of a pop industry in dire need of entrepreneurs with a little of McLaren's intelligence, wit and non-conformist spirit.

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