Portrait of Malcom McLaren by Ryan Murphy from Swindle Magazine issue 5.

Yesterday we heard the sad news that Malcom McLaren, creator of the Sex Pistols and arguably an entire punk rock movement, had passed away at the age of 64 after battling a long illness. Always a controversial person, he had the rare insight of seeing things that most people would never see, and in so doing, helped spawn not only new musical talent such as the Sex Pistols, the New York Dolls, Adam Ant, Bow Wow Wow, and Afrika Bambaataa, but redefined retail with a London store called “Sex” where “nothing was for sale.”

Mr. McLaren believed in the power of failure and often stated he swindled the record and music industry -creating a documentary about the disintegration of the Sex Pistols after Sid Vicious overdosed in 1979, called “The Great Rock ‘n Roll Swindle.”

Street artist Shepard Fairey picked up on this and launched a magazine called “Swindle” based on McLaren’s theories and ran an excellent story by McLaren in its 5th issue with a cover featuring Billy Idol and Steve Jones.


Swindle Magazine 5 featuring a story by Malcom McLaren, cover of Billy Idol and Steve Jones.

In the story, McLaren espouses on the Magnificant Failure: “To create a magnificent failure is to create the best kind of picture: a picture that really drives and changes things. Because when you see a picture and you say, “That’s a very beautiful picture,” it is instantly forgettable. A picture that is a magnificent failure actually breathes life and allows the culture to change. If you have perfection, there is nowhere to go. With perfection there is no communication. You have nothing to access. The disasters are what bring life and allow us to connect. That’s the magic.

When the culture supports the role of the great amateur, that’s when things are exciting. When that amateur turns a corner and suddenly becomes professional, it is never as interesting. It’s a strange thing. Even in art, it was always the great amateurs that intrigued me %u2013 Picasso [as opposed to] Henri Rousseau, or Van Gogh [as opposed to] Edouard Manet.

All these great amateurs or primitives make the world seem accessible. Sometimes you like your gods to walk amongst you, rather than up high and above you, unreachable. Go back to ancient Greece %u2013 people prayed to demigods who walked amongst them, gods who were on the ground, and who looked like us. That is what happened in hip-hop culture. I remember the early days in hip-hop; it was always the amateur aspect that was ingenious.

The thought that you could make music literally by stealing your brother’s records and turning them into something that sounded contemporary and totally new. . . it happened in punk rock but less so, because it didn’t quite last. What was in-built in punk rock was something that prevented it from ever living in harmony with the industry. If ever it got close, it imploded. And, voila: the Sex Pistols.”


Vivienne Westwood and Malcom McLaren. Photo from Swindle Magazine Issue 5.

McLaren was famously known for marrying fashion icon Vivienne Westwood and arguably the “pirate-punk” styles that are still popular today among youth culture. It was an era of high unemployment in the UK, and disenfranchised youth. In his shop with Westwood, McLaren created clothing that fit the mood of youth culture using recycled materials and things like safety pins, creating rips, graphic T-shirts with statements, paired with Doc Martens. McLaren claims that in many ways, he created the Sex Pistols to sell his clothing -not the other way around. Now, selling merch is as key to the making money in music as the music itself.

Again, he was ahead of his time.

Once Vivienne Westwood and McLaren split up, things were somewhat contentious as he claimed he was the one that launched her career, including her style for punk rock fashion. For example, in a story from WWD, McLaren claims he brought back Adam Ant’s 3-cornered hat and told her to make it into a pirate hat. This was a time when he was angered by people taping music off the radio, or what called “pirating” music.

Westwood claims that she was inspired to create her pirate styles from Bow Wow Wow, and how she saw the group as “plundering the world.”

For McLaren, music, fashion, and culture were all a part of one’s lifestyle. And art was the thing that combined all facets together. Art was always a huge inspiration for him, and he went to school for various facets of art for some 8 years beore finally getting booted out. Inspired by one teacher who talked about being a spectacular failrure, which is more memorable that being a success, and far more realistic as an artist anyway, Malcom was inspired to create his own excellent failure. As McLaren put it, the Sex Pistols were as close as you can get to being the architects of a brilliant failure. And that’s why we remember them so vividly.
In the same vain, his T-shirt creations for his shop, among other things were gaining incredible popularity among youth culture, which of course lured the likes of Vogue magazine to source out such street trends. He would shoo them out, telling them “nothing was for sale.” And the anti-for sale thing made even his most odd designs that much more desirable. It was an ironic retailing phenomenon that reminds me of the grand usage of designer collaborations and “limited-edition” mania happening in retail now.

A final story we did on a Malcom McLaren creation was regarding his 8 Bit Music apparel for young kids which debuted some time ago at Bread and Butter trade show. Based on how young people were taking old-school video gaming sounds and creating new music with them -recycling the rawness of games for their own purposes -inspired him to create an entire collection based on the “pre teen intellelectual vanguard.” How kids, because of savvy computer skills and other forms of technology, tend to be the leaders in trends rather than the followers, and how the world is flipping upside down. This is a theory we’ve always had at Label Networks, right down to our Manifesto.

Malcom McLaren was a magnificant disaster, and in so doing, made the journey of life into a cultural movement. A rare thing for just one person to do, resulting in a ripple effect we’re still in the middle of rocking.

Rest in Peace.

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