Malcolm McLaren 1946-2010 Photo Bernardo Rodriguez/EPA
An Observer interview with Malcolm McLaren from 2008 is reprinted in The Guardian today. It contains one of the best pieces of advice you'll ever read. He says one of his personal rules is to, 'turn left if you're supposed to turn right'. I'm someone who does that instinctively anyway, for probably the same reason. I assume if someone is telling me to go in one direction, it can only mean there is something more interesting happening on the other road. My curiosity has always been of the Pandora's Box variety too. It's one thing to venture down such a road in the privacy of your own imagination but quite another to toss your rebellion into the face of the establishment. In 1970s Britain that took a special kind of courage. The kind Malcolm McLaren had.
By the time I got there a few years later, the revolution was complete. The Sex Pistols had come and gone and No. 430 King's Road had already morphed into its final incarnation of World's End, where it remains an outlet for Vivienne Westwood's eccentric follies. But Britain was not the same place it had been before the banned God Save the Queen reached No. 1 in 1977. Malcolm McLaren had turned sharp left and taken the paradigm with him. Three decades later it's impossible not see the influence of the punk years everywhere you go in London, from the persistent popularity of tartan and DMs to the cultural confidence that is stamped all over the music, the fashion and the art. Britain was born again, as an anarchist.
Coming from staid old Australia - which hasn't changed I regret to say - I was thrilled at how militant everyone was in Britain. Even though there was still an entire decade of Thatcher to get through, the underground - the youth, women's and leftist movements seemed to dominate the cultural landscape. There was a pub on every second corner and a homegrown arts project on every other corner. Everyone was starting a band or a fanzine or setting up a print studio or photography lab or drama group. McLaren said, 'punk made ugliness beautiful,' and in London at the beginning of the 1980s it was easy to see that this was true.
McLaren may have picked up the idea for punk in New York but English punk was different from Iggy and the Stooges or MC5. It was more political. It challenged the class system to its core. It enabled activism through music like the Rock Against Racism movement which more or less crippled skin-head violence by undermining its generational credibility and appropriating its accoutrements. It pulled everyone into the musical tent. There were women punks, gay punks and disabled punks in bands. And then it spliced with ska to form two-tone and suddenly there were multiracial bands everywhere.
Andy Warhol, whom McLaren greatly admired, said, 'an artist is someone who makes something that people don't need'. It is precisely because of this absence of self-regard that he is the most significant artist of the last fifty years. McLaren is cast in the same mould. Like Warhol, he believed in ideas rather than product. He told Australian TV host Andrew Denton, 'Punk rock was an idea. I try to make ideas happen, ideas that could change life.' Like Warhol, he poured his energy into ideas and was amused at the public's enthusiasm for the product. Like Warhol, he came to realise he was the product. 'I remain permanently cool,' he remarked to Denton with no irony whatever.
John Lydon called him a thief. Not a thief, a bricoleur.