7/08/2010

Malcom McLaren: A Cheerful Troublemaker

I am an antichrist
I am an anarchist
Don't know what I want
But I know how to get it
- "Anarchy in the UK," The Sex Pistols 

Malcolm McLaren (1946 - 2010) was many things during the wayward course of his contrary life, but mainly, and most famously, he was a cheerful troublemaker. He is remembered primarily as the enterprising manager of The Sex Pistols, the ragtag gang of musical urchins who paved the way for punk rock in the United Kingdom during the late 1970s. He brazenly contrived the rebellious style of The Sex Pistols, and then gleefully set them loose on an unprepared citizenry, thereby bringing a general outcry and changing the unspoken rules of rock'n'roll.

Mr. McLaren always took great delight in his talent for giving crude offense to straitlaced conformists. He appeared to be happiest whenever he was given another opportunity to impudently defy unyielding figures of dull authority, even though his provocative defiance sometimes had the unintended effect of undermining his own activities. Although he was both praised and blamed for his part in creating The Sex Pistols, it is beyond question that his wanton pursuit of high controversy also helped to bring about, and hasten, their untimely destruction.

It appears that Malcolm McLaren never intended The Sex Pistols to be anything more than a transitory expression of youthful unrest. (Although his intellect was quick, he was not known for thinking ahead.) Steve Jones, the guitarist, and Paul Cook, the drummer, seemed quite happy to merely go along for the ride, but Glen Matlock, the bassist, wanted to write and perform proper tunes. Johnny Rotten, the bug-eyed singer who sneeringly expressed feelings of scorn toward everyone and everything, turned out to be a thoroughly contentious figure with a sharp mind of his own. In the end, Mr. McLaren found that he could no longer exercise any control over them.

When The Sex Pistols commenced their first tour of the USA in January of 1978, Malcolm McLaren did not book them into the usual venues in the usual cities. Instead, beginning in Atlanta, he had them play small gigs in small venues, knowing that the arrival of The Sex Pistols would cause the local people to raise fervent objections. By the time the ill-fated tour ended on the stage of Winterland in San Francisco several weeks later, The Sex Pistols had fallen apart. Mr. McLaren, seizing the moment and proving himself to be less than entirely honest, took the money and ran.

Although Malcolm McLaren proved to be commendably fearless in the face of abundant condemnation, it must be acknowledged that his fierce desire to challenge and annoy the public sometimes went too far, leading to glaring instances of poor judgment. In particular, his careless handling of Sid Vicious, the dim and depraved layabout who had become the bassist of The Sex Pistols after Glen Matlock departed in 1977, enabled a dangerous situation that finally resulted in gruesome tragedy. It seemed that Mr. McLaren was not above seeking his own ends at the expense of human values.

Malcolm McLaren had no ability as a musician, but he nonetheless succeeded in leaving his mark on musical history. He was a shrewd character, possessed of an undeniable gift for inventive boldness and righteous insolence, and he gave a strong kick of lasting force to the self-satisfied world of rock'n'roll, at a time when it was greatly needed. For that reason alone, he deserved his share of fame and infamy.