Singer, songwriter, producer
Malcolm McLaren has been described as the “P.T. Barnum” of modern rock for his talent in promoting a number of new musical trends, and while the term “impresario” has been usually found next to his name since his first success with the late Seventies British punk rockers the Sex Pistols, McLaren has also enjoyed a successful solo recording career on his own. Because of his legendary connection to the early days of punk, McLaren is both a reviled and revered figure—one who might be viewed, as art critic Michael Boodro put it in ART news, as “an impresario of frustration and energy and anger, and his service, if any, has been to endow lost an struggling youth with an outlet and an affirmation of their embittered feelings. He paid attention when no one else did….”
McLaren was born in London in 1946, and grew up in the household of his grandmother. As a young adult, he studied art at several London-area schools, including St. Martin’s School of Art, Chiswick Polytechnic (from which he was expelled in 1966), and Harrow Art College. He was greatly influenced by the student riots in Paris in May of 1968, in which radical youths literally took over some streets of the French capital and a number of labor strikes brought it to a standstill. As a result of this, McLaren became involved in radical art movement known as Internationale Situationist, which staged “happenings” and utilized slogans designed to provoke outrage. It was around this time that he met Vivienne Westwood, an aspiring fashion designer.
As a college student—his last foray was Goldsmiths’ College from 1969-71—McLaren admittedly spent much of the stipend he received from the government on rock records. When his collection began to number into the thousands, he decided to open a store on King’s Road, a hip street in London. That store evolved into Let It Rock in 1972, which sold not just viny I but outrageous clothing created by Westwood. Another reincarnation of the store with Westwood opened in 1973: Too Fast Too Young To Die. McLaren and Westwood were determined to create their own “anti” fashion. They destroyed brandnew t-shirts, for instance, and put up them for sale; they were also purveyors of rubber fetish gear and dog collars. Such items, common in most suburban shopping malls by the 1990s, were considered shocking and rather perverted at the time. Disaffected urban youth in England, living under some of the worst economic conditions since World War II, were drawn to such politically-charged, anti-establishment fashion state ments in large numbers.
The growing fame of his store lured rock stars and iconoclasts of all stripes, and an American band visiting London, the New York Dolls, made a great impression on McLaren. They dressed in outrageous, glitter-bedecked costumes and teetered on platform heels, and even wore makeup. For a time in 1974, McLaren went to New York City to manage them; he wanted to make them Mao-inspired revolutionary rockers, but the band was less than enthusiastic about the idea. Back in London, he and Westwood opened another version of their store, which they called Sex, and McLaren began looking for a band to work with who could serve as fronts for his ideas about music—it would be a band possessing little musical talent, but with a propensity for stirring up public outrage—in other words, “a group whose music was so bad that everybody wanted to hear it,” as McLaren explained in a 1997 New Yorker article.
In 1975, he found half his band by corralling two young men who sometimes brought stolen music gear to his Sex shop for resale, according to the New Yorker article; one day one of them, John Lydon, sang an Alice Cooper song along with the jukebox in the store. “He was angry and the anger was clearly masking a shyness that made him appear vulnerable and, in some way, cool,” McLaren wrote. Lydon, soon to be known as “Johnny Rotten,” would become the lead singer for the Sex Pistols. “The sound he brought to the group wasn’t melodic…. He
For the Record …
Born January 22, 1946, in London, England; children: one son, Joe. Education: Attended St. Martin’s School of Art, Chiswick Polytechnic, Croyden College of Art, Harrow Art College, and Goldsmiths’ College.
Owned the London boutiques Let It Rock, 1972-73; Too Fast Too Young To Die, 1973-74; Sex, 1974-76; and Seditionaries, (1976; he was also involved in documentary filmmaking and costume design; served as head of development for CBS Theatrical Productions, 1985; manager of New York Dolls, 1974; manager of Sex Pistols, 1975; released first solo effort, “You Need Hands,” 1979; manager of Bow Wow Wow and Adam Ant, 1980; released single “Buffalo Gals,” 1981; released first LP, Duck Rock, on Island Records, 1983.
Awards: Gold Lion, Cannes International Advertising Film Festival, 1989.
Addresses: Record company —Atlantic Records, 75 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY 10019.
created anthems of despair—loud, relentless, unforgiving,” he wrote in the New Yorker. McLaren rounded out the band with Steve Jones, Paul Cook, and a guitar player who took the name Sid Vicious. Early Sex Pistols shows attracted attention for their disgusting stage antics. Rotten and Vicious insulted the audience and were known to spit on them; fans went wild. “Their sounds was raw, noisy, and poorly played, and always on the verge of collapsing entirely,” McLaren wrote in the New Yorker. “It was chaos—a lovely, deadly, sexy chaos, wicked and nihilistic and, at the same time, utterly cataclysmic.”
McLaren was skilled in stirring up publicity for the band, which soon joined a growing musical movement in England that came to be collectively termed “punk”; punk followed the same principals as McLaren’s clothing—to do it yourself, and make it as ugly as possible. In the summer of 1977, during the national holiday celebration of Queen Elizabeth I I’s silver jubilee, McLaren chartered a boat to cruise down the Thames River past thousands of spectators; the Sex Pistols were on board and played their own version of England’s national anthem, “God Save the Queen”; the most famous lines in the Sex Pistols’ version were “No future…. and England’s dreaming!” McLaren was arrested for this stunt. The record featured a cover depicting the Queen with a safety pin through her nose; the single was banned from radio airplay but sold millions.
McLaren engineered generous contracts record labels in England and the United States for the band, but both companies fired them, which launched a legal tangle that would last several years. In 1978, they embarked upon an American tour, which attracted massive publicity, but McLaren was unable to keep the quartet, barely out of their teens, from self-destructing. Later that year Rotten launched a court battle against McLaren over use of the band’s name, and also made accusations of financial mismanagement. Then Vicious, a known heroin addict, was suspected of killing his American girlfriend in New York City; he was free on bail when he died of an overdose in early 1979.
Over the next few years McLaren occupied himself with writing a film about the Sex Pistols, titled The Great Rock & Roll Swindle, and was involved in the early Eighties music acts Adam Ant and Bow Wow Wow, which featured a 14-year-old singer. When he traveled to the U.S. with the latter act, McLaren discovered urban music and the fledgling rap genre. He began making recordings on the street, particularly in the South Bronx, which was ground zero for the trend during this era. He also began traveling to Africa and recording live performances there. The result was the 1983 album Duck Rock, which was a radical blend of traditional pop with world-beat music; later in the decade, more established musicians such as Peter Gabriel and Paul Simon would follow in his wake to far greater commercial success. “Punk It Up,” a McLaren song on Duck Rock, would be cited at the time by Robert Palmer of the New York Timesas “one paradigm for what is shaping up as an important pop-music trend— cross-cultural fusion, the meeting of ethnic and street cultures with Western technology and pop sensibility.”
Anothertrack, the square-dance inspired “Buffalo Gals,” became a huge dance club hit. McLaren followed with two more albums along the same vein, D’ya Like Scratch in ‘and Scratchin’, but in 1984 again broke new ground with the album Fans. Its genesis lay with his obligation to Island Records to make one more record: the label wanted him to do love songs, but McLaren won approval to adapt classic arias from famous operas instead. His hip-hop beat/blues-inflected reworkings of songs from composers Georges Bizet and Giacomo Puccini, among others, were loosely grouped around a tale of zealous groupies who kidnap their favorite rock star; he hoped to one day create an actual work for the stage. Fans became a huge international seller, and McLaren’s version of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly, on which McLaren himself sang the part of a World War ll-era American soldier, gave the unlikely singer another chart hit.
By the mid-1980s McLaren had separated from Westwood and relocated to Hollywood, where for a time he served as head of development for CBS Theatrical Productions. He also began writing music for television advertisements and even won an industry award in 1989 for a British Airways spot. That same year, he attempted to re-create the success of Fans with an adaptation of an even catchier musical form—the waltz. His Epic release, Waltz Darling, was described as “Strauss meets house,” and featured guitarist Jeff Beck and P-Funk’s Bootsy Collins. It failed to achieve the success of Fans, however. By the mid-1990s, McLaren was living in France, and released the Paris record in 1995. It was a homage to the sultry French chanteuses of 1950s, and he sang a duet with Francoise Hardy titled “Revenge of the Flowers.” It sold well in Europe. In 1998, McLaren was back behind the scenes with his launch of the Asian girl-group Jungk, whose music was disco-influenced but with a modern “jungle” twist. He also planned to re-release the Buffalo Gals album later in 1998.
McLaren’s influence on the culture of alternative music is undeniable, especially in relation to its dependency on fashion and style to sell records and promote new trends. He was even feted with a 1988 exhibit, “Impresario: Malcolm McLaren and the British New Wave,” at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art. “He is the underside of the dream of youth, a Dick Clark from hell who has left in his wake not just the punk paraphernalia… but a legacy of cynicism and destruction in which the role of the artist is fundamentally changed and debased,” wrote Boodro in ARTnews.
D’ya Like Scratchin’, Island, 1983.
Duck Rock, Island, 1983.
Scratchin’, Virgin, 1984.
Fans, Island, 1984.
Swamp Thing, Island, 1985.
Waltz Darling, Epic, 1989.
Round the Outside! Round the Outside!, Virgin, 1990.
Paris, V2, 1994.
The Largest Movie House in Paris, Noi, 1996.
World Famous Supreme Team Show, Atlantic, 1996.
Appears on Sex Pistols, The Great Rock & Roll Swindle, 1979.
(Producer) Bow Wow Wow, Girl Bites Dog, EMI, 1993.
Advertising Age, November 18, 1990, p. 51.
ARTnews, January 1989, pp. 114-117.
Billboard, March 9, 1985, p. 50.
New York, September 12, 1988, pp. 28, 32.
New York Times, July 13, 1983, p. C20; November 7, 1984, sec. III, p. 25.
New Yorker, September 22, 1997, pp. 90-102.
Village Voice, November 28, 1995, p. 53.
“The Roughguide to Rock,” Malcolm McLaren, http://www.roughguides.com/rock, (May 2, 1998).
“Malcolm McLaren--An Autochronology,” http://www.malcolmmclaren.com, (May 2, 1998)
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