Malcolm Mclaren and punk rock

The death of Malcolm Mclaren is of course shocking. Its hard to believe anyone so vibrant so alive could have passed away. It also puts punk rock into sharp focus again and pushes it further and deeper into the history books- a strange feeling for something that was so of its moment.

Mclaren- arguably the last of old school showbiz managers whilst also inventing the new breed, was one, if not the prime architect of the punk movement, he was also an uncomfortable bedfellow in the punk rock lineage. Many people just didn’t seem to know where to place him in the history of the form not realising that without him all the fun and games would never have happened.

True, he often overstated his case but in a weird way understated his own genius. To understand this genius you only have to look at the clothes and the ideas that were pouring out of the Let It Rock/Sex Shop/Seditionaries clothes shop in the pre punk seventies to realise that what Malcolm and his then partner in crime Vivienne Westwood did was create provocative works of art more than clothes- provocative works of art that challenged everything from the way you thought to the way you walked. They were pushing the boundaries of taste to extremes. Wearing their stuff was asking for it and asking for it in the mid seventies was heavy.

Their clothes were a mixture of fetish wear, firebrand rock n roll originals, situationist pranking, quirky madness and pervy danger as well as a dash of sick and downright nasty- they also looked brilliant and attracted a small coterie of freaks who would coalesce as the original core of the punk movement.     The idea that clothes could be both sexy and unsettling was genius and when the Sex Pistols were added as a  soundtrack it changed people’s lives and eventually the whole of the UK. In 2010 punk is everywhere- what was once weird is now a mundane T shirt, what was once freakish is another celebrity headline, what was once underground is now, for better or worse, mainstream.

The situationist skree and the brilliant pervy imagination of Mclaren are right at the heart of punk rock. Mclaren’s whole life was a work of art and the best art creates trouble. It’s not comfortable. It’s not about sagging into the sofa feeling mildly satisfied- it challenges you to wake up! wake up! before you really are already dead!

The Sex Pistols were the eventual vehicle for his dangerous ideas of sex, style and subversion- luckily they also happened to be one of the greatest rock n roll bands the UK has ever produced- with a one off frontman who was far smarter than he needed to be and whose vulnerability and intelligence added a huge dimension to the battle plan.

In 1976/77 the Sex Pistols changed everything- don’t let the history re-writers tell you otherwise. Mclaren made Britain sexy and exciting when before it had had been wall to wall denim. His genius was that he realised that music was about so much more than just the music.

The power of rock n roll, of course, will forever stop you in your tracks but what Mclaren brought to the table was all the OTHER STUFF.

Recently I wrote a blog on the Guardian about stand up drummers and the anonymous weirds were out in full force on the comments section moaning about journalists only liking the image and not the music and insisting on drummers being sat down- believing that sitting down behind a drum kit is a sign of authenticity. The nameless commenteers, too, have their own idea of image and HOW THINGS SHOULD BE. That’s what fucked up the mid seventies- the idea that ‘real’ meant grimacing, long guitar solos and blokes playing blues with too much technique and no regard for the form. Middle aged men talk about music in terms of how people play with no regard for the soul power and the passion and the ideas- they missed the point entirely. They don’t get the thrill of the other stuff, they don’t even get the thrill of the music- being to busy getting autistic over the musicianship. Boring.

Mclaren instinctively knew this was wrong. He felt it first and he returned rock n roll to its firebrand, dangerous, sexed up roots. When you first saw a picture of the Sex Pistols as the sexy young assassins in 1976 you were hooked- their hair, clothes, shoes, facial expressions, even the way they stood told you what they sounded like before you could even hear them- how perfect is that?

And when you heard them…wow!

Of course Mclaren was a useless conventional manager, most of the Pistols ‘career’was haphazard and on the hoof but no-one else could have pulled that trick off, no other manager would have surfed the chaos like Mclaren did, all the time creating ideas- in thrall to the love of ideas. He was a machine gun of thrilling ideas- ideas that were more thrilling than a great chorus- ideas that have their own timeless melody. Ideas that fired up a small section of a generation who have gone on to change stuff.

His brilliant mind and his dangerous thinking woke the UK up and changed lives. You just need to look at the clothes from Sex shop, look at Jamie Reid’s (art school situationist chum of Mclaren)  artwork, listen to the primal power of the Pistols and understand his catalytic power- his pulling together of maverick minds to create revolutionary moments. That’s a skill in itself- a magnetic charisma that makes things happen.

And it just didn’t stop here- I love the story of Adam Ant paying Malcolm a grand to manage him- he was given a check list of records to listen to that were as insanely esoteric as you would expect- after one rehearsal Adam was sacked from his own band who were turned into Bow Wow Wow by  Mclaren who used the band for another catherine wheel of madcap and unsettling ideas and Adam? God knows what became of him!

Mclaren also introduced a generation of kids to hip hop when he went to New York and soaked up the street culture there for 1983’s ‘Duck Rock’, he nearly ran for mayor of London, turned himself into an entertainer  with his own hit records and was a brilliant raconteur with a fistful of deadly stories. Of course he could be rude, unpleasant and abrasive- thank fuck for that- the nice people are boring.

Mclaren made Britain sexy, he woke us up from our mid seventies slumbers, he brought situationism to the high street, created a pool of ideas that turned into one of the greatest youth movements of all time.

Vive le Rock.

The revolution is not over yet.

25 Responses to Malcolm Mclaren and punk rock

  1. Zoe says:

    🙂 perfect

  2. Pauly T says:

    “My name is Malcolm McLaren, I have brought you many things in my time… teddy boy revivalism, zoot suits, fine tailoring, pointy shoes… sex clothes, bondage whips, chains, the whole bloody lot… but the most successful of all was an invention of mine they called ‘The Punk Rock’…”
    This quote from the begining of “The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle” I think sums him up beautifully. The original spin doctor, there’s nothing untrue there, he just made the truth bright & shiney! Bless you Malcolm, you will be missed.

  3. CarlB says:

    John, that was one of the better pieces about him that I have read, and you hit the nail on the head when you said about placing him in history, how and where ? as without him, like you say, all the great silliness that followed would not have happened. The Pistols needed that high profile figure even tho’ he could not really manage in the true sense of the word.

    On a seperate but related issue, just re read your book again for the 4th time ! and as someone who grew up in Blackpool in the late 70’s/early 80’s it was good to read about punk as it was in the outback !!

    • johnrobb77 says:

      hell carl…i must know you!

      • CarlB says:

        Yep, our paths did cross a few times in the early 80’s. First time that I saw you was at Stanley Park playing a gig with the Fits, must have been around 1981 and I got you and Tilly and Sid to sign the cover of my “flexible membrane”, which is still in a pile of records at home !. I was a few years younger and the first recoreds that I bought were “5 minutes” by The Stranglers and “Into The Valley” by the Skids, the intro of which still thumps into me even now

      • johnrobb77 says:


        aaaah stanley park!

        two great records to start with!

  4. Murf61 says:

    Great article about a man who was never far from controversy. He will be sadly missed. Maybe now his talent will be praised instead of written off as has so often happened in the past.
    Now off to listen to Fans again… punk opera anyone?

  5. Nice write up John, not only do you collate most of Mclaren’s activities so well, but also mention how we are as a society today.

    I briefly met you in 2002 at Nil’s wake in Soho London, can’t believe that its 8 years ago.


  6. […] read full article by John Robb – click here (excellent blog by the way you should subscribe to… […]

  7. newyorkjohnny says:

    The greatest mischief-maker of our times.

  8. anchorsholme says:

    “The power of rock n roll, of course, will forever stop you in your tracks but what Mclaren brought to the table was all the OTHER STUFF.” a fitting epitaph!

  9. Snufkin says:

    shocked n stunned – am beginning to feel old when another icon fades away.
    Keep up the commentary John – the spirit of rock n roll is still out there

  10. John, you hit the nail on the head about ‘the thrill of the other stuff’. You also hit the nail on the head when you say punk was ‘so of its moment’. So how does that square with punk being everywhere in 2010? I don’t think that means we won. I think it means we lost. Did anything actually really change?

    • johnrobb77 says:

      its everywhere yet nowhere!
      its pervades our culture and yet the Tories are about to get in…
      the real spirit of punk is there to be tapped into any time we need it though

  11. Four Eyes says:

    Amen Brother Robb. Beautifully stated.

  12. Lisa says:

    Unfortunately I will always remember him as the guy who turned up to a punk show at the Kings Arms in Auckland NZ stood outside refusing to go in because he “hated punk”

  13. John A Robb says:

    To me he so integral to Punk that I thought of him as a member of the Sex Pistols. Punk now has become a fashion statement but back then it was about thinking different and a lot of the came from McLaren.

  14. Mich says:

    I very sad to when I heard Malcolm had died such an inspiration. So many Punk icons have gone now and reminds me how old I am getting. Still we have many ambassadors still live and kicking – Jet Black is 72 I believe.

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