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| 31 August 2020 | Reply


Hachette Australia
May 2020
Paperback, $34.99
Reviewed by Shane Pinnegar

Non fiction, movie, comedy


Most fans of the Sex Pistols and their one-and-only album – the explosive soundtrack to an entire movement detonating a hole in England’s social fabric – Never Mind The Bollocks, might view Malcolm McLaren as a self-aggrandising manipulator. After all, popular history tells us that McLaren, as band manager, was adept at pitting band member against band member, and The Pistols on a merry skip to the top of the charts and into dissolution even quicker.

And they’d be right. But Paul Gorman’s exhaustively thorough biography sheds expansive light on McLaren’s claim as founder of punk rock, starting with his troubled childhood stuck between a mother and grandmother at war with each other. Gorman concludes that as a result of this tumultuous upbring Malcolm was always more comfortable in chaos, thus it was no surprise that chaos was one of the foundation stones of punk and of the Sex Pistols themselves.

McLaren cannily used the British art school system as a way to not only feed his head with ideas that he would later use to make a stunning career, but also as a way to avoid having to be responsible in the world at large. Colleges at that time did not have a central database of students, so he progressed as far as he wanted or as far as he was allowed at one, then moved on to apply at another, bouncing between multiple schools until he felt he had enough to use in his lifetime search for the path less ordinary.

New York Doll Johnny Thunders famously called him “the greatest con-man that I’ve ever met,” and he bounced from fashion to music and back again with little credentials other than his self-proclaimed brilliance and gift of the gab.

His first career forays were in fashion and design, indulging his lifelong fascination with creating visual art from found or discarded items, which he adopted on a philosophical as well as a literal level.

Along with wife Vivienne Westwood – initially little more than a sewing machine operator for his grand schemes before eventually becoming a lauded designer in her own right – he established a succession of stores at 430 Kings Road in London, the most famous of which was Sex, where the Pistols were assembled and based.

Students of the music will learn much here – the Pistols were, in his mind at least, McLaren’s own fashion art project, as evidenced by attendance at their first Paris gig by the likes of Jean-Paul Gaultier, Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld and Kenzo Takada. Ousted bassist Glen Matlock – originally enlisted in the band whilst working the counter at Sex – insists that McLaren never had a grand plan for the band. “His greatest strength was never that he was a great manipulator. He wasn’t some Svengali with a giant master plan. He was an opportunist… He knew how he could exploit it to his best advantage. All that he had to do was rise to the occasion. And he certainly did that.”

After the Pistols imploded in loathing and ignomy McLaren helped Stuart Goddard, aka Adam Ant, reinvent himself after one lacklustre album which focussed on bondage and discipline themes. Handing Goddard books on American First Nations people and pirates, and introducing him and his band to African Burundi rhythms, their collaboration although brief was enormously fruitful for the future Prince Charming singer.

Their partnership did not end amicably though – despite McLaren’s enormous success with the Sex Pistols, he still craved equal measures of control and chaos and engineered them in many of his relationships. Realising that Goddard would not stand to be manipulated by him, McLaren poached his band for a separate project.

That project was Bow Wow Wow, fronted by fourteen-year-old Annabelle Lwin, who McClaren ordered to pose naked for the cover of their second album. He also gave George O’Dowd his first big break dancing and singing with the band, before he went his own way to form Culture Club as Boy George.

McLaren was one of the earliest supporters of hip hop and became a successful artist in his own right with the Duck Rock album and Buffalo Gals single, and later in his life would run for Mayor of London.

At times shocking, Gorman’s epic doorstopper of a book (all 855 pages of it) is fascinating. I picked it up for McLaren’s Sex Pistols connection, but I couldn’t help but get drawn into the dangerous rips and tides of his mercurial life and emerged with a far greater understanding, not only of the man himself, but of the times he so greatly influenced.

Category: Book Reviews

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Editor, 100% ROCK MAGAZINE

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