Biographies normally focus on looking back and describe the rise and/or fall of the protagonist. And Author Paul Gorman's book about Malcolm McLaren does that exceptionally well. But these 800 pages also lay out openly, that once there was a much more adventurous phase in modern history regarding (youth) culture. When a lot of characters constantly challenged the status quo in music, art, fashion, design and politics.
So if you do read this book, you will be brought back into a time, when it was possible to irritate the music industry and the money making society for a few years and stay one step ahead. And that red-headed maniac was in the front line from the early 1970s on.
Inspired and inspirational
One of his main influences were the ideas and theories of the Internationale Situationiste, a combination of Surrealism and Marxism. An anarchic approach that believed in the creative power of the autodidact and was fuelled by diverse sources like Walter Benjamin or Charles Dickens. Instead of founding political parties, the SI believed in creating revolutionary situations. Their concept contained new, self-empowered possibilities. And the group despised the narrow-minded free-thinking attitude of the hippies.
With Punk, he put those inspirations on the street. A new „Movement“ despised the old ways. The street smartness of Steve Jones on one hand and Johnny Rotten on the other with the dialectics of Vivienne and Jamie amongst others, made for an explosive combination. Punk wasn’t the new painting on top of the old samey-samey. Its Players knew the traps and shortcomings of the prior scenes and acted accordingly.
Because playing by their own rules in ateliers, high jacked university halls and gay clubs was much more exciting than hanging out at the Hotel California. And this melting of new ideas, ruthless attitude and keeping a distance of that „following the money“-crowd made it last a bit longer than teenage cults before. Actually it was rather on the brink of leading where the money could follow. So It took a long while until this turned into a commodity. That the early subjects weren’t solely focussed on becoming regular „rock stars“, led to rapid developments not only in music but also design, literature, journalism, films - and of course: fashion. But the most important gain was the combination, the deep links between the new elite and its protagonists in all areas. And this elite had also roots in the working class - something the left wing hippies of yesterye
ar always wanted to achieve. And Malcolm was one key player to keep this out of „their“ grab as long as possible, sometimes with rather dubious means.
Even though his infamous legend started with managing the Sex Pistols and running the shop at 430 Kings Road, Malcolm was active way before and after that period. And we are not just talking about his time at University and Art School.
"Being good is so boring"
That is a phrase he caught from his grandmother - one of the most influential persons in his life. And that sentence explains, why he constantly changed his focus and direction. He had an allergy to anything static. Regarding fashion, this explains the development from Let It Rock to Seditionaires to Sex and - later - Nostalgia of Mud. In music, he went from Rock'n' Roll to the kitsch of the New York Dolls, to the Sex Pistols, Bow Wow Wow before turning to and combining Hip Hop, Square Dance, Vogueing and Johann Strauß with projects under his own name (plus several ideas that remained unfinished).
Sometimes you could be a bit overwhelmed by the name-dropping that occurs in these pages: from Londons street intelligentsia in the 70s to Steven Spielberg, from Vic Goddard to Manolo Blahnik, Damien Hirst to Quentin Tarantino - that guy had a million dollar Filofax - if he ever owned one.
But in those few years - and even more so in the post-punk years 1980-1982, artists could go new ways and dictate their label contracts. Until some switched sides, became proper rock stars and tame and rather obedient copy cats were once again brought in by the major labels (Howard Jones, Thompson Twins, U2 - you name it)
„Like Punk never happened“
When someone aware of those days reading the book, he might get frustrated about chances lost and how far gone this has become. The power of „shocking the establishment“, that was once so powerful against conservative attitudes in politics, society and art, is now a well-known tactic of fascist parties all over the world fed by dark ads on social media, supported by „alternative facts“ and the reinstitution of „strong men“ in several countries. And what has once put a smile on our faces when pushing boundaries, is now a chapter in „revolutionary“ business plans for those „Disruption!“ crying start-ups. Their only objective: Get Rich Quick - preferable by being snatched up by the digital Bransons of today. Documented - of all places - by magazines that actually call themselves „Business Punk“. You can be sure to find no working class involvement here.
And although Dave Rimmer raised the question „Like Punk never happened“ in his story about Boy George as early as 1986, the constant flow downhill is now finally open for anyone to see.
So don't read this book - or else...
That is why reading this biography brings tears to both eyes: Some of grief for wild times gone in the left and others full of anger in the right. When John Lydon named the later as an energy, it wouldn’t have made such an impact without the determination, wit and ruthlessness of Malcolm McLaren, brilliantly researched and put into words by Paul Gorman.
He makes no secret of his admiration for „the man“ and his energy, ideas and achievements. But the author doesn’t shy away from his failures and inadequacies either. Quoting from other books, several interviews with Malcolm McLaren himself and the Trust under his name, he draws an inspiring picture about an illiterate troublemaker, that didn’t care so much about his or other peoples money*). On the way the Manager made more than a few enemies, alienated friends - his son being one of them - and made a lot of wrong decisions. Especially former punks dismiss him as a sell-out and hustler.
But the question remains: Why do we admire artist that turn over the rules and condemn them if they want a share of the pie in the end. Is it to make our lives bearable, when we follow the money ourselves, trying to make ends meet because we are lacking the courage to break out ourselves?
So don’t read this book - unless you want to open up to a world that can have so much more exciting, inspiring ideas and aspects and wouldn't just follow the neo-liberal pathway to doom. If that idea resonates with you, you should grab a copy now.
*) Though long standing-shop assistant and punk key icon Jordan (Mooney) claims in her biography "Defying Gravity", that Malcolm wanted to become a millionaire quickly.
Bear With Me
This article was (obviously) written by a non-native speaker. So help me out if you've found a phrase that hurts your brain cells and should be changed. I will credit you at the end of this text. Thank you.