Malcolm McLaren’s Legacy, From Sex Pistols to Business Anarchy

Malcolm McLaren, former manager of the Sex Pistols
A file photo shows British impresario and self-publicist Malcolm McLaren posing upon arriving at the Festival Palace for the premiere of US director Richard Linklater's film 'Fast Food Nation' at the 59th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, France. Photographer:Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty Images

Malcolm McLaren died in Switzerland yesterday after battling cancer, more than three decades after he shook up music with punk rock and the Sex Pistols. He was 64.

McLaren was known in the industry for his cunning, self-publicity and a business brain that ran rings around Virgin Group’s Richard Branson. Under his management, the Sex Pistols signed with Virgin Records in 1977.

“I don’t really care if bands can play guitars or not,” McLaren said in a 1984 interview. “I want them to say something. But, above all, I really want them to make money. Lots and lots of it.”

Born Malcolm Robert Andrew McLaren in London on Jan. 22, 1946 to a family that worked in the city’s textiles trade, the fashion student said he got into music by mistake. Members of a group then known as the Swankers were hanging out at the London clothing shop he ran with Vivienne Westwood that was variously named Let it Rock and Too Fast To Live, Too Young to Die.

The budding entrepreneur, always seeking controversy, then decided to rename the shop Sex, sell punk clothes covered in safety pins and have the group promote it. He also paid for rehearsal space and renamed them the Sex Pistols -- over objections of band member John Lydon (better known as Johnny Rotten), who wanted the act to be known as “Sex.”

“I didn’t want these herberts to be named just that,” said McLaren, in his 1984 interview with me for “The Dictionary of Rock and Pop Names.” “I wanted to get them known. I wanted to sell loads of trousers.”

Bad Publicity

The Sex Pistols ran though short record contracts with EMI, A&M and Virgin as McLaren ensured they got as much money and publicity as possible -- better if it was bad.

That was helped by a stream of four-letter words the group made on live TV and the “God Save The Queen” single it released in 1977 to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee.

McLaren also managed other acts such as Adam Ant, Bow Wow Wow and the New York Dolls. He later ran a company with interests in film and fashion. As a solo artist he made records such as “Duck Rock” in 1983 and “Waltz Darling” in 1989.

McLaren was quick to claim credit for punk’s success, even if he was not directly involved, Still, he was uncharacteristically reluctant to accept the nickname of “the Godfather of Punk.”

“I’m not some kind of member of the Mafia,” he told me. “I would hate to be the father of any such thing. That’s Lou Reed’s job, not mine.”

He is survived by his son with Westwood, Joseph Corre, who is a founder of the lingerie company Agent Provocateur.

(Mark Beech writes for Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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