He was known as the British Andy Warhol, the P.T. Barnum of punk and Dick Clark from hell. Malcolm McLaren died Thursday in a Swiss sanitarium after a long struggle with cancer. He was 64.
It's not easy to be the most hated man in punk rock, but for years, McLaren somehow managed. In 1977, he was running a shop that sold fetish gear with his then-girlfriend, Vivienne Westwood, who'd go on to become a famous designer. Two young tough guys used their shop as a fence to sell stolen music equipment, and McLaren thought they'd be perfect for a band: The Sex Pistols.
McLaren was less a student of rock 'n' roll than of the twin mechanics of promotion and provocation.
"It really was about swindling your way to the top of the record industry hype and sensational advertising," McLaren told WHYY's Fresh Air in 1988. "It was swindling by deciding not to be played on radio. Didn't matter that you couldn't hear it — it was an attitude."
While The Sex Pistols actually became an influential group, that attitude — the look, the pose — was most important to McLaren. He thought the rock groups he managed, like Bow Wow Wow and Adam and the Ants, should be mythical. His first stab at rock management came with the band New York Dolls, which he loved for its trashy transvestite image.
Like so many other British music conceptualists, McLaren sprang from art school with a finely honed sense of subversion. He loved the French situationists and their slogans like, "What are the politics of boredom?" And he saw the potential of manipulating the media.
"The idea of painting in an attic seemed the wrong process, and I decided to use people the way sculptors use clay," McLaren said.
'A Diff Kettle Of Fish'
"There was something oddly cold about Malcolm, frankly," says music writer Chris Salewicz, who's covered the punk scene from the beginning. "His view of life as art didn't seem to have heart in it, one always felt.
"We're all a bit shocked, seriously," Salewicz says. "We've just been talking here about this, and he was a diff kettle of fish. But we said we wouldn't be here without him, you know?"
Still, Salewicz says McLaren's reputation as an exploitative Svengali is not entirely undeserved. Take Sid Vicious, the embodiment of the punk scene's excesses. The Sex Pistols' iconic bassist died of a drug overdose in 1979, a few months after the violent death of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen.
"Sid Vicious need not have declined," Salewicz says. "Malcolm almost encouraged this as part of the whole scam of The Sex Pistols."
Still, somehow, McLaren seemed to anticipate trends, from world music and hip-hop to opera as popular culture.
McLaren left a big messy tag that runs through the last 30-plus years. His greatest legacy was a do-it-yourself ethos; a perverse determination for people to follow their most unconventional dreams. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.