Image Credit: Michael Putland/Getty ImagesMalcolm McLaren was best known for managing, and to a large extent molding, punk icons the Sex Pistols. But McLaren, who died today in Switzerland of mesothelioma at the age of 64, according to the New York Times, was far more than just a music impresario. He once described himself as ”an artist – but without necessarily the portfolio. If you say an artist, then at least it means you’re a dreamer. That element of being able to dream has to stay with you for you, to be able to do anything that breaks convention.”
McLaren certainly enjoyed breaking conventions. He was born on January 22, 1946, and in the early 1970s he opened a clothing store in London called Let It Rock with his then partner, the designer Vivienne Westwood. The pair later renamed the store SEX, and the S&M-inspired clothing they sold at the revamped emporium would play a large part in the creation of the punk “look.” For a spell, McLaren managed proto-punkers the New York Dolls, but it was his masterminding of the Sex Pistols’ career from 1975 until their dissolution just a few years later that would make his name. McLaren was instrumental in both creating the band and marketing them as cultural agent provocateurs. He was very much the “fifth” Pistol, and the 1980 film about the band, The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, essentially told the story of the quartet from his perspective.
Following the demise of the Pistols, McLaren began managing the new wave act Bow Wow Wow who scored a hit in America with the track “Go Wild in the Country.” The band also caused controversy with an E.P. cover that depicted singer Annabella Lwin, then just 14, naked. The photo was a typical McLaren stunt that combined provocativeness with a high art sensibility—the photo was inspired by Manet’s painting The Luncheon on the Grass.
In 1983 McLaren decided that, having helped make stars out of Johnny Rotten et al., he would perform the same service on himself and released the world music- and hip-hop-influenced album Duck Rock. That collection included the UK hits “Double Dutch” and “Buffalo Gals,” a track that would later be sampled by Eminem for his song “Without Me.” McLaren followed Duck Rock with 1984’s opera-inspired Fans, and then in 1989 put out the Bootsy Collins-featuring, disco-driven, Waltz Darling.
Over the next twenty years McLaren pursued an extraordinary range of projects. In 1991 he wrote a film for the U.K.’s Channel 4 network called The Ghosts of Oxford Street which featured songs by Tom Jones and the Happy Mondays, among others. He was also one of the producers of the 2006 film Fast Food Nation. In the summer of 2009 a video installation by McLaren called Shallow was shown in Times Square.
Not all of McLaren’s artistic endeavors were commercial successes, but none could be described as dull. In August of last year, McLaren was asked by the London Guardian to relate the best advice anyone every gave him. His reply? “A goatee-bearded art lecturer said: ‘It is better to be a flamboyant failure than any kind of benign success.’ For me, those words define punk rock.”
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