According to several news reports, former Sex Pistols manager and all-around punk impresario Malcolm McLaren has died at the age of 64 while in New York. McLaren had been living with cancer for some time, but his health had reportedly begun rapidly deteriorating recently.
McLaren got his start as a clothing designer, opening a London boutique called Let It Rock with his partner, Vivienne Westwood (with whom he later had a similarly fashion-minded son, Agent Provocateur co-founder Joseph Corré). Having become disillusioned with the Teddy Boy styles he’d been selling, McLaren found new inspiration in crafting clothes for the New York Dolls. By 1975, that band was in interpersonal shambles and already waning in popularity; McLaren tried to help restart their careers by dressing them in red patent leather and having them perform in front of Soviet flags, which flopped. (Some Dolls fans still blame McLaren’s for the band’s too-soon demise.)
It was while he was in New York that McLaren first saw the Neon Boys—and more importantly Richard Hell, whose safety-pinned, rip-it-up-and-start-again aesthetic would prove to be a huge influence on McLaren. He returned to London and renamed his store SEX, where he began selling S&M-style clothes to the growing numbers of punk kids on Kings Road; as John Lydon once famously observed, “Malcolm and Vivienne were really a pair of shysters; they would sell anything to any trend that they could grab onto.” Eventually that trend-hopping had extended to McLaren managing his very own punk band: The Strand, a group of working-class teenagers who were always hanging around his shop. After returning from New York, McLaren suddenly took real interest in The Strand, even reaching out to the New York Dolls’ Sylvain Sylvain and Richard Hell and begging them to come over and front the group. After a famous chance encounter with John Lydon—soon rechristened “Johnny Rotten”—McLaren decided he’d finally found the right face and attitude, which was much more important to him than musical ability.
Debate continues over how much authority McLaren actually had over the Sex Pistols, but to hear him tell it, they were his own bit of Situationist theater, an “idea in the form of a band of kids who could be perceived as being bad.” He also took responsibility for the name, claiming it derived from “from the idea of a pistol, a pin-up, a young thing, a better-looking assassin.” Such grandstanding was par for the course for McLaren, who always seemed to care more about image than the music, and whose plans for the band—including an infamous chartered boat trip down the Thames during the Queen’s Jubilee, or scheduling the Sex Pistols’ first U.S. tour almost entirely in venues full of pissed-off rednecks in the deep South—were always calculated to generate maximum scandal. This continued even after the Sex Pistols broke up, with McLaren insisting that group continue on with a new lead singer—first a totally uninterested Sid Vicious, followed by attempts with notorious criminal Ronnie Biggs—and, failing that, as a tragicomic myth in Julien Temple’s The Great Rock ’N’ Roll Swindle. Even though McLaren eventually took his name off that movie, it’s his vision through and through: In it, he claims to have invented the Sex Pistols and completely masterminded their rise and fall in order to further his agenda of “chaos” and then reap the financial awards, all while wearing a series of ridiculous bondage masks. He also claims to have invented punk rock—a tongue-in-cheek supposition that nevertheless reflects McLaren’s own half-satirical self-image as the capitalist mastermind manipulating the myth of rebellion toward his own personal gain. Satirical or not, it permanently pissed off John Lydon, who sued for control of the band in the ’80s and refused to ever speak to McLaren, finally offering a scathing rebuttal to McLaren’s claims in 2000’s The Filth And The Fury.
During this time, McLaren also branched out into managing other bands—most notably Bow Wow Wow, which he had assembled after convincing three-fourths of Adam And The Ants (whom he also briefly managed) to leave the group and to begin drawing more inspiration from world music rhythms. After abandoning the idea of adding Boy George as Bow Wow Wow’s lead singer, McLaren turned his attentions to 14-year-old Annabella Lwin, whom he soon transformed into a naughty punk Lolita. Although he promised her mother—and eventually, Scotland Yard—not to exploit Lwin as a “sex kitten,” he did allow a nude photo of her to be released in some countries as the cover of its second album, which exploded into controversy.
McLaren also used all of this notoriety to launch his own musical career, beginning with the African-inspired, quasi-hip-hop album Duck Rock in 1983, which spawned a couple of hits in “Buffalo Gals” and “Double Dutch.” Backing him on the album (along with Thomas Dolby) were Trevor Horn, Anne Dudley, and J.J. Jeczalik, who used their time in between working on McLaren’s tracks to record what would become the first Art Of Noise album. McLaren’s songs have taken on cult status thanks to being sampled by artists like Mariah Carey and Eminem, both of whom have used “Buffalo Gals,” while Quentin Tarantino revived his “About Her” for Kill Bill Vol. 2. He continued to release albums steadily, including a 1998 remix CD, Buffalo Gals Back To Skool, which teamed him with hip-hop artists like Rakim, De La Soul, and KRS-One.
Among his other weird accomplishments: Working on a never-to-be-made film with comics artist Alan Moore; creating music for a popular British Airways campaign with Yanni, of all people; trying (and failing) to manage the Red Hot Chili Peppers; championing 8-bit music.; co-producing Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation. In the ’00s, like many faded British celebrities, McLaren got sucked into doing reality TV, including competing on the ITV show The Baron and appearing on Big Brother: Celebrity Hijack. However, he stopped just short of doing I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!, bailing at the last minute because he’d decided the show was too “fake”—something his former charge John Lydon apparently didn’t have a problem with. Most recently, McLaren had been concentrating on his “sound painting,” particularly the video project Shallow, which debuted in Times Square in 2008 and continues to tour. The work—made up almost entirely of torn up and repurposed 1960s porn films spliced together with incongruous pop music—is seedy, brazenly sensationalistic, and laden with cynical messages about the exploitative relationship between art and viewer. In short, it’s everything Malcolm McLaren ever hoped or worked for.