Malcolm McLaren, the London-born impresario whose cheeky intelligence, P.T. Barnum-esque flair for self-promotion and Dadaist sense of the artist as a wily agent-provocateur helped make him a godfather to the punk-rock and alternative music scenes of the late 1970s and early ‘80s, including a raucous stint as manager of the iconic British punk band the Sex Pistols, has died. He was 64.
McLaren died Thursday in a Swiss hospital after a struggle with cancer.
In managing and advising numerous musicians, running clothing boutiques on Chelsea’s ultra-hip King’s Road and writing music for TV ads, McLaren displayed a gift for always seeming to stay a step or two ahead of wherever fickle transatlantic youth culture was headed next.
A connoisseur of carefully stage-managed controversy, he worked hard to keep public interest in whatever pop-culture kettle he was stirring -- rant-filled rock, “anti-fashion” fashion -- at a frothing boil.
Detractors regarded him as a fame-hungry carny barker, hyping effervescent musical fads and trendy gear, and copping whatever attitude momentarily best served his opportunistic ends.
Art critic Michael Boodro, writing in ARTnews, called McLaren “the underside of the dream of youth, a Dick Clark from hell” who had fed off the embittered anger of alienated and economically frustrated youth. For much of his early career, McLaren was dogged by accusations of being a sinister Svengali who profited, in part, by exploiting aspiring artists who in many cases weren’t yet out of their teens.
Admirers, on the other hand, saw McLaren as a brilliantly restless cultural entrepreneur and a keen spotter of raw talent, who helped those he worked with to discover hidden gifts within themselves. His 1980s experimental recordings that fused pop and rock with African and other non-Western influences have been cited as additional marks of his cultural prescience.
Annabella Lwin, who first met McLaren as a 13-year-old in the early 1980s when he recruited her to be lead singer of the New Wave pop band Bow Wow Wow, called him a “genius.”
“He had a strange, mystical way of recognizing something in somebody that they didn’t know that they really had,” Lwin said in a phone interview. “The best advice he gave me was just to be myself.”
Lwin also described McLaren as “a little boy in a man’s body,” who “was very much an intellectual,” with an appreciation of life’s finer pleasures, but who also “got bored very easily.”
McLaren was born in north London on Jan. 22, 1946, and was raised primarily by his grandmother. An art-college dropout, he was impressed by the fierce political energy unleashed by the Paris student uprisings of 1968. He also admired the Situationist International, a revolutionary political group whose provocative sloganeering influenced McLaren’s later forays in music and fashion.
McLaren’s ears were attuned to the discontented undercurrents, both in popular music and in British society, that gave rise to punk. During the summer of 1977, Queen Elizabeth II’s 25th-anniversary Jubilee year, McLaren procured a boat and had the Sex Pistols cruise the Thames River blasting out “God Save the Queen,” their caustic riposte to England’s national anthem of the same title. The stunt got McLaren arrested but helped fuel the band’s growing fame, or infamy.
With designer Vivienne Westwood, then his business and romantic partner, McLaren created a signature look for the Pistols, inspired by bondage wear and heavy on spikes and studded leather. That look was branded and re-sold to other would-be rock stars and off-the-rack anarchists at McLaren and Westwood’s London boutique.
McLaren is survived by his and Westwood’s son, Joseph Corré, a lingerie company co-founder, and his girlfriend, Young Kim.
Young Londoners flocked to McLaren and Westwood’s boutique and turned it into a hub of youth culture, rebellious fashion and heavy-duty partying.
But the rollicking atmosphere grew less amusing as the Sex Pistols spiraled out of control. The situation reached a nadir when bassist Sid Vicious (born Simon Ritchie) died of a drug overdose in 1979, after being suspected of killing his girlfriend.
The Pistols’ singer-front man, Johnny Rotten (nee John Lydon), became embroiled in a legal tussle with McLaren over control of the band’s name. The band’s tumultuous relationship with McLaren was the focus of the 1980 mockumentary “The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle.”
In a statement, Lydon said: “For me Malc was always entertaining, and I hope you will remember that. Above all else he was an entertainer, and I will miss him, and so should you.”
Steve Jones, the guitarist for the Pistols, said that over the years he had hectored his old manager for snatching up more than his fair share of money and glory.
“I was always next in line when it came to slagging him and calling him a crook,” said Jones, who interviewed McLaren several times on his L.A.-based radio program, “Jonesy’s Jukebox.” “But when I found he was dead, when his son called and told me, I was really saddened by it.”
“Underneath it all I really loved him,” Jones said.
Jones said that McLaren was “a big key in what happened in punk and with the revolution of it all” but that he undermined his own credibility by constantly clamoring for recognition through the years.
“The whole thing probably wouldn’t have taken off the way it did without him, there’s no doubt about that,” Jones said, “but his downfall is that he spent the rest of his life trying to take credit for all of it.”