Malcom McLaren died this week, and judging by many comments on Facebook, there seem to be many folks that are much less than mournful. In fact, some seem jaded to a level at which they feel the need to express their dis-ease with being the least bit affected by this monumental swindler’s passing, in very cavalier – even snide – ways. This is funny to me – strange, and strangely typical – that “jadesters” would be so judgmental, so quickly, and with such bravado in large measure.
I have to call bullshit on their attitudes – or at least their cavalier comments – and cite the place McLaren occupies in rock history in his defense. I’ll spare you, and them, the repetition of their comments here in toto. Suffice to say that the general attitude swings from a feeling of “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” to some self-righteous comments about how misguided the man’s mourners must be. I disagree. Swindler, provocateur, unabashed capitalist manipulator, whatever Malcolm is being posthumously bashed for – I believe he deserves much more credit than he’s being given.
McLaren’s historic achievement is his role as the person who put together The Sex Pistols – arguably one of the most incendiary devices in the explosion of all latter punk rock. This group of marginally talented boys became a sort of “band zero” in the late ’70s and ’80s British music infection – at least to a widespread and under-informed audience in the US and Europe. Of course their existence was inspired by loads of American ’70s bands – specifically The Ramones, Stooges, yadda, yadda, yadda . . . (chances are, if you’re reading this, you’re pretty well aware of this underground history, so I won’t bore you with it again. If you don’t, check out a simple timeline of punk HERE).
The significance of their back-wash introduction of punk in the US – the British strain – in the late ’70s is that, outside of New York and Los Angeles, most of the States had no idea what was going on elsewhere with one of their musical birthrights. Most were still under the stifling inoculation against innovation, creativity and provocation that is a by-product of, and a necessary anesthetic for, typical A&R music culture. Homogenized, pre-packaged, etc., etc., etc. – people were bored into a comatose state, and musically nourished by the feeding tube from the American music industry’s rock machine.
So, when The Sex Pistols came to the US for their one and only tour, they were both welcomed and deeply reviled.
Nothing surprising or really revelatory here – and most of you know all of this history, anyway. The notion I want to focus on is what McLaren, despite his ulterior commercial motives and confidence games, ended up inspiring.
Consider: any grifter knows you can’t steal something that someone ultimately doesn’t want to lose. A good confidence man or woman merely needs to convince their victim that it was their decision to willingly give away the item (or in this case, belief) in question that led the victim of the con to loss or expense. And, if you’re really, really good, you then convince them that they’re actually better off than they ever have been for having lost. Look at Bernard Madoff, if you need a reminder.
Ultimately, McLaren’s true talent was in recognizing when to put together the correct ingredients – readily available in yet another group of disenfranchised youth on the streets – to add to a mixture that was already hungry for change, and confused by their circumstances. All he had to do was present the Sex Pistols as the next salve for an ailing youth, to start a chain reaction. The public who (eventually) accepted this as a new “movement,” and spread it like wildfire for a few years, were as hungry for exploitation as Malcolm was for money.
What McLaren (most likely) didn’t intend was to become some sort of cultural figure. Nor is it at all likely that he intended to be one of the major gravitational figures around which rock ‘n roll’s trajectory changed forever. And it’s likely the anger streaming from the jaded hipster community towards any recognition for McLaren comes from the fact that he is, in fact, credited with just that.
The truth is, he is responsible for a large share of it, regardless of his motives. McLaren pushed the Sex Pistols onto a willing, starving public that was intellectually flat-lining, and sucked out what he could. It may seem unjust that he profited from “The Great Rock ‘n Roll Swindle” (in which, keep in mind, he readily and constantly admitted total complicity, both publicly and flamboyantly), but his gain was nothing in comparison to what the Sex Pistols ultimately added to the evolution of music. The weight of their presence was enough to divert the course of rock history, in the same way a black hole – even a small one – diverts the course of light, and everything else.
That change in direction led to the most explosive growth in creativity and innovation in rock – and in just about all the arts – since the Beatles. It is that change, that growth, for which we all owe McLaren a debt of simple gratitude. At least we ought to recognize where he fit in the picture, and appreciate his contribution to the timeline – however misguided initially.
My rant – for those who are so jaded as to not recognize (or not choose to appreciate) McLaren’s contribution – would be better centered around how everything that resulted from his influence, or from The Ramones’, Stooges’ or anyone else’s, has so easily been assimilated back into the machine, and is now being spoon fed to us and upcoming generations of future “jadesters,” in exactly the same way the pabulum was being fed to people then – only now with the speed and force of a thousand firehoses.
This, in my opinion, is what the rock literati should be lamenting, rather than the dubious motives behind a master con-man’s single, greatest scheme.
Who is McLaren’s replacement? And which band is slouching toward which next megalopolis, waiting to be born?
I don’t see any contenders. Not really.
Anyone up to proving otherwise?