McLaren was born to Pete McLaren, a Scottish teenaged war deserter, and Emmy (née Isaacs) in the suburbs of post-World War II London. His father left when he was two and he was raised by his maternal grandmother, Rose Corre Isaacs, the formerly wealthy daughter of Portuguese Sephardic Jewish diamond dealers, in Stoke Newington. McLaren told Andrew Denton on Enough Rope, that his grandmother always said to him, "To be bad is good... to be good is simply boring". In The Ghosts of Oxford Street he says Charles Clore (who bought Selfridges) became his mother's lover. When he was six, McLaren's mother married Martin Levi, a man working in London's rag trade. When McLaren was in his forties, a Sunday newspaper found Pete McLaren in an English "greasy spoon garage".
McLaren's stepfather and mother owned a shmatte factory in London's East End called Eve Edwards London Limited. They lived well but Malcolm and his stepfather never got along. He left home in his teens. Following a series of jobs (including one as a wine taster), he went on to attend several art colleges through the 1960s, being expelled from several before leaving education entirely in 1971. It was during this time that he began to design clothing, a talent he would later use when he became a boutique owner.
He had been attracted to the Situationist movement, particularly King Mob, which promoted absurdist and provocative actions as a way of enacting social change. In 1968 McLaren had tried unsuccessfully to travel to Paris to take part in the demonstrations there. Instead, with Jamie Reid, he took part in a student occupation of Croydon Art School. McLaren would later adopt the movement's ideas into his promotion for the various pop and rock groups with whom he was soon to involve himself.
The New York Dolls and SEX
In 1971, McLaren and his girlfriend, the designer Vivienne Westwood, opened a London clothing shop called Let It Rock on the Kings Road. The shop sold Teddy Boy clothes and McLaren and Westwood also designed clothing for theatrical and cinematic productions such as That'll Be The Day and Mahler. Let It Rock proved a success but McLaren grew disillusioned with the style of shop owing to problems with the Teddy Boys who were the shop's main customers. McLaren's son by Westwood, Joseph Ferdinand Corré, co-founded the lingerie brand Agent Provocateur.
McLaren travelled to New York City for a boutique fair in 1972 having already met the group the New York Dolls. That year he renamed the outlet at 430 Kings Road Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die and supplied the group with stagewear. In 1975, McLaren designed red leather costumes for the New York Dolls and used a Soviet-style hammer and sickle motif for their stage show as a provocative means of promoting them. This ploy was not successful and the Dolls soon broke up. However, it was while he was managing the Dolls that he first saw the Neon Boys perform. The Neon Boys included Tom Verlaine and Richard Hell, who were later to form Television. In April 1975, McLaren returned to Britain, by which time he had renamed the store SEX, selling S&M (sadomasochistic) style clothing.
By 1976, McLaren had started to manage The Strand, the band who would later become the Sex Pistols. He soon convinced them to kick guitarist/songwriter Wally Nightingale out of the band and also introduced them to bassist Glen Matlock (who worked in SEX). His assistant, Bernie Rhodes (soon to be manager of The Clash), spotted John Lydon who was then sporting green hair, and torn clothes with the words "I hate" scribbled on his Pink Floyd shirt. His appearance and attitude impressed McLaren and Lydon, now dubbed "Johnny Rotten", was brought in to audition as a new frontman. Rotten joined, and the band was renamed The Sex Pistols (McLaren stating he wanted them to sound like "sexy young assassins").
In May 1977, the band released "God Save the Queen" during the week of Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee. McLaren organised a boat trip down the Thames where the Sex Pistols would perform their music outside Houses of Parliament. The boat was raided by the police and McLaren was arrested, thus achieving his goal to attain publicity.
The band released their album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols in October 1977 and played their last UK gig before embarking upon an American tour in January 1978. This tour saw the band split up after a series of arguments. During his time managing the band McLaren was accused by band members (most notably by John Lydon) of mismanaging them and refusing to pay them when they asked asked him for money. McLaren has stated that he had planned out the entire path of the Sex Pistols and in the film, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle he set this plan out. The film was criticised for allegedly being too skewed towards McLaren and for being a launchpad for McLaren's future career in music as a performer (he performs the Max Bygraves song "You Need Hands" in the film) as well as a manager.
McLaren kept the Sex Pistols' contract rights until Lydon took him to court in the 1980s to win the rights and unpaid revenues from McLaren. Lydon won and gained complete control from McLaren in 1987. McLaren and Lydon refused to speak to each other after the band split and in the 2000 film, The Filth and the Fury, the surviving members of the Sex Pistols put their version of events on film.
Solo musical career
In 1983, McLaren released Duck Rock, an album which mixe
d up influences from Africa and the Americas, including hip-hop. The album proved to be highly influential in bringing hip-hop to a wider audience in the UK. Two of the singles from the album ("Buffalo Gals" and "Double Dutch") became top-10 hits in the UK. He then turned to electronic music and opera in the 1984 single "Madame Butterfly", based on the opera. The track is arranged with drum machines, atmospheric synthesizers and spoken verses. It reached #13 in the UK and #16 in Australia. The producer of the single, Stephen Hague, became a much sought after producer in the techno pop genre following his work with McLaren on the following full length LP, Fans.
McLaren's 1989 album Waltz Darling, was a funk/disco/vogueing inspired album. Waltz Darling incorporated elements of his former albums, i.e. spoken verses, string arrangements and eclectic mix of genres but featured such prominent musicians as Bootsy Collins or Jeff Beck with a glitzy, Louisiana-style production aimed at the US market. The singles, "Waltz Darling" and "Something's Jumpin' in Your Shirt" became top-20 radio hits in Europe.
In 1992, McLaren co-wrote the song "Carry On Columbus" for the feature film of the same name. The song plays over the end credits of the film. In 1994, he recorded the concept album Paris, with French artists such as Catherine
In 1998, McLaren released Buffalo Gals Back 2 Skool (Virgin Records), an album featuring hip hop artists like Rakim, KRS-One, De La Soul and producer Henri Scars Struck revisiting tracks from the original Duck Rock album. In addition, that year, he created a band called Jungk. This project was not a commercial success. Also in 1997/1998, he released a track called "The Bell Song". Various remixes were released on 12" singles.
His song "About Her", based on "She's Not There" by The Zombies, rose to prominence when used by director Quentin Tarantino in Kill Bill Vol. 2. He was accused of plagiarism for this song in 2005 for allegedly copying the work of a French musician, but was cleared of the charges in November 2005 when the court in Angers, France threw out the case. The song uses Esther Bigeou's "St. Louis Blues" by repeatedly playing the verse, "My man's got a heart
like a rock cast in the sea."
McLaren's solo work, particularly from the Duck Rock period, has also been sampled by other artists. In 1999, a group called Dope Smugglaz had a UK top twenty hit with the track "Double Double Dutch" which made extensive use of samples from McLaren's original "Double Dutch". In 1997, Mariah Carey's "Honey" and "Honey (Bad boy remix)" sample "Hey DJ (Buffalo Girls)." In 2002, Eminem released a track called "Without Me", which sampled McLaren's song, "Buffalo Gals". In 2007, McLaren's song "World's Famous" was sampled by R&B singer Amerie on the song, "Some Like It", from her album Because I Love It.
In 2006, author Paul Gorman published his book The Look: Adventures In Rock & Pop Fashion with a foreword and contributions from McLaren. The book included a CD featuring the track "Deux" from the Paris Remixes album.
McLaren spent his later years living with his Korean American girlfriend Young Kim between Paris and New York. He died of mesothelioma on 8 April 2010 in a clinic in Switzerland. His body will be flown back to England to be buried in Highgate Cemetery, North London.