The Swindle of Last Century

Slate's Culture Blog
April 8 2010 3:42 PM

The Swindle of Last Century

It would be nice to mark the final resting place of Malcolm McLaren, dead today of cancer at 64

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.


with a gravestone befitting his legacy as an impresario of punk. Based on McLaren's stature as a provocative conceptualist, a promiscuous pasticheur, and a merchant of stunts, I'm thinking that the obvious choice would be an homage to Marcel Duchamp's


, but maybe in hot pink, and with mourners invited to take a whiz.

But still there is the matter of the epitaph, for which we should turn to

(1980), a splendid half-mock-, all-rock-umentary and Sex Pistols postmortem. Here, abetted by director Julien Temple, McLaren describes how he converted the Pistols' ethos

bottomless contempt for everything from competent musicianship to basic human decency

into filthy lucre. The fictional track shows guitarist Steve Jones engaged in a trench-coated, hard-boiled investigation. (He's both sniffing out the secret to McLaren's success and trying to see how badly his Svengali ripped him off.) The nonfictional track features some excellent time-capsule news footage and such archival material as the Pistols' TV debut. (About the band's repellent behavior during rehearsals for that initial televised appearance, Clive James once wrote, "This was the first time in history that a pop group had ever tried to bite the hand that fed it before it had been fed.") Segues between these two tracks feature wildly offensive fantasy sequences, the least vile of which is a cartoon showing Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten, and mates coursing through an airport on a vomit tsunami.

For the epitaph, we should look to the film's fourth element: While wearing a T-shirt that reads ''Cash from Chaos,'' McLaren intermittently dispenses a lecture on rock commodification. It's his dictum that for business purposes, ''a group that can't play is better than a group that can.'' That'd look good on a urinal, but maybe we should go for an idea that embraces McLaren's whole career, not just its opportunistic-anarchist phase: ''Forget about music and concentrate on creating generation gaps." That one might even work on a traditional granite headstone.



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