fri 18/10/2019

Malcolm McLaren: Artful Dodger, BBC Two | reviews, news & interviews

Malcolm McLaren: Artful Dodger, BBC Two

Malcolm McLaren: Artful Dodger, BBC Two

TV eulogy to the Pop-cultural catalyst

Malcolm McLaren: Machiavellian con-man or pioneering cultural catalyst?

Several contributors alluded to this quality – he loved stories, was caught up in the drama of pirates and swashbuckling heroes (as Adam Ant used to his advantage when he hired Malcolm “for a thousand guineas” as an advisor. Malcolm then went off with his backing band and renamed them Bow Wow Wow).

His partner Young Kim spoke touchingly of  how he would often talk in his sleep, regressing to being a child, and she would talk to him while he was asleep, as though he was a five-year-old. The programme managed to show his mischievousness, a certain naivety, but also his “creating anti-worlds” always in the face of authority from an early age. Annabella Lwin, of Bow Wow Wow, said that when crossed he would tear the playhouse down and start again. There was a nice quote from McLaren that in chaos and flux “I found my happiness” – even if  those around him were disoriented, confused and sometimes alienated in the process. “Do you want to stay on the shelf - or do you want to come on an adventure trail?” he used to say, never knowing whether his latest project would last five minutes or five years.

His child-like nature also meant he had a certain asexuality – strange, perhaps from a guy who had a shop called Sex which sold fetish gear, whose most famous creation were the Sex Pistols, who got Annabella Lwin to pose naked as a 14-year-old on the cover of the Bow Wow Wow album or was dancing with teenage girls on the "Double Dutch" video. But that quality made him immune to any suggestion of lasciviousness or old-bloke-perving-on-teenagers, and all those art works became a celebration of energy, of life-force and sensuality – with a dose of ridiculousness. Bondage pants were, if nothing else, very funny.

But it wasn’t all great, this child-like glee. Both his son Joe Corre and Young Kim also  made another point about how his childhood damaged him. His family background was extremely strange, being brought up by his grandmother who, even at the age of 14, dressed him in girl’s clothes. The good stuff was that, as Young Kim told me, “he would come up with ideas that no sane adult would”. The other side was of demons and anger which he somehow, and rather heroically, transmuted into creativity (his ex-partner Lauren Hutton said he had the psychological profile of a serial killer).

Joe obviously felt, in any conventional sense, that Malcolm was a lousy father, in spite of being an inspirational figure and a great story-teller. (At the funeral, his stepson Ben Westwood told a story about how Malcolm told him and Joe, aged about 9 or 10 at the time, to cycle down to Devon from London for the weekend to see their grandmother because he wanted them out of the house – madness, but they made it, and it was a great, memorable adventure.)

The programme, in the wake of his death was a Eulogy, in the old-fashioned Greek sense. Even before the start, McLaren was called Legendary, a Genius, the English Andy Warhol. A counter sour note to stop the thing becoming hagiography was, of course, John Lydon/Rotten. No doubt Malcolm enjoyed, as he said, mismanaging and was probably feckless about money. The case against Malcolm by Lydon, as I understand it, was basically that he funnelled group royalties into making the film The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, which he shouldn’t strictly have done. The film ended up starring Malcolm when Lydon refused to be in it, with McLaren presenting himself as The Embezzler (this was a joke, people, which saddled him with the image of a Machiavellian crook in the minds of many more literal-minded viewers, and was hardly - to a comical extent - going to help him with his court case with Lydon, which ended up with Malcolm giving over the rights and name to the band).

A little-known story about Malcolm was that he gave up the rights to his Paris album because he wanted more money to finish it – he was, in that regard, a perfectionist whose prime motivation was never money, as it happens. People who knew such things have said he never had a clue what was in his bank account.

Lydon’s chief problem I think was something that Glen Matlock mentioned on the programme – that the Sex Pistols were a great band and he felt that Malcolm never recognised that. Of course, Rotten was a great performer, a kind of damaged prophet for the blank generation. But this was a classic example of different agendas. The punk rhetoric only worked because of the DIY aesthetic pushed by McLaren – the idea that anyone could do it. Viv Albertine of the Slits was on the programme saying that this had inspired her band (and Malcolm was supposed to be managing them, although she could never get him on the phone), as it did thousands of others, and still does as far afield as Beijing, Colombia or Russia 35 years later. At the time, someone like Poly Styrene – with her English-Somali background, her bipolar disease and braces on her teeth - of X-Ray Spex would never have dreamed of forming a band or had any chance of success with it.

Some people undoubtedly got damaged in the process – but I think Malcolm saw what he was doing as a revolution – and if you are a piratical swashbuckler you might get injured. Certainly he was heartbroken at the death of Sid, whom he adored. He tried to keep Nancy away from him (at one point, he tried to kidnap her, we are told) and thought, incidentally, that he would be the biggest singer since Elvis Presley.

The Year Zero propaganda was also a big thing in giving punk its grenade-like explosive impact. In fact, as he said, the music of punk was only a small part of it for him. His biggest achievement perhaps was “to make ugliness beautiful”. Fashion was, for Malcolm "the last repository of the marvellous".

One difficulty was that he tended to be brighter, more cultured and more subversive (those 8 years at art school hadn’t gone to waste) than the people around him, most of whom would have been happy with “benign success” rather than the “magnificent failure” which is the fate of pioneers and was, for him, always more juicy.

My own working adventure with Malcolm, which would take a book to describe, was his doomed campaign to be London Mayor and had numerous illustrations of this (including me, for that matter, who got hired as his Campaign Manager). We withdrew eventually from the mayoral campaign when Ken Livingstone entered and Alan McGee, who had bankrolled us with £20,000 (he managed somehow to bill that to Sony), withdrew his support. What also happened was that Malcolm fell out with McGee when Alastair Campbell wrote to him begging him to withdraw (we got up to 10 per cent in the polls with no adverts and were getting lots of coverage). Malcolm and I thought he should publish the letter, but McGhee, who had one foot in the New Labour camp,  said it was "private" - which Malcolm thought was feeble. It illustrated the difference in characters. Malcolm was genuinely subversive, McGhee seemed to prefer a bit of lite rebellion.

The programme didn’t really mention much in the last twenty years, although we did get to see a glimpse of his latest video work premiered in February - a style in which he was really finding a new niche, where he could express all of his enthusiasms in one outlet without having to get Okay-ed by number-crunchers in Hollywood or record companies (there’s an extract on the Artforum site, well worth seeing, with an interesting essay by Greil Marcus).

So many of his projects never happened or only half-happened, which was a shame, but pioneers have to expect that. Getting a prime-time tribute, and being called a legendary genius is fine. Now he’s gone he is safer. It would have been better if some of his other projects – from a Dior musical to his plan to make Stephen Hawking “the most brilliant pop star” - could have been realised; they would have been fabulous and would only have added to what he described as “the authentic Carnival of Life”.

Whether he was, as Steve Jones called him, a Machiavellian “con-man”, or, as I tend to think, a wonderful cultural catalyst and a new kind of artist somewhere between Andy Warhol and Diaghilev but actually with more impact than either of them, we shall see.

Watch the "Paris" video on YouTube

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