A short extract from the opening chapter of John Scanlan, Sex Pistols: Poison in the Machine (2016). This is from Chapter 1, ‘I’ll Be So Bad’, which is about Malcolm McLaren in the 1960s.
It was October 1964. Malcolm McLaren, then a few months shy of his nineteenth birthday and going by the name of Malcolm Edwards, found himself looking on in surprise as the Rolling Stones, laughing and puffing away on cigarettes, appeared in front of him. He was perched on Chelsea Bridge with an etching pad, looking over at Battersea Power Station, its four iconic chimneys pumping white smoke, and outlining its imposing presence on the south bank of the Thames.
He knew who the Rolling Stones were, of course; but it was only here that he was struck, seeing them out on the street, in the daylight, by the way they looked and how unlike pop stars – how un-rock’n’roll – they actually were. The way they dressed, they could have been Beat writers, or young French existentialist poets and philosophers.
Bill Wyman, the least star-like of the group, was dressed in a knee-length black leather mac, and standing in front of a wooden hut selling tea and hot dogs that was plonked on the Battersea side of the bridge. He spoke to Charlie Watts, as Keith Richards and Brian Jones ordered cups of tea. Mick Jagger was prancing around, posing for some photographers. Together, with their long hair and slightly unkempt appearance, they looked bad – they looked mean, dirty, and possibly dangerous. It was an interesting look.
But all that – pop music – was something that belonged in the past. He once had time for the Rolling Stones, and others like the Pretty Things, but in the year or so since he had first started taking art classes at St Martin’s School of Art, he had more or less lost interest in it all. When the Beatles and the rest of the upbeat pop music that swept through the sixties took over, something had been lost. The action was to be found elsewhere – possibly in art, and living the life of an artist.
Why bother being some kind of spectator of this popular culture, he thought, when you could – as an artist – reshape the future by your own actions.
* * *
The 1960s were a time of upheaval in Britain’s art schools and colleges, shaped both by events in the world outside and by the structures and relationships that then existed within the institutions, and which seemed to act as obstacles to the kind of freedom that young artists wanted. By 1966 Malcolm Edwards had made the first of many attempts to instigate events and situations that might ruffle the feathers of the authority figures he so despised. In July that year he appeared in the headlines of a national newspaper for the first time, when The Times reported that he and a friend named Henry Adler had been found guilty at Marlborough Street Magistrates Court in London of ‘insulting behaviour contrary to the Public Order Act’.
Adler, a few years older and more woven into the life of the counterculture, would be the ‘conduit’ that linked the then Malcolm Edwards to radical politics, and to King Mob, a London Situationist group that he was later loosely associated with. The twenty-year-old Edwards – described by The Times as ‘a sculptor’ – was caught with 23-year old Adler trying to set light to the Stars and Stripes outside the US Embassy, in a ‘symbolic act against American policy in Vietnam’. They were both fined and bound over to keep the peace for twelve months, as the magistrate explained, to ensure that there would be no more such incidents.
There would be no more headline-grabbing incidents in those twelve months, although the one-time sculptor later wrote that in 1968 – the year when a revolutionary fervour gripped students across Europe – he could be found scrambling through the South African embassy as all around him Molotov cocktails flew into the air. And he remembered spilling bags of marbles on the ground at a charge from the oncoming mounted police at Grosvenor Square, scene of the most famous confrontations with the police in 1968:
Suddenly it looked like these horses were on an ice skating rink, and then, like Agincourt, we ducked down and people behind us had catapults and started firing gobstopper marbles at the windows of the American embassy.
Since 1966 Edwards had lived with Vivienne Westwood, sister of his best friend Gordon Swire. Gordon was connected to the capital’s music scene, and had been booking bands on the burgeoning London rhythm and blues (R&B) scene in the early days of The Rolling Stones, when Malcolm would sometimes follow him around the circuit, often with more interest in the beer than the music – unless The Pretty Things or The Rolling Stones were playing. He was impressed that the Stones would get on-stage wearing dirty collars and cuffs, and – like many others at the time – loved the whiff of danger that these small details communicated.