A Look at Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols

Malcolm McLaren was born on January 22, 1946 in London, England and was raised by his grandmother. He spent most of the 60’s going from one art school to another where he became interested in the French Situationist, international art movement. Situationism, which was all about staging “situations” that grab people’s attention, greatly influenced his career as an artist manager and as an “entrepreneur of pop-culture” (Persolvang). Like earning a college degree, it gave him a “tremendous edge” on the competition (Allen). It was around this time that he also fell in love with extreme fashion designer Vivienne Westwood.

In 1971 McLaren and Westwood opened Let It Rock, a clothing store that specialized in Teddy Boy fashion. It was there; in 1974 that he met The New York Dolls, a glam band from the United States. After being disappointed by the sales of their first two albums, the band’s label Mercury Records dropped them. The Dolls decided it was time to hire a new manager and McLaren moved to the U.S. to manage the group.

Working with The New York Dolls was McLaren’s first opportunity to “realize a fantasy that was inspired by his flirtation with the Situationist politics in London at the close of the 1960’s” (Taylor, 20). McLaren’s plan to make the band successful was to get rid of the glam and dress the band in red leather, using the Soviet Union’s hammer-and-sickle symbol in their stage set and publicity photos.

This was the beginning of McLaren’s use of shock value for publicity, a skill he perfected in his later management of the Sex Pistols. It was also his first opportunity to promote his fashion design through the music industry. The Doll’s Communist attire didn’t go over well in the U.S., which was to be expected and it only made record labels more reluctant to sign the group. They had a hard time breaking into the conservative industry because they were a product for a very niche audience and the industry was “just beginning to formulate the concept of adult-oriented rock” (Savage, 61).

The failure of the New York Doll’s career only six months after the implementation of McLaren as manager had little to do with the image change, as the band was on their way down when McLaren stepped in. However, the failure of the band was merely a “plateau,” for McLaren to jump off from and into his next and most well know management position with the Sex Pistols (Kragen, 37). His work with the Doll’s gave him his first insight into the music industry and during these six months he saw a self-generated, “mutually supportive, yet potentially commercial” subculture developing (Savage, 92).

In class, we learned an important question to ask your self, as an artist manager before signing a new band, is “What are the current industry trends, and how might they influence the bands career” (Allen). McLaren was definitely paying attention and saw the developing subculture as potential customers for his product. Because he understood the circumstances he was in and the circumstances of the world at the time, he was able to wrap his arms around what it was he wanted to create.

McLaren returned to London after the demise of The New York Dolls, with intentions of starting a new band that would encompass all of his “dreams of cultural upheaval,” and help promote he and Westwood’s newest store Sex (Electro). John Lydon, Steve Jones and Paul Cook, all future members of the Pistols, were regulars in McLaren’s store and as with the New York Dolls, it was the store that brought Sex Pistols together.

In class we learned that a manager’s commission is typically 10-25% of the bands gross profit and what is included in that profit (ticket sales, records, merchandise, etc.) differs from contract to contract. In this case, there were not initially any contracts, as there should be in management deals and royalties were not discussed.

The group just wanted to be a band and McLaren just wanted to sell his clothes. McLaren took advantage of the band’s lack of knowledge about the industry and paid them only 25 pounds per week, pocketing the rest of the money himself. Their earnings came strictly from concerts, when they were paid at all. Before the band started making money, the shop had to underwrite any extra costs (Savage, 154). It is typical for an artist manager to pay upfront costs for the band.

Had McLaren stopped to ask himself what the band’s personal assets were, there would have been very few to list. The group came from working class families, they were all without musical talent and the only things that united them were their outlooks on life and their art school backgrounds. In Kragen’s Book, “Life is a Contact Sport,” we learned that taking charge of one’s career means making things happen rather than letting things happen. McLaren embodied this idea to its fullest.

He was described as a “peddler of people and ideas, an incendiary ideas-man who created a tidal wave of bad feelings, misspent cash and stunned publicity.” McLaren’s motto was “Cash from Chaos” (Impresario, 12). This cannot be displayed more than with his management of The Sex Pistols.

The band began in a haze of dislike, misinterpretation and mutual distrust, which as we learned in class is never a good way to start into a management deal. However, McLaren fed off of this kind of atmosphere and believed it would help spark creativity within the band.

The main source of antithesis in the group was Johnny Rotten (John Lydon,) whom the rest of the group says was arrogant and thought he knew everything (Savage, 121). McLaren saw behind Rotten’s inability to sing and his lack of rhythm, a charm of ” a boy in pain, trying to pretend he’s cool” (Savage, 122). McLaren correctly predicted this to be one of the most accessible aspects of the group.

When considering “poise and presence,” the Sex Pistols had just that. They adopted, or rather were given by McLaren an anarchist image that they came to embody and this made them instant celebrities (Pagewise). Their image was consistent with their fan’s values, who flocked to them because they felt they were on the same level as the band. Punk, the media-given name for their music, was all about Do-It-Yourself (DIY), which was a stark contrast to the music that preceded it.

Before punk was progressive rock, where musicians were looked at as untouchable and on a higher plane than the fans that supported them. The Sex Pistols played on stages that were level to the fans, wore ripped up clothing, and played simple songs. What made the Sex Pistols different is that they were dysfunctional looking anti-stars, which was totally new and very marketable at the time (Filth).

In image formulation, one of the factors to consider is the bands name (Allen). The band was named The Sex Pistols because McLaren wanted to promote his store Sex and they were trying to portray a raw an angry image “that would upset the establishment” (About). Another factor in image formulation is physical appearance. With his background in art, his interest in Situationism, and his role in the fashion industry McLaren spent a lot of time on this aspect of the band. Their torn-up, pinned-together style of dress was partly due to lack of money.

However as the band gained more media recognition, their style came to define “punk,” and the band focused even more on their outrageous style. McLaren and Westwood created expensive and controversial costumes, often with sexual and political references for the band to wear. No matter the price of the clothing, they always bore the image of working-class rebels trying to “upset the establishment.” As we learned in class, our “fast-paced world likes labels for products,” and the media was quick to label the Sex Pistols as the first “punk-rockers.” As soon as their label of “punk rock,” was given, The Sex Pistols were expected to live up to their name.

Another image factor to consider is the band’s sound. Since none of the members could play their instruments their songs consisted of covers, 3-chord originals with no solos and often-angry lyrics by Johnny Rotten. The band started playing live shows before they really knew how to play their instruments. Their sound was made up of noise and madness according to Steve Jones (Temple, 33).

Overall the band possessed charisma, which from class we know is, “a magnetic power that causes someone to stand out in a crowd” (Allen). The band always had the best equipment, despite the fact that they had no money to buy it. Steve Jones took care of stealing all of their equipment backstage at shows, so this was never a budget concern.

In This Business of Artist Management, the authors tell us that the record deal is “the most effective career development tool an artist can get.” Though publicity may have been the most effective tool for The Sex Pistols, McLaren was still great at taking money from record companies.

Polydor Records offered to give the band total creative control if they signed with them, but McLaren signed the band to EMI instead for 40,000 pounds. It was then that he reluctantly increased the band’s payment from 25 pounds a week to 35 pounds a week. McLaren defended his stinginess by saying “what do you need money for? You will only be stupid and spend it” (Taylor, 23).

For their first-ever gig, The Sex Pistols were the supporting band for “Bazooka Joe,” Adam Ant’s band. He says, “they came in as a gang, and Malcolm was in the front orchestrating them” (Savage 141-142). McLaren orchestrated the band all along, giving them their image and attitude through publicity stunts.

In, This Business of Artist Management, the author tells us that one of the most important things an artist can do from a “financial, promotional and artistic standpoint” for his career is book television appearances (Frascogna, 163). The Sex Pistol’s first ever television appearance was an interview with Bill Grundy in 1976, where they cursed over and over on live television.

The next day, the papers were littered with headlines telling of “The Filth and the Fury” known as The Sex Pistols. It was at this point that the band’s career really took off, however it was also at this point that it was no longer about the band, but about causing controversy.

In January of 1977 EMI released the band from their contract because of their behavior on the Grundy show. In The Filth and the Fury, Steve Jones says, ” If it hadn’t been for the Grundy incident, our record wouldn’t have been as successful as it was because of all the press that came along with it.” The simple speech act earned the band and McLaren the role of “spokespersons for Britain’s disaffected unemployed and stylish youth (Taylor, 23).

Only two months after being dropped from EMI, McLaren had the band signed to yet another label, A & M Records for the release of their album, “God Save the Queen” (Taylor, 23). This time they were given 75,000 pounds. The band’s controversial behavior and image however, ended up being too much for the label and The Sex Pistols were released once again, but not without paying 40,000 pounds.

Impresario tells us that McLaren was actually responsible for calling the label “anonymously,” and filing the complaints against the band that got them fired. It was all a part of publicity and McLaren would go to any ends to assure the band got it. In class we learned that the best managers “see conflict coming and have a plan to minimize it” (Allen). McLaren’s managing style was quite contrary to this statement, as his goal was to cause controversy.

In Life is a Contact Sport, Kragen tells us “the key is to have one substantial event and to build at least two others around it.” McLaren was quite good at fulfilling this. The Sun, a local newspaper told McLaren that they would print any story he gave them because he caused them to sell more papers than they ever had before (Filth).

He took advantage of this by tipping off the press before each label signing, “to the irony that, although they were banned from the radio and public performances, and while they had barely cut a record, The Sex Pistols were reaping enormous profit” (Taylor, 24). Following the Grundy show, their album reached number one on the charts. However, there was not a number one listed on the charts that week, they started at number two. The press refused to print their name due to the controversy they were causing.

Another publicity stunt McLaren created was aligning the bands signing with A & M records to coincide with the preparations for Queen Elizabeth II’s Jubilee (Taylor, 23). The band signed the contract outside of Buckingham Palace and without knowing so at the time, declared war on England.

After this the band was unable to walk around town without being attacked, but because of McLaren’s greediness the band still didn’t have enough money to take cabs (Filth). As I mentioned before the contract with A & M didn’t last long. A week later the label released the band.

Virgin Records was the next to sign the Sex Pistols, for their release of “God Save the Queen,” which became England’s “alternative” national anthem. It was at this point that the band had to start getting secret gigs under secret names because they were so disliked and banned from so many areas of the country. In class we learned that most managers, supervise relations with booking agents but do not book the shows themselves. In this case however, McLaren booked a lot of the band’s gigs, those that they could get that is.

In class we learned that “Show business is just like magic in that it is the audience’s perception of reality rather than reality itself that counts.” Sid Vicious is quoted as saying, “Our music is the most honest thing to happen in 15 years.” Perhaps this is why the band could not go on.

They were too honest. For McLaren The Sex Pistols were his art and he believed that only the fakes survive. He also followed the “first pop law of Andrew Long Oldham” which said, “If you lie enough it becomes reality” (Savage, He took credit for everything, and this eventually drove members of the band to want out. McLaren didn’t consider the band’s interests but was more interested in his own media spectacle.

As a commercial undertaking, punk was beyond the grip of the music corporations. Ultimately Punk Rock, the way the Sex Pistols wanted it to be, couldn’t be sold because it had too much to do with DIY (Taylor, 24). The Sex Pistols’ brief notoriety did however “usher in the era of punk” (Lycos).

Artist who can act in movies can greatly benefit their career, and it is advised that manager seek motion picture opportunities for their artists (Frascogna, 169). McLaren attempted this on multiple occasions. The first was with his unsuccessful film They Killed Bambi, which he paid for with the band’s royalties without their knowledge. His second attempt with motion pictures was a “self-serving” film The Great Rock ‘n Roll Swindle, where he portrayed himself as “the brain behind the music” (Taylor, 25).

For this film, he accepted 75,000 pounds from Virgin Records and forced another 100,000 from them after he threatened to take the band elsewhere. In this film he portrays 10 lessons that people should learn (these are listed in the appendix). The films brought McLaren more notoriety than they brought the Sex Pistols and this notion sums up McLaren’s way of managing. It was always about himself, about the store and about creating his art by being childish, irresponsible, and disrespectful; everything the society at the time hated.

Sid Vicious is quoted as saying, “I don’t think Malcolm really managed the group. He just got the group together, and that was a smart move (Temple, 23). Whether McLaren was a good manager or a terrible one, one thing holds true. He made an impression on the entire music industry. Though The Sex Pistols only had one album, they are known by millions and have influenced a world of artist. As an artist manager, McLaren is among a very few that can say they have done that.

Appendix

The Ten Lessons
(The Great Rock ‘n Roll Swindle)

Lesson One: How to manufacture your group
Lesson Two: Establish the name Sex Pistols
Lesson Three: How to sell the Swindle
Lesson Four: Don’t play, don’t give the game away
Lesson Five: Steal as much money from the record company of your choice
Lesson Six: How to become the world’s number one tourist attraction
Lesson Seven: Cultivate hatred; it is your greatest asset
Lesson Eight: How to diversify your business
Lesson Nine: Taking civilization to the barbarians-USA
Lesson Ten: Who killed Bambi?
(Savage, 500)

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