detournement part 2: cash from chaos

From the French situationists such as Guy Debord and the May 1968 revolution in Paris it was one three chord riff to the punk rock era….

Art Chantry (

Malcolm Mclaren was a hustler. Despite all his pretensions, he was at at heart a bone-hard capitalist (read: “greedhead’). when he came back from his sojourn in Paris studying the erstwhile situationists, he immediately walked away from his schooling and opened a haberdashery. Malcolm was also a bit of a sport, a dandy. He liked snappy clothes and fancied himself clever in their preparations.

He opened his shoppe and put his fashion designer wife (the soon-to-be-legend vivienne westwood) in charge of the new clothing designs. They started by selling vintage and repro/retro teddy-boy gear. The Teddy Boys were an early British rockabilly subculture cult that prided itself on natty threads and a cultish love of stupidity. Malcolm fancied them as a sort of ‘British situationist ‘no-culture’ ideal. Beside, they looked cool. Malcolm always seemed to confuse rebel fashion with real rebellion.

AC:it's like were watching one design culture slowly die off and replaced with another entirely approach to this stuff. i have had to learn to work with one foot in 'old school' and one foot in the 'brave new world'. ouch.'s like the 'narrative' of the last election cycle. we want to believe it so bad and it becomes "true". but the world just keeps plodding along no matter what you want to think is true. can't really stop it.

Soon, he tired of that and moved into s&m gear (so naughty!), eventually calling his storefront at the dismal end of hipster King’s Row, simply “sex”. It attracted the predictable array of underground sex addicts and fetishists. Soon a new sort of disaffected down and out youth began to hang out there, mostly because they liked the 45′s Malcolm played on his jukebox. He befriended the kids and began to try to figure out ways to take financial advantage of them. Many of them worked his shop for free just to get a new pair of shoes or whatever.

Soon, he had a small retinue of thieves and street urchins that were a regular part of his circle of entertainment. One kid, Steve Jones, managed to steal a rock band’s equipment truck and began to fancy himself a musician, since he now owned a guitar. That inspired Malcolm to have visions of world domination of the pop charts (money, money, money!) Soon a small group of losers were hashing out a few top forty cover tunes in his back room with the stolen gear.

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Steve Jones was a lousy singer, so they all decided they needed a new front man. One street acquaintance was suggested and that was how John Lydon (aka, ‘rotten’) came into the picture. Now, John was a lousy singer, too. But what he lacked in talent, he more than made up in ferocious nasty personal style. The guy was a downright charismatic spit-flying shithammer. Malcolm likes that sort of thing. You can make money by creating a spectacle. Kids like spectacles. Besides, it made for a classic ‘situation’, ya know?

John Lydon was an interesting choice. As a young teenager, he suffered a life-threatening bout with meningitis. When he emerged form a coma, he found that his entire memory was wiped clean. This mother had to teach him how to do everything all over again – from scratch; eat, talk, tie his shoes, go the bathroom. The result was a near feral open eyed horrified critic of everything he encountered absolutely new. In a way, the guy was raised by wolves. As if “chauncey gardner” suddenly woke up and was furious about what he found. In other words, a situationist hero. All ready to go. And boy, did he GO!

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All the elements were in place to take over the teen world – just a little dance band out to destroy the world. Malcolm had visions of creating social chaos with his little gang of frankensteins and getting a hit record and selling lots and lots of clothes. No joke. He really thought that would be the result. For a such a brilliant guy, he sure was dumb, eh?

Now, he needed some ‘branding’ (which is a term that didn’t emerge until decades later). Like some posters to advertise the concerts they were desperately trying to arrange. At first, malcolm accessed the urchin kids hanging around his shop to do the work. Why waste good money on hiring a pro? Why not just do it yourself?

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like Helen Worthington-Smith, (whom you may remember as the dwarf character in ‘the rock n roll swindle film). Her initial efforts at creating posters for the band were so abysmally incompetent that it virtually became a new style on the streets of London. She used xerox and letters cut out of newspaper pasted it all together while hanging a round the shop. The images were often s&m materials just sitting around in order catalogs. That is how she created the actual logo for the Sex Pistols.

Looking at her efforts sparked a recollection. Malcolm was taken by how ‘situationist’ those graphics looked. So, he got in touch with his old cohort Jamie Reid, who was also back in London. Figgered, why not? It all looks like crap anyway, eh? Maybe Jamie can add that controversial ignition point. Create a spectacle. make it SELL!

AC:it sort of reinforces my =position that design is LANGUAGE - POP language. everybody knows it, but nobody knows they know it. so, when this forceful and insidious piece of graphic language is shoved into the face of the right audience, everybody knows exactly what is being said automatically. and they respond accordingly. ad guys do the same thing when they trick us into buying useless product or idiot politicians. it's just that here the language is in it's natural environment - the common folk. the best graphic design comes from culture, not 'great designers'.

Jamie Reid came back from his trip to Paris as a total anarchist situationsit convert (still unrepentant to this day). Rule one of situationism is (no joke) ‘there is not such thing as situationism.” there is no organized thought, no clan, no community. All those things are ideas of the corrupt dead culture that has be destroyed. Situationism sought ground zero.

On his return Reid began working at a print shop and producing in his spare time an underground newsletter (virtually and early ‘zine) called suburban press. In it, he filled the pages with manifestos and diatribes and crummy anti-graphics and chaotic imagery. He began to pass these images off as ‘artwork’.

One ‘painting’ he did at the time was a masterpiece called “the nice drawing”. In a cheap frame Reid pastes in a child’s drawing of house above a clip-out photo of family eating a meal around the dinner table. Then, he pasted in everywhere little presstype words/descriptions of what he sees – “nice people’, ‘nice room’, ‘nice yard’, nice tulip’, nice young man’,'nice photo’, etc. ad nauseum. It so completely slams modern life in so simple and snotty a way – any anybody could do it!

when Malcolm hired his buddy Jamie Reid to do the ‘advertising’ (such as it was) for his little band project (with the crazy assholes in the band), Jamie went for the throat. Reid saw an opportunity to spread the word about his passion. He simply took much of his old design and art and propaganda work from his situationsist screeds and street speech broadsheets, then turned them into “ads.”

So many images that Reid did as situationist bumper stickers, graffiti, flyers, et al suddenly were selling rock and roll to the kids. He simply changed-out “culture’ for ‘sex pistols. Yet, the message stayed intact. ‘just buy this music and help destroy the world!’ What could appeal more than that to frustrated teenage Brits? It was like chopping down trees, saplings. An axe swinging straight at the source. Think of the children!!

This image I post, the first image, is possibly Jamie Reid’s most iconographic piece. This 45 sleeve is cheaply produced and even more cheaply created. I once had the opportunity to hold the original paste-up for this piece in my hands. iIt was in a cheap broken picture frame (no glass). It had been sitting in the open somewhere for a very long time and it was gritty with dirt. Much of the newsprint used for the type was extremely yellowed. The edges of the paper in the paste-up had begun to peel up and the dirt and grime was caught under the edges it was right mess. It was perfect!

When this record hit the streets, the image managed to offend as many people as the music itself did. It was a foul frontal assault on the established culture order of English society. It was banned outright, yet it was the number one selling record in the country (there was simple blank spot at the top of the published record charts) and it came out on the Silver Jubilee of queen Elizabeth’s reign!

The result of this song and this image was a virtual declaration of war on all things “punk” and in general and the Sex Pistols in particular. A perfect trifecta! A ‘situation’ created through ‘the spectacle’ and then the collapse of social order! Bingo! It was far more than Malcolm had bartered for (he just wanted money). I think, however, that Jamie Reid was thrilled .

The finest aspect of Jamie’s work was that it essentially removed the craftsmanship from design. The unwritten goal of his thinking was to put himself out of business. His style was crude ‘anti-design’, where you used garbage as resource and made the project all by yourself. There was no more need to hire a designer or an artist (or a musician or even instruments). just DO IT YOURSELF (DIY). When culture is erased, we all become creative by definition. Any level of competence was perfectly fine. It was an extremely radical design perspective in a world dominated by corporate control.

At this point in time, Britain was in economic collapse. There were riots in the streets. There was even a huge garbage strike and the entire city of London reeked of the piles of trash. There were even rat problems of historic proportions. living London really sucked. And you were broke as well. It was perfect breeding ground for radical change (sound familiar?)

There were no jobs, no opportunities. this record’s chanting mantra chorus of “no future, no future, no future for you” struck home and deep.If you were ‘good’ enough to pass the college exams, you got stuck in ‘art school’. Otherwise there was the dole. Pathetic. So, you partied and dreamed of a better world. That’s some pretty fertile territory.

When these kids began to see the message that Jamie Reid’s design was screaming at them, they understood and they acted. What followed was a radical redirection of modern graphic design. It was actually a sort of ‘cultural revolution.’

next -
part three: new world order (DIY and anti-design)

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