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.
One less common way to see Malcolm is that, rather than leading a seductive insurrection he effectively gave capital what it needed at the time: a capacity to include other emotions within the palate of excitement that characterized the star-audience exchange in rock. In that sense, even if it didn’t at first feel like it, didn’t punk ultimately serve to emphasize the inescapability of commodity culture?
Yes, I definitely think so. You know that book, The Conquest of Cool (1998) by Thomas Frank? And there’s another very similar one: The Rebel Sell (2006) by Joseph Heath. They say it very elegantly, really, that the new phase of capitalism is to exploit emotional resources: enactments of fanhood or consumerism in itself; the Self configured as a market place. The counterculture has been rumbled as a promotional bandwagon, and radical subjectivity is the new gold mine.
It almost feels that because of ‘deep mediation’ or things like that we’re in an age of flattened affect, and therefore, seeing the Beatlemaniacs who whoever. I always think capitalism needs something outside of itself to authenticate itself.
It almost feels that because of ‘deep mediation’ or things like that we’re in an age of flattened affect, and therefore, seeing the Beatlemaniacs who whoever. I always think capitalism needs something outside of itself to authenticate itself.
But the trajectory, the wall moves. Now we’re in a place where that 1960s fandom has become commodified as, “Imagine yourself back here.”
A nostalgic set piece.
Yeah. I was taking to a guy who runs a museum in Denmark called Ragnarock. As part of their advertising it was, “Imagine yourself as a Beatles fan in the 1960s.” So those kinds of things are going on. The thing I struggle with is, we might see Malcolm as the manager of the Sex Pistols, but I think history might see him as the godfather of the marriage between commerce and rebellion, moving it into a closer place.
I think that’s very likely. I agree with that.
So if punk was a kind of ending – something that needed halting before expectations developed, clichés formed, yobs became rock stars, and participants aged – was its biggest problem that nobody considered what would come after?
I don’t think it was a problem. I think it was just the excitement of the moment. Nobody thought, or thought to think what would come next. Nobody cared, really, did they? It was just about seeing what could materialize. And again, it depends where you were on the spectrum, and what you were doing, because I’m sure there were plenty of punk fans out there who felt disillusioned – living in small towns or whatever – with no outlet, or nothing to come after all that promise.
So there was no afterwards for them anyway.
I’ve seen one or two interviews with people like that.
Jordan Mooney recently said, “I think that punk is an attitude and if punk teaches us anything, it’s not to point the finger at anybody, and it’s to include people, and it’s to include the sexes as equals, and it’s to make people feel that those who are feeling like they’re outsiders feel comfortable.” I’m quite surprised, and – ironically – feel a bit uncomfortable that she would frame an anti-humanist movement as a humanist one. Do you agree with her notion that punk was really about inclusivity? Was it basically an inclusivist movement?
Well, what struck me when you were talking was, “How PC is that?” It seems to me that she is reinventing the past to suit her own agenda now. In the same way that Jamie, I think, rather tragically, has become a kind of druid. Now everything is couched in this magical, mystical kind of stuff, and you think, “Oh come off it.”
That’s not very punk, becoming a druid!
Yeah – exactly.
The late 1980s saw you think up a number of ideas summarizing what you had seen, which included ‘consensus terrorism’ and ‘planet pop.’ To what extent would you say those ideas are still relevant?
That was Frank Owen, his idea. Do you know him? I met him at the Royal College of Art. He was doing his PhD and then went to America. He’s written some really interesting stuff about club culture in America, K culture, for example. It was his idea. He interviewed us, and he actually contributed to some of that stuff as well. So it was a joint thing.
‘Consensus terrorism,’ very much I think, is still viable, isn’t it? One thing we didn’t mention there was the way that the internet stalks us.
That’s interesting. Go on.
I’m partly saying it in that way because there’s an idea I’ve been developing, and I’ve just recently come across a book: Stalker, Hacker, Voyeur, Spy (2017) by Helen Gediman. I don’t think the book is without its problems, but the potential premise is really good. It looks at stalking and the development of erotomania, and its spread through culture, and the way that it’s been co-opted by engines of communication like the media. Every time you go on to Amazon, they’re anticipating and ambushing and pursuing you and telling you that they know what you’re thinking. They know where you’ve been before. I think that’s quite potent. Gediman is a psychoanalyst, and she’s is a little bit wooden in the way she writes. But the links she makes are really interesting. She talks about Edward Snowden, as well, as part of that. ‘Consensus terrorism’ does fit into that, I think, because that fits into a consensus: we’ve allowed that to happen.
The internet as big brother is spooky, it’s scary. I also think there’s a ‘politics of the partial picture,’ that pop is used in certain ways to give emotion to certain ideas or positions that are useful to the establishment. Yeah, wow: the internet stalks us! I’m intrigued by that.
It’s an intriguing idea.
I was reading quite a lot recently, thinking about my frustration with the idea of participatory culture, suggesting we’re all in a gleeful world, just sharing things. In a sense, Henry Jenkins has been a salesman in some of what he’s done.
Thinking about it, for me, there are those bad sides to the internet, but at the same time the net is just a transparent format for American business. The big corporations are American and that’s the way they create a transparency of economic imperialism: “We own the theme park” – even if we’re all playing in it in different ways. Does it disappoint you that in the neoliberal era – a time when there seems no ‘outside’ from which to rebel – that McLaren’s ideas have been the foundation for art and culture that takes commerce as a given: a means, its ends, its focus? I’m thinking here, for instance, of Damien Hirst and his ilk.
Yeah, well, it’s not a problem. It’s personally disappointing to me. I take it as something that happened, but definitely, they did take his agenda on and use it as a marketing strategy, in a much more coherent way than he did. They became much richer and more famous than him. Also, there is a distinction to be made between punk, pre-punk and post-punk Malcolm. Post-punk he became a bit like a grandee, prone to being wheeled out to pronounce in a weirdly camp way about things that were retrospectively reconstructed, things that I didn’t recognize from the time. At the time I found it much more chaotic and exciting, what was going on, in comparison to his anodyne version of it, post-. I also thought his post-punk work was awful. The music was drab, and all that art. Who cares?
That’s worth talking about for a minute. I know that when he went to New York to ‘discover’ Afrika Bambaataa, he was wearing a pirate’s suit.
I heard on another interview, he was comparing himself to Picasso, using African masks. I think there was something a little bit racially suspect about what Malcolm was doing in those times, perhaps.
Well, there was. He went to Soweto and hung out there.
He basically ripped off hip-hop, didn’t he? But he did in such a crass way.
In a weird way, what he was doing there was another kind of logical conclusion of music history: that Elvis borrows from black culture and there’s Malcolm, rolling it out so much further.
Yeah, but at least Elvis could sing, and was good looking as well. None of that applied to Malcolm.
And Elvis blended different influences. Do you know anything about Jenkins’ work on participatory culture?
I know a bit about it. I’ve obviously followed it and what he writes about the early fanzines and about fanfic.
Sometimes he uses punk fanzines as an example of pre-Internet participatory culture.
Well, fanzines go back to the 1930s.
Exactly – science fiction fanzines.
Should remixing culture and sharing it on social media – if it is done in a sloganeering or ‘disrespectful’ way – be construed as a punk activity? I’m a little bit suspicious of some of the claims.
Yes, so am I. Jenkins is a bit “Californian,” isn’t he? The approach is a bit too optimistic. For me, it’s too jolly and scout masterly. The culture around that kind of work reminds me of a poster Jamie Reid did just post-Pistols for The Dead Kennedys: a giant swastika made of cannabis leaves hovering over a picture of Woodstock with the legend, “California uber alles.” Though I respect what he’s doing. It has a very different emphasis to what I did… but it’s a little bit over-optimistic, perhaps, with a cautious eye to grant-funding protocol.
Sometimes I feel it’s like a kind of utopian way to sell the net.
I suppose what it does fetishizes the form or the process above the content: everything’s wonderful because –
Yes, it does, which brings us on to Harry Potter fans. One thing about the stuff in Starlust: to me, a lot of it was crass, but a lot of it was deeply interesting, I thought. Good literature, good writing. Whereas a lot of Harry Potter fan stuff is just not good writing. Like the actual books, which I think are rubbish. I just can’t follow that stuff. I can’t get excited by it, which is a problem because my students love it. But to me all that fantasy fiction genre or Game of Thronesor even Starwars is not just tedious, it’s also sinister, evoking what Umberto Eco called ‘Ur-fascism.’
We’re of a different age and market place. Some of it seems to lack creativity, perhaps, but I don’t know: I’ve not paid enough attention. If I told my students I’d never seen a Harry Potter film, they’d probably lynch me.
I haven’t either.
You saw the industry as tempting fans to be creatively perverse, and yet simultaneously attempting to limit or rebuff what it prompted. Would I be right in thinking that is the main difference between your views and the fan studies vogue for ‘transformative works’ perspectives?
I wouldn’t put it quite as boldly as that, but to some extent, I think you’re probably right. There is a difference there, but it’s something I’d have to think about, and try and think of examples, rather than just giving you an answer.
That’s fine. In effect what the Pistols became was a struggle over creative labour, with Malcolm, Johnny Rotten, and perhaps Vivienne and even yourself claiming some credit for their legendary success – isn’t capitalist culture more a case of chaos from cash than cash from chaos?
Yeah, but it’s about the symbiosis, the way they both link. You get cash from chaos and chaos from cash. I see where you’re coming from: the chaos can be quite disturbing and disruptive, and anti-social. With punk there were victims. Sid was one of them.
People who were left by the wayside and just abandoned. I remember there was a girl working in SEX called Debbie who became a prostitute in Shepherd’s Market. The attitude was, “It’s her choice.” But it wasn’t. She wasn’t happy doing that. It wasn’t what she wanted. There were other people like that who did not prosper.
In a sense they were victims of the romance of the ideas?
Yeah – victims of the momentum that Vivienne and Malcolm were pushing, that process they were pushing forward.
Part of the problem is that creative destruction is now an aspect of capitalism. Isn’t neoliberalism basically nihilism in service of capital, with postmodernism its cultural wing? Isn’t it as if all the people Malcolm hated – not least Tony Blair – took things further than him, because the ideas allowed them to take cash from chaos to a greater extent than he did?
Yeah – but I was just thinking, you’d probably need a whole book to answer that question. It’s very complex. Even the idea of creative destruction – Malcolm used to proclaim, “you have to destroy in order to create,” is an idea which in its most interesting form comes from Schumpeter, who forecast that capitalism will destroy itself by being too successful, by over-performing, rather than through immiseration and economic failure. I touched on that in relation to punk in Fashion and Perversity.
The question I was getting at is: once that cat’s out of the bad, is it possible to tell good chaos from bad chaos?
As Trump shows you, no. Again: is Donald Trump a Sex Pistol?
Do you think that Trump is a Sex Pistol?
There are some elements, yeah. I think Malcolm would be amazed by Trump, but also deeply tickled. He’d probably be on his staff.
He’s probably be looking for a job as an advisor, wouldn’t he? Who, to you, today, lives up to the promise and possibilities of punk? Is it now an impossible ideal? That’s idealizing it, but are there any people you think, “Yeah – they’re in the punk mould”? We talked about Trump there, but anybody else?
I do think it does continue in terms of its resonance in popular culture, and film and music, but it’s kind of dispersed, isn’t it? The Spice Girls were punks, because they had a radical agenda and it was playground feminism. They were put together in a way that Malcolm would have just deeply loved: if he could have handled those boys the way Simon Fuller handled those girls, it would have been his dream come true. Then again, the template was set by the Pistols, and that was followed, by the Spice Girls, and to some extent Blair. You’re right, but I have no way of giving you a satisfactory answer on that. One thing I think now is that I almost can’t be bothered when I teach about punk, because I feel we live in a post-punk world. A lot of these kids – they’re mostly Americans that I teach. They grew up without any notion of these people, because they are so old now, so you need to reframe the discussion in ways that they do understand: in terms of Trump, in terms of –
What about somebody like Julian Assange?
Are you asking if he’s a punk?
I suppose the agenda is punk, isn’t it? The recklessness.
In some senses he’s creating a situation that is unprecedented.
Yeah, and also the irresponsibility of doing that – not that I think it’s a bad thing, but it’s definitely irresponsible in a normal sense – consciously so.
A sort of liberating irresponsibility?
What advice would you give to young scholars and thinkers who have grown up in an era, it feels, that does not admit the possibilities of artistic and political liberation that characterized the 1960s?
I don’t know how to answer that, because the 1960s have never gone away, have they? They just keep coming back. They keep being recycled: all those attitudes.
The hope of the sixties seems to have gone. Would that be fair?
I’m not so sure: hope? I’m just thinking of the students I teach now and how naïve they are, really. That’s about hope as well, isn’t it? They do believe in social media. They do believe in this stuff. They even don’t understand, until I tell them, that talent shows are fixed. When you tell them about audience warm-ups, and cue cards and rehearsals, etc, and ask them to think it through, then they understand. I sometimes think I am destroying their lives because I’m making them cynical.
You’re taking away their innocence?
Because in the sixties, we were quite cynical. We understood those things quite well. You teach students, too, so you must come across the same complexities and problems.
I guess one of the things they learn is that politics seems to be a screwed up place. There are received narratives. They can have a certain naïvety, but I think everybody at that age probably does.
Especially if they’re Americans; it’s a cliché, but as well as knowing little history, many are bereft of irony. Which is surprising, because if you compare British and American irony in general – for example, in fiction writing – Americans are way ahead, much richer and more daring. Britain is a backwater populated by the likes of Martin Amis and Will Self. Whereas the Americans have Norman Mailer, and Hunter S. Thompson, and the amazing William Gass, and so on. In a different league altogether. As is their TV satire.
I guess then it’s: what are they placing their hope in? I was at the ICA yesterday, looking at the book shelves, and there’s books on post-anarchism. A lot of the titles seem to be pessimistic. Perhaps we live in negative times. You have an interest in the creative sociological environment that gives rise to celebrities (Pistols, Westwood, Kate Moss). In popular music studies, that has been theorized – quite naïvely in some ways – under the idea of the ‘scene.’
Yes. What have you found from studying the history of cultural intermediaries in situ, and how would you advise researchers to start analyzing such groupings?
I don’t know, really. One of the reasons I liked the Chicago School was that the guy who founded it decided that his students should tackle subjects that he decided to tell them to do. I think if I ran a department now, that’s what I would do. I wouldn’t just let them drift off and do something they thought they were interested in. I’d interrogate them, ask them where they’re coming from, see what their social and cultural background is, and insert them into that, to some extent. Or at least adapt and marry a project to their backgrounds and also their fantasies.
That’s how I guide students. Especially at masters’ level. When I was running my MA Media at Solent University, I would ask them what they wanted to study and then sometimes point them in a different direction. Research is a long and difficult process and it’s important to choose a topic you are really into – not something you think will please your tutor – or your mother; and I always emphasized the complexities of doing research – first hand research.
Encouraging them to develop a critical awareness as participants, perhaps?
Partly, as participants, but also the other thing I’d prioritize is to do what he said to do: go and get the seats of your pants dirty. Don’t do what he dismissed as “library research.” Go out and talk to people. Go out and find people in the streets and in their homes, and so forth.
I think a lot of people in fan studies only go as far as the internet.
That’s the limit point.
You’ve got to further than that and find people in their habitats, and get messy. That can be dangerous, because you’re intervening in other people’s lives. Sometimes it’s difficult for you as well.
And it creates complex cross-currents of debt and ethical issues.
Exactly, and it makes it much more difficult to write up, as well, because you’ve involved in all the ambiguities and associations that are required, even to interview somebody. If they’re not used to being interviewed, it’s a challenge for them as well as you.
Sometimes when people are asked to speak about things that they do automatically it’s hard for them to articulate.
Exactly. The most difficult people to interview, I find, are the people who like to think of themselves as educated: middle class people, people with university degrees. Because they often think that they who know where you’re coming from, and they’re always one jump ahead. So if I ask them, “Well, where is your record collection?” They’ll think, “Why does he want to know that? I know why. It’s because of this or that….” And then they censor or massage or rationalize or justify the response. But I just want to know whether you keep it under your bed, or in your cupboard, or what’s the size of it, how is it organized, do you spread it out to savour it, do you daydream as you are arranging it, if so, what are the daydreams… ?
That makes a lot of sense. Entering into that complexity is where the interesting things lie. From my own experience, I’ve also found that sometimes an interview can be a bit of a trade-off, insofar that often an interviewee has an agenda before you get there.
That’s exactly what I mean. In fact, another problem is the “script” that interviewees will often have prepared for you, anticipating what you want to discover. It’s useless trying to bypass that script, or to interrupt it. You need to let an interviewee unburden themselves of the script – which usually runs 10-20 minutes. When it’s over, that’s when you start the interview. So a Manilow fan say, wanting to make sense of the encounter, will have a script about how fantastic an artist Barry is and how sexy, etc. When all that has been said you start to ask your questions.
It’s a case of accepting that and embracing it, and also using that to find out what you want.
Because when you talk to people who are ‘naïve’ about that, they have sometimes never put into words what they’re about to tell you. That’s something Parker told us: just be aware of that, and just let them speak, but understand that it can be very difficult for them. And just little things like: don’t jump in when there’s a silence, because it doesn’t mean they’ve got nothing to say. They might be thinking, “Do I want to tell this strange looking guy this stuff.”
I can see that Dead Fashion Girl might be a different canvas for you to explore some of the issues we’ve been discussing here. Can you say any more about its genesis, themes and concerns?
Well, the story is about Jean Townsend who, in 1954, was murdered. She was a young fashion designer who worked for Berman’s theatrical costumier near Leicester Square. It’s never been solved. She was strangled and stripped of her underclothing, but not sexually molested. That happened on wasteland in South Ruislip. I was brought up in that area. I was eight when it happened. I remember being told in the playground that this girl had been murdered and I was always curious about it. Then, as an adult, I used some money that I’d got when I was at Southampton for research to try and look into it, but didn’t get anywhere. That was just before the Internet happened. After the Internet I was able to locate witnesses and records that gave me a lot more insight and leads. I just wondered whether I could use my research prowess to outwit Scotland Yard and find out who’d done it. I was helped by ex-coppers I interviewed and one conclusion is that the likely culprit was killed in custody and it was all hushed up.
During the process of researching this, I tried to make a reflexive process of it, and get immersed in Jean Townsend’s cultural milieu and map that against what I could remember as a child. So I tried to build up a picture of Jean Townsend’s Soho lifestyle, the way she was embedded in gay culture in London. That was quite interesting as well, because I didn’t know anything about that. I also used this investigation as a thread to reassess the 1950s through the eyes of the people I was talking to – a way to avoid the usual clichés and anecdotes about the ’50s – the Colony Club, immigration, the Coronation, Suez, blah blah. I discovered some fascinating and “unknown” people and biographies. It was a weird thing to do because it was almost like ambulance chasing. They were very old, those people, when I interviewed them. A lot of them have died since.
There’s something slightly ghostly about it all.
There’s something macabre about it, yeah.
An absence in the middle of it –
Which kind of connects with your concerns in celebrity biography.
Yeah, I suppose so. It’s a different kind of project because it’s trying to solve a crime, but the methodology is similar, I guess. I thought it would be a good idea to be, not self-indulgent, but self-reflexive in a sense, because I was candid about the problems and uncertainties that arose. So I put in the book the different theories about what happened and the various blind alleys that I went up.
Was the case notorious in public before you investigated?
Yeah, you can still find accounts of it on the internet as an unsolved murder.
It reminds me of the Jack The Ripper story, insofar that the Jack The Ripper story is an alibi for a lot of commodities: a continuous place of commodification. Once they found the DNA that supposedly proved who it was, I was thinking, “That’s not going to end the story. It’s going to be the starting point to a new story.” People will find, that was only the accomplice, or whatever.
Yeah, I don’t know what the outcome to this will be, because I’ve never done anything like this before. So we’ll have to wait and see what the response is.
That’s it – thanks very much for the interview.