Malcolm McLaren – the Mahler connection

Malcolm McLaren – the Mahler connection


norman lebrecht

April 09, 2010

Many of the obituaries of Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols manager who has died aged 64, note that his first job was making costumes – with his partner, Vivienne Westwood – for Ken Russell’s 1974 bio-doc on the composer, Gustav Mahler.

Russell’s film was not in the least bit authentic. It was shot in the English Lake District and in an apartment in Notting Hill, several of its characters adopting East End accent to emphasise their Jewish origin. McLaren, raised by his grandmother Rose Corre in Stoke Newington and familiar from boyhood with leaders of the London rag trade, added a heavy possessiveness to the scenes inside Mahler’s family home.

I always felt there were nuances around that table which Russell cannot have known without an adviser who added them intuitively in peripheral details. That would have been McLaren: perhaps Ken can tell us more.

So much for pop trivia. More significant, in my view, was McLaren’s avowal that he went into the fashion and entertainment industries ‘for the sole purpose of smashing the English culture of popular deception’. If so, it was a noble aim.

Mahler never quite put it that way but, when he denounced Viennese tradition as an excuse for sloppiness, he was launching a frontal attack on a cover-up culture that used popular entertainment to conceal the vicious undersides of reality. Mahler was never the impresario of outrage that McLaren became, but his motivation as a social critic was not dissimilar.

More on both subjects in Why Mahler?, coming on 1 July.