In November, 1976, McLaren spoke to New Musical Express' Nick Kent about the wild new pop sound that was sweeping England: "I don't see it as a fad, because it's such a simple attitude. It's the same attitude, I think, that Eddie Cochran probably had, that any real rock and roller had. I just see it as a reaction against the last five years of stagnation. Writing a song like 'Anarchy in the UK' is definitely a statement of intent--it's hard to say something constructive in rock these days. It's a call to arms to the kids who believe very strongly that rock and roll was taken away from them. And now it's coming back. 'Anarchy in the UK' is a statement of self-rule, of independence, of do-it-yourself, ultimately."
Mid-70s Great Britain was, of course, a dull, grey, disgusting place, in which rising unemployment and inflation (which, mind you, were nothing like they are now, so what extreme rock 'n' roll social movement may we expect to lie just round the corner?) stymied the country, and especially its youth.
Musically, it was completely moribund, the alternative to the chart-dominating establishment rock bands being Pub Rock, a genre that appeared to consist of little more than the attempts of assorted hostelries to act as a chain of Johnny B Goode Rest Homes for failed 60s musicians.
Generally a drab, dispiriting affair, Pub Rock did have within it, however, the seeds of much of the musical change that was to occur in '76/'77. One J Lydon, for example, was a frequent figure at shows by Kilburn and the Highroads. The Laurence Olivier-as-Richard III-like microphone mannerisms and posturings of lan Dury, the group's crippled singer were later co-opted into the by-then Sex Pistols' onstage style.
Also, Joe Strummer then known as "Woody" served a rigorous musical apprenticeship in the obsessively hardworking pub rock r'n'b combo, The 101'ers. Jake Riviera, meanwhile, as manager of hoe-down specialists Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers was familiarizing himself with a scene whose true talents he was to remould and immortalize with the first releases on Stiff Records, the spiritual forerunner of the entire independent label movement that has subsequently swept the UK.
Stiff, indeed, was started with a loan from Dr Feelgood, whose near-genius re-interpretations of rhythm 'n' blues allowed them to be the only group to break out of the pub circuit to any large success. In fact, the short-haired, be-suited Feelgoodsthough derided at the time by the busily self-publicizing punk musicians--bridged a vital gap between a rock world of intolerable complacency and ennui and one whose vitality made it the most exciting era to live in England since the mid-60s Mod days: it was an important watershed when the Feelgoods' Stupidity album entered the British album charts in the number one position in early Spring, 1976. In the wake of this success, record company A&R men began seizing upon other non-Establishment groups with a near-hysterical lust.
A style based largely on the dress and attitudes adopted by a set of Parisian poseurs who'd modeled themselves on such heroes as Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, punk had been a small elitist fashion in London since around early 1974.
Quickly finding its culture heroes in the Sex Pistols, following their first ever show at St Martin's Art College, London, in November, 1975, the scene mushroomed throughout 1976, with a series of punk gigs being put on in the late summer in Oxford Street's 100 Club, and finally finding a focal-point and place of worship in The Roxy in Covent Garden, a former gay club that opened as a punk temple in December of that year, with Generation X as its very first act.
It was apt that the Sex Pistols should open their musical career at St Martin's, the art college at which bassist Glen Matlock had been a student: About the gross or so of people who made up the creative core of punk there was a high percentage of artists and art students. 1977 was the year when just anyone who was anyone was a conceptual artist, working in the field of music. Certainly, this supposedly working-class primal scream of outrage at the misery of its participants' lot was frequently a most middle-class affair, with much of its iconoclasm based on sensitive art theory.
Not that this should matter, though. A large part of the appeal of rock 'n' roll is its concern with the creation of instant mythology: to what extent, for example, was John Lennon really A Working-Class Hero?
Also, of course, punk was never really a British-born phenomenon at all...
Malcolm McLaren, of course, was the supplier of much of this scene's clothes, his Sex shop also having provided the territory in which Paul Cook and Steve Jones met up with Glen Matlock, working at his Saturday job, and where they were later joined by a young man who was to be rather oddly re-christened Johnny Rotten.
The seductive, charismatic, self-styled situationalist that is Malcolm McLaren is all things to all men but is best understood as an essentially dodgy individual who's done a few pretty good things. Fittingly, the manipulative Malcolm was himself a product of the English art school system--like half the great English rock 'n' rollers you can name, in fact. To this artistic awareness, he had balanced himself off with an edge of rag trade commercial flash. In the early 70s he worked with British fashion enfant terrible Tommy Roberts, who just happened to also manage for a time Kilburn and the Highroads.
McLaren basically had given up on rock 'n' roll in the mid-60s, having become bored with the output of The Rolling Stones, whose music he'd fanatically followed since their earliest days.
Whilst at art school, however, he made an uncompleted film of the late 50s classic British rocker, Billy Fury who, along with Johnny Kidd, McLaren considered the only ever true British rock 'n' roller--in fact, Fury's 'Do You Really Love Me Too' was a featured song in early Sex Pistols' rehearsals. Rather than the star himself, though, McLaren's real role-model appeared to be Fury's manager, Larry Parnes, whose stable of moody solo performers was characterised by their sultry, camp surnames: Fury, Marty Wilde, Dusty Power, Johnny Gentle. Obviously the "Rotten" moniker can be seen as a grotesque variant on such a theme...
One day in 1973, Malcolm was sitting in Let It Rock, as his shop was then called, when he had a cathartic experience similar to the epiphany received by Saul on the road to Damascus: The New York Dolls walked in!
"I'd never heard of them before," he told Nick Kent, "but they all trouped into the shop one day in their high-heeled shoes and I was very impressed by the way they handled themselves. There were all these Teds 'anging around thinking what the hell are these geezers doing 'ere? But the Dolls didn't care at all. David (Johansen) just went ahead and tried on a drape jacket while Johnny (Thunders) was over by the jukebox looking for some Eddie Cochran records... I was really taken aback.
"I saw a gig they did for Luxembourg radio and suddenly I was completely won over. Singlehandedly the Dolls reopened my awareness for what contemporary rock music had to offer. I must say that as far as I'm concerned they were the group--the single most important rock band.
"They were certainly the prime motivators behind what's happening now... with the Pistols and this whole new punk-rock scene. Most definitely. That's because they were playing straightforward three-minute songs set in urban situations and... the other thing, the main thing, really, is that the Dolls could never play great. That's what separated them from the rest... It's just unfortunate that with the Dolls... well, they were just too far ahead of their time."
In 1975, in fact, McLaren journeyed to Manhattan to manage the Dolls for the final six months of their existence. Though the group was at that time falling apart due to certain members' fondness for advanced chemical experimentation, the boutique owner found himself in New York witnessing the embryonic American punk scene at clubs like CBGBs and Max's Kansas City, where the likes of the Ramones, Television and Patti Smith were pioneering 70s musical minimalism.
In fact, as was hardly ever admitted by the curiously xenophobic English punks, the mid-70s British musical revolution was largely inspired by events on the other side of the Atlantic, musical happenings that were thoroughly documented in the crucially important British musical press. But as British rock 'n' roll musicians so agily have done for a couple of decades now--The Beatles' usage of Motown and the late 60s British blues boom (sic) being but two obvious examples--this new American form was adeptly reinterpreted in a British social scenario, and thereby transmogrified into A Social Revolution.
Back in London, Malcolm McLaren decided to oversee the creative efforts of the group of teenagers who'd been hanging around the shop for some time, constantly discussing the group they were trying to form. They had all the equipment: instruments and a complete PA system had been ripped off from established outfits over the years.
As Steve Jones later told Nick Kent, himself a Sex Pistol for a number of rehearsals, the Pistol guitarist's finest hour was when he swiped the mikes from David Bowie's final show as Ziggy Stardust at London's Hammersmith Odeon: "We got backstage, sussed it all out, and waited for this one geezer who was in charge to nod off, which he did after a while. Then we sneaked onstage with wire-cutters and all you could hear was the snip, snip. Ended up with these thirteen microphones... They were recording live that night, so we nabbed these big deluxe Newman jobs. Didn't know what the fuck they were at the time--looked like a bleedin' gorilla's dildo! Also we nabbed Ronson's Sun amp and some other amp too."
This deep yearning to play impressed Malcolm deeply: "From the start I realized that the Pistols as a band were not relevant strictly for the music. That was all very secondary to the image they were projecting, which was something that all these kids could relate to instantly.
"When we played the 100 Club, half the audience we were attracting were kids who normally would've been over the road at the Crackers disco. These were young kids--mostly in the 16-17-18 bracket--who'd been into Bowie and Roxy Music but who'd been left behind... who'd left them behind because those acts just got too big, too distant, and who'd ended up going to the discotheques just for something to do, where there was this excuse for a scene. As far as I could see they weren't particularly into disco music--it was just somewhere to go. But now they've got the Sex Pistols--they've got this image, this look, and attitude to relate to. They can both apply themselves and relate...
"The essence, I think, of the relationship between us and our audience is the same thing exactly as the Dolls. The Pistols don't play great and as such a kid in the audience can relate to that. He can think, 'Yeah, I can possibly play that!' There's that proximity. A kid can visualize himself being up there on stage...
"See, rock is fundamentally a young people's music. And a lot of kids feel cheated. They feel that the music's been taken away from them by that whole over-25 audience. There's this incredible antagonism coming from bands like Wings and Queen against the Sex Pistols... they're full of these miserable excuses for themselves. It's pathetic."
The Pistols, of course, were not the only group cared for by Malcolm McLaren in the early days of the Sex Pistols. In fact, in cahoots with one Bernie Rhodes, McLaren was attempting to establish a Larry Parnes- or Brian Epstein-like stable of punk groups from the pool of willing would-be musicians who frequented his shop. These included Chrissie Hynde, later of The Pretenders, Mick Jones, later of The Clash, and Chris "Rat Scabies" Miller, Dave Vanian, and Ray "Captain Sensible" Burns, all later of The Damned. Shortlived punk prototype outfits included Big Girl's Underwear, with Hynde and Jones, The Love Boys (Chris Miller and Jones again), and Masters Of The Backside (Hynde, Vanian, Miller, Burnes).
Ultimately, though, the only other of these groups to come to fruition was The Clash, whose early career was cared for by Bernie Rhodes.
Obviously Malcolm McLaren wasn't solely responsible for British punk. He served, however, to channel a large measure of the genre's most creative energies. With the force set in motion--and especially with the establishment of such clubs as The Roxy and, later, The Vortex--punk began to move along of its own accord, a truly national, liberating movement that irrevocably altered the face of English youth culture.
But what does Johnny Rotten think of Malcolm McLaren?
"It was alright," he told me, "until we left EMI Records. Malcolm was just bullshitting from there on in. All that nonsense about us not being able to get gigs was just some weird managerial scheme. He thought he'd bury us in some kind of mystique and that would help record sales. He'd seen too many films. It was all his ridiculous, romantic image of himself.
"I think he did things to the best of his abilities. He didn't start out for the wrong reasons. It's just that money interfered. He gets things wrong and tries to manipulate people's lives like it's a game of chess.
"It just looks like people see some sort of glamour in him being just a total bastard.... In fact, he's just a conniving little shit."
[For some more on this kind of thing, see John Holmstrom's article "The Harder They Come... Behind the Scenes at the Sex Pistols' First North American Tour."]