Read Troy Patterson on the Sex Pistols movie The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle here.
"What is it you actually do for a living?" an Australian television interviewer asked Malcolm McLaren in 2008. McLaren, who died yesterday at age 64, is being remembered as rock 'n' roll's Guy Debord —an art-school dropout who turned the principles of the Situationist International into provocative, profitable pop spectacle. McLaren framed his career as the fulfillment of one of the most famous Debordian adages: "Ne travaillez jamais" ("Don't ever work"). What did McLaren do for a living? "It's a very good question," he told the Australian TV audience. "I always find it very difficult to answer."
Of course, the résumé belies the rhetoric. McLaren worked hard, continuously, and variously. His C.V. takes in not just his most famous gig—managing the Sex Pistols—but a solo musical career, filmmaking and film production, painting, "sound painting," an appearance on the British reality show Big Brother: Celebrity Hijack, and an abortive campaign for the London mayoralty with a platform centered on a proposal that alcohol be served in libraries.
He was prescient, a trendspotter. As a recording artist, he released groundbreaking rap records and experimented with African music. Two decades before the rise of Napster, McLaren co-wrote the Bow Wow Wow song "C30, C60, C90, Go!," a proto-file-sharing manifesto. ("C30, C60, C90, go/ Off the radio I get a constant flow/ Hit it, pause it, record it and play/ Turn it, rewind, and rub it away.") My Slate colleague Jack Shafer sent me a Twitter message yesterday: "[McLaren] was Col. Parker, Sam Phillips, Jon Landau, Lester Bangs, Andy Warhol, Phil Spector, and Jacques Derrida all in one tiny squirrel man." I'd add P.T. Barnum and Eric Idle to the list and maybe sub in a lemur for the squirrel. But you get the point. Not only did McLaren work for a living. He packed a least a dozen careers into his six decades.
A pivotal moment came in 1975, when McLaren renovated the boutique on London's Kings Road that he'd opened four years earlier with his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood. He rechristened the shop SEX—the name appeared on a storefront sign in massive pink foam-rubber letters—and stocked its shelves with leather bondage gear and T-shirts featuring the convicted "Cambridge Rapist," Peter Cook. SEX gave birth to punk couture and served as a clubhouse for the U.K.'s burgeoning punk music scene. The store's employees included Sid Vicious and Chrissie Hynde. In the summer of 1975, Johnny Rotten auditioned for the Sex Pistols in the shop, performing Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen" while the rest of the band looked on, jaws agape.
SEX was the work of a sensationalist, a man with a gift for raising eyebrows and hackles. It was also a return to McLaren's roots. He was raised in Stoke Newington, North London, by his grandmother Rose Isaacs, the daughter of Jewish diamond dealers. His father, Pete McLaren, abandoned the family when Malcolm was 2; his mother, Emmy Isaacs, and stepfather, Martin Levi, owned a small garment-manufacturing business. McLaren was, in another words, a child of the Jewish merchant class. At SEX, he might have been hocking "Anarchy" T-shirts and zippered leather tops, but he was still in the schmatte business.
He was a salesman first. "Cash from chaos" was his famous motto; punk romantics emphasize the chaos half of the equation, but McLaren made it clear he embraced the latter as a means to the former. Is it a coincidence that the rise of Malcolm McLaren coincided with the rise of Margaret Thatcher? Both were bootstrapping petit bourgeois with a faith in radical individualism and a fervor for smashing up old institutions—the British welfare state, in Thatcher's case, middle-class pieties and proprieties, in McLaren's. "There is no such thing as society," said Thatcher. "It's all about destruction, and the creative potential within that," said McLaren.
What did McLaren and the Sex Pistols actually destroy? Other than Middle England's sense of well-being, not much. But that was plenty. In the United States, punk was an arty revivalist movement, a retreat from arena-rock pomp to the tough-minded simplicity of early rock 'n' roll. It was big news in bohemia but made little immediate impact elsewhere. McLaren's innovation was to write punk large—in letters as big and garish and hot-pink as the sign above the door at SEX—transforming it from "art" into pop.
He cast punk as an attack on Britain's values and institutions—on the Queen, on the BBC, on beach holidays—exploiting the generation gap, preying on middle-class anxieties, and catering to the tabloid press's lust for scandal and sensation. Many Britons knew the Sex Pistols' songs; nearly all of them knew the band as the stars of a series of publicity stunts. McLaren staged the signing of the Pistols' record contract in front of Buckingham Palace. On the occasion of Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee, he put the band on a boat and floated them down the Thames to the House of Parliament, where they played a raucous shipboard version of "God Save the Queen." It was Barnum-style spectacle—but behind the hucksterism there was theory. "It was wonderful to be able to sell something that was horrible," McLaren recalled. "It was a brilliant idea in which we made ugliness beautiful."
On that Australian chat show, McLaren repeated one of his favorite stories: "My grandmother taught me from a very early age to disrespect anybody with any air of authority. … She said, 'To be bad is good.' " As creation stories go, it's pretty delicious: A little old Jewish grandmother as the progenitor of punk rock. Is it true? Or is it another McLaren fish tale, more great copy from a man determined at all costs to keep things lively? Surveying the 64 years of Malcolm McLaren, another Situationist maxim leaps to mind: "Boredom is counterrevolutionary." McLaren's revolt against boredom was lifelong, and he made sure the revolution was televised.