Remembering Malcolm McLaren

The former manager of the Sex Pistols and one of the seminal figures of the punk rock era, Malcolm McLaren, died Thursday, his son said. He was 64.

Joe Corre said his father died of an aggressive form of cancer in Switzerland, declining to give the exact location.

“He was the original punk rocker and revolutionized the world,” Corre told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “He’s somebody I’m incredibly proud of. He’s a real beacon of a man for people to look up to.”

Photo: AP Photo
Leaving Manhattan Criminal Court in New York, after the arraignment of Sid Vicious.

McLaren is best known for his work with the Pistols, whose violence, swearing, and antiestablishment antics shocked Britain and revolutionized the music scene. The band’s chaotic career owed much to their manager’s talent for self-promotion.

“Without Malcolm McLaren there would not have been any British punk,” said music journalist Jon Savage, who wrote “England’s Dreaming” — which chronicles the history of the group.

But McLaren, an art school dropout, was first known for his fashion, and the infamous clothes shop he opened on London’s King’s Road with his girlfriend Vivienne Westwood in 1971.

The shop changed its name and focus several times, operating as “SEX” and “World’s End” and “Seditionaries” before Westwood and McLaren split, but its offbeat brand of clothing – alternating between Teddy Boy-style clothes and bondage gear – gave him a window on to the emergent punk music scene.

It was McLaren who gave the name Sex Pistols to the group of young men hanging out at his store and helped pick out front man John Lydon (soon known as “Johnny Rotten.”) McLaren signed the group with EMI, and their first single, “Anarchy in the UK” came out in 1976.

The group would aggressively court controversy, becoming a household name after an expletive-packed appearance in a British television interview which drew a ban on the group’s live performances in the U.K.

After being dropped by EMI for bad behavior, the group later signed with Virgin. Their second single, “God Save The Queen,” whose title lyrics are rhymed with “fascist regime,” was released during Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee celebrations — was an auditory assault on the monarchy which sparked widespread outrage and saw members of the band attacked in the street.

The controversy was no impediment to the groups’ success, but the Sex Pistols fell apart during their U.S. tour, descending into acrimony and legal action. Their bassist, Sid Vicious, died of a heroin overdose in 1979 after he was accused of killing his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, in New York City in 1978.

Although the group had broken up after only one album, 1977’s Never Mind the Bollocks, their rebellious antics and raucous music would set the bar for the bands to come.

McLaren professed a certain indifference to the talent of the band he managed, saying it never occurred to him that the group could ever be any good.

“What occurred to me was that it didn’t matter if they were bad,” he told the Times of London last year.

Sylvain Sylvain, whose group proto-punk group the New York Dolls McLaren managed before the Sex Pistols, told the AP that McLaren knew how to anticipate a trend.

“He had that vision — maybe it came from the clothing,” Sylvain said. “In the rag business you’ve got to be five to 10 years ahead of everybody.”

Like Westwood, his former partner, who was knighted and is whose clothes have graced the Royal Courts of Justice and Buckingham Palace, McLaren eventually became a firmly entrenched part of the cultural establishment.

He helped create advertising campaigns for British Airways, went to Hollywood to make films alongside directors such as Steven Spielberg, and worked on shows with the BBC – the broadcaster which in the 70s had refused to play his group’s songs. He even wrote for the New Yorker.

But McLaren still nurtured his rebellious edge. He made a stab at running for mayor of London, promising to set up a legalized brothel outside parliament. His son by Westwood, Corre, would continue the family tradition of blending shock with success, co-founding the lingerie chain Agent Provocateur, which sells its risque, high-end wares across the world.

And while McLaren also worked with Adam and the Ants and helped create the group Bow Wow Wow, his music career wasn’t limited to management. He had a regarded solo career in which he blended genres and acted as a kind of music curator. In the early 1980s, he had key songs in hip-hop, including the hit “Buffalo Gals,” and bringing different textures to the developing genre; in his career, he worked in electronica, pop – even opera.

McLaren is survived by Corre and his longtime partner Young Kim. In an e-mail, she wrote that the fashion, the movies – and the Pistols – were “all expressions of his art.”

“McLaren will be sorely missed,” she said. “He was a great artist who changed the world.”

Photo: AP Photo
The Sex Pistols and their manager Malcolm McLaren sign a new recording contract outside Buckingham Palace in March 1977.

Corre said that while funeral arrangements have yet to be made, McLaren had wanted to be buried in north London’s stately Highgate cemetery, near where he was born.