Malcolm McLaren obituary

Manager of the Sex Pistols and a pivotal influence on late 20th-century pop culture

The impresario and iconoclast Malcolm McLaren, who has died aged 64 from the cancer mesothelioma, was one of the pivotal, yet most divisive influences on the styles and sounds of late 20th-century popular culture. He was best known as the manager of the Sex Pistols, the punk-rock band that swept the UK in 1977, their anti-establishment youth force making a colourful counterpoint to the Queen's silver jubilee. With his first partner, the designer Vivienne Westwood, he popularised looks from punk to fetish, which still dominate the fashion world.

McLaren's provocative influence can be detected in everything from Damien Hirst's art and contrary bands such as the Libertines and Oasis to the mainstream punk clothes on sale in Top Shop. The claim by the journalist Julie Burchill that "we are all children of Thatcher and McLaren" was not that fanciful. McLaren's partner, Young Kim, likened him to Andy Warhol, describing him as the ultimate postmodern artist: "I think Malcolm recognised he had changed the culture, he saw he had changed the world."

Mythical wheezes, such as a Pistols-era plan to visit Madame Tussauds and melt the wax effigies of the Beatles, were typical of McLaren's tendency to blur fantasy and reality and turn hype into an art form. His talent was perhaps not so much in coming up with ideas as seizing on other people's and making them more successful.

He was one of the first Europeans to spot the potential of American hip-hop, and his 1982 hit single Buffalo Gals introduced the art of scratching to the British charts. The former Sex Pistols singer John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), who fell out with McLaren before quitting the band in 1978, described him as the most evil man on Earth for his tendency to treat people like art projects or cash cows. McLaren revelled in this svengali image, casting himself as The Embezzler in the punk film The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle (1980).

But those who knew him described a polite, dapper English gentleman who loved art, music and clothes with a passion – he was fond of tweed suits and Doctor Who-style scarves – and had an almost childlike enthusiasm for his projects and pranks. His death has melted one of music's most bitter feuds. "For me, Malc was always entertaining," Lydon said. "Above all else, he was an entertainer."

McLaren was born in Stoke Newington, north London, the son of Pete, a Scottish engineer, and his wife, Emmy. His father left home when he was two and Malcolm was raised by his grandmother, Rose, who home-schooled him and fed him slogans such as "it's good to be bad and it's bad to be good", along with a general distaste for the royal family.

He attended various art colleges in the 1960s, including Central Saint Martins and Harrow Art School. He was influenced by the French situationist movement, and at Harrow he met his muse, Westwood (with whom he lost his virginity), and Jamie Reid, the graphic artist who later designed the artwork for the Sex Pistols' record covers. He was expelled from South East Essex college and also studied at Chiswick Polytechnic and Goldsmiths College, London.

By 1971, McLaren was seeking to "rescue fashion from commodification by the establishment", as he later put it. With Westwood, he opened a boutique on Kings Road in Chelsea, south-west London, called Let It Rock (later renamed Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die), selling then unfashionable Teddy Boy clothing. After a trip to New York in 1972, McLaren's career in music management began with the camp/aggressive glam band the New York Dolls. Supplying the group with stagewear and using a hammer and sickle logo to promote them, he developed the shock tactics he used to far greater effect later with the Pistols.

By 1975, the shop had transformed into a subversive S&M boutique called Sex (later Seditionaries), and McLaren was putting together another band lineup with three of his customers, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock. When Lydon walked in, sporting green hair and an "I hate Pink Floyd" T-shirt, they found their frontman. McLaren came up with the Sex Pistols name (he wanted something that sounded like "sexy young assassins"), and together they took on the torpor of mid-1970s British pop. Wearing safety-pinned Westwood gear and bondage trousers, the Pistols played on a boat on the Thames (it was raided by the police), took God Save the Queen to No 2 in jubilee week, teased huge sums out of successive record companies and were banned from playing by local councils.

An infamous, swearword-laden TV interview with Bill Grundy led to tabloid headlines such as "the filth and the fury", and their position as the most controversial, rebellious British pop group was assured, assisted by John Beverley (Sid Vicious), who joined in 1977. He later died of a heroin overdose while awaiting trial for the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. The band fell apart in early 1978, later suing McLaren for mismanagement and royalties, but the svengali simply stated that he planned their demise and used this claim as the plot for The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle.

McLaren's eye – as much as his ear – for pop talent was crucial. He once told a Ramones fan, Vic Godard, and his pals, "you look like a group", so they formed one called Subway Sect. His gift for turning notoriety into a promotional tool (inherited from the Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham and surely passed on to Factory Records' Tony Wilson and Creation's Alan McGee) loomed equally large in his next project.

McLaren was recruited as a consultant by Adam Ant and suggested that the singer adopt what would become his internationally successful pop look. However, he was less convinced by Ant's musical merits, and coaxed his band members into forming a new group, Bow Wow Wow, which would be led by a 13-year-old girl whom McLaren met at a dry cleaners and renamed Annabella Lwin. When Lwin posed nude in a mock-up of a Manet painting on a record sleeve, widespread tabloid outrage followed. However, the rejigged Ants trounced Bow Wow Wow commercially.

McLaren was resilient. His next project, 1983's Duck Rock album, included the top 10 hits Double Dutch and Buffalo Gals, the latter cited by Herbie Hancock as the inspiration for his own influential electro single, Rockit. McLaren scored another hit with one of his most audacious experiments, the 1984 single Madam Butterfly, a mix of opera and electronics.

McLaren's Midas touch came and went throughout his career, but ideas never left him. He blended funk and orchestra on the 1989 album Waltz Darling and recorded the 1994 concept album Paris, which featured Catherine Deneuve. He wrote a song for Quentin Tarantino's film Kill Bill Vol 2 (2004), and secured a Hollywood deal as an ideas man for Steven Spielberg. He even became an outspoken critic of the burger industry by co-producing the 2006 film Fast Food Nation. He also channelled his bittersweet view of London into programmes for Radio 2 and Channel 4, but cancelled a plan to run for mayor of London in 2000.

McLaren also managed forgotten groups, such as the Chinese punk-rock band Wild Strawberries. Later concepts such as Jungk (an Asian girl band) and 8-bit music (electronic music performed by old computer games), may or may not prove to have been ahead of their time. But McLaren was never troubled by the idea of failure. He once said that he had been greatly influenced by an art teacher who told him: "We will all be failures. But at least be a magnificent, noble failure. Anyone can be a benign success."

He is survived by Young Kim and his son by Westwood, Joe Corré, who set up the lingerie chain Agent Provocateur, which continues to parade McLaren's own risque and somehow thoroughly English identity in our high streets.

• Malcolm Robert Andrew McLaren, impresario, born 22 January 1946; died 8 April 2010


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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