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Malcolm McLaren’s Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle

Getty Images / Steve Pyke

Malcolm McLaren’s Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle

Malcolm McLaren – performer, manager, self-promoter – was one of the driving forces behind the popularization of the British punk scene. On the anniversary of his death, we explore the ways he influenced three seminal punk and post-punk acts… for better and for worse.

McLaren had dabbled in the music world before 1974, and his trendy clothing shop Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die was a popular hangout for London rockers, but it was his alignment with the Sex Pistols that put him in the limelight. Beginning when they were called The Strand – and before their two most notorious members, Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten, joined – McLaren shaped the band’s future. He encouraged the name change, and then he started auditioning singers. Midge Ure (who later fronted Ultravox) and Kevin Rowland (future singer of Dexy’s Midnight Runners) were among those considered before McLaren urged John Lydon – then a teen punk who hung around the clothing shop in green hair and an “I Hate Pink Floyd” shirt – to become Johnny Rotten and join the band. It was Lydon who brought Sid Vicious to the band two years later, though he had McLarenvs blessing.

McLaren called the Sex Pistols an art project that he was responsible for: “I decided to use people, just the way a sculptor uses clay.” And he orchestrated some memorable performances and stunts for the band. At McLarenvs urging, they famously played the scathing “God Save the Queen” on a boat in the River Thames passing governmental buildings during Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee celebrations. It was a stunt that got McLaren arrested… and brought fantastic publicity to the Sex Pistols. McLaren continued to engineer the band’s future (and according to some reports, withhold their money) until their famous implosion in 1978, and even after. He insisted on creating the feature film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, about the Sex Pistols… and starring McLaren. It’s a fictional version of the band’s history, and much of it is ridiculous, but one thing it successfully captures is the band’s explosive, groundbreaking sound.

It wasn’t long after the demise of the Sex Pistols that McLaren was asked to manage another band: Adam and the Ants. In 1979, they were a struggling post-punk band that sold a few records, but couldn’t seem to broaden their appeal and gain a wider audience. Dropped by their label, Decca, they released Dirk Wears White Sox on smaller Do It Records and grew frustrated as it failed to gain much notice. Frontman Adam Ant was familiar with McLaren, having played bass in the band that headlined the first Sex Pistols show. He called in the notorious manager to breathe some life into the Ants’ record sales.

For a brief period, McLaren managed Adam and the Ants, encouraging them to listen to world music for inspiration. What McLaren did next was not quite what Adam Ant had envisioned: he promptly stole all of the Ants to form a new band, Bow Wow Wow. Adam Ant was left alone to either quit or reform with all new musicians. He chose to reform, and in light of the new band’s success, he may have been grateful to McLaren after all. The next Adam and the Ants album, Kings of the Wild Frontier, hit No. 1 on the UK charts and yielded three top 10 singles. Its Burundi-beat drumming was heavily influenced by the African recordings McLaren provided. The following album, Prince Charming, brought the band two No. 1 singles and the greatest heights of their popularity. McLaren was rumored to be responsible for another facet of the band’s success, too: reportedly he suggested an image change before he spirited the band away, tossing out the idea of pirate-inspired garb. With the reformed band, Adam Ant ran with the idea and created an iconic look that helped shape the development of New Romantic style.

As for McLaren, he was busy molding his new project, Bow Wow Wow, the first band that McLaren truly built from the ground up. He recruited the guitarist, bassist and drummer from the Ants and then embarked on a six-month search for a singer. When he discovered 14-year-old Annabella Lwin, he had his band. Drawing on the same tribal beats Adam and the Ants were using (after all, they listened to the same world music recommended by McLaren), Bow Wow Wow offered up a fresh, fun sound and provocative lyrics. And stylish clothes: one of McLaren’s primary reasons for creating the band was to promote his clothing shop, then going by the name World’s End.

Hand in hand with the provocative lyrics went Lwin’s sexualized image. She wasn’t just singing about adult topics; she posed nude (though with her back to the camera, more or less) for the cover of the band’s second album. Of course, the image was orchestrated by McLaren, who also tried to convince Lwin to appear nude in an underage sex magazine he was attempting to launch. That never came to fruition, and Lwin's mother soon stepped in and insisted that McLaren refrain from promoting Lwin as a “sex kitten,” under threat of a criminal investigation. He agreed, and the album cover wasn’t used (though it would appear on a later EP). But the double (sometimes single) entendres in the music didn’t stop, propelling the band to the UK top ten several times in their short career.

The demise of Bow Wow Wow in 1983 brought an end to McLaren’s career as a manager, but it didn’t remove him from the music world. He launched his own recording career that spanned 26 years and spawned hits that have been sampled by the likes of Mariah Carey and Eminem. He produced music documentaries, appeared on reality TV, and wrote music for commercials. Until his death, he kept as many hands in pop culture as he could, proudly proclaiming himself “the culprit responsible for turning British popular culture into nothing more than a cheap marketing gimmick.”