April 29, 2010
The whole idea of a teenager began in the 1950s. Before that 13—19 just meant “young man.” Shortly after the birth of adolescence, came the birth of cool and you don”t have cool without rebellion. When Marlon Brando answered “Whaddya got?” to “What are you rebelling against?” in 1953’s The Wild One, youth subculture exploded into an endless cycle of teenagers defining their various epochs through short-lived mini-revolutions. The biggest deal throughout all these changes came in 1977 with punk and the biggest deal in punk was Malcolm McLaren.
Time Magazine recently published an obituary for McLaren written by Legs McNeil which, for wizened old punks like me, is a coup beyond proportions. About half the music nerd community is convinced Legs invented punk. The other half say it’s Malcolm.
In 1975 Legs McNeil named his music fanzine “punk” because some writers at Creem Magazine had started using the term to describe the violent rock and roll we all know and love today. When the zine made it to Britain, an entire generation found a word to tie their rebellion to. Soon-to-be seminal punk bands like the Damned read about punk and made songs like “New Rose” based on how the music was described. When the Ramones played London a year later in 1976, the buzz around the scene was catapulted into something real and tangible. Legs secured his place in history by carefully documenting this zeitgeist in his oral history book Please Kill Me, but he left out one huge detail. When the Ramones played London, Malcom McLaren’s Sex Pistols had already been gigging for about six months and the Clash were also a real band with a dozen songs ready to play live. New York may have helped, but Britain’s punk was already well on it’s way.
In fact, Britain’s rebellion had so much momentum at this point, it swept New York along with it. British people took their superior education and built the Ramones up to be this “band of the people” who was telling kids rock and roll is for everybody and together we can destroy the system. Meanwhile, the band was just a bunch of idiots from Queens who were doing a shitty job of riding the rockabilly revival that was sweeping New York and London at the time. The bands Legs was documenting were mostly art-rock wimps like Talking Heads and Blondie. They were far from revolutionary. It was Britain’s misinterpretation of the New York scene and their own anger that truly created punk rock.
A few months before Legs created his zine, Malcolm McLaren had changed the name of his and Vivienne Westwood’s clothing shop from Let it Rock to Sex. Let it Rock was a rockabilly revival shop, but Sex was to be a strange combination of torn t-shirts and bondage gear. There was a new generation of kids who were sick of Britain’s antiquated class system and bizarre love of the monarchy and McLaren called them on their hatred by daring them to dress the part. He saw an exciting mini-revolution growing so he grabbed it by the short and curlies and defined it. Months before the Ramones seemingly groundbreaking British show, Malcolm had assembled some loiterers from his store and formed the band that, even today, people think of when they hear the word “punk.”
The Sex Pistols were his well-crafted collection of misanthropic adolescents and, unlike the Ramones, they didn”t stumble into this revolution. They stood on top of it and sneered. In 1977, Malcolm vandalized the Queen’s Jubilee (the last one Britain really cared about) by having the Pistols play live on a boat right next to her. The day this happened, June 7, punk went from some angry British teenagers reading about a few New Yorkers in a photocopied magazine to a full-fledged movement.
All youth subculture is based on two things: music and fashion. Today’s hipsters are vilified by the boomer media for being shallow, apolitical, and having no legacy. This is the same old bullshit we were hearing when Bill Haley blew everyone’s mind by suggesting we rock around a clock. Sure the beatniks had some books and I”ve heard the hippies hated the war in Vietnam but contemporary pop culture’s only real legacies are music and fashion and what’s wrong with that? That’s what being young is all about. Malcolm was the master of both domains and he brought them to punk like only a true visionary knows how. He took a tiny fad and injected it with philosophy, an attitude, a class struggle, vandalism, anarchy, film, literature, enemies, allies, some incredible songs, and most importantly, cool pants.
It may seem like a tiny detail to you but for those of us who spend our lives sweating the small stuff, Malcolm McLaren was a hero. He was the king of adolescence because he was a maestro of rebellion and if you don”t think that’s a big deal, your youth was wasted on you. I”m sad Malcolm’s gone, but I”m also excited to see what the next generation’s rebellion will bring. The only sure thing is old people will be shaking their fists in the air and yelling about “the kids today” exactly the same way their parents did.