Sometimes fame doesn’t translate. It almost always fades. Likewise, infamy. I was midway through the 793 pages of Paul Gorman’s The Life & Times of Malcolm McLaren last week, when a Generation Z acquaintance asked who its subject was. I expressed mild surprise. I figured a career that continues to influence pop culture so massively, a decade after it was curtailed by cancer, would be a fairly standard reference point. How disappointing.
So, how to explain McLaren? Reading Gorman’s epic book about a big life made me realise that it’s complicated. McLaren’s existence in the second half of the 20th century was as expansive as it was disruptive. The back cover of the book is decorated with assorted descriptions of the man, from “abandoned son” to “visual artist” via “filmmaker”, “fourth generation Londoner” and “trainee wine taster”. Most famously, of course, he collaborated with Vivienne Westwood and managed the Sex Pistols and New York Dolls. He also brought hip-hop culture and its palimpsest postmodernist approach to the charts, and planted the first flag in mainstream turf for black and Latino queer ball culture. He was a Jack of all trades and master of many. As an interior designer alone, he could have been one of the most celebrated of his generation. As the book explains, he specialised in creating environments as much as situations. He was also particularly expert at myth making – and never more brilliant than when working on the myth of himself.
In that sense, punk was something of an albatross around McLaren’s neck
In that sense, punk was something of an albatross around McLaren’s neck. McLaren recognised that, when the time came, it was going to be in the first line of his obituaries, and it’s almost a shame so many pages are devoted to the build up to, and fall out from, 1977. It is, of course, essential, and although it’s a story most readers will be familiar with, Gorman weaves it into a much broader and more interesting tale about style and youth culture from the early 1970s through to today.
The most interesting material in the biography covers less familiar ground. It’s the rare biography that doesn’t make me want to skip the childhood chapters. McLaren’s relationship with his mother, and most notably his fabulously batshit grandmother, is riveting. As is his later relationship with John Lydon – Johnny Rotten – which blurs daddy issues, love, hate and disappointment.
While McLaren’s life is a gift to a biographer, few writers would be as well placed or skilled to take up the responsibility of a book this dense with research as Paul Gorman, the author of several hugely important works covering pop culture, including The Look: Adventures in Pop & Rock Fashion (2001) and The Story of The Face: The Magazine That Changed Culture (2017). Gorman has an encyclopaedic knowledge of how music has intersected with style and design over the last 50 years. McLaren is one of the stars of that narrative, and this biography is a masterpiece of the genre – the “times” are as fascinating as “the life”, with McLaren inhabiting the last days of a pre-digital era, when counter culture still had agency.
Gorman’s portrayal of his subject is affectionate but fair, flagging up his repeated failings as a human as much as the failures in his career. But the ambition behind those failures is documented as extraordinary. McLaren certainly seems to have been on the spectrum: he could be ruthlessly self-serving and cruel, often cringe-inducingly pretentious, but also, more than anything, a raffish savant. He researched obsessively and cut and pasted audaciously – pop and opera, folk reels and ghetto blasters, Californian surfers, S&M and the Situationist International.
One of the most interesting sections documents the period between Westwood and McLaren winding down their store Seditionaries in the late 1970s, and Westwood going it alone in 1984. It was in this period that the couple created seasonal fashion in their typically irreverent way, but also in a manner that the industry could understand, culminating in a majestic collaboration with Keith Haring for their 1983 Witches collection. This era, and Gorman’s coverage of it, shows that music and fashion are more interesting when they go hand in hand. When the V&A staged a retrospective of Westwood’s work in 2004 it showed how profoundly important McLaren’s input was. When he left her side, the work lost its angular edge and resonance, and just became… clothes.
Gorman’s book becomes most thrilling when it explores McLaren’s less familiar post-punk work, en route to being a respected gallery-represented artist in his own right: the sumptuous-sounding and transgressive FAN MM fashion label that never went into production; his life in Paris and misadventures in Hollywood, including his work on the Dior-inspired gothic fantasy Fashion Beast with Alan Moore (which never made it to the screen but ended up being posthumously crafted into a graphic novel). The guest stars in McLaren’s life are numerous and luminous: from Spielberg to grotesque lawyer Roy Cohn, Afrika Bambaataa and Screaming Lord Sutch. Gorman’s book is a crucial as well as definitive document – McLaren may have been hi-tech in his day, but he was also quite VHS. Much of his work wasn’t recorded and/or didn’t come to fruition, and a lot of his world has vanished: his 1981 Christmas musical for Channel 4, The Ghosts of Oxford Street, starts with him lumbering down Falconberg Court – once the most atmospheric alleyway in Soho, now gone, sacrificed for Crossrail.
Reading Gorman’s book as someone who grew up in London within McLaren’s times is an extreme pleasure. It turns out that I live a few doors down from McLaren’s childhood home in Stoke Newington, while my pilgrimages to Worlds End since the 1980s have been frequent and each purchase still cherished. All these things mean something to me – a connection to a more exciting time, filled with opportunities. Sure, you can still turn yourself into whatever you want, but not in the same way McLaren did, and with such a pace of reinvention. All of the industries he disrupted are now virtually moribund. But who knows – maybe he’d be thriving on Netflix.
Of the hundreds of anecdotes Gorman records, my personal favourite comes towards the end of the book, and McLaren’s life, when a friend recalls accompanying him to fashion shows in Paris. “He’d never have a ticket, and for some shows, like Galliano or Gaultier or McQueen, there would be hundreds of people outside pleading to be let in. Malcolm would part the crowd and just walk in. The one time security didn’t recognise him, he announced, with great ceremonial flair, ‘Je suis Malcolm McLaren’ and simply sauntered in.” He may have been an arsehole with an imperial attitude and the air of Fagin, but he was also utterly brilliant. C