Malcolm McLaren: never mind the music, heres the sexed-up publicists
I reckon the tributes to punk impresario Malcolm McLaren have been selling the old rascal short.
Too much focus on the music, too little attention being paid to the spectacle, the protest and the deliberate stage management of outrage.
Yes, the Sex Pistols worked well musically – powerhouse drumming and guitars, nice bovver-boy backing vocals and the curdled genius of John Lydon’s words and vocal style. As a British take on Iggy & The Stooges or the New York Dolls they sounded (and still sound) powerful. They were definitely different (something else) to ELO, Queen or radio-friendly disco and to my (very) untutored 13-year-old ears they were pretty … amazing.
But why was a callow Midlands lad like myself even hearing about the Sex Pistols? In a word: publicity. Lots of it. McLaren was a huckster, a Tin Pan Alley promoter for the punk age. And instead of “respectable” 50s sharp practice to flog Tommy Steele or Lonnie Donegan, McLaren saw the value of provocation. With a mixture of happenstance and guile, he realised that stuffy 70s Britain was a perfect playground for generating negative publicity that he could turn to his advantage. Cash from chaos etc.
So in June 1977 we had the Sex Pistols playing God Save The Queen on a boat on the Thames outside the Houses of Parliament during the Queen’s silver jubilee. There was a clothes shop called Sex that sold rubber fetish wear. And a post-Pistols project with Bow Wow Wow, fronted by a 13-year-old Burmese girl around whom stories of manipulation and even child abuse swirled dangerously but hype-inducingly.
In an alternative universe Malcolm McLaren would have been an excellent addition to Amnesty’s campaigns team. Amnesty goes punk! We’ve actually staged a fair few McLarenesque stunts – taking 300 people in orange Guantanamo jumpsuits to the US embassy in London; driving a pink tank around Edinburgh to promote Amnesty’s events at the Festival; filling Trafalgar Square with gravestones to publicise the human cost of an unregulated international arms trade. We’ve got another one on Shell at our AGM in Coventry tomorrow.
Among the tributes to McLaren the publicist Mark Borkowski on Channel Four News last night said he was in the mould of the legendary circus promoter PJ Barnum. But curiously enough, I think for a publicist Borkowski sold his own idea seriously short.
McLaren was certainly a promoter who saw how the punk circus could set up its tents in Britain’s blasted post-war industrial wastelands (punk historian Jon Savage is especially good on this). But he was also a provocateur who used ideas from French situationist theorists like Guy Debord. Basically, this meant creating a rich cultural spectacle that would be deliberately disruptive, ripping through the everyday to provide new angles, new ideas and news headlines.
(Actually, it wasn’t all media-baiting filth and fury with the Sex Pistols. A friend of mine has made a brilliant short film about how they did a little-publicised benefit gig for striking firefighters in Huddersfield on Christmas Day 1977. They even did a children’s party in the afternoon, complete with jelly, cakes and balloons!)
But as the gimp-masked charlatan who wanted to scare the adults but enthuse the kids, McLaren clearly knew his PR. He saw that Callaghan’s complacent, small-c conservative country needed shaking up a bit. Four dishevelled men in ragged clothes and safety pins howling out an ominous, disdainful noise about the UK’s anarchy and decay did this perfectly. Rock on ….
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