Malcolm McLaren: Artful Dodger

Let's not get carried away about this punk impresario

I'm sad that Malcolm McLaren is dead, and I was moved by the pictures of his funeral cortège making its way through Camden Town; those plumed horses always get to me. Still, best not to get carried away. He wasn't a genius. He wasn't even particularly good at spin, which most people claim was his greatest talent.

As the film director Julien Temple pointed out in the BBC's tribute to him (24 April, 8.15pm, BBC2), when the Sex Pistols appeared on Bill Grundy's TV show and did a lot of naughty swearing, the godfather of punk only realised what a publicity coup they'd scored the following day, when he saw the outraged newspaper headlines. Which is not to say that this documentary wasn't entertaining. It was, and not only for the glimpse it afforded of Steve Jones's hairstyle in the Eighties (he looked like David Van Day from Dollar).

Is there anything so amusing in all the world as a bit of misplaced hagiography? I don't think so. To watch it, you'd never have guessed, for instance, that McLaren was the remotest bit interested in money, for all that the Pistols again suggested that he'd ripped them off (and in late adulthood, what a bunch of moaning minnies the Pistols are). Malcolm, you see, was above all that. He just did what he wanted to do. Ho hum. I'm not sure this is quite right. Would it be in bad taste to bring up the great impresario's Eighties collaboration with the Greek New Age music star Yanni on a theme for the British Airways ads?

It's also pretty funny watching people intellectualise - step forward, Paul Morley - about things that just aren't, well, intellectual. Morley went on about McLaren's amazing talent for creating "living works of art". Did he have any evidence for this grandiose theory? He did not. I hardly think that McLaren's work with Adam and the Ants counts. Yes, it was McLaren who, according to legend, asked for a £1,000 consultancy fee up front and then told Adam Ant that he should look to pirates for his inspiration.

But grasping that a band will get further in a telly-obsessed world if they have a "look" is hardly turning them into a living work of art, and I speak as one who loved Adam and the Ants. The year "Stand and Deliver" came out, my friend Julia Brooks and I spent most of our summer holiday parading around the bedroom of the Ayrshire chalet we were sharing, strips of bog roll attached to our cheeks with spit (in my defence, I was only 12).

It seems unlikely that Alan Yentob ever danced round his bedroom with bog roll on his cheeks. If he had, we might have been saved his voice-over. "Reverential" doesn't even begin to describe it. "The Sex Pistols were spawned," he said, sombrely, in much the same tone of voice as Kenneth Clark might once have said: "The achievement of Raphael's late work comprises the crowning glory of the High Renaissance."

Thanks to McLaren's reputation for self-mythologising, Morley, Yentob, et al seemed unwilling to take him at his own estimation. This is daft. He wasn't half so bright as he imagined himself to be and there were plenty of enjoyable archive moments in the film when his mouth flapped, fishlike, as he attempted to make up the next anecdote or aphorism as he went along. Nevertheless, I think he understood himself rather well. In one fairly recent interview, when he looked like the membership secretary of a golf club, he said of managing the Pistols: "It was all a posture, a posture they believed . . . Maybe I was just a fine actor." This is it. He was a fine actor: vain, and unselfconscious, as all the best ones are - as the video for "Duck Rock" proves, over and over again.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 03 May 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Danger