Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Buffalo Gals go round the outside....

Malcolm McLaren, the punk Svengali once described by Johnny Rotten as “the most evil person on earth” has died aged 64. Alongside Colonel Tom Parker and Brian Epstein, McLaren will go down in history as one of the few managers who became as well known as the acts he handled. He was the ultimate chancer, a shrewd publicist and businessman who had an eye for what was popular and how to make money from it. In this case the rising anger and restlessness of 1970’s youth, which he helped channel into punk, its near cousin new romanticism and later, hip-hop and rap.

His revolution began in a clothes shop on King’s Road, Chelsea. SEX had started life as a 1950’s memorabilia shop, but after a trip to the Big Apple and a spell promoting the New York Dolls, McLaren encouraged his then girlfriend Vivienne Westwood to design and stock bondage and fetish inspired fashion. His aim was clear; together the pair would tap into the emerging British punk market. The shop became the place to hang out for aspiring punk musicians with Siouxsie Sioux and Chrissie Hynde both working as Saturday girls. Also dropping by on a regular basis were members of the Sex Pistols. They just didn’t know it yet. It was McLaren who whipped the band into shape, replacing existing members with those that had the right look and attitude. Lead singer Johnny Rotten was drafted in because of his vacant stare (the result of childhood meningitis) and the fact he was wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt with the words “I hate” scrawled above the band’s name. Despite being unable to play a single note, Sid Vicious was selected as bassist because of his ability to snarl. As McLaren himself said “Rock n’ roll doesn’t necessarily mean a band, it doesn’t mean a singer, and it doesn’t mean a lyric, really. It’s that question of trying to be immortal” With the Pistols, Malcolm granted himself this immortality. It was his devilish direction that allowed one of the most important groups in musical history to take off. However, despite encouraging their rock and roll excesses he was initially squeamish about the group’s more extreme behaviour. Along with most of middle England, he was horrified by the Pistols sweary appearance on ‘Today’ in December 1976, believing that the broadcast had ruined the band’s career before it had even started. It was not until he opened the morning papers that he discovered the controversy had made the Pistols household names and had seen sales of their single Anarchy in the UK soar.

From that point on McLaren realised that no publicity was bad publicity and began organising a series of stunts for the band, influenced by his interest in the Situationist movement. For the release of their notorious single ‘God Save The Queen’, he hired a boat and got the group to perform as it sailed down the Thames, provoking outrage and eventually leading to arrests. Getting his spotty young protégés to sign their recording contracts outside Buckingham palace attracted further furore which only helped to send the single to number 2 in the chart. McLaren also had a hand in naming the band’s album ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’, savvy to the fact that it would be prosecuted under the Indecent Advertising Act. The ensuing court case and the publicity that surrounded it sent the album to number 1. Later on his stunts became more elaborate and more contrived. Flying the band to Brazil to meet Ronnie Biggs the great train robber was the final straw for Rotten who refused to participate. The band imploded not long after due to constant infighting and Vicious’s escalating heroin addiction. The years following the split saw the group locked in bitter dispute with their former manager about unpaid royalties, until he eventually settled with the surviving band members (and the estate of Sid Vicious) in 1986. Despite their messy end and their tiny back catalogue (one album and a handful of singles) the Sex Pistols are quite rightly heralded as legends, obliterating as they did the pretentious and bloated musical landscape that had come before them. It was McLaren that made them the successes they were/are, skillfully elevating them from talentless oiks to icons and trail blazers.

Whilst the Pistols were McLaren’s greatest achievement, they were far from the only pie he had his fingers in. After he had finished with punk, he spotted the potential in the emerging New Romantic scene and helped to style both Adam Ant and Boy George, later going on to manage Bow Wow Wow. Following their break up in the early eighties, he turned his attention to hip-hop which he saw as “black punk rock” His 1983 album ‘Duck Rock’ brought this hitherto marginalised music to a wider audience and spawned two top ten hits. The best known, ‘Buffalo Gals’, was sampled by Eminem on his 2002 single ‘Without Me’.

In later years his bad boy reputation was blunted somewhat and the public increasingly viewed him as a daft uncle. This may partly have been to some less than quality TV appearances (Anyone remember ITV’s The Baron?) However, Mclaren could still unleash some bite when he needed to. He briefly considered running for London Mayor and produced his plans for the city, which included selling alcohol in libraries and legalizing brothels. In 2008 he turned the Big Brother house upside down when he was allowed to take control as one of the celebrity hi-jackers. In his typically subversive manner he encouraged the contestants to strip naked, cover themselves in paint and create artwork using only their bodies and a bicycle.

Whilst attending art college in the 1960’s, McLaren produced a manifesto which read: “Be childish. Be irresponsible. Be disrespectful. Be everything that society hates.” This was the mantra by which he lived his life. Although he didn’t always succeed in making the right choices for his career, he never took the easy ones. As the journalist Julie Burchill once wrote “We are all children of Thatcher and McLaren”

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