Capitalism for Punks

Malcolm McLaren, RIP

Arguably the most anarchist force ever unleashed by pop culture (their bitter, funny "God Save the Queen" was redacted from the top of the U.K. pop charts because it defamed Elizabeth II), the great punk band the Sex Pistols were managed by impresario Malcolm McLaren, who died of mesothelioma at age 64 on April 8. Whatever his ostensible cultural inclinations and artistic pretensions, McLaren was always first and foremost a capitalist—often to the horror of the notoriously cynical band he unleashed.

The first (very forced) rhyme yelled on the very first Sex Pistols single is "I am an Anti-Christ/ I am an anarchist." But the subtler, more ironic, and far less angry McLaren was prone to more effete, Wildean pronouncements such as, "Stealing things is a glorious occupation, particularly in the art world." He cycled quickly between projects, including managing a few famous rock acts such as Adam Ant and Bow Wow Wow, but he would never again accomplish anything that seemed as raw and powerful—and looked as little like silly dilettantism—as did the Sex Pistols.  

In a reminder how short a span passed between the peak of the hippie era and the dawn of punk (wide as that temporal and cultural gulf seemed at the time), McLaren went quickly from watching the riotous events of May '68 and admiring the absurdist-anarchist antics of the Situationists to opening a clothing store in 1971, soon making it the springboard for the entire punk movement. By selling clothes, he was remaining in the family business, since he'd grown up in the rag trade before drifting through art school, but unlike his adoptive mom, he would use clothes to shock. Even while arguably turning music into a mere subset of fashion, he would push music in a more rebellious direction. 

Repeatedly changing the store's name—from Let It Rock to Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die and eventually to SEX—McLaren made it an outlet for sadomasochist fetish clothing, an aesthetic that, for good or ill, would have a huge influence on punk (with its leather, studs, chains, and violent tears) and on the dark, vampiric tone of the goth subculture. Bourgeois society is adept at absorbing any ostensibly radical blow and selling it back to us partly tamed. This clothing, like punk itself, was meant to be a slap in the face of mainstream culture, but it was also meant to sell.

The Marquis de Sade (and, more recently, Camille Paglia) might argue that after a period of liberationist optimism (such as the hippie episode), a more aggressive period of negativity is inevitable, as people remembered that unfettered human nature is not all sweetness and light. There's a sense in which de Sade was conservative relative to Rousseau simply because de Sade was more pessimistic, more aware of our potential for violence. The same is arguably true of the punks relative to the hippies. And perhaps even of those Republican bondage fans recently reimbursed by the Republican National Committee relative to, say, mellow residents of a free love commune.

Punk toyed with dark and brutal forces, yet McLaren was mainly looking to make a buck, get famous, and have fun. Always eager to glom onto the potential Next Big Thing, McLaren did a short, unsuccessful stint managing the proto-punk band New York Dolls, then took the lessons he learned on Manhattan's Lower East Side back home to England, where in 1975 he recruited a teenaged John Lydon and helped turn him into Sex Pistols lead singer Johnny Rotten, the real anarchist genius behind the band's snarling energy. After that, McLaren was less ringmaster than a man holding a tiger by the tail. His greatest creation would break up three years after it began, transforming rock 'n' roll—spawning all the punk, New Wave, alternative rock, and indie bands that have followed—but not becoming the lasting cash cow McLaren had hoped for.

McLaren would go on to dabble in everything from rap to painting, occasionally finding some small measure of success remixing a song or putting on an art show, making the odd TV appearance or co-producing a film, but never again capturing anything like the dark magic of the Sex Pistols.

My friend and fellow libertarian Dave Whitney, who managed the alternative-rock station WBRU in Providence back when we were in college in the early 1990s, says of McLaren: "He kinda got credit for creating the Sex Pistols and marketing them to fame—or infamy, really.  But when you step back and look at the bigger picture, I don't think he was really that successful. He touched on the lives of creative people who went on to greater glory, like Johnny Rotten and [fashion designer] Vivienne Westwood. But once the Pistols flared and fizzled, he tried like hell to keep the fires burning unsuccessfully—and sort of cynically and sadly. And the things he did afterwards never really took off. Compare the Pistols to the Monkees, as many people have—both fabricated bands that outgrew their roots...at the end of the day, the Pistols were bigger than McLaren."

Poor McLaren would even end up being depicted as the money-grubbing villain in the book adaptation of the first documentary about the Sex Pistols—in typically anarchic Sex Pistols fashion, the book version of The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle was done in sci-fi novel form by left-anarchist author Michael Moorcock, and the band members were depicted mournfully seeking back pay from McLaren while fighting machine gun battles in the ruins of London.

Still, as much as the reflexively negative Rotten might hate to admit it, there is an obvious McLaren influence on Rotten's major post-Pistols project, the band Public Image Ltd. "We're not a band, we're a corporation," Rotten insisted, in a very McLarenesque fashion, to American TV host Tom Snyder when the band was first being unveiled—to the profoundly awkward befuddlement of the straight-laced Snyder. Rotten wanted to seem monstrous and, for a time, acting like Malcolm McLaren seems to have been the darkest thing he could imagine. That's no small tribute, really.

Todd Seavey's blog's slogan is "conservatism for punks," and his essay by that title will appear in a conservative anthology out later this year. This column first appeared at Reason.com.





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