BBC News has a surprisingly not tone deaf appreciation of Malcolm McLaren up, although it pains me to remind myself that some people my age actually work at the BBC now — a shock to acknowledge, for those of us who, to some degree, still live in the past.
Like McLaren himself, apparently. An decidedly unamused friend writes to say that the impresario’s last words were reportedly, “Free Leonard Pelliter,” and for a split second, my wasted youth flashed before my eyes, complete with the fragrance of (then extremely hard to track down) fair trade coffee [“Sandinista coffee imported by OXFAM” as an emailer just reminded me] and Gestetner ink, and the tinny sound of someone else’s Billy Bragg tape churning and squeeking inside a ghetto blaster barely together with duct tape.
Meanwhile, John Lydon and the latest iteration of PiL performed on the Jimmy Kimmel Show a few days back, and he couldn’t resist wishing aloud that someone would stick a rifle up Sarah Palin’s butt or something. No doubt he sees Palin as another Thatcher (the woman to whom he actually owes his career; she really should be getting a tiny percentage of his royalties.)
Besides being a real life Faggin, Malcolm McLaren was the British Warhol, a professional trickster/parasite, with a weird gift that would have been useless (if not fatal) in a Bushman but can be supremely lucrative in our own age: as the BBC observes, McLaren had keen eye for cultural trends in the making.
But his timing was never quite right after the Pistols (or to put it more precisely, he was never as close to cultural ground zero again, never again part of the bomb’s mechanism, but rather the guy with the only Geiger counter, picking up hints of the fallout.)
And today, being off by a few years or even months can be the difference between getting rich and famous, or being praised in your obit as a quaint eccentric, “clearly ahead of his time blah blah blah”... and behind on one’s bills.
As for the title of this post, it leads me to voice a rare disagreement with Mark Steyn.
Not that anyone would expect Steyn even in his most anti-statist moments to have ever embraced punk — the only subculture it’s easy to imagine him (briefly) flirting with would be the mods — but it is no longer quite the thing to say that the Sex Pistols made bad music, in the fashion that thoughtless people call Plan 9 From Outer Space the worst movie ever made. (By definition, the worst movie ever made would be literally unwatchable, and millions of people including me have watched Plan 9 numerous times and quite enjoyed it. Even Michael Medved, the man who first granted Plan 9 that title, now regrets it.)
Of course, by Steyn’s standards, Never Mind the Bollocks... was terrible music. But those aren’t the standards of “rock” or whatever it is. Over thirty years later, the album holds up very well; even the “I don’t know the ****in’ words” outtakes are more entertaining and (to drag out that horribly overused word) energetic than 90% of what gets downloaded from iTunes.
The joke was on McLaren, and he occasionally acknowledged as much: the point of the Pistols, for McLaren the Situationist, was never the music — it was to have been the scrapbook full of outraged editorials and Sun frontpages the band was intended to generate.
Which they did — while almost accidentally putting out one of the greatest debut albums ever. Steve Jones, it turned out, was one hell of a guitar player;
before he was fired, “Fifth Pistol” Glen Matlock contributed some famous riffs; and of course, the alchemy of photography transformed the physically unpromising Johnny Rotten into a shockingly photogenic frontman, who possessed the literally twisted charisma of (to use his own explanation in The Filth and the Fury) Olivier’s Richard the Third. Not to mention a council flat Irishman’s gift for the devastating putdown (more for its delivery than its actual content) and nothing-to-lose attitude.
We will debate forever whether or not the famous “swindle” was The Plan all along, or just McLaren’s brilliant after the fact alibi, but the facts are not in dispute, and they’re ingenious: since their recording contract stated, as they all did, that if the label fired the band, they’d have to immediately pay the band the entire amount they’d signed for, the Pistols simply got themselves fired (by swearing on live TV, being arrested, and so forth).
They were promptly and predictably re-signed to another label that was most eager to take advantage of the ensuing controversy — who then fired the band for the same reasons the first one did… and had to pay up as well.
“Cash from chaos,” as McLaren summed it up later, having suddenly discovered a strange new (if still “transgressive”) respect for capitalism, a la Warhol.
“That ain’t bad for two weeks work,” the (awful yet annoyingly catchy non-Pistols) song went later, “and 75,000 pounds.”
(That’s 1977 pounds, or almost US$200,000 in those day’s admittedly inflation-contaminated currency, more money than these boys on the dole — or maybe anybody in the country except the Queen — could “earn” in a fortnight, unless they’d robbed a bank. (Hence McLaren’s idiotic affection for Ronnie Bigg’s of the Great Train Robbery, who, like the boys, had “got away wi’ it.”)
Idiotic because while it was “transgressive” and the Pistols and Co. seemed like outlaws and pirates, the swindle was also legal. In fact, it relied upon The Law to succeed. No one had thought to latch onto that legal loophole before, to make themselves literally unemployable then grab the “golden parachute” deal their contract promised. (And of course, “outlaw” Lydon later appealed to The Law, and won, to force McLaren to pay him money he was owed — as well as the right to call himself “Rotten”.)
Perhaps only a bunch of kids raised to “work” the welfare state system could have thought it up; does London School of Economics alum Mick Jagger ever wonder why the hell he never thought of it first? McLaren in this respect (and many others) makes Elvis’ Colonel look even more witless than he actually was.
A Situationist stunt meant to either “shock the Establishment” and/or simply pass the time, unleash some pent up creativity and have a laugh in the boring England of the 1970s turned into something lasting, important and very real. Certainly more than just that book of clippings that McLaren envisioned at the very start. Something to amuse himself in the old age he never quite got to have.