Johnny Rotten and Malcom McLaren


A new doorstopper-sized (900+ pages) biography of Malcolm McLaren by Paul Gorman got musician Gary Lucas thinking about one part of the former Sex Pistol/Bow Wow Wow impresario’s life that is often overlooked in all the stories: his Jewish roots. Lucas examines pop music history through this prism and discovers some startling facts.

Many of the anti-Semitic tropes believed long dead and gone are currently festering again, clawing their evil way out of the mass genocidal graves of World War II, metastasizing worldwide at an alarming rate.

  • The Jew as upsetter of apple carts. The tummler who thrives on disorder, the big-mouth shpritzer, the dirty disreputable mountebank traveling from town to town, spreading disease and contagion in his wake.
  • The Jew as fast-talking con-man out to subvert the status quo and sow chaos across the land for his own ends.
  • The Jew as secretly running the world via International Banking Conspiracy; the media; organized crime; decadence, weakening the moral foundations of our country, ad nauseam.

As a card-carrying Jewish person, I have been vigilantly clocking hate crimes against my peeps from a very tender age as I know deep down that, indeed, it CAN happen here—in fact, it’s happening again right now.

One of the ways this connects with the music we all love is the trope that Big Media conglomerates are under the total dominion of the Jews—which includes Big Media’s lilting, tuneful subset, the Music-Biz.

I would be the first to admit that insofar as authentic rock ‘n’ roll is concerned—the hard stuff, in other words—Jews have a long, proud tradition as renegade music-biz movers and shakers, peddling hot shots ‘o sonic mayhem in pursuit of teen coin.

The roll call of Jewish music-biz shtarkes begins with DJ-on-the-make-and-take Alan Freed, the first to parlay dirty-ass rock ’n roll onto the national airwaves before he was supplanted by the slick, Brillcreamed Dick Clark; continues with Windy City indie hustlers Leonard and Phil Chess, whose Chess Records dominated the blues field for years with the unvarnished likes of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Little Walter; produces authentically dangerous madmen in the form of wild-catting entrepreneurs like Roulette Records kappelmeister Morris Levy (“Number One with a Bullet in the Head”); and colorful, fast-talking Syd Nathan who ran King Records out of Cincinnati and signed but never tamed wildman James Brown, stone country shit-kickers the Stanley Brothers and a host of other rugged individualists to King Records; and surges ahead with the more recent advent of epicurean tastemakers like Bob Krasnow—forever immortal in my book for managing and co- producing with Brooklyn’s own Richard Perry Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band’s first album—and consummate art-collecting Sire Records honcho Seymour Stein, whose early catalog boasted a nifty lineup of ur-Punk legends.

But one wonders: were these Hebraic Heavyweights, these Jewish Rekkid Men, primarily out to shake the world, subvert cultural norms, and lead us Moses-like unto the Promised Land—a Brave New World of Radical Thought and Expression?? (Probably not).

There were however a handful of Jewish music-biz innovators—world-class, cutting-edge managers mainly—who really did accomplish just that, by design and by their own inclination to overthrow the norm. I call them the Holy Trinity of the Jewish Managers as Professional Troublemaker.

The first of this trinity is my old friend Andrew Loog Oldham, who changed the face of music forever by transforming the fledgling Rolling Stones into the Anti-Beatles— Rock ‘n Roll’s Evil Dolls.

Malcolm McLaren at his Bar Mitzvah

Andrew’s three books of memoirs—Stoned, 2 Stoned, and Stone Free—are must-reads, all about the fine art of moving fast and kicking ass, which Andrew did in spades in order to shove his “little showers of shit” (ousted original group member Ian Stewart’s affectionate term for the band) in the faces of everyone on the planet. Andrew ripped things up by taking a tip from his mentor Phil Spector and paying for and owning the group’s master recordings as their first producer, leasing them on a temporary basis to Decca Records before finally cashing out and selling them to another Jewish music-biz luminary, the lawyer Allen Klein. Not to mention founding England’s first true independent label, the mighty Immediate Records, home of The Nice, the Small Faces, and other seminal UK bands.

The second member of the Trinity is my old friend Danny Fields, another idol-smasher and world-beater—a shining example of the Jewish Manager as Agent Provocateur—a visionary genius who more or less invented Punk Rock by championing, developing and signing incendiary Detroit rock gods MC5 as well as their little brothers the Stooges, and later delivering New York’s iconic Ramones on a platter to the delight of rock lovers round the world. Danny had an innate gift for always being where the most fabulous action was taking place—from Andy Warhol’s silver foil-lined Factory to the cruddy toilet with adjoining stage that was CBGB. He was a major player of the NY Rock Scene, kibbitzing and schmoozing and scouting artists on the cusp of greatness. Witness Danny’s initial up close and personal efforts foisting such splendiferous mutant attractions as The Modern Lovers, Nico, and Jim Morrison and the Doors on an unsuspecting world.

Which brings me to the third member of my Holy Trinity of the Jewish Managers as Professional Troublemaker: the arch and artful impresario par excellence Malcolm McLaren, the subject of an exhaustive and excellent new biography by Paul Gorman, The Life & Times of Malcolm McLaren (Constable).

Malcolm McLaren! His very name rolls off the tongue in classic meme-like duple/triple cadence, a la Christopher Robin, Timothy Leary and Tommy Motttola.

Malcolm McLaren! Whose primary artistic creation, the Sex Pistols, were personally designed / conjured up to fulfill Malcom’s manifest destiny as Jewish bad-boy on a global scale.

A rager and a scrapper, a rag-trade merchant by birthright, a creative hipster artist by way of multiple stints crashing some of the finest art-schools in Britain, a brainiac who loathed slowness and the old ways of doing things, this Brave Little Tailor rose out of the leafy precincts of suburban Jewish Hendon to kill a lot more than Seven with One Blow—instructing his young protégées the Sex Pistols how to kick a moribund, bloated, AOR-besotted music biz right up the keister vis a vis a short sharp shocking return to Rock Basics. He encouraged his group’s profane antics on national TV and in the press with the result that they were banned everywhere in the UK and dropped by two major labels, but not before these frightened record companies had deposited non-refundable mucho dineros in Malcolm’s bank account— eventually hooking the Pistols up with Richard Branson’s Virgin Records for their one and only masterpiece, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.

Malcolm McLaren, interviewed during the Anarchy tour, 1976:

A crafty geezer, Malcolm, with his longtime paramour designer Vivienne Westwood, set the group up as both punk avatars and performing mannequins—actual showroom dummies—by fashioning a group with a fine line in outrage and a knack for getting banned from one venue after another, and draping them in select clothing courtesy their own line of pricey punk fashions then on sale in Malcolm’s trendy King’s Road emporium SEX. Which had to have eventually rankled front man Johnny Rotten, who was nobody’s puppet.

Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood 1976, Creative Commons

Tying the Sex Pistols in with their line of punk clothing was quite the brilliant idea, and seemingly exclusive to Malcolm—I can’t think of any managerial antecedents, although I can recall plenty of misfires down the road in emulation of his shrewd gambit, such as the short-lived Beastie Boys / Sonic Youth line of schmattas (oy).

Sadly but inevitably, Malcolm’s brand-band, an unstable proposition at best, imploded rather quickly (two and half years only!). But what did you expect from a group singing about the joys of anarchy? Malcolm basically took the gift of Punk that Danny had discovered and nurtured, dialed the volume up to 11–and then ran the whole thing over a cliff by firing Glenn Matlock, the bassist who wrote most of their memorable tunes, and adding the ticking time bomb that was Sid Vicious into the mix. The last laugh was had by Johnny Rotten in any case, onstage at Winterland in SF at the end of the final Sex Pistols show after a shambolic tour of the South: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

Splintered and rent asunder by the sudden departure of Lydon, Malcolm tried in vain to keep the whole thing going by replacing Johnny with the hapless Sid Vicious, his auto-destruct Golden Boy, as frontman. After Sid’s alleged killing of his groupie girlfriend Nancy Spungeon and his subsequent OD, it appeared to be the end of the game for Malcolm—but only for a moment (this cat truly had nine lives).

In any case, the Sex Pistols truly went out with a bang, not a whimper, and their aggressive anti-authoritarian vibrations are still thundering in the blue empyrean of World Historical Music and Kulcher.

Casting a further critical eye on our three seminal Jewish Manager kings (Oldham, Fields and McLaren, which sounds like a white-shoe law firm), all possessed Style and Attitude aplenty. And they all made it their business, if not their sacred duty, to instill a particularly pugnacious stance, a certain truculent boorishness, to their young charges–partially inspired by Elvis’ classic sneer, Marlon Brando’s loutish leather-clad biker circa The Wild One and, in the case of Andrew and Malcolm, an abiding affection for French nihilism and Left Bank existential ennui. Basically they encouraged their artistes to, in the immortal words of Don Van Vliet: “Hit It to hell in the breadbasket–and finger fuck the Devil!”

Malcolm basically took the gift of Punk that Danny had discovered and nurtured, dialed the volume up to 11–and then ran the whole thing over a cliff by firing Glenn Matlock, the bassist who wrote most of their memorable tunes, and adding the ticking time bomb that was Sid Vicious into the mix

Of course, they were not wise guy Svengalis all of the time. These guys had their “nice Jewish boy” sides as well.

Behold both Danny and Malcolm pictured in the pages of Steven Lee Beeber’s excellent book, The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk (2018), at their respective bar-mitzvahs, a sacred Jewish ceremony conferring manhood upon 13 year-old boychicks. Both future managers are resplendent in Tallit, a fringed embroidered ceremonial Jewish prayer cloth worn over the shoulders like a shawl. In the case of Malcolm, forever a Marc Bolan-esque “Dandy in the Underworld” whose grandfather was an actual tailor, his bar-mitzvah threads doubled as a future fashion accessory—as Boy George O’Dowd, who later popularized “That Hasidic Look” via his group Culture Club, was one of Malcolm and Vivienne’s earliest and biggest fans. (George hung out a lot at SEX, and actually auditioned as the first frontman for Bow Wow Wow).

Speaking of roots, Gorman’s compelling biography reveals that Malcolm adored the works of Charles Dickens from a very early age—especially Oliver Twist and its stereotypical Jewish rapscallion Fagin, whose stock-in-trade was corrupting young boys and cajoling them to pick pockets for him, which was kind of a template for Malcolm’s role in developing the Sex Pistols. This is further exemplified in director Julien Temple’s Sex Pistols elegy The Great Rock ’n Roll Swindle, where Malcolm upstages his own group by delivering a Sermon on the Mount in the form of his Ten Commandments on how to blow up the music biz and rake in tons of dough in the process (hence his Sex Pistols slogan “Cash from Chaos”).

“You Need Hands” – Malcolm McLaren singing, from The Great Rock ‘n Roll Swindle:

Over a very long career, Malcolm was prone to making many oracular and all-knowing statements, many of which, especially those espousing multiculturalism and the coming Wired Nation, were incredibly prescient. He was also more than capable in a non-Nice Jewish Boy type of way of making cold and callous pronouncements in the service of the Revolution. A leftist firebrand and perennial Francophile, Malcolm’s art-school fondness for Guy Debord’s Situationist art-political movement, stemming from the venerable French tradition of epater-ing les bourgeois, became part of his Sex Pistols managerial toolbox. His fondness for left politics early on his career led him to dress his friends the New York Dolls, then tottering on their last legs, as flag-waving Communists in matching red leather outfits.

Over a very long career, Malcolm was prone to making many oracular and all-knowing statements, many of which, especially those espousing multiculturalism and the coming Wired Nation, were incredibly prescient.

I was particularly shocked by Malcolm’s seeming indifference, as reported in this biography, to the accidental blinding of a female fan by his fascist bully-boy stalking horse Sid Vicious during the legendary 100 Club Punk Festival, which took place in September 1976 on Malcolm’s beloved Oxford Street, scene of the actual 18th-century Gordon Riots, a subject dear to Malcolm’s anarchist heart:

Held over a long weekend, the festival featured the creme de la creme of Les Punks—including the Sex Pistols, the Damned, the Clash, Siouxie Sioux, Vic Godard and Subway Sect, and all the way from Malcolm’s beloved Paris, the only French punk group that mattered, the Stinky Toys, fronted by my old friend Elli Medeiros. The Stinky Toys were, in fact, billed as co-headliners with the Pistols over the Clash and the Damned. Malcolm first spotted Elli on a boulevard on one of his periodic trips to Paris. Elli was dressed to the nines, kitted out in a tattered coat with little dolls pinned all over the front, which prompted Malcom to chat her up and ask if she was in fact in a band.

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During the festival Vicious threatened Elli, attacked NME journalist Nick Kent with a bicycle chain, and threw a glass at The Damned, which shattered on a pillar—the flying shards permanently blinding the aforementioned female concert-goer.

Regarding this heinous incident, Malcolm was later to remark: “The violence was magnificent; it was something that gave all those kids a terrific identity, made them proud of their future. So someone got blinded? Well there are far worse things that happen for far worse causes. One person blinded, a couple people badly hurt—the achievement outweighed it completely.”

On a personal note, I had a couple of Malcolm encounters over the years, running into the guy and his then gal-pal supermodel Lauren Hutton in the mid-80’s in the lobby of London’s Portobello Hotel, a refurbished Victorian pile in Notting Hill boasting a Hugh Hefner-esque round bed with adjacent rococo bathtub in one of the better rooms.  In those days, the Portobello sported a fully functioning bar and kitchen in the basement which stayed open (or the staff would open it for you) 24 hours a day non-stop—a rarity for London, which made it a favorite hangout for the peripatetic nightbird McLaren.

My wife and I waltzed in there during part one of our honeymoon abroad and right away spotted Malcolm and Lauren in the lobby—you couldn’t miss them. We stared at them, they stared back at us, but as we hadn’t been properly introduced…

Next morning after our first night in the round bed, I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom around 9am —when right through the paper-thin wall I heard Malcolm’s snarky adenoidal pipes addressing a sleeping Lauren Hutton with great disgust:

“Wake up, Lauren! This ain’t HOLLYWOOD!!”

Malcom McLaren and Lauren Hutton

According to Paul Gorman’s treasure trove of gossip and speculation, Malcolm made two separate attempts at crashing the hallowed gates of Hollywood over a period of seven long years. But, despite receiving a hefty payday and a rented mansion-on-the-hill courtesy CBS TV, who put Malcolm on the payroll developing project after unrealized project, and the patronage of Steven Spielberg and other West Coast overlords, Hollywood eventually got the better of him and proved a stultifying dead-end. For all the time he invested there, Malcolm came away with no films realized.

Malcolm continued to cut a larger than life figure for many years after the Pistols. He always made great copy. He spun projects galore and knew how to work the press like the expert spin-doctor he was and created disruption and controversy on a daily basis. He even came close to running for Mayor of London on a platform that included legalizing the brothels abutting the Houses of Parliament.

His singular achievement to me remains the Sex Pistols in all their foul-mouthed, hard-edged glory, rendering everything that came before them temporarily irrelevant.
Malcolm upped the Sex Pistols with his second Designer Band, the magnificent Bow Wow Wow, who he assembled, produced, provided lyrics for, and kitted out in Pirate clobber (think Jerry Seinfeld’s puffy shirt), simultaneously selling their fashionable new look at his King’s Road boutique, now re-christened Seditionaries.

His singular achievement to me remains the Sex Pistols in all their foul-mouthed, hard-edged glory, rendering everything that came before them temporarily irrelevant.

Bow Wow Wow was a success du scandale, a riff on Malcolm’s preoccupation with the under-age sex theme considered so transgressively hip by various rockers and literati in the late Sixties, especially overseas (think of the cover of the first Blind Faith album, as well as the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy; also Serge Gainsbourg’s song “Lemon Incest” and his magnum opus “Histoire du Melody Nelson”, in preparation for which Gainsbourg instructed his then muse, Jane Birkin, to sing as if she was 14 years old).

In the case of Bow Wow Wow, fronted by an actual 14-year old, the Burmese vocalist / winsome fertility goddess Annabella Lwin, the group’s lewd and pulsating rhythms were based on Malcolm’s post-Pistol research into world music at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. This also led to his wholesale appropriation of the Burundi Beat underpinning Bow Wow Wow. Always the cheeky chappie, Malcolm first turned Adam Ant onto this percussive gimmick for a flat consultancy fee while at the same time stealing the Ant Man’s band out from under him which he morphed into Bow Wow Wow.

Which brings us to Malcolm’s own albums, where he assumed the persona of the Rock ’n Roll Swindler as Solo Artiste. A canny music-biz sharpie who never missed a trick, Malcom turned his fondness for pillaging public domain work he didn’t have to pay songwriter or publishing royalties on—African beats, Appalachian fiddle tunes, Puccini, you name it—into the very warp and woof of his audible Art.

The first one, Duck Rock, was a hit in the UK in 1983 and a very influential platter, mainly due to Malcolm’s on-the-money discovery of early hip-hop bubbling out of the South Bronx, as well as his timely appropriation of African, Latin and Square Dancing influences. Who can forget Malcolm calling the tune “Buffalo Gals go round the outside / round the outside/ round the outside!”? The album also boasted the extra-added ingredients of the World Famous Supreme Team, and producer Trevor Horn (Art of Noise, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Propaganda) at the controls.

“Buffalo Gals” – Malcolm McLaren:

After this musical triumph, though, things went downhill, saleswise, for Malcom’s albums. Starting with Waltz Darling and continuing with Fans and the cri de coeur that is Paris barely raising a temperature internationally (although these tracks must have sounded great on the cat-walks and runways of various international fashion shows—a milieu which Malcolm, a fashionista from the get-go, frequently inhabited in his later years, providing ambient dance mixes sporting his multi-cultural appropriations).

What Malcolm might have finally achieved if say his Asian / Chinese pop music concept group Jungk had ever gotten off the ground remains a tantalizing what if.

Basically, after a late 1980s trip to Beijing, Malcolm saw the Future—and assembled a group of extremely photogenic Asian females he liked to refer to as his Rice Girls—an ensemble which included the amazing Celest Chong, later to be one of the vocalists on my own take on 1930’s Chinese pop, “The Edge of Heaven”. But after making the rounds and much ballyhoo in the press, no label would throw down the necessary bucks to record the group—a depressingly familiar story.

To sum up, this brand-new biography, coming some ten years after Malcolm’s early death to abdominal cancer, captures his brilliance in all its messy and complicated glory.

Malcolm McLaren’s origin story—what actually made him tick—is worth the price of a copy alone: Abandoned by his Scottish father Peter McLaren and his serially-on-the-game English-Jewish mother Emily Isaacs (who the book intimates was having it off with the knighted magnate who owned Selfridges), Malcolm was more or less left to the adoring clutches of his dotty reprobate grandmother Rose Isaacs, who famously drilled into him the adage: “To be bad is good, as to be good is simply boring”.
That was a motto Malcom lived up to right till the end.

Here’s another Malcolm-ism: After a 10-hour session in the studio trying to get a decent drum sound, Malcolm told my friend, master drummer Keith LeBlanc, “At the end of the day, it’s all a Boom-Crack-Boom, innit?” (Truer words were never spoken).

I highly recommended Paul Gorman’s The Life & Times of Malcolm McLaren to anyone interested in one of the greatest Jewish managers, media manipulators, and musical gadflys of all time.

And to add my own finishing touch to Malcolm’s 10 Commandments of Making It in the Music Biz: “You don’t have to be Jewish…but it helps.”