When at First You Succeed...: Remembering Malcolm McLaren
Alright. Given my previous post, one might be forgiven for wondering whether this site were going to become one driven entirely by obituaries. Rest assured: it won’t.
Nonetheless, I can’t help but briefly mark the news that came to me a few hours ago: the legendary impresario and professional charlatan Malcolm McLaren has died at the age of 64, after a long bout with mesothelioma. All of the major media outlets, no doubt, will focus the bulk of their attention on the role he played in bringing the Sex Pistols’ brand of punk to a wider audience beginning late in 1976. The story will, no doubt, be padded by mentions of the New York Dolls, Vivienne Westwood, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle and Bow Wow Wow. And it’s pretty much there where the story will end. McLaren as a historical footnote, albeit one attached to a number of controversial moments in the history of rock music.
As with any other figure, though, McLaren’s story is more complex. His attempts to expand his celebrity and influence throughout the 1980s were a great reminder that one needs more than an interesting idea and marketing savvy to remake the world. It’s true that the collaborations—especially with Trevor Horn and The World’s Famous Supreme Team—that led to the album Duck Rock (1983) have been influential: listen to “Buffalo Gals” and “World’s Famous” and you might recognize that elements from both have recurred in hip-hop, R&B and dance music over the last few decades. And it’s a shame that the only place to hear excellent tracks like “She’s Looking like a Hobo/Hobo Scratch” from the D'ya Like Scratchin’? EP (1983) is on a now out-of-print compilation called Buffalo Gals—Back to Skool (1998). (The cynic in me wonders whether a lot of McLaren’s material might be resurfacing soon.)
It’s just as true, though, that after Duck Rock, McLaren’s productions seemed less and less in synch with or predictive of currents in popular music and culture. If you don’t remember the albums Fans (1984) or Waltz Darling (1989)—attempts to marry dance music with opera and instrumental concert music, respectively—do some searches, and read about them. They are puzzling projects, ones that fail far more than they succeed. Indeed, the story of Sigue Sigue Sputnik, the band that perhaps most famously and crassly attempted Sex Pistols-style marketing and manipulation, is probably the limit case for understanding the efficacy of McLaren’s creative and marketing strategies.
And in McLaren’s failed attempts to remake the popular music soundscape (and expose some of its vapidity) perhaps we see his legacy more clearly. Luck and knowing cynical manipulation might help one to produce fascinating things. And, if one has the resources to continue trying new things with little regard for success or failure, some of those things might register profoundly and take on greater significance as they circulate in time and space. While the eulogies for McLaren will probably focus on his successes without saying much about his privileges or his post-Pistols failures, I’m glad to have been around for the latter. I think those who care might learn a lot more from them…