Extract | Flogging a Dead Clothes Horse by Thom Cuell

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We'll Never Have Paris, ed. Andrew Gallix, Repeater Books, May 2019

The following is an extract from We’ll Never Have Paris edited by Andrew Gallix (3:AM Magazine) — a new collection of fiction and essays on anglophone visions of Paris featuring contributions from over 70 writers, including Tom McCarthy, Eley Williams, Max Porter, Joanna Walsh, Stewart Home, Sophie Mackintosh. Published by Repeater Books on 21st May 2019. 

Thom Cuell


Flogging a Dead Clothes Horse

When we came back the next morning with the same news, Malcolm was still in bed. Finally, Malcolm grew tired of it. He picked up the phone and started screaming to Sid about what a useless junkie he was and so on. Meanwhile, Sid had given the phone over to Nancy and while that was going on, suddenly the eighteenth-century door of Malcolm’s hotel room flew off its hinges. Sid crashed into the room wearing his swastika underpants and motorbike boots. He dragged Malcolm out of bed and started hitting him. Then Sid chased a naked Malcolm down the corridor intent on beating the shit out of him. The ancient floorboards went up and down like a ship as the chambermaids started screaming ‘Monsieur, monsieur. Stop! Stop! Stop!’
— John Lydon, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs (1994)

Paris appears in the English imagination as a city of romance and rebellion. The Parisian spirit of insurrection has rarely been seen on the other side of the Channel. In particular, the general strike which took place in Paris in May 1968, with its heady mix of sloganeering and civil disobedience, has served as a touchstone for a certain vintage of English dissenter. One such dissenter was Malcolm McLaren, boutique owner and manager of the Sex Pistols.

If we believe McLaren’s account, the Pistols, and punk in general, were his attempt to recreate a Parisian moment (the 1968 Situationist uprising) in a London context. As the experiment crumbled he sent Sid Vicious to Paris to try to force a synthesis of the two movements. The danger of this approach became apparent one evening, as his hotel room door flew off its hinges to reveal Sid, clad only in underpants and leather jacket.

The enragés of 1968 became the template for stylish urban guerrilla because theirs was the first revolution to be globally televised. The insurrection had begun with the occupation of college girls’ dormitories — a signifier of the adolescent energy which is common to both rock and roll and revolutionary politics. McLaren and some early cronies, including designer Jamie Reid, attempted a similar sit-in at Hornsey Art School in June that year, but their efforts fizzled out. In December, McLaren was apparently involved in a famous action carried out by King Mob, whose members infiltrated Selfridges dressed as Father Christmas, handing out stock from the shelves to passing customers (later obliquely referred to by John Lydon in the lyrics of “Anarchy in the UK”). Three years later, in May 1971, British anarchist group the Angry Brigade channelled the spirit of 1968 by bombing a boutique. McLaren, by contrast, decided to set one up.

McLaren’s next attempt to recreate May ’68 occurred when he forced the bedraggled remnants of the New York Dolls to tour the southern states of America, dressed in red patent leather outfits and performing in front of a Soviet banner. Unsurprisingly, the experiment ended with the band’s implosion. The right setting was yet to be found.

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After he returned from New York in 1974, McLaren completely redesigned his store. The interior was crafted to resemble a bomb-damaged London street, but the true inspiration was revealed by the pictures of Left Bank life displayed in one window. Outside, the London of 1975 was beginning to resemble the Paris of 1968: Roger Perry’s photographs of the graffiti of run-down West London showed the writing on the wall.

With his nose for trouble, McLaren liked this volatile atmosphere: he thought it might set up sparks. Yet this instability also caused real damage, not least to the person who thought he was in control. McLaren liked to play with fire but, in entering the world of John Lydon and his friends, he would be dealing with psychic material far more combustible than the stuff he was used to.
— Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming (1991)

One of McLaren’s famous early T-shirts featured a list of loves and hates, under the slogan “One day you’re going to wake up and know which side of the bed you’ve been lying on”. The shirt didn’t mention any of the Parisian Situationists by name, but did include the first usage of the name “Sex Pistols”. A subsequent design, the “Only Anarchists are Pretty” shirt, explicitly referenced Paris ’68 with slogans such as “Prenez vos désirs pour la réalitie”. With his scattergun approach to iconoclasm, McLaren supplemented this with negative images of Marx and inverted Nazi insignia, creating what Jon Savage called “a chaos of meaning”. Later, “Prenez vos désirs…” would be used in a Crédit Agricole advert for loans.

McLaren and his associate (and later manager of The Clash) Bernie Rhodes made an abortive trip to Paris in December 1975, attempting to sell their retooled revolution back to the French. They were more successful in September the following year, when the Pistols arrived to perform their only French concert, at the Chalet du Lac. This time, the band unveiled McLaren and Westwood’s Anarchy shirts, and the new bondage suit. John Lydon was surrounded by fashion photographers, while McLaren and Westwood were dubbed “coutouriers situationnistes” by Rock News magazine. The response to the Anarchy shirt must have been gratifying to McLaren, who told Paul Gorman in a 2007 interview that the French anarchist movement had “really framed my critique… this particular shirt celebrated that”.

Meanwhile, the band was slowly gaining exposure in Britain. Their first press review contains a manifesto delivered by guitarist Steve Jones, but clearly guided by McLaren: “We’re not into music. We’re into chaos”. Early accounts of Pistols gigs, recorded in Clinton Heylin’s Year Zero, focus on the visuals, which were easier to assimilate and parse than the chaos of the music, showing that McLaren and the band had tapped into an identifiable visual culture with their echoing of Paris ’68.

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The whole point of Sex is that we want to inspire other people with the confidence to live out their fantasies and to change. We really are making a political statement with this shop by attempting to attack the system. I’m also interested in getting people to wear some of our sex gear to the office. ‘Out of the bedroom and into the streets!’ Now that would really be revolutionary.
— Vivienne Westwood, “Buy Sexual”, Forum, 1976

Dialectics is not a sterile process: it causes explosions. Mixing Paris ’68 and New York ’74 in the London of ’76 was an experiment with volatile substances and unpredictable outcomes. In its early days, punk was a sandpit for kids to play in, using slogans and gestures to carnivalise economic turmoil, just like the Situationists had done.

There was a tension between McLaren’s libertarian views, and his desire to control the nascent movement. Reading Leaving the 20th Century, an anthology of Situationist writing edited by Chris Gray, McLaren observed, “the good thing about it was all these slogans you could take up without being party to a movement. Being in a movement often stifles creative thinking”. However, with his “cash from chaos” mantra, McLaren attempted to control both the spectacle of punk and its commodification — adding a layer of vertical integration to Debord’s theories.

In the early days, McLaren had dominated the discourse around punk, and imbued the early followers with his sensibility. After the Bill Grundy interview, where the Pistols caused outrage by swearing on live television, punk became a mass media sensation, too big for McLaren to control; the press diluted the message and turned the movement into a cartoon. The group was also less pliant than McLaren had hoped: when the Svengali presented them with a list of bondage inspired phrases to insert into songs, Lydon and Glen Matlock, in a rare moment of collaboration, recast submission as a submarine mission.

McLaren attempted to regain control of the message with a Situationist broadsheet called Anarchy in the UK. The editorial notes for the second issue state, “no-one is interested in the truth. The fact that what is happening is fluid, spontaneous, changes day by day, living by your nerve ends, chaos”. It was never published.

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As the group collapsed, in a storm of cancelled shows, record company firings, antagonism and addiction, McLaren began work on a film which would retell the Pistols’ story with McLaren as protagonist, a Situationist puppet master manipulating the musicians and the media. McLaren couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be the star, or the hidden mastermind: the film opens with him appearing in a mask, only to declare, “My name is Malcolm McLaren”.

Paris remained a key touchstone in his mythology, and so McLaren sent Sid Vicious to France to film the dénouement. In a scene bizarrely reminiscent of the opening of Welles’ F for Fake, Vicious strides through Paris in swastika T-shirt and leather jacket, the camera cutting to horrified reaction shots from elderly passers-by. McLaren glories in bringing inter-generational conflict back to the streets of Paris, in a confected, staged setting. Many of Sid’s scenes were shot as he walked from Rue de Rivoli to the corner of Avenue Victor Hugo. Reaction shots from passers-by were filmed elsewhere, near Chatelet. The one representative of youth shown in this sequence follows Sid out of a boulangerie, brandishing a felt tip and begging for an autograph, which he crudely graffitis across her chest; a nihilistic negation of the Situationists’ utopian slogans. Playing in the background, a French singer performs the band’s signature song, accompanied by an accordion: “Moi je suis l’Antéchrist, moi je suis l’anarchiste” — a far better rhyme in French.

Sid refused to sing “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”, but agreed to do “My Way”. Three attempts were made to record the song, with Sid, Steve Jones and a series of French session musos. The Pistols were reportedly too drunk to play, and the French so desperate to leave that the guitarist finished the song with only five strings. Jones added overdubs later, and Sid’s vocals were stitched together from three different takes. Malcolm was absent, as the project descended into ersatz farce.

The iconic filmed version of “My Way” features Sid in white tuxedo jacket, black jeans and garter belt, performing the song in the Théâtre de l’Empire before an upper-class audience — a cliché of Parisian self-satisfaction, waiting to be flung into the trash of history. As Sid sneers his way through the song, the audience applauds and throws roses, neutering Sid’s posturing and sloganeering. Only gunshots provoke real panic, as the punk goes one step beyond what the Situationists offered, in McLaren’s fantasy telling at least. The act even unconsciously reaches further back into Parisian history, echoing the actions of proto-Surrealist Jacques Vaché, who interrupted the premiere of Apollinaire’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias — dressed as an English pilot and brandishing a gun — threatening to shoot at random. Finally, Sid walks away, abdicating his position as leader of a new youth movement.

As the celluloid avatar of Vicious is unloading on the Parisian bourgeoisie, the real Sid is chasing McLaren through a hotel room corridor, aiming motorcycle boots at his manager’s bare arse. Reviewing the film, Greil Marcus says, “McLaren’s attempt to show up the Sex Pistols as a con is blown up by the inclusion of several real Sex Pistols recordings” — just as his fantasies of a Situationist prank were blown up by the Pistols themselves.

By the time of the film’s release, Rotten had left the band, and Sid was deep into the downward spiral which would leave him dead at twenty-one. With the emergence of copycat groups, punk collapsed into parody, and was supplanted by New Wave and then the Thatcherite excess of Eighties pop, whose protagonists fantasised about Monaco, not the Left Bank. McLaren, however, retained his fascination with the city. After the Pistols split, he remained in Paris, licking his wounds and preparing his comeback with the group Bow Wow Wow. In 1994, he released the album Paris, a poorly received love letter to the city. His interests here are clearly more traditional: song titles include “Walking With Satie” and “Père Lachaise”. A few weeks before his death in 2010, he completed a film entitled Paris: Capital of the XXIst Century, echoing his early, uncompleted film project tracing the history of Oxford Street.

McLaren never really succeeded in creating anarchy on the streets of London. Like the Situationists, his movement left behind fertile images and slogans for subsequent generations to appropriate, but the establishment carried on regardless. His attempts to recreate the events of Paris ’68 had descended into farce, self-parody and the early death of a key player.

The Paris that McLaren dreamed of is disappearing fast: although it is still possible to trace the path that Vicious walked, many buildings have been demolished (including the Théâtre de l’Empire following a fire) and areas gentrified. Bullet scars from street fighting in 1944 have been illegally repaired. After the horrors of the Bataclan, the idea of shots being fired at a rock concert has lost the camp charm of Sid’s performance. Post-Brexit, the idea of combining French revolutionary dreams with British youth culture seems further away than ever.

London still awaits its Paris moment.


We'll Never Have Paris, ed. Andrew Gallix, Repeater Books, May 2019For more information about We’ll Never Have Paris visit Repeater Books. To pre-order the book, go here. the book go here

Thom Cuell is the Editorial Director of independent publishing company Dodo Ink, and Senior Editor of the journal Minor Literature[s]. His writing has appeared in 3:AM Magazine and Review 31. He edited Dostoyevsky Wannabe’s Cities series on Manchester (2018). @TheWorkshyFop

 

 

 


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