Monday, 12 April 2010
THE GREAT PRETENDER
Malcolm McLaren died last Thursday at an as yet undisclosed location in Switz-erland, and most of the ensuing obituaries concentrated on his efforts as the manager of the Sex Pistols. It’s wrong to reduce the man who brought hip-hop to the British charts with “Buffalo Gals” and taught Madonna how to vogue to his punk years. McLaren remained an astute observer of pop culture right up to his death, deploring the karaoke culture we live in where everybody wants to be in the limelight without putting in the work and declaring Napster inventor Shawn Fanning to be the greatest artist of the early 2000’s (“I don’t want everything in the world to be free, but I don’t want everything to have a price-tag either”). I met McLaren in 1994 while he was promoting “Paris” an album that nobody was really interested in, as it was a gaudy tribute to the French capital that featured icons such as Françoise Hardy and Catherine Deneuve as well as lush adaptations of Erik Satie’s music and McLaren’s own dodgy singing. I didn’t expect him to reveal any truthful insights into is chequered past, but I did find McLaren to be a generous and gracious interviewee. In the course of our conversation, he enthused about Bill Clinton’s sax playing (“You’d never get Jacques Delors doing something like that”), outlined the shortcoming of the then omnipresent dance scene (“It doesn’t produce any stars”) and predicted England’s demise as a leading nation (“Once the troubles in Ireland end, and all the Irish return, England will become a backwater as Portugal was between the wars”). By sheer coincidence, I had the pleasure to speak to Midge Ure of Ultravox two days after McLaren’s death, who, as legend will have it, was offered the job of the Sex Pistols’ singer in 1975. Ure, also an engaging interviewee, confirmed the story and went on to say that McLaren and later Clash manager Bernie Rhodes were selling stolen musical equipment in Glasgow when they popped their question. “I didn’t join the band but I bought an amplifier off them”, Ure chuckled. “And it actually worked. But I sold it quite quickly just in case it was hot.” He was very complimentary about McLaren’s business acumen: “It was phenomenal that he got EMI to let him walk away with 100’000 pounds just because they were embarrassed to be associated with the Pistols. It was like David against Goliath.” One doesn’t need to condone all of McLarens’ practices (especially with regard to how he handled his artists) to concede that he was one of the music business’s great personalities, always showing it for what it was: A smash-and-grab industry where mavericks like him could flourish. Provided they were brave and brash enough, that is.