Malcolm McClaren: Innovator

Back in the days when I was more obviously a punk, I didn’t think much of Malcolm McClaren. However, my opinion of him has changed over the years, and I was sad when he passed away this weekend. The reasons that I didn’t like him in the 70s are actually some of the reasons that I liked him better in retrospect: he was an innovator.

And the way that he innovated was particularly interesting. There have many discussions of his motives and objectives when he started managing the band that turned into the Sex Pistols. In the end, I think he mainly wanted to create a platform that would help him sell more clothes. That was what he had done previously, in managing the New York Dolls, and subsequently when he managed Adam and the Ants.

But if that was all he did, we wouldn’t be talking about him now. The real innovation in punk was the creation of a platform – a generative platform. Steven B. Johnson has a great definition of generativity in his post today:

In my mind, a “generative” platform translates to something like this: a platform that is constantly being re-invented in surprising new ways by a diverse group of creators, where individuals, hobbyists, small startups, and amateurs compete on a level playing field with large incumbents.

That’s actually a pretty good description of punk, and in many ways it was this generativity that had the greatest appeal to me in the movement. At the time, though, I thought of McLaren as mainly being involved with the fashion – which was an outcome of the generative platform, and much less interesting. But check out these quotes from him:

In an authentic world failure is something you embrace. It’s almost a noble pursuit… I come from that world—it supported me in creating the punk aesthetic.

I try to make ideas happen – ideas that could change life.

In many ways, McLaren did exactly that. A lot of the ideas that he was involved with changed my life, at least.

Here are some innovation ideas that we can draw from Malcolm McLaren and the start of punk:

  • Inventors often don’t know what part of their invention will work best. McLaren talked a lot about the relationship between rock and fashion, and that was a strong element in all of the bands that he managed. However, the bit innovation in punk was not the fashion, it was the DIY ethic that underpinned it. That’s what created the generative platform. The two quotes from McLaren show that he saw this connection later, but most of his quotes at the time don’t have that connection.
  • It’s better to create a platform that supports other innovations. Johnson’s discussion of generative platforms builds on the argument that Jonathan Zittrain makes in The Future of the Internet – and How to Stop It. He argues that these platforms are necessary for providing a fruitful environment for experimenting, which leads to prolific innovation. Punk was a generative platform, and that’s a large part of what made it great.
  • Innovations are executed ideas. I often talk about how ideas are cheap, and they are. That’s why I like McLaren’s emphasis on making ideas happen. It’s not enough to have great ideas, we have to make them happen. That’s the best way to get them to spread. New products, new services, and new ways doing things are all built on great ideas – but more importantly, they’re all built on great ideas that have been executed. McLaren was great at executing ideas. They didn’t all work, but quite a few of them did.

Thirty plus years down the road, the ideas that Malcolm McLaren helped bring to life in his clothes shop in London have had a pretty big impact on a lot of different people, including me. For that, I’m grateful – and I’m sorry to see him go.

Ralph Kerle has written a great post on McLaren on the Creative Leadership Forum Blog.

(picture from flickr/j-No under a Creative Commons License)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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5 thoughts on “Malcolm McClaren: Innovator

  1. Spot on as always, Tim. When I started listening to punk rock, you had to make a choice: Clash or Sex Pistols. I chose the former (a decision I’ll stand by) and dismissed pretty much everything SP did as corporate boy-bandism. My former minion and I have argued about this over thousands of beers. But the further I read into music history everything more or less evened out for me, and even if I’ll never really appreciate their music I can appreciate their contribution to the unbelievably complex world of three music that shaped my teenage self.

  2. I didn’t have to make a choice, but I always preferred the Clash too. The impact of the SPs can’t be underestimated though – especially in the UK. If you haven’t seen it, The Filth & The Fury is a must-see. And if you haven’t read it, you should definitely read Lipstick Traces by Greil Marcus. Not sure how findable either is in Zhengzhou though!

  3. Come on Tim. You can’t trot out quotes like this…

    “…the ideas that Malcolm McLaren helped bring to life in his clothes shop in London have had a pretty big impact on a lot of different people, including me.”

    …and not post the photos! :)

    • (Un)fortunately, this all happened back in the days when things weren’t extensively documented & preserved fir posterity Sam! I only have one real photo from then, & it’s not very representative…

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