Wednesday, April 14, 2010
More than a clown.
I never knew Malcolm McLaren. Like so many of my generation I certainly knew who he was but I never met the man. To be honest over the years his "I am punk" mantra wore a little thin but now that he has died I find myself thinking, yeah, I guess you had a much bigger hand in it than most of us; and not just punk.
I tend to agree with Jon Savage's take on Malcolm in that 1977 was a mess, something would have happened, but if McLaren hadn't been involved it would have all been a bit depressing, more like Britpop; two good bands and a lot of Shed Sevens. McLaren brought an intellectual spark to the whole moment with his talk of Situationists, admittedly most of the youth who avidly gobbled up his tricks had no real concept of what Situationists stood for, and his embrace of new ideas left many floundering. His partnership with Vivienne Westwood gave punk the fashion edge that most music movements lack. The clothes helped form the movement even if few could afford to buy them; they still showed the way forward and stamped a vision in all our heads. Clothes became a statement in themselves and I still remember the shock in suburbia of walking into pubs with straight leg trousers, it was enough to get you beaten up and many of us were thanks to the hysteria that was whipped up around us by the sick-fuckery of the tabloid press. McLaren's antics served to pour petrol on the fire of a Britain locked into mediocrity and greyness, a country that still remains terrified of its youth to this day.
Punk was so much more than just the music. There was a complete upheaval in design and pecking orders. Suddenly people in their twenties were no longer prepared to wait until an opening appeared that would allow them a junior assistant position, they just went out and did it. Older executives, across the board, were caught unaware and scrabbled around for anyone or anything that understood this change and in the confusion a lot of second rate rubbish came through with the real talent but the catalyst was Talcy Malcy, giggling and capering about like some mad Pied Piper as London clawed its way out of a hole. Then he got bored and moved on.
He may never have had the same commercial, or personal, success that he enjoyed with punk but from where I was standing the things he did later were far more interesting. Of course loads of us knew early rap and hip hop but it was McLaren who constructed something different and wonderful out of it. Duck Rock remains one of the best albums made in modern music and brought so many different strands to our ears; his use of South African music mixed in with New York beats showed how music shouldn't be held in some cryogenic chamber to be revered by strokey-chinned world music buffs endlessly debating whether something was authentic or not. It cried LOOK AT ME YOU FUCKTARDS, look at this we are living breathing laughing fucking drinking musicians and we celebrate the dance. Then he did it to opera.
McLaren was the first swallow of summer. He arrived with something invariably long before anyone else was ready for it, like Vogueing or whatever, and then months later somebody else would rock up with an inferior version and by then Malcolm had moved on.
Now he has moved on again. Unfortunately, right now, Britain needs someone like him more than ever as our country stumbles around trying to choose between various characterless nonentities, with a popular culture held by the throat by a music industry so terrified of the future they are trying to relive the past and a design culture that merely recycles old ideas and claims they are being ironic. Ironic as in Alanis Morrisette, not ironic at all.
We have no more heroes.