Fred Vermorel first met Malcolm McLaren in 1963 when they were students at Harrow Art School. The two shared an interest in chaos, scandal and, later, Situationism: ideas which steered the development of the Sex Pistols and punk.
A self-proclaimed auto-didact, Fred studied media at the Polytechnic of Central London (now University of Westminster) from 1969 to 1972, pursued an MA in history at the University of Sussex in 1974 to 1975, and achieved a PhD from Kingston University in 2011. He lectured in cultural history and media at Southampton Solent University from 1992 to 2001, and since then at the American University in Paris, and Richmond: The American International University in London, and at Kingston University. However, Fred is more widely known for his writing career. In 1978, he and his partner Judy released the ‘anti-biography,’ Sex Pistols: The Inside Story. A series of pop books followed: Gary Numan by Computer (1980), Adam & The Ants (1981), and The Secret History of Kate Bush (and the Strange Art of Pop) (1983). As the 1980s progressed, Fred examined music fandom in two controversial volumes: Starlust (1985) and Fandemonium! (1989). (The former, which was reprinted by Faber and Faber in 2011, influenced my own path as a PhD student. After finishing my studies in 1999, I made contact with Fred and enquired about the possibility of presenting a module on his MA course in Southampton.) In his 1996 book, Fashion and Perversity: A Life of Vivienne Westwood and the Sixties Laid Bare, Fred sketched an insightful portrait of Vivienne Westwood, Malcolm McLaren and himself set against the dangerous ideas of their time. A Village Voice piece about his adventures researching his 1983 Kate Bush book, ‘Fantastic Voyeur: Lurking on the Dark Side of Biography’ (2000), was reproduced, along with his explanation of the theoretical basis of his fan research, in the 2013 Routledge edited volume, Popular Music Fandom: Identities, Roles and Practices.
In the new millennium, Fred explored the fashion spectacle and celebrity with Addicted to Love: The Kate Moss Story (2006). He also unearthed obscene imaginings from the archive with Queen Victoria’s Lovers: Erotomania and Fantasy (2014). His latest project, Dead Fashion Girl: A Soho Affair, is a foray into the 1950s true crime genre that deals with the unsolved murder of a young fashion designer and model, Jean Townsend. We met one afternoon in Central London in August 2017 to discuss a shared interest in music fandom…
Situationism helped to define your approach to popular culture. How would you define it for those who do not know about it?
That’s a difficult one. I would start by talking about Dada, and the heritage of Dada, and how that transformed into surrealism, how that became progressively less politicized, and how during the war it sort of disappeared in all but a name because it became worth such a lot of money, and was then revived by a group of miscreants in a couple of cafés in Paris –the Lettrists, Debord, and all that crew. That’s the social and cultural origins of it, and then for the ideas origins of it, I usually try to define it in the context of countercultural thinking, in contrast to Frankfurt School ideology, which it was antagonistic to in lots of ways. So I try and get across the mischievousness and the pranksterishness of it, rather than turn it in to something you have to learn by rote.
I’ve seen the term ‘intellectual terrorism’ in places.
I think that’s probably a bit easy. Probably, I said it, but it’s a let out, isn’t it?
So it’s got qualities, but you don’t want to give a pat definition –
Well, it wanted to keep itself open ended, didn’t it? I think that was part of the appeal of it to people like me. It wasn’t a closed off ideology, and it didn’t lead you to expect certain things or do certain things – unless, of course, you were in the inner circle with Debord, which I never was. You would have got expelled for –
You told that story of Debord coming over to London, and not approving of what was going on –
The Wise brothers, yeah.
Tell me about some of the things you were writing about at the end of the 1960s for King Mob Echo.
Yeah – that’s a very hazy memory. King Mob Echo was put together by the Wise brothers, who I knew fairly well. I wrote some stuff for Phil Cohen, and a couple of others, but it was all so hazy. I don’t remember whether they picked it up and put it in without me knowing, or how it worked. I really can’t remember that.
And were they put in under your name or were they anonymous?
I think they were anonymous.
You might have a right to keep then anonymous.
Yes. Dave Wise, I noticed online, had quoted one of them, which astonished me, because I’d forgotten completely what I’d said! Something about the ICA, which was directly lifted off what Debord said.
What do you see as the difference, if there is one, between Situationism and mere sensationalism?
Mere sensationalism? Well, Situationism has got an agenda, and it’s got a project. It’s deeply political in its own way. It’s not averse to being sensational because that’s a means to an end, but it didn’t seek sensation as an end in itself, as McLaren did.
Do you think he ‘sold out’ Situationism’?
I wouldn’t put it like that. The Wise brothers, in their online rants, are still misty-eyed and sentimental about selling out the heritage of King Mob. I just think that’s nonsense, it’s all gone. Of course it was taken and improved, and disapproved of, and perverted, and however you want to put it, but that’s the way it goes.
Well, I guess ideas are like technologies. They change and not always for the better. In the book Eyes for Blowing Up Bridges (2015), you called the Sex Pistols “a new form of post-art anti-art” (p.25). I know you have said that Malcolm wanted to be like Andy Warhol, something which made the Pistols his version of the Campbell Soup cans. Malcolm saw his ‘sexy young assassins’ as a final affront to the notions of British decency that were a hang-over from the days Empire. Post-Swinging London, as it were, wasn’t all that world already in retreat? The Pistols turn up, pretty much, at the height of the permissive society, don’t they?
Yeah, I guess. I suppose that’s a good point. He’s definitely a child of the ’60s, but he’s a child who had his circle and they all thought they missed out. They hadn’t become Mick Jagger or David Bailey. I think there was a slight resentment about that which informs what punk was about. Vivienne Westwood wasn’t Zandra Rhodes.
There were so many ideas going on at that time. Sexual ‘deviancy’ was associated with sexual liberation. From what I understand, Britain got into permissiveness later than America, except Swinging London. The Pistols were different kind of affront in terms of sexuality, perhaps?
They were more brazen. I remember Malcolm was spending quite a lot of time in New York when they were being formed. I remember one party where he invited me to meet the Pistols. At that party – it was on top of a boutique [Swanky Modes, Camden Town] – he was raving on about the, not permissiveness, but the libidinous licentiousness of the scene in America, particularly in New York. He was saying, “Man, there are guys f***ing themselves openly.” He’d obviously been to the clubs and seen things that no decent English person should ever see. He was intent on bring it back, so he was battle hardened in that sense.
Do you know which clubs those were?
I would imagine they would have been gay clubs. I know he tried to get into the Andy Warhol circle, because he was obsessed with Andy Warhol, but he could never make it because Warhol was too big by then. I think this limey from London would have seemed extraneous, because Warhol was super famous. But he came back with the next best thing, which was punk, which he stole from the New York punks, who were doing their thing in that club in the Bowery. What was it called?
CBGBs? Like the New York Dolls?
Yeah –all of those. He came back with the word punk, the rhetoric, the idea of furious one minute politicized songs, safety pins. All of that was from America. It didn’t work there. That’s one of the questions I ask students: “Why didn’t punk take off in America? Why did it take off here?” I don’t know the answer to that. It’s got something to do with the management structure.
Or has it? I wasn’t there at the time. I was in the generation that was too young, even, for punk. We were just post- that. I would have thought it would have more to do with senses of British decency, and taste, perhaps, that it was easier to offend in Britain that it was in America?
Maybe, what wasn’t easy, though, what astonished me, really, was that he got away with attacking the monarchy, because ‘God Save The Queen’ was astonishing.
The fact that it worked and got to number one – just about scraped in – that was offensive to British decency, but there must have been a hard core of people who resented the monarchy, at that time, even. That intrigued me, because I wonder who those people were: they weren’t all punks. There weren’t enough punks around.
Do you think some republicans brought it?
Some republicans went out to buy it as a declaration, maybe, but that doesn’t answer your question about different sensibilities.
Or could it be connected with class, perhaps, that America has a very different class system to Britain?
I’m sure that’s a part of it, yeah.
You talked a bit in your PhD commentary about why you thought it was different.
Did I say in there? Yeah, well, I partly thought it was the management structure – there was no management in New York to speak of – and partly cultural considerations come into it. Punk in New York failed to take off.It was ignored by the music and media industries. But punk bands in the UK like the Pistols and The Clash had management to keep them gigging and knocking on doors until they opened.That management had art school training.They built on a tradition of creative mischief and trangressive outsiderism going back to Marinetti and Rimbaud. Like any avant-garde movement they created an agenda, wrote a manifesto, and attacked establishment darlings like Pink Floyd or Rod Stewart.They put up the day-to-day cash and supplied the rhetoric and kept the photographers busy – and eventually punk began to get noticed and signed. The other thing about Malcolm and Vivienne’s eventual success was that they didn’t have any background. Which partly explains why they were at that moment losers, outsiders to the inner circles of the sixties.So willing to take unusual risks. They hadn’t been to Cambridge or anywhere near it – Oxbridge – they hadn’t even been to university, really. They had no connections, no money, no social capital, no cultural capital, apart from McLaren’s cosmopolitan Jewishness which enabled him to absorb a lot of cosmopolitan influences, and be a bit more creative than most kids would have been at the age of 17 or 18 or 19; self-confident anyway. He had chutzpah.
He had that sense of entitlement that going to public school gives a lot of people.
Well, he’d never been to public school.
He had a certain kind of self-aggrandizing chutzpah, which he gets from his background and from his grandmother, who was a bit of an influence on him. She was a bit of a working class character and very abrasive.
She sounds fascinating. I’m sure she was a real character. Did you meet her much?
One of the things I’m interested in is the connection between punk and horror. In your writings you’ve mentioned that Malcolm took some of the punks to see Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Hooper, 1974) –
I don’t think I said that, but he did do. He was also interested in that Italian stuff.
Do you know any of the directors?
There was a series of grotesque movies about cannibalism and decadent nightlife – the Mondo series. His fascination with that melded in with his fascination with anything grotesque or weird, or dangerous, or scandalous. Hence his fascination with porn, or some porn, and Russ Meyer. That’s why he brought Russ Meyer over.
That sounded like a fascinating episode.
It was a doomed episode.
Oh, yeah, that would have been stuff a bit like Cannibal Holocaust(Deodato 1980), then?
Yeah, I wasn’t into that, so I never went to see that stuff with him, but we saw other things. He was a great cinema goer.
Did you go very often?
Yeah, often. We were always in the Academy Cinema, which was on Oxford Street, looking at Orson Welles or Italian cult movies. Godard was a favourite. There was the Cameo Poly we used to go to. And the Paris Pullman. Also things like Norman Wisdom and knockabout comedy. One thing that’s often missed is, I think – I’ve put together a proposal for a book, which I may get around to writing, called Malcolm McLaren and the Creation of the Sex Pistols, looking in detail at all the components of that, and one of the things that is often lost is music hall. Music hall was a big influence on his grandmother. That was transmitted to him. He just loved that –a tradition now lost, that was sanitized by the BBC– that very raucous and vindictive type, Max Miller type of stuff, that very grotesquely suggestive and overtly sexual stuff.
That makes huge amounts of sense.
Think of Johnny Rotten and his lurid eyes. Or his convulsive gestures on stage.Rotten had a precursor, not that he probably knew about it, but Malcolm certainly did. A music hall star called T.E. Dunville– he took his stage name from a brand of Irish whisky. Dunville was one of the biggest names in Edwardian music hall and notorious for crazy patter, cross dressing and manic songs. Only Dan Leno rivalled him. He was described with “wild glaring eyes, a nervous, twitching restlessness and a mad, staccato utterance.” He also practiced “legmania,” twisting his legs around his body in contortions that spooked people, and he made a comical feature of a withered arm he’d been born with – Rotten’s infamous stare came from his having had meningitis as a child – a “disability” he camped up.
The public vulgarity of the Sex Pistols.
Exactly. ‘Carry On Sex Pistols’ and all of that. Jamie Reid was into that as well, quite a lot.
That does make a lot of sense. While we are on this, can you tell me a bit about the French New Wave and how that was filtering through your world?
Well, you’ve read what I’ve written in Eyes for Blowing Up Bridges. How did it filter through? Just because it was new. It was fascinating and different, and we all went to see it – all of us. Henry Adler was the conduit for all that stuff. He was a fanatical cinéphile. He used to get Cahiers du Cinema, because you couldn’t get it in London. He ordered it from a place in Notting Hill. He would tell us what was on, and where it was on. He was so fanatical, he would go to Paris sometimes to see the latest stuff. He had money. He could afford to do that.
And there’s a connection between Godard and Guy Debord?
The only connection was that they hated one another’s one another’s guts! You know the slogan, “Godard est le plus con des suisses pro-chinois”: Godard is the biggest pro-Chinese Swiss c***, or the most stupid, you could say, because he was the avant-garde mini-spectacle, according to the situationists. For Malcolm, and the other people around him, that didn’t matter, because it was all part of the same mix. We just took a bit of Godard, a bit of Debord. We weren’t interested in those internecine squabbles that they had in Paris.
Right. You had your own agenda.
Which was to find novelties which entranced us, which amused us, which inspired us.
Your experience of Paris in the 1960s included some of that cinema, I think?
Well, not the cinema. I went to Paris in ’67, because I was bored of London. I’d enrolled in the Sorbonne. I wanted to do a course, Civilisation Français, which takes you onto entry to university. I wanted to do a philosophy degree. I don’t know if I would have got there, but that was late 1967. Then 1968 came and of course then it all collapsed, and I was much more interested in what was going on in the streets, rather than what was going on in the lecture theatres, which the whole generation was. So that’s how that happened. I was very assiduous. I had previously tried to find Godard, because I had this crazy idea that he would take me on as one of his assistants, but I could never track him down because he was so elusive. Then, at the height of the May 1968 thing, somebody told me that he was in a café at the Place de la Sorbonne. I thought, “Shall I go? Nah – I can’t be bothered – I’m past it now.”
It’s interesting that you were doing that in Paris and Malcolm was doing similar with Andy Warhol that in New York. The will to participate that comes from a certain kind of fandom, perhaps, was still there in what you were doing.
Sometimes you paint Malcolm in control of all the publicity. Did you ever feel that the Pistols were out of control?
They were deliberately so, I mean, the idea was – it wasn’t an idea so much as a gut feeling that he had, which was – to keep them on the edge, so nobody knew what would happen next – which would freak out the lawyer Steven Fisher no end. I remember, I went with Malcolm into a meeting with Steven Fisher. They were on the phone to someone at Virgin, the second in command at Virgin. Virgin wanted to know what the hell was in an album. I think it was Never Mind the B******s. They were just making it up as they went along. Malcolm was saying, [whispers] “Say this is in it!” Then Fisher was going, with amused distaste, “Well, actually there’s a song called, ‘Frigging In The Rigging,’” and the Virgin guy was getting very excited. They were just making it up as they went along. And, of course, whether anything was in the record, or it wasn’t, was immaterial. It kept everybody on a tight rope. That was his modus operandi. That was how he worked. It was to make everybody wonder: “What the hell’s going on? Is there any ground underneath us?”
Was there never a time when it was like a runaway train?
Yes, but deliberately so, and the band continually complained about that, because they never knew whether they were sacked, fired, hired, or what was going to go on. He never told anyone anything. Or he lied. A good example of that was the American tour. I remember, he deliberately sat down and worked out how to f*** it up. One way was to send them – not to New York where they would be understood – but to the far west, where there were cowboys with guns and Stetsons. Maybe one of them would get shot, which would be great for promotion! He also deliberately booked them into places that were too small, where there would be panic and fights. The whole thing worked like a charm, and apparently the FBI was following them and asking what was going on, because of the drugs, as much as anything else. They were wondering: “Were these people crazed with drugs? Who was the manager? Was he in control? Was he mad? Who else was in control?” No one was in control and deliberately so. That way, Malcolm held all the strings. At the end of the day he could emerge triumphant, and talk about cash from chaos, and other glib things like that.
You paint him as very Machiavellian in that sense.
Malcolm was, definitely.
Were there any moments that frightened him?
Yeah – I wasn’t there just after the Grundy episode, but Jamie told me he was shit scared. He was shitting himself, because he thought they’d blown it. They’d finally gone too far.
Then he saw the headlines and the papers the next day, and he thought, “No, that’s fine. We can just do this and keep on going.”
And that only went out in the London area, initially, I believe?
Did it? And went out in the nation the day after?
It all comes from that Situationist slogan: “Create situations from which there is no return.” Do you know what I mean? That is rather a cruel way of working, but it was efficacious then, anyway.
What do you in those situations where you get to that point, because it’s very hard to know what to do next?
You walk away, because you say, “This is your life. I’ve shown you what a mess it is. Sort it out.” One of their heroes was the Durruti Column, who shoot all the notables in a village: the local priest, the judge, the mayor. Then turn to the villagers and say, “It’s your life. You are free. Sort it out.” And then ride away and leave the poor b*****s to fester on their own.
A certain anarchism that would then –
Burn the bridges and just see what happens, because it doesn’t matter so long as it’s something different.
In that sense, it’s a social programme as much as anything: to mix things up, stir things up, and let it resettle or change?
What, do you mean from Malcolm’s point of view?
Just the way you were explaining it sounded like any radical change was an experiment, perhaps.
Yeah, I suppose.
And whatever came out of it was something you could learn, but maybe there is no learning there because if there’s a constant will to go back into that situation?
Exactly, and it’s a dangerous thing to do. In a social sense, it’s very dangerous as it leads to deaths and deprivation. In a cultural sense, it’s less dangerous and it’s more fun, because all you’re tearing up are ideas and manifestoes. You’re not destroying people’s lives.
That is interesting, because I remember you talking about May ’68 and saying things like, “People were making the rioters cups of tea.” Whereas in the 2011 riots, sometimes it felt like the net of safety had disappeared from public spaces.
Well, in ’68 they were middle class kids for the most part. Did I say that: “making cups of tea”? I saw a couple of people giving out drinks.There was also a guy serenading the rioters with a gramophone from his balcony. Tom Stoppard has a point when he mocks the Western version of ’68 as revolution by gesture.
Can a good Situationist ever go too far? At what moment do you think shock becomes inappropriate as politics or art?
Not if you’re a Situationist, because you walk away and let other people clear up the mess. That’s the whole point of it, really. The point is not to show other people how to live their lives, but to show them that their lives are deficient. Are you still linking it to the Pistols, or more generally? More generally, I think. Does that chaos abut any other questions, like misogyny or abuse?
A couple of days ago, I was watching a thing on TV about the Cambridge rapist. I lived through that period, but I never took it in, because I was never interested in the case. I do know that when Malcolm did his Cambridge rapist t-shirts and masks, I wasn’t too shocked because I didn’t know the full story, but Vivienne was, because she did know more about it than me. Looking back on that – realizing exactly what that guy had done, and the terror and fear he’d caused – I did see; if I could go back in time, I would have objected too, very very strongly. That is going too far, but for Malcolm at the time, his retort to Vivienne was, “You can never go too far – just look at the publicity.”
But, in a sense, you need a person like that to find where the line is.
Exactly, but for him there was no line at the end of the day.
Do you think artists ever be anything but collaborators with media production?
How do you define media production?
Commodification, in some sense.
No, I don’t think you can, because that’s the way things work. I think one of the brilliant things about McLaren was that he understood that. He wasn’t afraid of that, whereas so many punk bands took it in a po-faced, literal way: “We mustn’t make money.” Or, like the KLF, burn the money, or something.
Stuff like that, which is kind of futile – infantile Dadaism – because whatever you do is going to be commodified, even your refusal to be commodified. One of the reasons I think Debord committed suicide was that he saw that.
There is no escape.
There was no escape in his case, except for alcohol, and eventually shooting himself in the head. I don’t think there is – if you try and walk out of that you’ll find yourself in no man’s land. Then it’s problematic, because eventually you will come back in, like the KLF. These, how old are they now, 60 year-old guys? Ridiculous. Why don’t they just f*** off and do something else? This comeback thing. They were trying to escape that commodification, weren’t they?
They were: burning the money.
Now they’ve come back into it, because the allure is just too strong at the end of the day.
Because we’re currently, in part, in a backwards looking culture, the escape fuels the current commodification.
Also, I was at a punk exhibition in Sunderland that came up from the British Library. There was a magazine cover there from one of the investment magazines at the time, saying that the Pistols had won some award.
That’s right, I remember that: The Investor’s Chronicle, I think it was. They had won an award for best businessmen of the year, which was tongue-in-cheek, but also richly deserved.
That also questions the outsider-ness of what they were doing in a sense. Although it wasn’t the band, really. It was McLaren who got that award. You have to make a distinction, I think, between the band and McLaren, because I don’t think the band would have got anywhere without McLaren. Other people disagree with me, but I don’t think they would have made it without him steering them through that precipitous route that they took. Plus, between Glitterbest, the Pistols’ management group, and the band, was a big gulf of generation and outlook and education and aspiration. I would also add, talent, but that’s more contentious.
Already we’ve been talking about Malcolm using different ideas. One of the precursors to punk, to me, seems to be rock’n’roll. Talking about ‘precursors to punk’ is itself a forbidden idea in some ways, because you want to see it as something new. At the same time, do you think there was a connection? Can you talk me through what the connection was?
Well, it was just the music of the time. But no more central for Malcolm than Édith Piaf, or jazz, which were also exciting and heady. I think Malcolm rewrote the story later on, by reflecting on the idea that there was a transmission between Eddie Cochran and Johnny Rotten. I don’t think that was the case at all. Looking at it retrospectively, it seems that may have been the case, and certainly there were links. But at the time I think there was a definite sense of breaking and escaping from the confines of rock’n’roll as well as Pink Floyd and David Bowie, and all that heritage. When Malcolm waffles on about ‘early Elvis,’ he never talked about that in those days. People like Jon Savage are very into that heritage agenda, putting that forward.
I guess what rock’n’roll and punk seem to have in common is that they were turning juvenile delinquency, in some ways, into an art and a politics.
Oh, yes, there’s that fetish of delinquency and transgression.
I gather Malcolm included a section on Billy Fury and his fans for the Oxford Street film?
Billy Fury was a favourite of us both. I used to, not idolize him, but I thought his haircut was fantastic. I tried to imitate his stoop and his sulk. So did Malcolm. So I think it was really his attitude, rather than the actual crooning, rather mediocre songs he used to make.
He was still going at that point.
We saw him once when we were in Harrow. I was about 17 then. He was in the Havelock Arms having a drink. Harrow Art School used to be in Harrow High Street opposite a pub called the Havelock Arms where all the staff used to drink. So we went over and made a pilgrimage to gawp at him. He was just sitting there with his entourage, drinking.
Elsewhere you wrote that you weren’t music fans in a dedicated sense before punk, but evidently you did see one or two acts. I was never really a music fan as such. I was a Jean Paul Sartre fan, not a music fan. I was never very musical, that was the thing, but I did listen to all the stuff. The thing is, you wouldn’t have had to be a fan; you would have had to have been insane not to listen to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in those days, because it was everywhere you went. We would go as a gang – me, Malcolm and Vivienne’s younger brother, Gordon, to venues like the Railway Tavern in Wealdstone or the Marquee, but not to see the music, just to get the vibe and check out the girls. In fact, except for Long John Baldry, I can’t recall the name of a single act.
The music was part of the furniture.
Every party you went to they were continually playing that. Boutiques were playing that stuff. It was everywhere.
It was everywhere. Yeah. I can see that. Billy Fury’s quite an interesting character, with his health and everything.
We didn’t know about that then. We didn’t know about his eccentricities. In those days, you didn’t get to know much about stars, as much as you do now. We certainly didn’t know if he was gay. That would have been hidden.
Did you ever get to see the Oxford Street film? Was it ever finished?
It was finished in the end, in a very, in a banalised form, by the BBC, who put it out as The History of Oxford Street, I think. It had medium success, but I’m not sure what it was meant to be. It was just a fascination that Malcolm had with Oxford Street, and the Pantheon and where the Academy was, which is near where Marks & Spencer’s is now.
What themes were in there?
Well, at one end was the gibbet, where people got hung, and it was a street of fierce commerce and innovation. It was a kind theme park for him to play around with ideas of Victorians. Fagan – not that Fagan ever went to Oxford Street! –but that kind of thing. Those Victorian themes were in there, and he played around with various kinds of Brechtian distancing devices, because Brecht was a big influence, at that time, as well. I did the sound for that early version while he was living at Thurleigh Court. I was then doing communication studies at Central London, which is now Westminster University, where I did my first degree. So I had a Uher. I would bring my Uher down to Thurleigh Court. He had two ideas. One was to get a young boy, who was one of Vivienne’s students, and was about 10 –a young black kid –to read the script, the voice-over. That didn’t quite work. He wasn’t distant enough. Then he got his grandmother to do it, which was even more disastrous because she just sounded like a cackling old ham. She couldn’t take it seriously, either. What I’m saying is that he wanted it to be disjointed and Brechtian. When it was then picked up by the BBC, it became something much smoother.
Was the section on Billy Fury included?
I never saw the BBC one, so I don’t know. I’m sure it’s online.
I had another question on Brecht. You mentioned in Fashion and Perversity that late in 1968, Malcolm wrote to you from the South of France, saying that the Living Theatre was doing Brecht. I think he shared some of their philosophy. Do you know if he ever actually saw them?
I don’t. Henry went to every performance of everything, and he would tell us all about it, so a lot of it was imbibed secondhand. There just wasn’t enough time or opportunity or money, frankly, to go and see everything.
Was Henry very rich then?
Yes – he came from a wealthy background. He came from South Africa, in search of Swinging London, and he had a very generous allowance from his dad. The only caveat of his allowance, the only condition was that he had to have psychiatric advice. He was actually under the tutelage of David Cooper, who was a person guaranteed to send you barmy if you weren’t barmy in the first place.
One of the things that surfaces in Fashion and Perversity (pages 57 and 148) is the idea of footage being found in dustbins. This seems to tie in with Malcolm’s discussions about flamboyant failure: are the best ideas those that others have discarded? Is cultural progress really about salvaging rejected ideas?
One of those dustbins was at Goldsmiths. He never got his Goldsmiths degree, but he did produce something; The History of Oxford Streetwas originally going to be his submission. It never got finished. In desperation, he foraged in some dustbins and found the outtakes of a tutor who was very close to him –Creswell was his name. Malcolm got bits of his Super 8 holiday film; it was just outtakes of him disporting on the beach and so on. He got these out of the bin, and put them together and showed that. The second dustbin was earlier, when he did a show at Kingley Street art gallery. That was his first ever show. As part of that show he screened bits of anAudie Murphy film and other movies through a window to a screen outside, and had these bits in a circular loop. He got those out of a bin from the Tolmer Cinema, which we used to go to quite a lot because you could get in through the back door for free.The Tolmer Cinema was one of these weird cinemas that used to show non-stop films and there were dozing pensioners in there and young miscreants.
Sounds like a British version of a grindhouse cinema.
I was something like that, yes, exactly. We got to know the projectionist. He was something of a character. In order to get away early – because he got bored of showing all the same damn movies all the time – he used to cut them short, so he used to snip about half an hour off each movie, arbitrarily, and chuck all the bits that you would never see in the bin. That’s where Malcolm used to pick out stuff. That’s where he got his stuff for the Kingley Street show. Those are the two examples, yeah.
So that’s collaging in a sense?
Yes, collaging, which is what Debord was doing – unknown to Malcolm, at that time.
What also fascinates me about those moments is that there’s a retrieval of rejected material or ideas.
Yes, that’s a good point.
Did that surface in other places?
Well, that’s very much to do with surrealism, isn’t it?Surrealist artists featured used bus tickets and rejected debris. Rauschenberg was very much a big influence on Malcolm as well.
We went to the Rauschenberg show in Whitechapel and he was absolutely blown away by it. Rauschenberg as you know, puts all these disparate, different elements in collages. Collage was definitely a thing.
Hasn’t promotional culture always formulated itself through contradictory messages – there seems to be a lineage of amateurism and chaos since before the Pistols?So in a sense, wasn’t punk promoting a perverse potential in existing music celebrity?
Going back to what – the Doors?
Or Elvis, or –
I don’t know whether it’s answering your question, but in terms of playing with celebrity, Sid Vicious was the key person there, wasn’t he, because he was definitely pushed by Malcolm to be a supposedly grotesque inversion of a pop star, a celebrity.
And he acts out, in his own life, that destructiveness, doesn’t he?
Yeah –I remember the first time I realized what was going on, in that sense, in Sid’s life, was when they gave me one of the early draft treatment of the Sex Pistols’ film. This was the Russ Meyer one. Malcolm had Marianne Faithful playing Sid’s mother as heroin addict who lived in a top floor council flat in a tower block. I remember going to Thurleigh Court and giving my critique of it and saying, “This doesn’t ring true, because I can’t believe this. It doesn’t make any sense that someone living in the top floor of a council flat is a heroin addict, and is feeding her son heroin.” They laughed at me, and said, “That’s what’s going on. That’s his life. It’s true.” And so it was, because she even gave him the fatal dose, at the end, that killed him.
So the Russ Meyer film was made?
There were bits made, like the killing of Bambi, I believe, was filmed. I don’t know where they are now or what happened to them. I think Julian Temple quoted or used bits and pieces of it; it was called, Who Killed Bambi.
It was a theme in The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle.
Yeah –I think they pillaged bits and pieces of it, but the original Swindle wasn’t anything like what it became. It was much more of an avant-gardist collage, and Malcolm didn’t want that. He wanted something that was just slick pornography, which would have worked better.
Meaning a Russ Meyer movie, with big boobs and lots of screwing – very explicit – which, again, was not going to happen because of John Lydon being too much a Catholic home boy. He would never have done that, because his mother would have seen it.