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Friday, April 09, 2010

RIP Malcolm Maclaren

ell, he kept that quiet didn't he? MM dies of cancer aged 64. And no-one knew he was fighting it.

MM was the best publicist in the 70s and the 80s. He gave the music business a good kick up the arse just when it needed it. I don't know your views on punk music, but it came along at just the right time.

Music works in ten year cycles. The post war 40s period started in 1945/6. It was a time of austerity but also of change. Sinatra and Crosby were still at the top, but things were happening. Crosby's guitar player was Les Paul. He was an innovator and was determined to be different from the others around him. He was on tour with the Andrews Sisters when he rang his mother who said that she'd heard him on the radio the evening before. It wasn't him, but an imitator. He immediately came off tour and retired to his garage where he set about devising a new sound, a new way of recording. Within a year or so or so he'd invented multi-track  and multi speed recording. He also designed what is arguably the most successful guitar ever built- the Gibson Les Paul. The Forties belong to him.

The Fifties began in 1955/6 with the skiffle boom. As a reaction to the over-arranged technically excellent big band music which was great to play but beyond the scope of the average teenager, skiffle gave anyone the opportunity to make music. Simple songs, three chords, perfect.
Every pop star of the early sixties started out playing skiffle in the fifties. When Rock 'n Roll hit the UK, there were thousands of guitar playing youth who latched on to the rhythm. The fifties belonged to Rock & Roll.

The Sixties began in 1965/6 when the Beatles, who began as a skiffle group, progressed through country rock, rock and roll and early Tamla and became the biggest band of the day. As they pushed the musical boundaries, aided and abetted by their producer George Martin, it opened a way for players to stretch themselves musically. The Sixties spawned the Guitar Hero. Clapton, Beck and Paige all began their careers playing the the Yardbirds. As the sixties progressed, the music got more complicated, as bands became more interested in releasing albums than releasing singles. The Sixties was also the era of Prog-Rock, long hair and greatcoats. In parallel with this the music became more flamboyant, with complex stage shows and artists wearing make up. The Sixties was the time when mainstream entertainment embraced rock music. We had Glam Rock.  It was a long way from music on the street.

The Seventies began in 1975/6, exactly on time. I was playing in a rock group then. We played pubs and small venues in Northamptonshire, with the occasional foray into London. We played the Marquee, the Greyhound in Fulham Palace Road, and other pubs in and around the capital. We were playing mostly original material, a sort of poor man's Thin Lizzy but without the talent. As we got changed in the "dressing room" (a toilet or cleaning cupboard) we'd look at the graffitti and I noticed that the Stranglers, Sex Pistols and 101ers were also playing the same venues. The 101ers became the Clash. The writing was on the wall for us. Our music was out of date and  there was nothing we could do but to pack it in and try something different. Punk was in.

MM was brilliant at manipulating the media. At its heyday, there were never more than 1000 or so punk fans in the country, but they were loud, fervent and loyal and they worked together to create a phenomenon, orchestrated by MM.

MM was a little like John Peel, who promoted music that was out of the ordinary. Where MM differed was that he did it for the notoriety and for the money. When the Sex Pistols imploded he looked for something different to promote. We had Bow Wow Wow, a band that had everything- except for a decent song. I'd moved out of music by the early-mid eighties and lost touch with what he was doing.

The Eighties began in 1985/6 with the beginnings of sampled music and the birth of hip-hop. Once again the music of the previous decade had become more and more complicated and remote from the average boy/girl in the street. The thing about hip-hop and its sub genres was that anyone could rap, anyone could make this music. I understand the MM had a hand in making this music known.

The Nineties began in 1995/6 with the birth of Britpop, a reaction to the manufactured pap of the boybands and Stock Aitken and Waterman. Britpop had its own bad boys in the shape of the Gallaghers, so MM wasn't needed.

The Noughties began- when? The Noughties were the decade of the celebrity, when people were famous for being famous. The Noughties were the decade of the TV Talent Show, when karaoke singers vied to be the label on the latest tin of beans from the pop factory. The Noughties were the decade when the youth ignored the music business altogether and did their own thing.
The Noughties were also the decade when music became an arm of government, when music was used as a tool to keep the mob in line, subdued.

Which was why subversives like MM had no part of it. MM couldn't play, sing or act. He just was. And the world needs more like him.


Wrinkled Weasel said...

(You are spot on about musical cycles. There was definitely a 60s "A" and a 60's "B".)

I think you are being generous about MM!

I know we thought music was stagnating in the 70's, but in in retrospect, there was some very interesting stuff going on under the surface. It just wasn't being played on Radio One. Roxy Music was interesting - they were never a singles band. With hindsight, ABBA was a work of near genius. There was Dr Feelgood and Be=bop Deluxe, who were never big but fantastic. Jethro Tull produced three fantastic albums: Songs from the Wood, Heavy Horses and Stormwatch, with a brilliant live double album. And there was Dire Straits.

If you use longevity as an index of quality, all those mentioned above, are more or less still selling albums - even Glenn still gets royalties from the three first Tull Albums - and most of them are still extant.

There are a few, very few punk bands still around, but as you pointed out, their fan base was tiny. Very few musicians namecheck punks as an influence. It's usually the other way around..

Phil Collins said when he was in Genesis that Rat Scabies from The Damned coyly went up to Phil in a VIP lounge and said, "Mr Collins, I really like your drumming"

Dave said...

Thanks WW, I agree with much of what you say. However, I think I'm approaching it from a musician or wannabee musician's point of view. The problem with any music cycle is that as the skills of the musicians develop it becomes harder and harder for a beginner to join in.
The beauty of skiffle, punk, hip-hop and britpop is that absolutely anyone can join in and play. Maybe not skillfully, but a few skiffle players of the many thousands went on to have careers in music. Likewise with punk and hip-hop.

I also recall the music press being very anti prog rock. They wrote about whether a particular band had street cred or not. Whether they could play or not was irrelevant, it was all about the vibe.
McLaren seized that and ran with it.

Pub rock bands like Dr Feelgood and Dire Straits got very positive press. I think the press thought they could be the next big thing, but (a) it was a year or two too early and (b)pub rock was too nebulous a genre. It was, after all, a bunch of groups who played pubs in North London, with varying music styles.
The music press would report on US bands like the New York Dolls and the Ramones, and the early punk movement styled themselves on them.