Malcolm Mclaren and punk rock

April 9, 2010

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.

Bow Wow Wow

October 23, 2009

Bow Wow Wow were the amazing creation of a reeling post Pistols Malcolm Maclaren at his most Machiavellian and manipulative. But if it took these kind of shenanigans to create pop music this good then maybe it was worth the effort.

Asked in by Adam Ant to try and take the Ants from cult level to the mainstream Maclaren stole Adam’s band and recruited Annabella Lwin- a 14 year old Burmese girl from a laundrette to be the singer. The bruised Adam got his revenge though, by phoning up the genius Marco and making his own version of the tribal pop that Maclaren had already gifted him in a listening list that he gave the charismatic frontman. The Ants went on to record ‘Kings Of the Wild frontier’ one of THE great pop albums and cavorted their way to superstardom.

Meanwhile Maclaren moulded Bow Wow Wow from Adam’s band- utilising the stunning drumming skills of Dave Barbarossa- he created the Burundi backbeat by speeding up the Burundi drumming that they were nicking of Malcolm’s dusty old vinyl collection, add to this Leigh Gorman’s mentally good bass and Mathew Ashman’s stunning guitar playing and you have a pop music that is adrenalised, thrilling and sexy, and the sex angle was one that Maclaren was working to the hilt- riding roughshod over public morality he got his young singer to yelp and coo the sexbeat lyrics that would cause major problems today as well as causing controversy the following year by posing Annabella nude for the cover of the band’s debut album See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah. City All Over! Go Ape Crazy.

The band’s first release was the cassette single ‘c30 c60 c90 go’ that celebrated the rise of home taping and was aimed at pissing off the music industry- if only they had understood this then they could have utilised the MP3 revolution  couple of decades later…

Maclaren was always looking for trouble and sometimes the trouble clouded the issue and muddied the waters, the debate raged about the young singer’s overt sexuality and like the Pistols made people overlook just how great the music was. A combination of the tribal drums, bossa nova, latino rhythms, punk rock attitude and rock n roll Bow Wow Wow could turn their hand to anything.

Swerving the morality Bow Wow Wow were an amazing band, their colourful adrenalised pop burst were stunningly original and dressed in Vivienne Westwood’s first post punk collection of glam pirate threads they had the look, complete with the Mohawks that look great decades later. Ashman had the swagger and rock star arrogance and had that beautiful white Gretsch Falcon guitar which I once played on years later- it was somehow hanging up on the wall of Southern Studios- a little bruised and battered but looking all the better for it- the guitar is the reason that John Frusciante in the Chili peppers uses one- he’s a major fan of Ashman.

I saw Bow Wow Wow at one of their first ever gigs at Keele University, it was a crazy all night student do, people in the crowd were walking round with live animals and I was holding a furry tarantula spider as the band came on stage. Ashman had already been punched down some stairs by a student minder which added to the edginess of the show. The band were amazing- tight as fuck and with a clear vision, they also had Boy George as a dancer- he was called Lieutenant Lush at the time and was a skinny rake. They had the arrogance and could back it up with their music, it was a perfect pop moment.

I guess Malcolm was hoping for a Pistols style blitz and he was still toying with many of the ideas that were around the Pistols but the band broke free from his grip and went on to have bigger hits in their career and were pretty big in the USA with their biggest smash ‘I Want Candy’ which even slightly stripped down of the tribal flux that made their music so interesting was  a great piece of rock n roll- Ashman’s slashing guitar on this sounds ace on this.

Constant touring tore them apart and they fell apart leaving Annabella for a stumbling solo career and her droogs to play in Chiefs of Relief with Paul Cook.

Ashman sadly died in the mid nineties and if anything I dedicate this blog to him- a fucking great guitar player.

Bow Wow Wow have occasionally reformed and play the occasional tour- there is a rumour that they may be playing a major punk festival in 2010 and I’m curious to see them again.

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