The Life and Times of Malcolm McLaren: The Biography 
by Paul Gorman.
Constable, 855 pp., £14.99, November 2021, 978 1 4721 2111 0
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Ifirstknew Malcolm McLaren as a singer. His was the oily voice on ‘You Need Hands’, which appeared on The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle, a sort of soundtrack album released early in 1979. The film itself, which came out fourteen months later, was a fable charting McLaren’s orchestration of the rise and fall of the band he managed, the Sex Pistols. I knew that rock managers didn’t usually sing on their bands’ records, but McLaren’s performance was in keeping with the aberrant profile of the Pistols, who broke the rules in every department: swearing on their records, vomiting at airports, cutting themselves onstage.

‘You Need Hands’ was a perverse highlight on a double LP that my younger brothers and I listened to obsessively, despite the number of duds that had to be skipped along the way. We didn’t know the song had originally been written and performed by the light entertainer Max Bygraves, but intuited that McLaren’s version was an assault on the middle-aged and middle of the road. Elsewhere on the record, Sid Vicious too defiled showbiz with his punk take on ‘My Way’, twisting Sinatra’s swagger into psychopathic solipsism. But on ‘You Need Hands’, McLaren took a different tack: fidelity pushed to the point of parody, his smarmy delivery of sickly lyrics clad in schmaltzy orchestration. The façade cracks only at the end, as McLaren croons the final lines about entertainers’ need for applause: ‘But the hands we love so dear/are the hands we love to hear/are the hands that you give to us.’ He drags out the vowel sound in ‘us’ so that it becomes ‘the hands you give to arse’.

How I pored over the gatefold sleeve of The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle, covered in stills from the movie: the corpse of a freshly slaughtered baby deer (‘Who Killed Bambi?’ was the final track on the album); the Pistols associate Soo Catwoman staring down the camera, with feline spiked hair and make-up, naked but for the graffiti on her torso; Vicious as a cartoon character, leering menacingly in a swastika T-shirt; and McLaren himself, wearing a kilt, tartan jacket and ‘Cash from Chaos’ T-shirt.

McLaren always seemed as crucial to the Sex Pistols as Johnny Rotten or Sid Vicious, eclipsing the group’s musical muscle: drummer Paul Cook, guitarist Steve Jones and bassist Glen Matlock. (It was Matlock who wrote nearly all the group’s best tunes, only to be pushed out for being a Beatles-loving middle-class namby.) Andrew Loog Oldham, who managed the Rolling Stones, was the crucial precursor in grasping that bad publicity was useful – something to be actively sought, even fabricated. But he hadn’t featured so prominently in the coverage of his clients as McLaren did. The idea of the manager as band spokesman, an artist in his own right, was an innovation of the punk era, pioneered by McLaren and his one-time associate Bernie Rhodes, who represented the Clash. As a kid, I somehow enjoyed both the sensation of chaos transmitted by the Sex Pistols and the seductive idea that the whole thing had been a con masterminded by McLaren. The Swindle film laid out his purported plan as a how-to guide: ‘Remove any members of the group who show signs of developing musical ability … replace them with gimmicks designed purely to upset people.’

Throughout his career in pop, as manager of the New York Dolls, the Sex Pistols and Bow Wow Wow, and then as an unlikely recording artist himself, McLaren continually insisted that ideas were more important than music. Publicity and presentation could be an art form in their own right. McLaren liked to claim that Pistols fans had been far more excited by the media provocations and shock headlines he had conjured than by the band’s recordings. Certainly it was the non-musicians involved in the project – McLaren and Johnny Rotten – who captured my imagination. What clinched it for me was a profile I read in Melody Maker in June 1979, the third part of ‘The Rise and Fall of Malcolm McLaren’. I’d missed the first two instalments, but it didn’t matter: I read and reread the piece that summer. Sharply written by Michael Watts, it covered the aftermath of the Pistols’ split at the end of a disastrous American tour; the fitful struggle to make a Sex Pistols movie; McLaren’s dalliance with managing the Slits; the fatal stabbing of Nancy Spungen, holed up with Sid Vicious in the Chelsea Hotel, and Sid’s death after a heroin overdose a few months later; and the court case in which Rotten, eventually joined by Cook and Jones, sued McLaren for misuse of their earnings.

There was a bit in the piece about Jamie Reid, the artist responsible for the ransom-note typography on the Pistols’ record sleeves and for the image of the queen with a safety pin through her nose. Reid wanted to design an album cover made of emery paper, so that it would damage any other record it rubbed up against – this was, apparently, ‘an old Situationist idea’. It took me a while to grasp that this wasn’t a reference to some band from the 1960s I clearly should have heard of, but to the group of anarchists, based in Paris, dedicated not merely to disrupting pop music, but to overthrowing social reality in its entirety. At that time the only collection of Situationist texts available in English was Leaving the 20th Century: The Incomplete Work of the Situationist International, a slim green volume published in 1974, crammed with photographs, illustrations and comic strips, compiled and annotated by Christopher Gray. Years later I learned that Gray had rubbed shoulders with McLaren in a Notting Hill group called King Mob, a unofficial affiliate to the Situationist International. Some say it was Gray who first suggested what a wheeze it would be to create ‘a totally unpleasant pop group’.

Under cover of night, my brothers and I crept around town perpetrating Situationist-inspired actions: sticking subversive speech bubbles over the advertisements by the train station and glueing insurrectionary comic strips, adapted from the ones in Gray’s book, onto the local glass recycling skip. For my younger brothers, this was just mischief. For me it was mostly mischief, too, but given a high-minded gloss by my reading. These pranks were little blows against bourgeois living death. A similar mixture of ennui, restlessness and vindictive retaliation against stifling surroundings was probably what fuelled the King Mob operatives who daubed the long-lasting graffiti on a wall running alongside the Tube line between Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park: ‘Same thing day after day – tube – work – dinner – work – tube – armchair – TV – sleep – tube – work – how much more can you take? – one in ten go mad, one in five cracks up.’

In an exposé of his art-school comrade and former friend, published in Sounds in 1981, Fred Vermorel wrote that McLaren ‘absorbs his information visually and by hearsay’. That sounds right: McLaren would have picked up the Situationist sensibility not by reading – the main texts, Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle for one, weren’t available in English translation until the 1970s – but by fraternising with King Mob and seeing photographs of the thought-bomb graffiti that proliferated in Paris in May 1968. Some of these utopian battle-cries reappeared on the T-shirts designed by McLaren and Vivienne Westwood and sold in their King’s Road boutique. Slogans and recycled Situationist graphics popped up on Sex Pistols record sleeves and promotional material. Even before this, during his brief stint managing the New York Dolls in 1975, McLaren had put out a press release demanding ‘What are the politics of boredom?’

One thing that stuck with McLaren was the Situationist notion of ‘the poverty of everyday life’, whose counterpart was the Spectacle, the concoction of mass media, advertising and mainstream entertainment that defined postwar culture. The Spectacle was a one-way transmission from the centre of power, insidiously penetrating the psyches of its subjects and exerting an unprecedented sway over public opinion. It depleted everyday life with its distracting dazzle, instilling passivity and isolation.

The cure for the boredom and emptiness engendered by the Spectacle was the unleashing of mass creativity. A ‘situation’ was improvisational and transitory: it could be anything from a subversive political prank to a ‘psychogeographic’ drift through urban space. Some of the counter-cultural practices associated with the 1960s – the happening, the Be-In, the arts lab, the free festival – might qualify, at least before they became codified and commercialised; an inner-city riot or a wild-cat strike certainly did. Whatever their trigger, context or duration, these collective eruptions of joy or rage were glimpses of unalienated life, anticipatory gestures towards utopia. Raoul Vaneigem’s version of the unalienated life was the ‘Totality for Kids’. Humans once existed in a primordial state of unity with nature and with the members of their tribe, but then came the invention of class, market capitalism, the modern state, industrialism, bureaucracy, technocracy and the mass media. The ‘totality’ was the lost idyll, to which we shall all return after the revolution, when automation has eliminated drudgery and we shall live as Peter Pans in paradise. It’s the totality for ‘kids’ because children already know life without boredom, constraints, separation – some of the time at least, mostly when they’re at play rather than detained in school. ‘There are no limits to creativity,’ Vaneigem writes elsewhere. ‘There is no end to diversion.’

‘Get pissed, destroy,’ Rotten roars in the closing bars of the Pistols’ debut single, ‘Anarchy in the UK’. That part of punk has tended to get written out of the story, with the emphasis shifting to the more constructive side of the movement: the joyous, empowering amateurism of DIY. The sheer puerility of punk has been tidied away by some of its well-meaning historians. Its energies share a lot with the impulses behind teenage vandalism, toilet-wall graffiti, and the scrawling of obscenities in books you loved as a child. Nasty pranks and general nuisance-making. Situationist theory ratified and ennobled these impulses. As Alan Marcuson, who was involved with King Mob, put it: ‘The Situationists were the first people ever to provide me with a rational explanation of our irresponsible behaviour and urges.’ Imagining a permanent state of independence without responsibility, both punk rock and Situationism propose that what is conventionally a passing phase should be a perpetual ideal.

‘Be childish! Be irresponsible! Be everything that this society fears!’ McLaren wrote in 1997 at the ripe age of 51, in a mini-memoir for the New Yorker about his Sex Pistols days called ‘Elements of Anti-Style’. This is the attitude he adopted in managing the band, who weren’t so much his clients as his proxies. Their mayhem was his vicarious pleasure. Sid Vicious, in particular, functioned as his stand-in, a surrogate sociopath. In ‘Elements of Anti-Style’, McLaren recalled the weeks he spent in New York in the winter of 1978 trying to help Vicious beat the rap for Spungen’s death. ‘I’m still not entirely sure why: maybe because I felt that there was no one more fun than Sid. He never saw a red light; he saw only green. He was chaos incarnate, and he made my blood flow.’

McLaren’s own unnaturally extended adolescence had seemed in danger of coming to an abrupt end in the final months of 1971. He had spent much of the 1960s staving off adulthood. Between the ages of 16 and 25, he hopscotched from art college to art college – five in all – while gaming the grant system, then locally organised and easily abused. He cultivated the mannerisms and appearance of a bohemian outsider, and took part in extracurricular activities typical of the time: protests against the Vietnam War, the occupation of Croydon College of Art in June 1968, an experimental arts festival at Goldsmiths the following summer. As a King Mob associate, McLaren joined an anti-consumerism action in 1968, invading Selfridges during the Christmas season and giving away toys to startled children.

The state-funded idyll couldn’t last for ever. McLaren left Goldsmiths with nothing but the unedited reels for a film about Oxford Street. By this time he was living with Westwood; they had a son, Joe, and she had another son from a previous marriage. McLaren needed to make a living. First he got involved in the vintage trade, selling jewellery in Portobello Market, then repairing and altering second-hand garments. Westwood, it turned out, was an ideal partner. Together, they took over a shop at 430 King’s Road, calling it Let It Rock in a homage to 1950s rock ’n’ roll. They stocked brothel creepers and drape jackets, retro-styled the interior and stuffed the jukebox with 45s. Nostalgia for the 1950s had swept through the music scene in the early 1970s, and the shop was visited by rock stars, stylists and designers seeking ideas for sets and costumes on movies like the David Essex vehicle That’ll Be the Day. But McLaren grew tired of nostalgia, feeling ‘lost in dead tissue’ as he later put it, and increasingly frustrated by the small-mindedness of the Teddy Boy contingent. He and Westwood relaunched the shop as Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, then as SEX, and then Seditionaries, each incarnation associated with an increasingly confrontational look inspired respectively by motorbike gangs, the bondage and fetish underworld, and the military.

McLaren had somehow gone from demanding the totality to selling trousers. Exciting trousers, it’s true, like the bondage pants with straps binding one leg to the other, but schmutter nonetheless, and priced rather expensively for the average teenager. Vermorel worried that his friend might be joining the nation of shopkeepers and anonymously mailed him a series of cards with proverbs and provocations from a critique of fashion he’d found in Westminster Reference Library: ‘Craft must have clothes but truth loves to go naked’; ‘Must passion end in fashion?’ McLaren spraypainted the slogans on the shop’s walls and daubed them on T-shirts.

McLaren imagined fashion as the starting point for insurrection. The clothes he and Westwood made would be ‘an explosion in the heart of the commodity’, to borrow a phrase from Mark Stewart, the singer in the post-punk outfit the Pop Group and in the years before punk a regular visitor to the King’s Road store. A few years earlier, around the time McLaren and Westwood were starting out in youth fashion, the urban guerrillas of the Angry Brigade had placed an explosive device in a temple of hip consumerism, the Biba boutique on Kensington Church Street. They explained their logic in a press release of sorts, Communiqué 8: ‘Life is so boring there is nothing to do except spend all our wages on the latest skirt or shirt … . The only thing you can do with modern slave-houses – called boutiques – IS WRECK THEM.’

Terrorism figured in the punk imagination as both metaphor and aspirational model, a demonstration of the impact that a small but determined and ruthless unit could have, commandeering media space and sending shock waves through the population. Despite their own pacificism, the anarcho-punk pioneers Crass put up a poster in 1977 declaring: ‘Germany got Baader-Meinhof, England got punk but they can’t kill it.’ In the Clash movie Rude Boy, Joe Strummer is seen handwashing his Brigate Rosse T-shirt in a hotel sink. The ascendancy of terrorist groups and guerrilla movements in the 1970s also fed into punk’s fetishised scenarios of collapse. In ‘Anarchy in the UK’ Rotten jeers at a no-longer-Great Britain beset by anti-imperialist acronyms: ‘Is this the MPLA? Or is this the UDA? Or is this the IRA? I thought it was the UK.’ And in the 1979 Melody Maker piece, McLaren wistfully imagined the way things could have escalated if the Pistols had stayed together: ‘They’d have created serious mayhem. They’d have been an awful lot more brutal and evil. In the end it wouldn’t have been puking at airports – it would’ve been much more to do with burning down buildings.’

This was fanciful: punks were far more likely to be the victims of violence than its perpetrators. They were merely pretending to be monsters and psychopaths as part of their campaign of symbolic warfare. But the parallels with terrorism are there: escalating shock tactics, goading the authorities into repressive measures. The typical punk move was to commit some kind of outrage, through clothes, language or imagery, and then scorn the revulsion they had sought and achieved. The only thing that could thwart them was acceptance.

The McLaren strand of punk deliberately aligned itself with things that struck at British sensibilities. Historical enemies like Nazi Germany (‘It was always very much an anti-mums and anti-dads thing,’ Siouxsie Sioux said of her penchant for swastikas), modern folk devils like the Moors murderers. In Derek Jarman’s punk film Jubilee (1978), Jordan – the SEX shopgirl who wore the clothes and projected the attitude, making her ‘the first Sex Pistol’, according to Jarman – recites a monologue: ‘As a child my heroine was Myra Hindley … Myra’s crimes were, they said, beyond belief. That was because no one had any imagination and they didn’t know how to make their desires reality. They were not artists like Myra.’ McLaren’s notorious Cambridge Rapist T-shirt was a garment as a weapon.

‘How do you dress an army of disaffected youth?’ McLaren recalled wondering. In December 1976, when the King’s Road shop was renamed Seditionaries, he and Westwood began to design military-look trousers using the ‘shiny, heavy black fabric’ once worn by British Rail porters, which he tracked down to an ancient factory in Manchester. They were looking to produce ‘the perfect uniform for people’ engaged in a ‘war against repression’ that was also about ‘battling the consumerist fashions of the high street’. McLaren had a sense of fashion as a shadow history of class struggle, not merely symptomatic of social shifts but instrumental in them. ‘Sex, style and subversion’ was his catechism, repeated in countless interviews over the years. He had a quaintly Reichian faith in the anti-authoritarian power of eros. But the permissiveness of the 1970s wasn’t what it seemed, so far as he was concerned: libidinal energies had been simultaneously aroused and harnessed by capitalism and the entertainment industry.

A big part of McLaren’s impetus in putting the Sex Pistols together was intra-generational hatred. He had an uncontrollable urge to pick fights with those figures who were in the mid 1970s coming to represent a sort of alternative establishment. His antipathy to Richard Branson was partly a matter of distaste for what Virgin represented (a music-first ethos of drift-and-discovery and whimsical eccentricity), but also a creeping fear, once the Pistols had joined the label, that the perpetually grinning Branson, in his comfy sweater, would neuter their threat by calmly accommodating even their most offensive gambits. Virgin was linked in McLaren’s mind with hippy-capitalist institutions like Time Out and a generation of mellowing 1960s radicals with progressive and permissive values. These were the concerned liberals who, having initially been horrified by punk’s thuggery and its trampling of musicality, quickly came round to the idea of the movement as the authentic voice of the streets, crude by necessity. McLaren was determined to find new ways of sticking in the throats of social workers and Guardian readers, and to sabotage attempts to divert the energy of punk into such constructive political projects as Rock against Racism.

It all went swimmingly – which is to say catastrophically, from the point of view of conventional rock management – at first. The Sex Pistols were dropped by two major labels in quick succession before signing with Virgin; their concerts were banned by local councils across the country; ‘God Save the Queen’ was the bestselling single in the country in the week of the Silver Jubilee, despite being silenced on the radio and disappeared from the shelves in Woolworth’s and W.H. Smith. But as two more hit singles followed – the promo video for ‘Pretty Vacant’ aired on Top of the Pops – and their well-produced, conventionally powerful first album, Never Mind the Bollocks, sold well too, the Sex Pistols started to resemble a commercially successful hard rock band.

McLaren was desperate to put the Pistols back beyond the pale. When Rotten walked out at the end of a chaotic US tour in January 1978, McLaren had the idea of making Ronnie Biggs, a fugitive from justice since the Great Train Robbery of 1963, the band’s new lead singer – a way of continuing to align punk with enemies of the British state. Cook and Jones were dispatched to Brazil, where Biggs enjoyed a playboy lifestyle safe from extradition. The result, in July 1978, was the band’s next Top Ten single. Originally, the song was called ‘Cosh the Driver’, a callous reference to Jack Mills, the British Rail employee beaten with a metal bar during the robbery by one of Biggs’s gang – he never fully recovered, and died seven years later. Virgin baulked at that, and the single was released as ‘No One Is Innocent (A Punk Prayer by Ronald Biggs)’. The song takes the form of an ironic petition to the Almighty for forgiveness, for Martin Bormann and ‘Nazis on the run’, for Hindley and Brady, for Idi Amin, for the foul-mouthed Sex Pistols and for Biggs himself, who had ‘sold his soul/sold his arsehole/for punk’.

The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle album followed in February 1979. With Matlock and Rotten both long gone, Vicious either out to lunch or absent without leave, Cook and Jones compliant, the album marks the moment when McLaren emerges as the true auteur of the Sex Pistols. The contents, haphazardly assembled out of archival scraps and sick jokes, are a reflection of his own fixations, not the band’s. The album opens with a portentous orchestral version of ‘God Save the Queen’, overlaid with a hissed Fagin-like commentary from McLaren, boasting about ‘an invention of mine they called punk rock’. Crowd noises and shouts of ‘Anarchy!’ and ‘Fire!’ flit in and out of the track, taken from a scene in the film that re-enacts the Gordon Riots of 1780 – an obsession that dated back to his King Mob days. ‘Belsen Was a Gas’ is there to shock; ‘a nasty, silly little thing’, Rotten later called it. ‘Friggin in the Riggin’, a punked-up nautical drinking song, is there to debase the Sex Pistols’ standing as spokesmen for youth, showing them instead as a bunch of drunken louts. ‘Who Killed Bambi?’ features the vocals of Edward Tudor-Pole, a King’s Road hanger-on who also appears on the title track along with a bunch of hopefuls auditioning to be the new Pistols front man, each taking his turn at the mic to deliver a line or half-verse. The point seems to be that anyone could have done Rotten’s job, that there was nothing exceptional about him as a personality, no special poetic gift. But the parade of clones demonstrates the opposite: Rotten, as a singer and as a lyricist, was a true original, at once inimitable and irresistible to imitate.

Sid Vicious, who died three weeks before The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle was released, makes three appearances on the album: his version of ‘My Way’ and covers of two songs by McLaren’s favourite rock ’n’ roller, Eddie Cochran (‘Something Else’ and ‘C’mon Everybody’, both posthumous hits for Vicious). For years after Rotten’s walkout, McLaren made efforts to diminish his importance by insisting that Vicious was the Pistol with true star potential. McLaren had had hopes of recording a Sid solo album packed with showbiz standards, including the Brecht-Weill song ‘Mack the Knife’. Alive, Spungen had been painted as a manipulative junkie leading Sid astray; dead, it seemed briefly that she could be used to leverage Sid’s superstardom. ‘Vivienne didn’t spare a thought over the death of Nancy,’ McLaren notes admiringly in ‘Elements of Anti-Style’. ‘We designed a new T-shirt for Sid: “She’s Dead – I’m Alive – I’m Yours.”’

How dismayed McLaren must have been when the quick learners at Virgin embraced this marketing strategy, even adding a necrophile tinge to it after Vicious’s death. The Swindle album was rapidly followed by Some Product: Carri On Sex Pistols, an LP cobbled together from radio interviews, then a greatest hits album called Flogging a Dead Horse. An ad for one of the six singles taken from the album pictured an Amex-style Sex Pistols credit card, with text explaining the workings of the industry with reference to the ‘Artist (the Prostitute)’ and the ‘Record Company (the Pimp)’. Virgin proved to be McLaren’s nemesis. He became convinced that Branson had out-swindled him, having been plotting all along to wrest control of the band from their Svengali. Years later, McLaren gave a more plausible version of events. With Rotten’s court case looming, he had tried to sell his stake in the band to Virgin, only to be told ‘We can’t promote the Sex Pistols without you, Malcolm.’ The friendly professionalism of the Virgin people huddled together on Branson’s houseboat in Little Venice inflamed him: ‘They wanted me to work with them, not against them … It filled me with preposterous rage … Everything I stood for was quietly being erased in a moment of office good manners … I wouldn’t stand for this. No one could get away with such niceness.’ McLaren decided to fight the court case in an attempt to keep control of his creation. He lost. Rotten, Cook and Jones were released from their contract, and completion of his beloved Swindle movie was placed under the supervision of the receiver and left in the hands of McLaren’s assistant, Julien Temple.

On the basis​ of his New Yorker piece, McLaren secured a six-figure deal from Knopf for his memoir, which remained unfinished on his death in 2010; perhaps it was never really begun. In its stead, we have had Fred Vermorel’s book Vivienne Westwood (1996), which was a lot more about his broken friendship with McLaren, and a fine, unsparing biography by Craig Bromberg, The Wicked Ways of Malcolm McLaren (1989). He is also a vivid presence in Jon Savage’s definitive Pistols-centric history of punk, England’s Dreaming (1991). Paul Gorman’s approach in his new biography is to supersede earlier efforts through unstinting thoroughness, and to take in the whole scope of McLaren’s life and work, arguing that there’s more to it than the overtold story of punk. The result is a lengthy and insanely detailed book. Some of the new material is fascinating, particularly about McLaren’s unwholesomely close relationship with his grandmother, who looked after him for much of his childhood. Can it be true that the two of them shared a bed into his late teens? That she tied little ribbons into his pubic hair so that he would be too embarrassed to have sex? Other details seem less than strictly necessary: the way the placenta and umbilical cord were disposed of after his birth; the price of his father’s wedding suit (£12). After his chronicle of McLaren’s early years, Gorman’s account of punk – ‘the series of events that have become familiar in the retelling of the Pistols story down the decades’ – lacks zest. But then come the third and fourth acts, and the almighty struggle by both McLaren and his biographer to move past the Sex Pistols.

Bow Wow Wow, McLaren’s next adventure in rock management, was a kind of collage, patched together out of Adam Ant’s backing band and ideas recycled from other projects: a screenplay for a soft porn musical with under-age sex as a theme; a TV programme about the threat posed by home-taping to the record industry. Meanwhile, Westwood had developed a new line of flouncily romantic clothes inspired by heroic archetypes – pirates and Native American warriors. Buccaneers and cassette piracy made a neat conceptual pun and the swashbuckling garments were a vague fit with the tribal vibe of the music McLaren was encouraging Bow Wow Wow to pursue (though the band’s rhythms were more Burundian than Apache). The missing piece – someone to front the project – came with the discovery of the thirteen-year-old Anglo-Burmese Annabella Lwin, singing exuberantly as she worked her shift at a West Hampstead dry cleaner’s. Sexploitation defined the relationship between McLaren and Lwin from the off, both publicly (risqué lyrics, a nude photo shoot modelled on Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe) and behind the scenes. According to Vermorel’s exposé in Sounds, a memoir provisionally entitled The Great Jewish Bastard which McLaren dictated to a journalist in 1980 – it may finally be published later this year – started with a scene in which the Svengali ordered one of Lwin’s bandmates to deflower her in a cemetery, ‘to “initiate” and to tame her’.

Next, in a confounding twist, the man who wanted to destroy the music biz became a recording artist in his own right and, for a while, a regular visitor to the Top Thirty. With ‘Buffalo Gals’ – an absurd, wonderful collage of the new (scratching and rapping) and the old (square dancing) – McLaren managed to bottle lightning once again. The song and video introduced many British kids to hip hop culture, and the tune has exercised an influence ever since: the opening sound of McLaren hollering into an echo chamber has been sampled hundreds of times. After this, McLaren quickly degenerated, scoring novelty hits off patchy albums: ‘Double Dutch’ on Duck Rock (1983), his first solo album, combined a New York skipping rhyme with a Soweto pop melody to cutely inconsequential effect; ‘Madam Butterfly’ on Fans (1984) draped Puccini over a washed-out dance beat.

Somewhere between Duck Rock and Fans McLaren begins to seem a little silly. In interviews with the music papers in 1983 he predicted a reaction against overproduced synthetic pop in favour of the raw and ethnic, presenting Duck Rock as a guided tour of ‘folk dances of the world’. His last collection with Westwood before their partnership disintegrated featured earth-toned hues and raw fabrics inspired by hobos, peasants and Appalachian hillbillies, showcased in a new boutique off Oxford Street called Nostalgia of Mud. But the switch just a year later to the Old World aristocratic imagery and romantic melodrama of Fans had no discernible resonance or adversarial tension with the 1980s zeitgeist. Criticised for pilfering huge chunks of classical music, McLaren responded: ‘If people don’t want me to plagiarise I’ll have to stop work … I can’t sit down and write a tune. I’m not interested. I can’t write a tune as good as Puccini, so why bother?’ Even the video for ‘Madame Butterfly’ – affectless models in a steam room – was copied from a 1975 Vogue shoot by Deborah Turbeville titled The Bath House. Fans felt fairly desperate even at the time, and Gorman quotes McLaren conceding that ‘this is the closest thing to “Anarchy in the UK” I can muster in 1985.’ What followed was even more desultory: the sappy Waltz Darling in 1989 (McLaren had fallen in love with the model Lauren Hutton) and Paris (1994), a corny homage to his favourite city, featuring cameos from Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Hardy.

Meanwhile, McLaren was active on other fronts. First there was a job and an office on a Hollywood lot courtesy of CBS, where he came up with a string of ideas for movies, including Fashion Beast (a life of Christian Dior), Wilde West (about Oscar’s lecture tour of America in 1882), The Rock ’n’ Roll Godfather (about Led Zeppelin’s hard-man manager Peter Grant), and something called Heavy Metal Surf Nazis. That gig ended after six months but McLaren stayed on in Los Angeles, the capital city of the Spectacle, for several years, lunching with industry bigwigs (he pitched Spielberg a movie in which Stephen Hawking was a pop star) but getting nothing off the ground. One project he did complete, after returning to the UK, was his student film, Ghosts of Oxford Street, remade as a Channel 4 Christmas special without any of the original footage. Originally a shapeless mess, it was made fit for broadcast through the efforts of the producers Belinda Allen and Rebecca Frayn. (This was a running theme: the renegade conceptualist dependent on the craft skills of others – Westwood, the director Julien Temple, the music producer Trevor Horn.) The experience of working with McLaren was harrowing – Gorman reports that Frayn wrote a private memoir called ‘The Horrors of Oxford Street’ – yet the end result hardly justified the suffering, consisting of little more than a sequence of guest spots from Sinead O’Connor, the Pogues, Rebel MC, Happy Mondays and others, punctuated by McLaren’s campy narration.

There were a few further stabs at pop management: an ‘Asian Spice Girls’ called Jungk (McLaren couldn’t get them a record deal), and the Chinese all-girl rock band Wild Strawberries, who went unsigned in the West. He made commercials for British Airways, Coca Cola, Citroën, Golden Shred Marmalade and Prudential Insurance – so much for explosions in the heart of the commodity. In 2000, he ran in the London mayoral election as a maverick alternative to ‘the great political swindle of the mainstream parties’, proposing such daft ideas as legalising the sale of alcohol in public libraries. Slowly but steadily, McLaren became occupied as the curator of his own legend. A punk auction at Christie’s in New York in 2008 sold original Westwood/McLaren items such as the ‘Destroy’ T-shirt for thousands of dollars. Forgetting his own past celebrations of thievery and thieves – cassette piracy, the Great Train Robbers – McLaren worked with Scotland Yard’s arts and antiquities squad to bring a case against bootleggers dealing in counterfeited versions of SEX and Seditionaries designs. He also raked it in as a raconteur, regaling high-end corporate audiences – a tour of South-East Asia sponsored by BMG; a Financial Times symposium in Monaco on the luxury business – with stories of his glory days, interspersed with observations on contemporary trends.

My own solitary sighting of McLaren in the flesh was at a networking reception in New York in March 2007. A startling invitation had arrived in my inbox: ‘Her Majesty’s Consul-General, New York – Sir Alan Collins, KCVO CMG – In partnership with Creative London and UK Trade & Investment – Requests the pleasure of your company for a London music industry masterclass – With guest speaker – Malcolm McLaren.’ A horde of British music business people were in town on their way to the annual ‘new bands’ showcase SXSW in Austin, Texas. Someone from the consulate, possibly Sir Alan himself, introduced McLaren’s speech with a bit about the success of Coldplay and the importance of music to Britain’s balance of trade. I watched the official’s face drain of colour during the hour that followed, as McLaren launched into a rambling account of his childhood in postwar London: kids running wild on uncleared bomb sites; his grandmother’s advice, ‘Never speak to a policeman’; the Harrow art lecturer who instructed his students ‘You must fail, fail brilliantly’; a digression about mothers and teenage daughters getting Brazilian waxes together. He’d only got to 1971 and his discovery of the premises that became Let It Rock when time ran out. Afterwards, I couldn’t resist going up to tell him how much his interviews in the music press had excited me as a youth, and to pick up on a point he’d made in his talk about the unimportance of music. Crunching aggressively on a carrot stick, McLaren eyed me warily and said that yes, it was true, the clothes in punk had been far more important than the music: they allowed people to live out a fantasy self; they turned the streets of Britain into a semiotic warzone.

This bias towards the visual arts – fashion, film, the album cover as a mass-distributed canvas – runs through McLaren’s career. According to Vermorel, he had no real interest in music until the New York Dolls walked into Let It Rock. McLaren, of course, had no authorial claim over the music, which no doubt explains why he denigrated it incessantly. ‘Christ,’ he sneers in The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle, ‘if people bought the records for the music, this scene would’ve died a death years ago.’ Yet McLaren was the catalyst that made the Sex Pistols ignite. None of the musical contributors to the Pistols did anything of such electrifying force afterwards. Rotten, also a non-musician, did. But his lyrics for Public Image Ltd are noticeably different from the ones he wrote in the Pistols: they are more poetic and fractured, but the grandeur has gone. Although McLaren isn’t included in the credits of any Pistols song, his sensibility seeped into the band from the atmosphere he created around them.

Gorman shares McLaren’s visual orientation – his previous books have been about youth fashion, the style bible the Face, and the record designer Barney Bubbles – and his book is strongest on the clothes and the shop interiors, going into immense detail over the choice of fabrics and the construction of garments. Music, by comparison, is treated cursorily. The black sleeve of the ‘Anarchy in the UK’ single gets three paragraphs, but the Sex Pistols’ sound is mentioned only as ‘a fiery backdrop’ to Lydon’s declamations. ‘God Save the Queen’ is dismissed with a single adjective: ‘bombastic’.

The other absence in The Life & Times of Malcolm McLaren is of a moral appraisal of its subject. Apart from a bit of tut-tutting about the ‘questionable’ teen sex stuff, Gorman gives McLaren’s cruelties and callousness a pass. But the truth is that McLaren consistently treated others as a means to an end, once comparing them to the oils used by a painter. Sid Vicious in particular was his instrument, deployed both as cultural weapon and cannon fodder. Before he joined the band he was a Pistols hanger-on. One night at the 100 Club, he hurled a beer glass at the Damned, who were up on stage; it hit a pillar and the splinters blinded a girl in one eye. At another gig, he used a bicycle chain to batter the NME rock writer Nick Kent, once McLaren’s friend and briefly the guitarist in an early incarnation of the Pistols. When Vicious replaced Matlock, McLaren wrote in a telegram to the NME that Sid’s ‘best credential was he gave Nick Kent what he deserved’. Deep into the 1980s, he continued to exalt the violence as ‘magnificent … So someone got blinded? Well there are far worse things that happen for far worse causes.’ Vicious himself would be a casualty before long. If he’d never met McLaren, it’s perfectly possible that Sid – real name John Ritchie – would be alive today. McLaren would say that an early grave and an eternal place in rock mythology is a better fate.

In​ recent years, the idea of ‘offence’ as a cultural stratagem has migrated from left to right, casting an unsettling shadow back onto the punk era and its provocations. The most scathing assessment of McLaren’s attempt at subversion came early and from close at hand. In 1978, a pamphlet titled Punk & Reggae: A Critique began to circulate (I remember seeing copies of a later edition, retitled The End of Music, at the Camden radical bookstore Compendium). Its authors were the brothers David and Stuart Wise, formerly of King Mob. They wasted no time sticking it to ‘the Situationist turned semi spiv McLaren’, railing against the way Debord and Vaneigem’s ideas had been ‘bowdlerised’ and used to revitalise rock’s function as a ‘pacification agent of the young proletariat’. The Wises also trained their sights on reggae, then at its peak of spiritual militancy, but in their unforgiving view another pseudo-revolutionary entertainment sold to white youths by Island Records and Virgin. A nifty sentence of Vaneigem’s appeared as an epigraph to the essay: ‘A taste for change, satisfied by a change of taste’.

Gorman describes McLaren as ‘the ultimate inside/outsider’ – which is perhaps a nice way of saying that he tried to play it both ways. In a prefatory essay, Lou Stoppard says that McLaren was caught between his impulse to rebel and his secret desire for ‘some kind of recognition from the “system”’, resulting in a career emblematic of ‘the ever so delicate trade-off between success and opposition’. If his objective truly was ‘the most flamboyant failure’, he was thwarted by success. With the King’s Road boutique, each anti-fashion move backfired almost immediately: attention, appreciation and acceptance came from ‘enemy’ institutions like Vogue. The Sex Pistols, he declared, ‘were anti-music and anti-business’, yet ‘God Save the Queen’ outsold Rod Stewart twice over. This was his knack, and his downfall: to take the uncommercial and make it sell, to commodify the explosion.

Even now, despite all the reprehensible things he did and the suspicion that he helped misdirect a generation towards music as quasi-politics, I can’t quite amputate McLaren from my consciousness. ‘Anarchy in the UK’ – of which he is indisputably the co-author, its indispensable precondition – still sounds impossibly powerful as a storm of sound (though destruction and disorder are the opposite of what we need today). So many of us are still attached to the fables of punk, these stories we can’t stop retelling. At some point they will become incomprehensible to young people, requiring too much historical backfilling to be worth the effort. They will start to seem like fairy tales, along with all the other rock legends – Dylan going electric, the Stones at Altamont, Bowie’s ‘I’m gay and always have been,’ Cobain’s suicide. Perhaps it’s time to leave the 20th century, and leave punk behind there with it.

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Vol. 44 No. 6 · 24 March 2022

Simon Reynolds claims that my Life of Malcolm McLaren lacks a ‘moral appraisal of its subject’ (apart from ‘a bit of tut-tutting’ about McLaren’s teen-sex advocacy in the early 1980s) and that I give his ‘cruelties and callousness a pass’ (LRB, 10 March). Reynolds is confusing serious biographers – whose primary task is to deliver objectively drawn, fully rounded portraits from which readers can draw their own conclusions – with those music writers whose work favours judgmentalism, personal reminiscence and the airing of hollow opinions over critical evaluation.

It’s worth noting that this cohort – predominantly white, male, straight and middle-aged – is united in its antipathy to McLaren. As I write in the book, ‘this may in part be attributed to his singular personality. As an interviewee McLaren could be abrasive, arrogant, combative, posturing and verbose … Journalists, particularly males, don’t like to be outwitted conversationally and often ploughed their dislike into the copy they filed.’

In fact my book is clear-eyed about McLaren’s fallibility. From the get-go, I state that he was consistently ‘mercenary and mercurial … years later there are people who nurse the wounds of association.’ In addition to his considerable achievements, I detail his failings throughout, starting with Fred Vermorel’s description of him as ‘the biggest liar I have ever known’ and going on to refer to his boorishness, callousness, coarse nature, cruelty, lack of interest in parenting, disloyalty, divisiveness, erratic behaviour, emotional immaturity, fecklessness, infidelity, lack of empathy, manipulativeness, narcissism, near obsession with teenage sexuality, neglect of partners, opportunism, prurience, self-aggrandisement, self-destructiveness, selfishness etc.

Paul Gorman
London SE1

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