Nevermind the Genius

Nevermind the Genius

It has been said that one should never speak ill of the dead. And with the death of Malcolm McLaren on April 8th of mesothelioma, most of the artists who once worked with him seem to be abiding by that old adage.

John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten of McLaren's flagship Sex Pistols, declared the day after the late svengali's passing that he 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." Similar statements have been released from other artists managed by McLaren, from the New York Dolls' David Johansen to Bow Wow Wow's Annabella Lwin.

At first glance, the praise does seem fair. McLaren, controversial though he may have been, was indeed always entertaining. Moreover, the entertainment he created definitely puts him in the rare company of those who changed the face of popular music forever. 

But it would be a mistake to think that these earth-shattering moments were simply the creation of a benign genius reaching down from his god-given pedestal. On the contrary, the story running under McLaren's contributions were more akin to those of a Mexican maquiladora: rife with two-faced manipulations, an often vicious brand of exploitation and blatant disregard for basic humanity.

Lydon himself sang a very different tune about McLaren in the Pistols doc The Filth and the Fury: "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."

McLaren never did have a problem boiling the concept of originality down to sheer personal gain. When he first met Lydon it was when the young burgeoning punk frequented SEX, the clothing shop that McLaren ran with Vivienne Westwood on London's King's Road. Compared to the flares and open shirts that were popular in the early '70s, the spiked leather and rubber that hung on the racks at SEX were a real shock.

This was, of course, the point. Born in North London in 1946, the future impresario had been profoundly influenced by the Situationist ideas that emanated from the Paris uprisings of 1968. When he brought Lydon on board and completed the original Sex Pistols lineup, it was a way of extending those chaotic and radical ideas to music and culture. And though that combination of shock, anger and rebellion would always be front-and-center in punk's aesthetics, McLaren's personal brand of them seemed to fly in the face of the notion of freedom that punk crudely grasped for.

The idea of using the system to undermine it was a prominent feature of Situationism, but looking at McLaren's ideas on what he considered fair game for his art, one gets the impression that he took it way too far:

"I didn't think if I could be a sculptor I necessarily needed clay. I suddenly thought you can use people. And it's people that I used like an artist and manipulated."

From day one, this was the defining point of Malcolm McLaren's managerial and artistic style--the profoundly elitist view that people were fundamentally pawns and that nobody's personal integrity would get in the way of his outrageous artistic statements. This basic outlook would be applied the way he managed the Sex Pistols--who he once referred to as "my little artful dodgers"--with cutthroat effectiveness.

He had no bones playing members of the group against each other. Original bassist Glen Matlock was pushed out largely because McLaren had been aggravating the conflict between him and Lydon through outright lies about the other. This kind of "divide and conquer," as Matlock called it, was what allowed the infamous Sid Vicious to step in on bass.

In many ways, the example of Vicious illustrates McLaren's glaring contradictions. True, Vicious looked great onstage. His anarchic behavior contributed full well to the uncontrolled nihilism the band had become known for. He was a close personal friend of Lydon's. The one thing Sid Vicious couldn't do, it seems, was actually play bass! In other words, McLaren's idea of artistic shock-and-awe ran so deep that even the music itself was expendable.

Though these kinds of moves might have sold newspapers, the often unseen human consequences were enough to cancel out any good they might have done. McLaren had a clear talent for public stunts that provoked ire from the mainstream establishment--like the notorious invasion of Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee in 1977. There was no doubt that seeing a barge float up to the royal ceremonies blasting "God Save the Queen" was a kind of cathartic moment that countless disaffected kids took heart from. But the manager seemed indifferent to the violence that the song and event brought down on the band's members.

Rumor has it that when Lydon was landed in the hospital after getting a bottle smashed in his face--an attack that almost took his eye out--McLaren's reaction was "you can't buy publicity like that."

And, of course, it is widely accepted today that McLaren's divide-and-rule tactics were what ultimately did the Pistols in. During their only tour of America, McLaren flew from stop to stop with guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook while Lydon and Vicious rode in a run-down bus. Jones and Cook stayed in nice hotels while the others stayed in run-down motels or slept on the bus.

When they met up before their final show at San Francisco's Winterland Ballroom in January, 1978, McLaren managed to pull Sid away from Lydon. When he returned, Lydon saw that McLaren had taken Vicious to score smack, which the 20-year-old had been battling for quite some time and would take his life a year later.

The Pistols disintegrated after the Winterland show. Cook and Jones would soldier on with McLaren for a few months afterward, but even they would come around to realize that, as Jones said, "everyone on the planet knows Malcolm's full of shit."

As for Lydon, McLaren wouldn't even buy him a plane ticket back to the UK--which definitely puts Lydon's final words to the audience in a different light: "ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"


McLaren's subsequent projects would simultaneously take him to new creative heights and Machiavellian lows. Determined to have the last word on the Pistols' debacle, he employed director Julien Temple to tell the manager's version of events in The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle--even as Cook, Jones and Lydon took him to court over unpaid earnings.

"Swindle was McLaren's self-aggrandizing rewrite of recent history," writes music journalist Simon Reynolds. "The Pistols figured only as puppets with McLaren tugging the strings. Punk was portrayed not as a movement of working-class kids discovering their own power, but as a tour de force of cultural terrorism perpetrated by the arch-strategist McLaren according to a step-by-step master plan."

When he encountered Adam and the Antz in 1979, McLaren found his next batch of marionettes. After giving Adam Ant the boot, he transformed the group into the '80s pop mainstay Bow Wow Wow, featuring the new lead-singer: fourteen-year-old Annabella Lwin. Lwin, as well as the rest of Bow Wow Wow's members, were undoubtedly talented musicians and performers. Their songs took well to the difficult African polyrhythms McLaren urged them to emulate.

More important than the music for the manager, however, was that the new group follow his orders and acquiesce to their role as pawns in his game. Interviews would commonly feature McLaren doing all of the talking about the grand plans he had for the group and what their image supposedly represented in the midst of Thatcherism's rise to power.

To him, the solution to poverty and joblessness wasn't to fight back like so many punks had done in previous year, but rather to embrace unemployment: "So what if you don't have a job? I came back to England and everybody looks like bank clerks to me. They look like they're very, very worried, about their future, about money... Be a pirate. Wear gold and look like you don't need a job."

And just as the Pistols were taboo-breaking battering rams more than people, Lwin was a wedge with which to question sexual mores and exploitation--by having her participate in that same (often creepy) exploitation. McLaren's master scheme was to have Bow Wow Wow hit the big-time alongside the release of his magazine Chicken, which would prominently feature underage kids in compromising sexual positions.

At one of the photoshoots for Chicken, he prodded Lwin--then fifteen--to strip. When she refused, he found a thirteen-year-old who agreed--but only after he had reduced her to tears.

Fred Vermorel, at the time collaborating with McLaren on Chicken, claimed that the impresario's intention was "to create a child porn scandal implicating as many people as he could." When Vermorel became increasingly concerned about the direction of the project, McLaren shot back "you should be telling all this to the judge! When the shit hits the fan, I'll be in South America."

In his effort to shock bourgeois pretension, he ended up becoming the very thing he was supposedly opposing--an exploiter.

Did McLaren love the music he promoted? Most certainly. He was a man dedicated to concepts, to the "what if?" that so often gets ignored in the segregated world of pop music. His 1983 album Duck Rock is rightfully credited as a landmark in hip-hop's first efforts to punctuate the UK. Its incorporation of musical styles from Latin America and the Caribbean pre-dated the "world music" phenomenon by several years. But many of hip-hop's Bronx-bound pioneers found the creation insulting to what they did, and many of the artists included on its songs went uncredited for years.

The litany of manipulations, offenses, and often outright crimes that McLaren committed against those he managed and collaborated with are, in reality, standard in the modern music industry. What makes his own transgressions stand out, however, is that he was supposedly part of a musical movement that somehow sought to get past all the business as usual. McLaren was definitely swept up in the heady artistic times that pushed the boundaries of society, and in fact it would be wrong to say he didn't help usher those times in. Ultimately, however, the way in which he did so illustrates what is so fundamentally wrong with our society in the first place.

Writes Reynolds: "McLaren firmly believed in the 'great man' theory of history, the idea that through sheer will the visionary genius can transform everything. This conception of change as a top-down process, was profoundly antidemocratic and opposed to some of punk's core impulses."

Rumor has it that McLaren's last words on his deathbed were "Free Leonard Peltier." Perhaps it was his old days as a '60s radical that provoked him to say it. Or maybe he just couldn't shuffle off this mortal coil without causing one more controversy, no matter how many good people or causes were sullied in the process.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and activist living in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies (, and is a columnist for the Society of Cinema and Arts.  His work has also appeared in Z Magazine, New Politics,, CounterPunch, and the International Socialist Review.

He can be reached at