Malcolm McLaren, who died yesterday at 64, hasn’t even been laid to rest yet, but fans and detractors are already fighting over his legacy. Was the Sex Pistols impresario a brilliant punk mastermind, worthy of adulation for staging one of the 20th century’s wildest and most important cultural revolutions? Or was he merely the libertine perv who pushed teenage Bow Wow Wow singer Annabella Lwin to pose naked for an album cover? As far as we’re concerned, he was a little of both. But, love him or hate him, this much is indisputable: Malcolm McLaren changed the world.
Although he tried everything from art to music to politics, McLaren will be remembered first and foremost as a hype man. So the best way we can think of to honor his memory is by counting down the 10 greatest products he sold us, in four decades as a huckster extraordinaire.
10. Jimmy the Hoover Haven’t heard of Jimmy the Hoover? You’re probably not alone. The pop band McLaren named and managed was a one-hit wonder in the UK with tropically influenced “Tantalise” and toured with Bow Wow Wow.
9. Bow Wow Wow We like “I Want Candy” and all, and we have a certain fondness for New Romantic — the fashion trend McLaren formed the band to promote. But since we’re no fans of the sexual exploitation of minors, we’re going to have to rank this below most of his other achievements.
8. Malcolm McLaren Sometimes, McLaren was his in own product — as in the ’80s, when he began releasing strange concept albums like the hip hop/world music fusion Duck Rock and the pop/opera mashup Fans. He also became a film and TV producer, flirted with politics, and showed up on British reality TV. But unchecked Malcolm McLaren could be better in theory than in practice, and his later records generally ranged from unlistenable to irrelevant.
7. 8-bit culture Never let it be said that Malcolm McLaren failed to embrace the new. In fact, in 2003, he contributed an article to Wired praising the nascent genre of 8-bit video game-derived music as “a new kind of folk music for the digital age.” McLaren was so inspired that he designed a kids’ fashion line and appeared in the machinima series This Spartan Life.
6. Agent Provocateur What did Malcolm McLaren have to do with this renowned purveyor of high-end unmentionables? Why, he was only the father of its co-founder Joseph Corré. So while the brand isn’t technically his, we give him credit for “co-producing” (with Vivienne Westwood) its main man.
5. Adam and the Ants McLaren is all over the story of Adam and the Ants: The young Adam Ant quit his first, boring pub band after seeing the hype man’s legendary Sex Pistols in the mid-’70s. Later on, McLaren managed the gorgeously glam New Romantic group for a short time — that is, until a personality clash caused him to abandon Ant and steal his backing band. The result: Bow Wow Wow. Considering that a reformed Adam and the Ants’ insanely successful Kings of the Wild Frontier emerged post-McLaren, we’re going to go ahead and say he hitched his wagon to the wrong horses. Still, Adam Ant would never have had the French Revolution-meets-Apache warrior look that made the girls go wild if not for McLaren.
4. Bondage as fashion Outsider fashionistas, from kids in spikes and mohawks with safety pins thrust through their ears, noses and mouths to slick, leather-and-latex-wearing goths, take note: You owe your look to the music-and-fashion power couple Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. In 1975, the duo transformed their trendy hipster boutique Too Fast to Live Too Young to Die (formerly Let It Rock) into the bondage-themed SEX. It’s impossible to overestimate the enduring influence of the shop’s sadomasochistic mating of street style and hardcore BDSM gear.
3. Situationism Perhaps the one constant in McLaren’s varied and bizarre career was Situationism, a largely French mid-century anti-capitalist movement that advocated expanding and embracing the infinite possibilities of life. It was about anarchy and fun, challenging mass culture and creating it anew. As Greil Marcus argues at delicious length in Lipstick Traces , quite possibly the best book ever written about pop music, it was also the driving force behind punk.
2. The New York Dolls At the height of early-’70s glam rock, who should stumble into McLaren and Westwood’s store but the legendary New York Dolls? In an obituary for the New York Times, William Grimes makes quick work of describing what happened next: “Mr. McLaren followed the group to the United States and became its manager. He dressed the band members in red clothing based on the Soviet flag, placed politically provocative slogans onstage and presided over their swift demise.” But there’s no denying the Dolls were a great product, even if America wasn’t buying them.
1. The Sex Pistols Unlike the New York Dolls, the Sex Pistols were Malcolm McLaren’s brainchild. They only last for a few short years, but in that time, they changed the entire pop music landscape and brought British punk to the masses. The band’s druggy, self-destructive, provocative, politically radical persona was Situationism in action. They cursed on TV, self-harmed onstage, and blasted the searing “God Save the Queen” from the speakers of a boat within earshot of Parliament on the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee. Most of all, they convinced thousands of kids to stop falling in line and start fucking shit up. It’s no accident that the band, to this day McLaren’s greatest achievement, was both a cynical grab for fame and fortune and an honest stab at shaking up the social order.