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Malcolm McLaren: Thank his granny

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Will Gompertz | 10:32 UK time, Friday, 9 April 2010

Malcolm McLarenMalcolm McLaren was one of the most significant cultural figures in the 1970s whose death will bring back a flood of nostalgic memories for many of those who were teenagers at the time. He will be most remembered as the impresario behind the Sex Pistols, the mop-haired catalyst for punk and for running a fashion shop called SEX with his then-partner Vivienne Westwood. McLaren the '80s pop act and the manager of bands such as Bow Wow Wow is likely to feature less prominently in the collective consciousness, but these were not insubstantial achievements in their own right.

My abiding memory of Malcolm McLaren will be none of these. It was not because of his illustrious past that I always sat up and listened whenever he popped up on my television or radio. It was because of his mind. I will remember McLaren for his intelligence, his use of language and his ability to catch a common thought and reshape it into a prescient phrase.

His arrival as an orange-haired hipster on the nation's TV screens in the late 1970s, loftily pontificating on any subject he cared with prophetic confidence, was like being given your first shot of whisky after a diet of fizzy pop acts and even gassier DJs. He understood the media game and knew he could play it better than most. Plus he had that magic media ingredient: charisma. He was colour while everybody else seemed still to be black-and-white - whatever the monochrome images on the right might suggest.

Malcolm McLaren and The World's Famous Supreme Team, February 1983He said that his grandmother told him to "disregard anybody with any air of authority". Most kids would have thanked granny for the advice and perhaps nicked her fags, but McLaren turned it into a set of brand guidelines on which to build a career. He could have used those wise words as the tagline on any of his products, just as Apple now encourages people to Think Different.

For someone with an anti-establishment persona, it was ironic that he chose to be an entrepreneur, the career path of choice for any right-thinking Thatcherite. But it was this sort of contradiction that made McLaren so compelling. If there was a rule, he was the man to find an exception.

His days at the top table of youth culture were long gone, but he was still one of the most intelligent and entertaining commentators on the subject of contemporary arts. He was always worth listening to; his remarkable skill with words made sure of that.


  • Comment number 1.

    my granny said, never speak ill of the dead.

    they're dropping like flies (and so young).

    would you like a fried or poached egg with your chips?

    I say he is in the tapestry of British life, he's brand is genetically imprinted on future cultural output. Nostalgia? Yeah, I can just about stretch to that - afterall, it defines us.

  • Comment number 2.

    I think it was Tottenham St. where I delivered
    To you Malcolm rendolent with slyly unruly
    Glittering eyes of a more unusual line
    Than the signature I so dutifully required
    You caught me looking and without a slip
    Switched off the light though I could still admire
    The situationist sideways slight of that perfect flick
    Now you’ve gone forever out of the mire of that
    Great light; Goodnight Malcolm Now; Goodnight

  • Comment number 3.

    I was very surprised indeed to read that John Lydon, a.k.a Johnny Rotten, actually gave a rather complimentary remark when ask for a quote upon Malcom McLaren's recent death.

    Following a long running and acrimonious court case over royalty payments and other copyright issues, the former front man of the Sex Pistols, Lydon, described the punk rock band's then manager, McLaren, "as the most eveil person on earth".

    However, this is what Lydon apparently said about McLaren when asked for a quote about his former adversary's death.

    "For me Malc was always entertaining, and I hope you remember that. "Above all else he was an entertainer and I will miss him, and so should you."

  • Comment number 4.

    Just before Malcolm discovered he was unwell in October 2009 he presented an outstanding & astounding keynote speech in London to more than 1,000 international delegates on the subject of the future of learning & education.

    Rather than discuss his many known and well documented achievements Malcolm took us on a journey that discussed his life, the principles of learning, authenticity vs karaoke culture and what we can learn from failure. The speech delivered in a style that polarised the audience but made each and everyone think presented a rare glimpse of a generally unknown and unseen side of this clever man.

    A film of his speech can be seen freely here:

    It's well worth watching, learning from and taking into account on the context of rememberance.

  • Comment number 5.

    "For someone with an anti-establishment persona, it was ironic that he chose to be an entrepreneur, the career path of choice for any right-thinking Thatcherite. But it was this sort of contradiction that made McLaren so compelling."

    Not really a contradiction at all. In 1970s Britain, to be an entrepreneur was practically a revolutionary act.

    As Thatcher herself is said to have shouted once (after too much sherry and having jumped onto a sofa) "I am the rebel head of an establishment government".

  • Comment number 6.

    Malcolm was great, one of the few cultural commentators worth listening to, along with Paul Morley. I'm genuinely sad he has gone.

  • Comment number 7.

    Punk had a massive impact on my life: growing up working class in a small town up north, my generation really did have no future. Most of the kids at my school went straight to Borstal. All you middle-class media types can talk all you like about the wit and the cleverness and the artistry of it all, but to us the sight of four obnoxious and talentless yobs doing something genuinely creative and exciting, that sent our elders into a frothing frenzy, was just so liberating: suddenly, we knew we could do whatever WE wanted, and not what THEY said we had to do. I stuck two fingers up at the careers officer who offered me a welder's job, and went off to be an artist and graphic designer.

    I'm not surprised Johnny's mellowed his views about Malcolm: there was always a hint of a confused father/son rejection about their relationship. Lydon's a very intelligent man, who's stayed true to his principles all these years, rather than go along with some of McLaren's madder schemes. Sad (pun intended) Vicious wasn't clever enough to think for himself, and look what happened to him. I don't think even McLaren wanted Sid to die, but he certainly encouraged his destructive behaviour. I think John blamed Malcolm for Sid's death for many years, but maybe John's come to realise that Malcolm wasn't really that in control of anything, least of all Sid. Actually, Malcolm took far more credit for Punk than he deserved: yes, he was a huge catalyst, but he didn't act alone, and he couldn't have done it without Vivienne Westwood, who defined the look, Jamie Reid who created the style, and the Pistols who perfectly summed up the thoughts and attitude of a generation. Malcolm was more of a man who had an idea how to cause a fuss, but had no real idea of where it would all lead, and then acted surprised when it blew up in his face on occasion. Together though, they were far greater than the sum of their parts, and along with those who came after them, like the Clash, Siouxsie etc, they changed the world. And that's no mean achievement. No-one can ever do it again without being accused of copying. And whereas pop has had it's Svengalis since, and will no doubt continue to, no-one can ever say that Simon Cowell's legacy will be as great as McLaren's.

    Think I'll go and play some old records now....

  • Comment number 8.

    I was a bit on the young side to get swept up in punk when it first started being only 12 but I remember listening to the pistols later on and thinking 'this is for me!!'

    A great man, a sad day, never forgotten.


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