April 10, 2010

Howlings In Favour of Malcolm

Once upon a time, when pop music was bland, boring and ruled by the corporate suits, a gang of scruffy London hooligans emerged on the scene, producing a series of scandalous, hilarious, ultimately tragic vignettes and the world of “rock and roll” was never quite the same. Thursday, their self-described impresario, Malcolm McLaren died of cancer, prompting his former lead vocalist in said scruffians to ask us to remember McLaren as an “entertainer.”

Certainly, McLaren was that and more. When he introduced John Lydon to Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock, put them in ripped shirts and trousers and called them Sex Pistols (his clothing shop at the time was named “SEX”) a good time was guaranteed for all. McLaren probably didn’t count on his young charges actually learning how to play their instruments and “punk rock,” as it came to be known, was more sub-cultural phenomenon in Great Britain than it ever became in the United States. Having to do more with the utter sense of futility and hopelessness of England’s dire economic situation in the early 1970’s, punk erupted as a “do it yourself” rebellion, an alternate life-route for dispossessed English youth with “no hope in hell and no career prospects at all.”(1)

The Pistols are now shrouded in the mist of rock mythology, their music survives essentially encapsulated on a single album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, and a handful of poor quality bootlegs. Their legend survives in film as well, the best of which (The Filth and the Fury) reveals that Lydon actually hated McLaren for years after the Pistols’ demise and was only able to recover some of the money McLaren made off with through turgid litigation. Another film, The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, tells McLaren’s side of the tale and purports to be his impresario’s guide to the “con game” that is “pop music” – how to create a “sensation,” milk it for all it’s worth and escape with bags of cash. What intrigues me still was McLaren’s insistence that his “creation” of the band was his “art” and that he had used the young men as his “materials.”

McLaren had been an art student in several colleges before dropping out and opening his clothing store with Vivienne Westwood in 1971.(2) During his tenure in academia, he read Society of the Spectacle and became fascinated with Debord and the Situationists. Debord sought to disrupt the social order, to awaken the somnambulant masses through various acts of absurd or nihilistic provocation. This practice was presented as détournement, social actions to upend the spectacular significations of commodity culture with new meanings in a subversive attack on the “authority of the sign.”

All well and good, but can this truly be done within the articulated world of “pop music.” If the actions of McLaren, Lydon, et al were anything at all they were erected within the architecture of commodity, not as détournement but as alternative “taste.” Punk rock, which had socio-economic potential was eviscerated by the very giant it had hoped to topple, Capitalism. Advantage: Suits.

As has been noted before, détournement is eventually absorbed by society to become just another version of the spectacle. The futility of this endeavor perhaps provided the angst, the rage and the power that emitted from Lydon’s “howlings” and the Pistols’ thunder. McLaren is forgiven then, for his pretence of revolutionary importance, but instead for simply believing that the very basic frisson of young men with guitars and drums can still alter the course of at least “style.”

Image: Cover of Bow Wow Wow album, See Jungle! See Jungle! Go Join Your Gang, Yeah. City All Over! Go Ape Crazy, McLaren’s next project after the Pistols’ ended, a send-up of Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l'herbe featuring then underage lead singer, Annabella Lwin.

1. Attributed to John Lydon in Jon Savage’s England's Dreaming, St. Martin’s, 1992, 108–112.

2. “He attended more than half a dozen art schools. At none of them did things go smoothly. He was expelled from Chiswick Polytechnic, and the Croydon College of Art tried to have him transferred to a mental institution.” From New York Times obituary, April 8, 2010.

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