Malcolm McLaren: The Artist as Entrepreneur, The Thing With Two Heads

Colonel and El and El Producto

Managers of rock ‘n’ roll bands are pop-culture caricatures intended to dwell in the shadows as sticky-fingered trolls, following the permanent model cast by Colonel Tom Parker.

They are supposed to emerge only to fire up the Cohiba, tilt back the Borsalino baku fedora, and boast about their own wily ways, in an exclusive, off-the-record interview granted poolside to the little lady from Collier’s or Look magazine, that somehow ends up in print, allowing the manager to trumpet his mastery of the manipulative arts, and yet still claim to be reticent. “Aw, hale, Elvis, you-all know how that damn reportuh done tricked us! Course we nevah said none of them damn things.”

While performing artists appear in all fashions and come in all flavors, the behind-the-scenes impresarios are only available in one variety: venal. Granted that the Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, Esq., was a more urbane mutation, possessed of a creative spirit, and, according to recent biographers, probably not spiritually suited for the Svengali role. Be that as it may, no one ever recalls Eppie forgetting to endorse the cheque.

Fab Four and Yoko and Klein: This won't end well

Much more typical of the species was Allen Klein, manager of Sam Cooke and the Rolling Stones, and briefly a successor-of-sorts to Epstein, in overseeing some of the Beatles’ business affairs. When Klein died last year, he had earned the kind of open notoriety indicated in the Daily Mail headline that accompanied his obituary: “Monster of rock: Allen Klein Swindled The Stones and Broke Up The Beatles and is Still Rock ‘n’ Roll’s Most Ruthless Svengali.”

Rock managers are reliably always the same — no less so, as Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson learned, when the manager is one’s own dear old grey-haired pappy. Said progenitor, Murry Wilson, has been recognized for years as Some Piece of Work, who allegedly forced his sons to undergo unspeakable physical humiliations in order to toughen them up for the big cruel world of touring musicians. Murry was also a dunderhead businessman who unloaded Brian’s priceless catalogue of song rights for a pittance. That didn’t prevent poppa from encouraging Capitol Records to offer the old guy a private side-deal to make his own record, wherein Murry the manager unleashed his minstrel side for the one and only time. The resulting LP, “The Many Moods of Murry Wilson,” was a misnomer, since Daddio only had one mood, unless depressed and brutish are considered two different things.

Murry's Moods

Listening to Murry’s versions of ditties with names such as “Painting With Teardrops,” “Broken Heart,” and “Heartbreak Lane,” it’s staggering to think that this orchestral dreck was released in 1967, during the Summer of Love, ’cause this dude plainly wasn’t getting any. His boys, the Beach Boys, had tired of their nutso forebear’s mismanagement and had given dad the chop three years earlier, but Murry’s LP maintains historic significance. For one thing, it may have led Paul McCartney, who was both a great friend of Brian’s and a lad keen to squeeze a larf out of any situation, to the notion that Moody Murry was something to be parodied. Macca mocked Murry a decade later, when he released a disc of soundalike schmaltz under the nom de plume, Percy ‘Thrills’ Thrillington. Who knows if Murry would have been pleased or outraged by the attention of an ex-Beatle? He’d dropped dead of a myocardial infarction, three years before Thrillington came and went without notice. (Download Murry’s masterpiece here.)

Nonetheless, Murry Wilson’s solo recording effort sent out this clear message to rock managers who might have thought of pressing platters of their own material: For the love of god, man, don’t do it. Malcolm McLaren wasn’t home when the word arrived, which was just as well.

Malcolm McLaren, circa 1972

McLaren, who died of cancer this week at 64, managed two punk bands in the 1970s, first the New York Dolls and then, with all due infamy, the Sex Pistols. He came into the world with outsider’s credentials, born to a Scottish father and Jewish mother, and raised in North London by Rose Issacs, his maternal grandma. Like many mid-century British rock ‘n’ roll misfits from John Lennon to Ray Davies, he attended various art colleges, and was chucked out of those odd, distinctly post-War institutions in London, Croydon and points beyond.

With the quick success and near-instant dissolution of the Sex Pistols in 1978, McLaren began to veer from the rock impresario’s expected career path. What the world mostly wants and expects from rock ‘n’ roll managers is for them to go away. Which they all do — some angry, some pushing talentless new acts destined to never catch on, some clutching their gelt and bound  for Aruba. But they all go away.

I was driving down Queen Street East in Toronto in late 1983 with my friend Mike McQueen, who was an interesting character. McQueen discovered reggae music in the late ’60s, and subsequently hosted a weekly radio show on CHIN-AM, where he played obscure records by acts few had ever heard of: The Maytals, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and the like. Robert Marley once showed up in the CHIN studio to promote something, Mike claimed, and having nowhere else to go in Toronto, wound up sitting around Mike’s kitchen table for an evening, chain-smoking and listening to records. Mike lost interest in the Jamaican music scene by the time it became worth any real money to anyone, and earned a living selling motorcycles. He was a Buddha-like cat, and he was telling me about this new record he had found. “I thought I was listening to King Sunny Ade,” he told me. “I’ve never heard West African music played like that.” He mentioned the artist’s name: Malcolm McLaren. Impossible, I said, that’s the same name as the Sex Pistols’ manager.

Not impossible. It was McLaren at the beginning of his musical anthropology phase, appropriating World Music, blending it with rap, do-wop and square-dance music, adding sophisticated production values, and burnishing it with whimsical lyrics.

Malcolm's 1983 opus: Duck Rock

More remarkably, he sang well: with the sweet, malevolent voice of the art-school student intent on being expelled one more time. The record was called ‘Duck Rock,’ and it was a stunner. Paul Simon emulated the trick a couple of years later, buying up Township Rock 45s in South Africa, stealing the riffs, and writing new lyrics. Simon’s end-product was ‘Graceland,’ which was in some ways a bowdlerized re-issue of Duck Rock.

Graceland hasn’t aged well, but Duck Rock sounds just as thrilling now as it did nearly 30 years ago. Co-incidentally, only a few weeks ago I played the LP cut “Double Dutch,” the song about New York schoolgirls rope-skipping, as bumper music at a conference. Blasting through the congress hall, it was jaw-dropping stuff, now and forever avant-garde.

 Six years after Duck Rock, McLaren would reach even higher, when his arrangement (assisted by the New Age musician Yanni) of the Flower Duet from Léo Delibes’ opera Lakme was featured in a memorable TV ad for British Airways, directed by the lad who helmed “Chariots of Fire.” The arresting visual imagery in this campaign, teamed with McLaren’s haunting audio treatment, closed the loop on the 1980s, and that was pretty much it for McLaren. His creative output for the next two decades didn’t amount to much: some not-very-good follow-up recordings, and management of a few bands no one was interested in.

If he initially assumed his sensibility from Andy Warhol in the ’60s, by the ’90s his place and approximate position on the music scene was supplanted by Norman Cook, known as Fatboy Slim. After that, he mostly dabbled in this and that. McLaren’s brief flirtation with politics went nowhere, after he decided not to contest the London mayoralty in 2000.

We learn that died of the same disease as did Warren Zevon, mesothelioma. Supposedly he contracted the condition from exposure to asbestos in the boutique he operated with his wife and co-conspirator, the fashion designer Dame Vivienne Westwood.

He described himself as “most probably a kind of missing link… someone who [tied] the loose ends between the ’60s  and the ’90s.” He was all that, true enough, and more. He was a greasy  sideshow hustler, like the Colonel, like the others, but uniquely one who wanted you to know that his greater gift was being able to slip off somewhere to create enduring art. Did he understand how funny that was? Bollocks, of course he did.

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4 thoughts on “Malcolm McLaren: The Artist as Entrepreneur, The Thing With Two Heads

  1. Great stuff, Mitch. Lifting the stone of popular music inevitably exposes a wriggling mass of slimy creatures who would devour their own mothers if they could make a buck. Amazing to think that songs get written and sung despite them. (I’m a friend of Peter Stamp’s, by the way. He has mentioned you many times over the years.)

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