When Johnny Rotten (née Lydon) closed the Sex Pistols’ final show by sneering, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?,” his query was directed as much to the band’s notorious svengali, Malcolm McLaren, as to the audience.
McLaren, an art-school dropout with a taste for semiotic sound-bites and sixth-form provocation, carefully contrived the Pistols for maximum confrontation value. He hand-picked each band member as much for their talents as their grit-in-the-oyster qualities.
A combustion engine sparking on all cylinders, the Pistols’ internal conflicts made the music burn that much faster and brighter. Lydon, the spit-and-vinegar Dickensian urchin, was pitted against the conventional pop sensibilities of Glen Matlock, with Messrs. Cook and Jones providing solid backup. (Vicious was added later, for maximum disruption value.)
Artfully crafted to shock, the results exceeded McLaren’s wildest expectations —and changed the face of music forever.
After the Pistols, lightning never struck twice for McLaren, not with Duck Rock, Waltz Darling or even the Lolita arch-pop of Bow Wow Wow (although that came close).
Ultimately, it’s hard to know where to stand on him: was he a postmodern visionary or a hack? Cultural appropriator or genius? Svengali trickster or pop-cultural cut chemist?
An infuriating blend of urbane sophisticate and schoolboy, sniggering over pornography and juvenile pranks, McLaren made himself very difficult to admire.
While he hardly invented punk or hip-hop (the very thought is ridiculous), he had a major talent for bringing vanguard art, music, and dance to the attention of the right people at the right time. (He gets points for bringing a collagist, mash-up sensibility to the fore long before it became the norm.)
In the end, though, he won the begrudging respect of even his most vociferous detractors, thanks to his daffy wit and uncanny ability to mesh wildly disparate cultural phenomena.
I leave you with one of his finest cross-genre cut-ups, “Double Dutch,” released in 1983.
PHOTO BY ANDREA FELDMAN