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While Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious have long been the poster boys for the British punk movement of the 1970s arguably the most significant influence behind the legendary music and cultural scene was Malcolm McLaren. In 1973, at the age of twenty-seven, McLaren had participated with the image of the New York Dolls in the States, one of the original pioneers of punk rock, while simultaneously launching his iconic clothing store SEX in London with girlfriend and designer Vivienne Westwood. But it would be his influence as the manager of the Sex Pistols, a group he had nurtured since their inception, that would becoming his defining achivement. ‘The punk movement took on a life of its own, the Pistols became the most notorious group in pop history and Malcolm McLaren’s attack on the hegemony of the music business manifested itself in the most coherent manner,’ explained biographer Ian Macleay. ‘The future was theirs, although they were writing a song the contrary.’
While the first punk song to be released in Britain is often credited to the Damned with New Rose, it would be the arrival of the Sex Pistols‘ Anarchy in the UK the following month that would mark the birth of punk in England. Released through Richard Branson’s Virgin label on 26 November 1976, Anarchy would become one of the group’s signature tunes (along with their follow-up single God Save the Queen) and featured Rotten sneering such lyrics as ‘I am an anti-Christ, I am an anarchist.’ Anarchy in the UK is a statement of self-rule, of ultimate independence, of do-it-yourself,’ stated McLaren at the height of the band’s notoriety, which would result in a ban from the BBC, the accidental overdose of bassist Sid Vicious and the ambitious-yet-overbloated motion picture spinoff The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle in 1980.
The Sex Pistols would only release one studio album before self-destructing on 14 January 1978, with Rotten asking a San Francisco audience if they ever felt they had been cheated and then walking from the stage, turning his back on both the band and his manager. Following their demise, McLaren continued to work in the industry as a manager for the likes of Bow Wow Wow while also developing various musical projects, but it would be those brief two and a half years during the late 1970s when he brought the London punk movement to the attention of the world that he would be forever known. McLaren passed away on 8 April 2010 in Switzerland at the age of sixty-four after a long battle with cancer.
‘Clever, cynical and camply calculating, he put together the nihilistic explosion which was the Sex Pistols,’ said the Daily Mail’s Alison Boshoff in an obituary. ‘As well as creating the band, he manufactured the outrage which made them famous. Described by the band’s lead singer, Johnny ‘Rotten’ Lydon as ‘the most evil person on earth,’ McLaren would admit to being a deeply dysfunctional man.’ To mark the fortieth anniversary of the release of Anarchy in the UK it was revealed that McLaren and Westwood’s son, Agent Provocateur founder Joe Corré, would set alight rare Sex Pistols memorabilia and personal items of clothing that had belonged to both Rotten and Vicious as a statement against what punk had become, dismissing it as a ‘McDonald’s brand … owned by the state, establishment and corporations.’Believing that McLaren would have approved of the protest Corré stated, ‘I think this is the right opportunity to say: you know what? Punk is dead. Stop conning a younger generation that it somehow has any currency to deal with the issues that they face or has any currency to create the way out of the issues that they face. It’s not and it’s time to think about something else.’ While the exact location of the ceremony had not been determined prior to the burning, Corré torched the items that were estimated at a cost of approximately £5m on the River Thames on 26 November, while also including an effigy of ex-Prime Minister David Cameron on the makeshift bonfire.
At the event Corré informed the onlookers that ‘Punk was never, never meant to be nostalgic – and you can’t learn how to be one at a Museum of London workshop. Punk has become another marketing tool to sell you something you don’t need. The illusion of an alternative choice. Conformity in another uniform.’ According to the BBC, Corré’s decision to burn the memorabilia was as a reaction against Punk London’s celebration of ’40 Years of Subversive Culture.’