Malcolm McLaren, the amusing and sticky-fingered (self-)promoter / idea man behind the Sex Pistols, has died at age 64.
I always liked best Malcolm`s own 1983 minor hit single Buffalo Gals
, which pointed out explicitly what I`d been saying since about 1979: rapping sounds an awful lot like that most uncool of all musical forms: square dance calling. McClaren took the 1840s minstrel show song Buffalo Gals
, which had evolved into a square dance call, and had some some New York rappers back him up while he rapped it (this was back in the early days before the racial wall hardened, when white people, such as Blondie, Talking Heads, and the Clash, were allowed to rap because rap was just the latest fun fad, not the sacred keystone of African-American culture):
Buffalo Gals go round the outside,
Round the outside, round the outside
And dozey-do your partners
To make sure nobody missed his point, McLaren`s Buffalo Gals video
features footage of square dancing. (Here`s an even better video
of a Buffalo Gals
square dance on the Lawrence Welk Show.
I assumed in 1983 that after Malcolm`s Buffalo Gals
that the world would now get the joke: rap was descended from minstrel shows and the dorkiest of all white forms of music: square dance calling. What more could shame black people, after four years of hip-hop, into going back to something they do very well, singing? Perhaps popular music would finally climb out of the rut of rap, the novelty music gimmick that had refused to die?
I was wrong.
And that was one of Malcolm`s better ideas.
Most of his other ideas tended to sound cool in his constant self-promoting interviews, but sputtered out in practice. For example, the whole punk rock ideology Malcolm dreamed up about musical competence meaning nothing was a bad joke. The Sex Pistols were a young but fairly talented band, as their one album, which is full of catchy stuff demonstrated. Then bassist Glen Matlock was thrown out and replaced with Sid Vicious who couldn`t play at all. It sort of made sense when you heard Malcolm spin it, but it turned out to be a disaster for all concerned.
Malcolm made an entertaining 1980 movie starring the Sex Pistol`s affable guitarist Steve Jones, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle
, about how the Sex Pistols were just a plot he invented to rip off the record companies for his own bank account. Yet, the concert footage from before their disastrous American tour when they still had Matlock instead of Sid shows they were a very high potential act, that just needed to, you know, practice. Instead, they spent most of the time suing their manager for cheating them.
Malcolm`s line of intellectualization about how the Sex Pistols` God Save the Queen
was built on the Situationist philosophy of French intellectuals from 1968 inspired critic Greil Marcus to write a ridiculously brilliant book about the Situationist roots of why the Sex Pistols hated the Queen. The autobiography of Johnny Rotten (John Lydon), No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs
, however, debunked all that. Johnny didn`t care about Situationism. He hated the British monarchy for the same simple reason his mum and dad did and his grandparents had: Lydon was Irish.
Around 1980, McLaren came up with the good idea of building pop music on top of tribal rhythms from Burundi, first for Adam Ant, and then he took Ant`s backing band away, including the prodigious drummer David Barbarossa, to form Bow Wow Wow. There was always speculation that Barbarossa`s album tracks had to be multilayered in the studio, but when I saw Bow Wow Wow around 1981, he was moving his hands faster than any drummer I`d seen.
But Malcolm could never have too much controversy, so he hired a 14-year-old girl to be a lead singer and promoted her as a sex kitten. At the show I attended in LA, she blew her voice out painfully on the second song, suggesting to me that 14-year-old girls shouldn`t be on rock band world tours.
Anyway, when I was reading McLaren`s obituaries yesterday, being reminded of how far he`d gotten in the garment and entertainment industries on sheer chutzpah, I decided to look up more about McLaren because I thought it was striking that he could have the most stereotypically Jewish career imaginable, yet be a Scotsman named Malcolm Robert Andrew McLaren. Pointing this out would be good way to shatter stereotypes!
But, then I worried that I ought to check his maternal line and his upbringing before saying this in public. To my surprise (although I shouldn`t have been surprised), when I looked up McLaren on Wikipedia
yesterday, I found:
McLaren was born to Pete McLaren, a Scottish teenaged war deserter, and Emmy (n?©e Isaacs) in the suburbs of post-World War II London. His father left when he was two and he was raised by his maternal grandmother, Rose Corre Isaacs, the formerly wealthy daughter of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish diamond dealers, in Stoke Newington. McLaren told Andrew Denton on Enough Rope, that his grandmother always said to him, "To be bad is good... to be good is simply boring". ... When he was six, McLaren`s mother married Martin Levi, a man working in London`s rag trade.