Malcolm McClaren, the Svengali behind the Sex Pistols, passed away on Thursday at the age of 64. McLaren’s audacious promotion helped turn the Pistols into Public Enemy Number One in England during 1976, and he certainly bears a good deal of responsibility for popularizing punk as a fashion statement via his London boutique, SEX.
But anyone who thinks McLaren was the inventor of punk as a musical style ought to check out what bands like the Stooges, the New York Dolls, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and the Ramones and others were doing before he came along (he ruined the Dolls, actually), to say nothing of countless Sixties garage bands anthologized on the Nuggets, and Pebbles series of compilations. And anyone who thinks that McLaren was the real brains behind the Sex Pistols would do well to check out Julien Temple’s incredible documentary, The Filth and the Fury.
The movie acts as a counter to Temple’s 1978 mockumentary, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, which tells the story of the Pistols from McLaren’s point of view. Watching the documentary, it’s abundantly clear that John Lydon (a/k/a Johnny Rotten, the Pistols’ lead singer) was nobody’s fool, and more than two decades after the fact (the movie was released in 2000), the venom he reserves for McClaren rivals that with which he delivered such memorably antisocial statements like, “I am an antichrist!” and “God save the queen, the fascist regime!” Just as it’s the players who deserve the credit for winning a ballgame or a World Series, it’s the Sex Pistols themselves who deserve the credit as a band who could peel paint off the walls. They were a fucking force. “This band wasn’t about making people happy,” recalls Lydon. “It was attack. Attack, attack, attack.”
To the assertion that it was McLaren that created the Rotten persona, Lydon replied:
You don’t create me. I am me. There is a difference… There was never a relationship with the manager, for me, other than he would always try to steal my ideas and claim them to be his own. I had to accept that he was the manager, because he was their manager before I joined the band.
Here’s the first of 11 segments of the movie, sliced and diced via YouTube:
Here’s the band performing “God Save the Queen”:
Of course, there are two sides to every story. The Guardian offers a rather balanced take on McLaren’s relationship with the Pistols:
He was a nonpareil orchestrator of outrage during their early career, but proved incapable of dealing with its consequences. McLaren knew exactly what buttons to press, but seemed to have no idea what to do once he’d pressed them: fatally so in the case of Sid Vicious, who was only too willing to play the monster role that McLaren wrote for him right up to a suitably grim conclusion.
…It wasn’t until after the band split up that McLaren attempted to reassert his authority over the Sex Pistols: rewriting their story in the film The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle as a masterplan he had controlled all along, the band merely his stooges. It wasn’t a terribly convincing argument, nor was it a terribly good film.
Understandably outraged, Johnny Rotten has spent the subsequent years airbrushing McLaren from the Sex Pistols story, pointing out that the music had nothing to do with him, reinventing the band as autodidacts who would have been even more successful without his interference.
But that seems reductive too: without McLaren’s ideas, his art-school grounding in Situationism, without the clothes he and Vivienne Westwood designed for them, the Sex Pistols wouldn’t have been the same band, nor would they have had the same impact. Neither party would ever admit it, but they needed each other.
Still, if nothing else, the ongoing argument meant Malcolm McLaren remained a controversial figure up to his death, and will remain a controversial figure beyond it – which is presumably just what he wanted.
Even Lydon had a few kind words for the manager as he shuffled off this mortal coil: “For me Malc was always entertaining, and I hope you remember that. Above all else he was an entertainer and I will miss him, and so should you.”