Malcolm McLaren remembered

Originally published 13 April, 2010

I’d never really thought about Malcolm McLaren dieing; he always seemed so full of life, and himself, as to somehow transcend the messy business of death. So the news that he had passed away provoked both shock and sadness.

I still remember the first time I saw a picture of him. It was in an Observer magazine article on the Sex Pistols, probably late 1976 or early 1977. I was far too young to be a punk, but I recall thinking that this was a man with mischief on his mind. I was fascinated.

The nearest I ever came to meeting McLaren was when he appeared at In The City, the annual music business conference organized by the late Anthony Wilson. As presenter of Granada’s So It Goes music programme, Wilson had given the Sex Pistols their first TV appearance. McLaren was on top form at Manchester’s Midland Hotel. Hugely entertaining, he talked at great length about the music industry and the shenanigans he’d got up to over the years. He was obviously relishing the opportunity to tell his stories to a reverential audience; loving it so much that the fact that much of what he was saying was blatantly untrue seemed barely relevant.

So when he got to the bit about wiping the blood off the knife that Sid Vicious used to kill Nancy Spungen, I, like the rest of the audience I’m sure, just took it for granted that this was another bit of fanciful McLaren myth making, a great tale but about as factual as The Great Rock’n’roll Swindle.

The police didn’t seem to take it so lightly. After it was widely reported in the press, it was intimated that they’d like to talk to Mr McLaren. He sensibly retracted the statement.

More recently, I commissioned an interview with McLaren for the Scottish edition of Metro newspaper. He was coming to last year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe to do a show called History Is For Pissing On. The show was a collection of tall tales and long stories and, talking on the phone from New York, that was precisely what he gave the journalist who interviewed him. He talked for well over an hour, effectively testing out his show on her. It made great copy – but then when didn’t he? “I was born a punk, really,” he said. “The machinations, the Faginesque and Artful Dodger characters; I was searching for a 20th century icon of unhappiness. Sid Vicious was the apogee of that.”

McLaren wasn’t really in the music business, he was in the business of ideas. New York Dolls, Sex Pistols, Bow Wow Wow – to McLaren these weren’t musicians so much as his ideas made flesh, living art projects. But this was art as pop rather than the other way round – exciting, fun, stupid, anarchic, clever, chaotic. It wasn’t queen or country or government that was the enemy, it was boredom, stasis, lack of imagination. No wonder he and John Lydon clashed so violently – they were both too thinking, too clever, too strong minded to ever get on. McLaren needed his pop musicians to be more malleable. Sid Vicious was happy to be Malcolm’s conduit, Lydon was not.

It’s for the Sex Pistols and all that punk did to shift the cultural ground beneath our feet that Malcolm McLaren will be most remembered for. But he was more than a one-card trick. And rather than the sneering rock of God Save The Queen, the thing currently buzzing around my brain is the sound of McLaren excitably doing the Double Dutch in that sing-song, talky voice of his: “They might break and they might fall/ But the gals in New York city don’t/ They just start again, start again/ Hey, ebo, ebonettes…”

Malcolm McLaren, 22 January 1946 – 8 April 2010 


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