Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Malcolm McLaren in New Cross


The recent death of Malcolm McLaren got me digging out my notes about his time at Goldsmiths College in New Cross.

Malcolm McLaren was a student at Goldsmiths in the late 1960s and spent his time there perfecting the skills as a cultural provocateur that he was later to put to use as the manager of The Sex Pistols. In 1969 he had his first go at ‘the Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle’ when he advertised a summer free festival at Goldsmiths with claims that Pink Floyd, The Rolling Stones and John Lennon were ‘awaiting confirmation’. Naturally they didn’t turn up, but thousands of people did. The local paper reported the event with the headline ‘Free festival, free beer, free shambles’ and made much of the presence of ‘dolly birds’ and ‘girls [that] seemed to strut about with an ‘I’m groovier than thou’ expression’. There was some music, including ‘Local folk singer and guitarist Gordon Giltrap’ and ‘local folk trio the Strawbs’ (Kentish Mercury 10/7/1969). A debate featured radical psychiatrist RD Laing, the Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi and others, as recalled in this critical account:

'The day before the Free Stones Concert in Hyde Park we stuck up stickers in Goldsmiths college saying simply, "Riot! – Hyde Park tomorrow!", which I’d written in felt-tip markers. We’d gone along partly to help a Punfield and Barstow striker make a speech and collect money for the strikers, who weren’t getting strike pay. At Goldsmiths that day there was a teach-in partly organised by Malcolm McLaren, later of Sex Pistols/Richard Branson ad fame. He’d collected a motley crowd of male star rebels, many of them media hate figures. These included the former Notting Hill rent collector for Rachman, Michael X, whom everyone was supposed to support because he’d re-modelled himself along Malcolm X lines and had got a lot of hassle from the cops, getting arrested for contravening the Race Relations Act. Also, the dockers leader, CP shop steward, Jack Dash, and Alex Trocchi, former member of the SI and low level promotor of heroin chic along William Burroughs lines. All of them were considered heroes by the underground press such as IT and OZ.

I remember on that day the student union hacks – "I’m a moderate!" – were preventing non-student union members from going into the free festival-cum-teach-in: our little group opened up a side-door and told everybody how to get in. In fact this was far more interesting than what was going on on the stage, which was little more than just a radical version of a chat show. When a group of radical womens' liberationists disrupted the whole thing, and were treated in a blatantly patronising manner by the stage, we felt we had to support the women, though, quite honestly, I remember feeling that everyone was a bit on show, including the women. At the end of the day, a few cops came into the college, and were met with indifference by everybody. McLaren was furious, rightly, but none of us did anything to attack them - well, no one got arrested, despite the hash smoking. We used the free student facilities to print a leaflet for the Stones concert' (Anon, 1969: Revolution as Personal and Theatre).

In his book, ‘Lipstick Traces: the secret history of the 20th century’, the US music critic Greil Marcus makes a great deal of the influence of the Situationist International in the conception of The Sex Pistols. The SI was a revolutionary organisation whose highest point came in the May 1968 uprising in France, when Situationist-inspired slogans such as ‘take your desires for reality’ and ‘beneath the paving stones the beach’ appeared on the walls.

Malcolm McLaren and Sex Pistols sleeve designer, Jamie Reid, were on the fringes of the English pro-situationist group, King Mob. Whether the Sex Pistols represented the application of the situationist critique of culture, as Marcus would have it, or its recuperation as a money-making exercise is open to question - I would say a bit of both. But what’s all this got to do with New Cross? Well living in New Cross in the late 1960s was one Fred Vermorel, a friend of McLaren’s who had been in Paris in 1968. In his book ‘Fashion and Perversity: a life of Vivienne Westwood and the Sixties laid bare'’ he writes: ‘I introduced Malcolm to situationism at the 36 bus stop, just outside Goldsmiths College in Lewisham Way. Goldsmiths was where he had enrolled in October '68 in his continuing quest for a grant. I produced two copies of the SI magazine... Malcolm reacted in the way many others did. He was nonplussed and irritated, yet anxiously excited'.

I don't believe McLaren ever lived in New Cross - I think he was living with Vivienne Westwood in the Oval and then Clapham in this period - though Fred Vermorel told me that Malcolm was a frequent visitor to his flat in Jerningham Road.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

what happened to Helen ,Malcolm's assistant and financial support at that time??

Paul said...

"There was some music"...

... like King Crimson and Slade, like Jazz from Maynard Ferguson, in fact there was some damn good stuff and organising it was a joint effort between loads of people - it wasn't like Malcolm advertising a non-existent festival with non-existent guests. Pre-publicity did make too much of people with whom the organisers were negotiating, right up to the last minute, so some names went out who eventually didn't perform.

Of course Malcolm was there with a grin on his face having a great time. But then he often had a grin on his face in those days.

Gordon Giltrap did a great job of filling in when there was a space. He was a nice guy (we were dating two room-mates at the time).

Transpontine said...

Great to hear from you Paul, I had no idea about King Crimson and Slade played. I would love to talk to you some more about that period at Goldsmiths/New Cross for a book I'm working on, please email me (address at top of site)