A line from a song, of course: The Sex Pistol’s “God Save The Queen”, still provocative all these years on. And a line written by John Lydon, although it was hard not to think of it watching the television coverage of the funeral of Malcolm McLaren, his former manager and the human catalyst that brought punk to the streets of London in the Queen’s Silver Jubilee year. For most people, that’s probably McLaren’s legacy in a nutshell: ripped t-shirts, Her Majesty with unusual nasal jewellery on a poster, and all the other little visual icons of that summer that you can still, remarkably, buy on postcards in many parts of London. But even at just a level of fashion, he left a bigger mark: describe someone as ‘punky looking’, as most of us have a pretty clear visual picture of what you mean. Not a bad achievement for a man with one little shop at the wrong end of the King’s Road. But there was more to McLaren than that: for good and bad, there are plenty of reasons to spend a few minutes looking back at his life now that it has ended.
Although punk rock was were he made his most indelible mark, it seems too simplistic to describe him as a ‘band manager’: it’s not that it doesn’t do his role justice, it’s just inaccurate. Despite the sloganeering of the era – of which ‘Cash from Chaos’ is probably the most repeated – McLaren never seemed to be intent on masterminding a financially or critically successful career for the musicians. Though the era generated cash – not least from playing the nation’s record companies off against each other in signing fees, seeing who would be brave enough to face the public disapproval while gathering the royalties (the final winner was Richard Branson, of whom more later) – McLaren’s approach was more effective at generating Chaos from Chaos. One quotation from him seems more telling – and, whether deliberately or not, sheds light on his own influences:
The Pistols were like my work of art. They were my canvas.”
McLaren was a former student at Goldsmith’s College of Art, but the artist’s sense of playfulness and provocation was the only background source. McLaren – like Jamie Reid, who produced the still emotive graphic designs – was influenced by the politics of Paris during the May 1968 ‘events’, and the Situationist International (SI). A small and typically internally fractious group of European intellectuals, their philosophy is hard to define, even in hindsight (for a surprisingly readable history, you could try Sadie Plant’s The Most Radical Gesture). But one strand of their thinking was that modern urban life alienated people from the essences of their own lives, and that a spirit of prankster-ish playfulness needed to be injected into life. This early influence always suggested a philosophy behind the pranksterism that went beyond the ‘jolly jape’:
Our culture has become something that is completely and utterly in love with its parent. It’s become a notion of boredom that is bought and sold, where nothing will happen except that people will become more and more terrified of tomorrow, because the new continues to look old, and the old will always look cute.“
His quotations, his public talking and his interviews are just as rich a seam of nuggets calling for the enthusiastic embracing of the imperative to change and the necessity of creativity as many a more conventional business guru: it’s invidious, of course, to draw the comparison, but when it comes to iconoclastic rebel-rousing rhetoric, McLaren would give the likes of Tom Peters a very good run for his money. And oddly, there is a comparison that can be drawn between him and many of those we might irreverently refer to as ‘contemporary business cheerleaders’: McLaren was a catalyst. The difference was summed up neatly by Bill Price’s obituary in GQ magazine:
McLaren didn’t build careers (anathema to a situationist anyway); he created moments.”
As Price goes on to say, “McLaren was always about the idea, rarely about the execution”. (Or, as Julian Temple put it, “He saw himself as a con artist with the emphasis on the latter word.”) The comparison to Richard Branson is certainly interesting: Sir Richard is, of course, no stranger to high-profile media events (I hesitated to use the word ‘stunt’), and his public image is as much one of hot-air balloons, speed boats and appearances in wedding dresses as it is as entrepreneur. Perhaps more so, despite his very considerable business success (in 2009, Forbes listed Branson as one of the 300 richest men in the world), not least as the ‘cool maverick’ is an important component of both the Virgin brand and the Branson brand. Back in 1977, when his young record label (allegedly called ‘Virgin’ in honour of the founders’ lack of business experience) signed McLaren’s Sex Pistols, it would have been interesting to know which man was seen as being likely to build a lasting business empire. In the memoirs of the musicians and film-makers of the period, Branson tends to get a poor press – the phrase ‘opportunistic hippy’ turns up fairly frequently. (The two men were, of course, involved at a business level: observers’ comments suggest this did not run smoothly, as suggested not only by documentary-maker Julian Temple’s comments in his obituary in the Guardian, and an article at contactmusic.com – as illuminated by the title, Why I Urinated On Branson’s Carpet. Relationships, reflecting an unhappy and unusual upbringing, were not McLaren’s strong suit. And intriguingly, both men were cited as potential candidates for Mayor of London: as the BBC reported in 1998:
Some 66% said they probably or definitely would vote for Mr Branson as an Independent, despite the fact that he has not expressed an interest in standing.”
Although Branson has used his wealth and prominence to promote a range of humanitarian and environmental causes, public political positioning has been cautious – as a businessman, his intention seems to be simply to be ‘close to government’. As we approach the 2010 Election, it was interesting to unearth a snippet from an interview he gave in the run up to the 2005 General Election:
There would be little difference for businesses between a Labour and Tory government, says Richard Branson. Asked which party would be better for business, the Virgin tycoon said: “Arguably, it doesn’t matter.”
He told the BBC Gordon Brown had been a brilliant chancellor, but said Labour had continued Tory policies. “The difference between having a Labour government for business to having a Tory government has been fairly negligible,” he told Newsnight.”
There’s an understandable air of ‘safety first’, although we should expect nothing less from a man in Branson’s position. McLaren, however, was a man to give voice to one of his real loves: ideas. Although he subsequently withdrew, McLaren originally intended to stand as a candidate for Mayor of London in 2000, publishing an article ‘My Vision for London’ in the New Statesman, including 16 ‘Points to Ponder’. In typical McLaren fashion, there is a mix of the ahead of its time (“reduce the number of cars coming into London by imposing a direct tax’, “introducing water/river buses”), the subsequently widely adopted (“new technology could encourage a more responsive democracy, with local voters using the web to voice their opinion”), the bohemian and eclectic (“We should introduce bars in public libraries; drink a glass of Guinness while reading Dickens”), and the ‘actually, why shouldn’t we do that?’ – “Restructure rates in order to tax business according to scale. Chains such as Pret A Manger, for instance, now pay the same rates as a local florist.”
It’s the sentence that follows that last quote that gives a fuller flavour of McLaren: “If we don’t save small business, London will lose its soul and become like Singapore or Hong Kong – a shrine to capitalism”. One thing that he very much stood for – even if ‘standing for’ in this context only got as far as a manifesto – was promoting individual creativity. Look at the final point of this list:
With more e-commerce, old-fashioned department stores should be more diversified, welcoming artisans. Shoemakers could set up their workshops in John Lewis, table-makers in Selfridges.”
There was an unusual romanticism to McLaren and his view of London. While he would never write a book as acute, pithy or sharp as his French inspirations (Guy Debord’s “The Society of the Spectacle” is, whether we agree with it or not, still an icy crisp critique of much of modern life some 45 years after it was written), he shared Debord’s romantic view – and real love of the street life – of their respective nation’s capital cities. He wanted London to have its own multi-ethnic flag, a London carnival in Oxford Street, empty space above shops turning into housing to create “safer streets and livelier ones”. But above all, he wanted individual creativity and expression. In an article written for Wired magazine in 1998, he could almost have been writing his own obituary:
We live in a karaoke culture. The Japanese word means “empty orchestra” – a lifeless musical form unencumbered by creativity and free of responsibility. Simple, clean fun for the millennial nuclear family. You can’t fail in a karaoke world. It’s life by proxy, liberated by hindsight.
Authenticity, on the other hand, believes in the messy process of creativity. It’s unpopular and out of fashion. It worships failure, regarding it as a romantic and noble pursuit – better to be a flamboyant failure than any kind of benign success.
Karaoke and authenticity can sit well together, but it takes artistry to make that happen. When it does, the results can be explosive. Like when punk rock reclaimed rock and roll, blowing the doors off the recording industry in the process. Or when hip hop transformed turntables and records into the instruments of a revolution.”
Parts of McLaren’s legacy – created the seminal British Airways advert music that you would remember if it started playing while you were reading this, co-producing the Fast Food Nation film, bringing hip-hop and world music into the mainstream of British music and culture – have already faded, moments of culture overlain by subsequent events like footsteps in snow. But that desire to liberate creativity, upset apple-carts and inject colour into lives – by provocation, if need be – means that, in hindsight, his seminal moment wasn’t just a case of dropping a big rock in a still cultural pond.
He certainly wasn’t a man who believed in taking safe routes, believing we had to find our own ‘messy processes’ (a favourite phrase in interviews) to develop our own voices. In an interview with the artist Momus, he was asked if any overarching theme was emerging as part of an autobiography then being written. His reply to the question: “Now you’re writing your autobiography. Is that the master narrative that’s emerging, the idea of failure as something flamboyant?” –
Failure as something flamboyant and something very creative, something that allows you to do things new, that otherwise you wouldn’t. It allows you to be stupid, really. And it allows you, by doing that, to control your own stupidity and make something brilliant out of it. And the failure is really the success, actually. And that’s what the Sex Pistols, for me, was about. The success was in the failure. Almost programmed into it, in a funny way. Looking back, every decision I made was one of utter mismanagement! Ha ha ha ha ha!”
The surge of musicians, clothes-makers, painters, film-makers, small record labels (to name just a few professions) that emerged among the ripples that ‘punk’ created – in response to the idea that people could ‘do it themselves’, and that failure was just part of the process – left a wide cultural mark. How much of the credit for it all that McLaren deserves is open to debate, but, like British cultural life, it wouldn’t have been the same without him. He may not have made Branson’s billions (although he did, as he said without hesitation that he hoped to do back in the late 1970s, sell a lot of trousers on the back of all that public attention), but he made many people’s lives something I think he’d have been proud of: he made them less dull. Even the Daily Telegraph obituary was moved to comment “His death is shocking because it’s the end of one of our most spirited and disruptive forces.” He gave us ideas, and encouraged us to have them for ourselves too. And for that, I think a few thanks are due.