Friday, 9 April 2010

Remembering a true English eccentric - Malcolm McLaren (1946-2010)

A journalist acquaintance of mine has a fascinating story about Malcolm McLaren, who died yesterday aged 64, and one which sums up the spirit of the man beautifully. It took place at the offices of hotshot advertising agency Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury, who were responsible for the Tango ads. The agency had decided to host a series of "provocative cultural talks" by "off-beat thinkers", and Malcolm McLaren had been called upon to give the inaugural lecture. To a huge room full of ad types and journalists (of whom my acquaintance was one), he proceeded to give a very detailed and convincing argument which asserted that anyone working in the modern media industry today was using ideas, methods, images and techniques first developed by Dr. Josef Goebbels, and that they were all inheritors of the Nazi legacy. Everyone filed out in silence, and no further talks were organised

My own personal interaction with Malcolm McLaren is limited to a couple of occasions. The only time I ever met him personally was in a club just off Kensington High Street in West London during the 90s. Nobody seemed quite sure why he was there that night but, as this particular club was enjoying a brief spell as one of the place-to-be places, he was probably there just to see if there was anything noteworthy going on. I recall him being surrounded by a number of rather attractive young women, and he was wearing a well-cut, expensive-looking cream suit. Not wishing to cramp the man's style, I waited until his retinue had briefly thinned out before approaching him. I offered my hand and, in my somewhat refreshed state, thanked him for the profound and lasting effect he'd had upon my life. He looked at me disdainfully, as if to say, "Are you taking the piss?", but nonetheless shook my hand and said, "Well...thank you, I suppose". And that was that.

Several years later, our paths crossed once more. By then, I was working for a major music publisher who'd just done a deal with Malcolm to administer his catalogue. He was based in Paris, where he'd lived for some years with his partner/assistant Young Kim. At this point in what had already been a vividly colourful life, he was flitting between there and China, where he was cultivating a female Chinese punk band called the Wild Strawberries and talking up another of his discoveries, "chip music" or "8-bit punk" - low-tech DIY electro-pop built on sounds from old video games. Neither of these adventures bore much by way of fruit. But on this particular morning I'd been assigned the task of navigating the labyrinthine copyright nightmare that was Malcolm McLaren's music publishing interests, and I knew it was going to be difficult enough without the worry of whether or not I'd be able to maintain the appropriate degree of professional detachment. I called the Paris number I'd been given and, to my surprise, Malcolm himself answered. I said hello, explained who I was and why I was calling, and asked him where he thought would be the best place to begin the job of straightening everything out. "Weeeellll...", he began, "Many, many years ago, I used to run a boutique in the King's Road with a lady called Vivienne Westwood, who I was going out with at the time..." He was off. I sat there, grinning to myself and barely able to get a word in edgewise for almost half an hour, while Malcolm McLaren recounted the last thirty years of his life in very precise detail. He'd obviously grown used to dealing with people who didn't really know an awful lot about who he was or what he'd done, but I wasn't one of those people. At any point, I could have interrupted him and said, look, Malcolm, I know all this - I bought Anarchy In The UK the week it came out, I saw Bow Wow Wow in their Your Cassette Pet days, I taught myself how to mix using two copies of Buffalo Gals and, trust me, I am more than aware of your vast cultural significance as regards the development of punk and hip-hop. But we really need to talk business here...

Of course, I didn't. Fucking hell, why on Earth would I? One of the key catalysts of 20th century popular culture was talking to me, telling me his story. And Malcolm loved to tell a story, just as he loved the opportunity to place himself at the centre of it, even if the truth of the matter was often somewhat different. But I'll leave those sort of testimonies to the people best qualified to make them. When I think of Malcolm McLaren, I'll remember someone who brought ideas back to the centre of pop music, even if he'd cribbed many of those ideas from others. I'll remember an iconoclastic prankster who cut holes in the fences of art, culture, thought and politics that enabled millions of people to gain access to worlds they may otherwise never have even imagined. I'll remember the avuncular, yet charismatic raconteur with whom I was briefly on first-name terms. I'll remember the mischievous Svengali who was a landmark figure in that great and enduring tradition of provocative, manipulative, larger-than-life pop managers, alongside Larry Parnes, Andrew Loog Oldham, Simon Napier-Bell, Peter Grant, and many others. I'll remember a true English eccentric who revelled in the many things, big and small, that made (and continue to make) this country such a unique and vibrant place to live, work and create, and who never shied from offering a symbolic fuck-you to those people who still try to stifle and contain the wild, romantic, almost Pagan spirit at its heart. I'll remember someone whose work and ideas had a profound and lasting effect upon my life. And for that, Mr. McLaren, well...thank you, I suppose.

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