One of the achievements of this biography is to rescue McLaren’s career after the Sex Pistols from relative neglect. Capturing everything he ever did, it makes a persuasive case for him as a major cultural figure – as transformational as Warhol, the closest thing pop music ever had to Marcel Duchamp. “Good on ideas, short on application”, was the assessment of one of McLaren’s art school tutors. But when you listen to Duck Rock, or the 1984 track “Madame Butterfly” – which established the missing link between Italian opera and disco culture – a large part of the enjoyment is simply the thought of it. As Duchamp realized, and McLaren kept on proving, total freedom is only ever one, seemingly dreadful idea away. The Life and Times of Malcolm McLaren should be required reading in art schools (and on film and acreative writing courses too): it is a reminder that revolutions don’t arise from icy perfection, only from a habit of getting things wrong.
Neither hagiography nor hatchet job, the book is curious, rigorous and, despite its eye-watering length, rarely dull. Gorman draws connections between McLaren’s chaotic childhood and his outlook as an adult, when he was known for single-mindedness, his delinquent spirit and treating friends and colleagues atrociously (the phrase “they never spoke again” crops up regularly). As young children, he and his older brother, Stuart, were dragged around London by their mother, Emily, as she visited various lovers; their father soon left, having grown tired of his wife’s infidelities. Their divorce agreement rested on him having no contact with his sons until after Emily’s death.
Meanwhile things were falling apart at 430 King’s Road: the staff were stealing clothes to feed their heroin habits. He and Vivienne were throwing bowls of soup at each other. Eventually she broke free of him. With hundreds of pages still to go at this point, I got bogged down when McLaren went from project to project. Steven Spielberg hired him as a movie producer, but not one film was made in six years, and he felt stale and bored. In the late 1980s he appeared stoned on television: ‘I’m going to see my mother, and I haven’t seen her in 22 years,’ he explained. Their reunion was disastrous — she told him he was the spitting image of his grandmother Rose, ‘the most hideous woman who ever lived’. Asked by an interviewer in 2005 whether he had ever loved anybody, Malcolm’s answer was, surprisingly and touchingly, ‘Vivienne.’
Gorman is at pains to flag up McLaren’s better side. He reminds readers that McLaren stuck by the Pistols’ heroin-addicted Sid Vicious during his final days (perhaps because they came from similarly chaotic backgrounds) and notes many kind observations from those who got a kick out of his subject’s lively, questing mind. Unlike many famous people McLaren didn’t get dull once he hit the headlines. The sparks continued to fly as he moved from punk to hip hop, made a bid to become Mayor of London and attempted to reconnect with his father. I don’t think it’s possible to close this book liking McLaren, and Gorman knows that.
With punk (which McLaren did not invent but certainly fashioned), he and his friend Jamie Reid created the ransom-note graphics and found-fetish language of the movement’s look. With fashion, he revived leopard prints and 1950s trash, abandoned them in favour of torn T-shirts and safety pins, then pivoted to the piratical and hillbilly. Westwood, in Gorman’s account, is the historicist in the background, furnishing the 18th-century style or scrapbook inspiration while McLaren’s finely honed eye drove the collaboration, providing the (literal) cut and thrust.
Does anyone need 800-plus pages on McLaren? You wouldn’t think so, but yes. Gorman may use the word “detourné” too often, but he is a serious style and culture writer and his deep research is driven by fascination for his subject, leading to colourful evocations of, say, a young McLaren joining a 13-year-old Marc Bolan on clothes-buying trips through the gay menswear boutiques of early 1960s Soho. McLaren was so bursting with ideas that his life was never boring, even in the later years when he grew increasingly disillusioned and dismissive of the way pop was going.
The big problem with Gorman’s account of the rise of the McLaren, the Sex Pistols, and punk culture is that it is well-trodden territory. He does dig deeper and, in the process, uncovers some relatively overlooked characters, including the British artist David Harrison, an extravagantly stylish 19-year-old who was an early contender for lead vocalist in the group...Having made his name as a social archaeologist of British style culture – his previous book was a history of the Face magazine – Gorman is adept at chronicling McLaren and Westwood’s formative working partnership as they struggled to introduce their iconoclastic clothes to an unsuspecting world. The social history of their various Kings Road emporiums – Let It Rock, which morphed into Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die, and later became Sex – would in itself have made an interesting book.
McLaren died in 2010 after suffering from mesothelioma, the cancer commonly caused by asbestos exposure. It was, Gorman writes, probably a result of holes he smashed in the ceiling of Sex more than 30 years earlier as he transformed it into its next incarnation, Seditionaries — the act of destruction that finally caught up with him. With this book, Gorman convincingly moves away from the ossified image of McLaren as a great rock’n’roll swindler, a morally bankrupt punk Mephistopheles, and closer towards his art-school roots, his love of ideas. Tiresome, unpleasant, even cruel — he was, this book underlines, never boring. His grandmother would be proud.