Cash from Chaos

Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren

Cash from Chaos

What have music impresarios Sergey Diaghilev, Malcolm McLaren and Simon Cowell got in common, and what sets them apart, asks Peter Rosser.

In April, a week after the death of former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, the Independent ran a piece on music producer Simon Cowell that began: ‘The impresario, who has made millions out of young talent, was not always so comfortable with child stars.’ The producer of The X Factor and Britain’s Got Talent, television shows that have broken records in the generation of advertising revenue through the production and promotion of stars as young as ten, had said back in 2004 that fame can do ‘serious damage’ to young children. The story will not have a major impact on the continuing dominance of Cowell in the world of light entertainment; and of course no one will be surprised that an entrepreneur should refuse to let anything get in the way of the next buck. But the story does prompt a demand for comparison. What is the relationship of Cowell’s work with that of the other historical figures that traded, however tenuously, under the title impresario?

It seems a pertinent question, especially after the recent publication in English of Sjeng Scheijen’s biography of the most famous impresario of the modern era: Sergey Pavlovich Diaghilev. Would McLaren have considered this story of the exploitation of the young a worry? Would Diaghilev have cast a disapproving eye? Not likely. McLaren had his own trouble – or, more accurately, succés de scandale – and faced accusations of exploitation over his use of Bow Wow Wow’s thirteen-year-old singer Annabella Lwin in the early 1980s. And Diaghilev’s use of potent, ambiguous and sexually charged imagery is legend. The Ballets Russes production during the ground-breaking 1909/10 season in Paris of Schéhérazade was described by Diaghilev’s biographer Charles Spencer as the ‘tale of a harem of beautiful women using the absence of their lord and master to indulge in an orgy of group sex with a band of muscular Negroes, ending in a bloodbath of vengeance’. Anything less would have been a waste of time for the impatient ‘cultural entrepreneur’ from provincial Russia as he aimed to conquer the arts world of Western Europe; and even that project would come to be seen as innocent during the years he developed The Great Sacrifice (working title for The Rite of Spring) with his young discovery Igor Stravinsky.

The job spec for the impresario is easily summarised: dogged determinism, imagination and an eye for publicity. This far at least, Cowell, McClaren and Diaghilev can remain in the same bracket. On publicity (and indeed self-publicity) for example, the three are equals. Cowell has become the face of his own brand of commercial TV pop in a more meaningful way than the stars themselves. McLaren, whose greatest media coup was a Sex Pistols tour down the Thames in 1977 that drew London river police and journalists in equal measure, never allowed anyone to think that the artists could even approach the level of his own importance in the delivery of his ‘art-works’. On the same subject, Sjeng Scheijen’s Diaghilev recounts the delicious Marcel Proust quote where the arrival in Paris of the Ballets Russes for its first season proper becomes ‘quite as intense as the Dreyfus Affair.’ So far so good, but surely Cowell does not belong with McClaren and Diaghilev. This feels self-evident, incontestable and – not least because of the quality of the end product in each case – inadmissible. What makes Diaghilev or McLaren a truer impression of what we expect of the impresario?

The major difference is in the epoch. Diaghilev and McLaren were both players in times of social and political upheaval. The former occupied the threshold territory between Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Empire and Age of Extremes, the latter between the ages of deference and individualism that characterised the 1970s as the prelude to late-capitalist monetarism. In both cases we witness the expression – in aesthetic and, more importantly, sexual terms – of social revolution. McLaren’s projects, Let it Rock (later renamed Sex), the King’s Road shop he ran with his partner Vivienne Westwood; his manufactured outfit the Sex Pistols; and his own pop music productions were all prefixed with anti – anti-shop, anti-band, anti-pop. There needs to be, with the impresario, a deracination of traditional values, a disturbing mirror image conjured to disturb the somnambulist. Or, at least, this is how it has to seem. Interestingly, Scheijen’s Diaghilev provides enough evidence to suggest that the original and best impresario was only as revolutionary as his desire to achieve true bourgeois acceptance demanded. Similarly McLaren always maintained that he was playing a flirtatious game with the media and the establishment it protected: ‘if they wanted us to play the clown, we played the clown’ he said. Diaghilev, the victim of many attacks in the press in his early days in Russia (‘an orgy of debauchery and madness’ said the venerable critic Stasov of an exhibition of watercolours) also accepted the game: ‘if we’re going to drink the cup of disgrace, then let’s drain it.’ Diaghilev and McLaren were both surprisingly traditionalist in outlook. Their avant-gardism in the fields of bourgeois art and popular music respectively were only made possible through a direct engagement, and indeed perverse celebration, of the establishment. McLaren would have had limited impact without the backdrop of Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee celebrations of 1977 and Diaghilev, who for many years was supported financially by none other than Tsar Nicholas II, was determined to reformulate tradition, especially Russian folkism, not destroy it. The image of Stravinsky and Diaghilev enjoying many an evening in London with the latest Gilbert and Sullivan operetta is a revealing one.

So much of what the popular imagination expects from the impresario is found in the workings of these two men, Diaghilev and McLaren. ‘It was more attractive to mismanage than manage’ said McLaren in 2005, ‘I was always concerned with creating the chaos!’ Diaghilev was the same and spent his life avoiding creditors. He was a man who never relaxed, never found a comfortable place to be. And this is important: the impresario must be seen, in some way, to suffer for his art. There’s also an important type of amateurism that goes with the impresario. We are familiar with McLaren’s entreaty to ‘buy a guitar from Woolworth’s, and start a band.’ In the early days, when Diaghilev was starting up his production companies, his lovers, his step-brothers, even his nanny, Dunya, took work in the office. And both men took on the uniform of the impresario, a mix of the dandy, the peacock and the charlatan.

The posturing and posing however were underpinned by the important – the perennial – debate in matters of culture between utilitarianism and aestheticism. In his provocative journal Mir iskusstra (the World of Art) Diaghilev taunted the established critics: ‘we reject any notion of art as dependent; our point of departure [is] man himself, as a uniquely free creature.’ And freedom became for Diaghilev a mantra adopted only after a series of rejections by the establishment. He was a failed composer and was abruptly put in his place when he sought out Rimsky-Korsakov for lessons as a young creative artist. And when he was snubbed in 1901 by Novy Put (The New Path), a group of self-styled radical thinkers and artists in St Petersburg, he told them, bitterly, ‘I have joined the ranks of men of “action”, whereas you are men of “contemplation”.’

The impresario exists at the moment when one generation needs to wrest control of the channels of artistic dissemination from its predecessor. Decadence, erotica, sexual adventure; these are all essential parts of the armoury of the pretender, however much he believes his craft to be the height of integrity. And, most importantly, the impresario is an opportunist, expressing cultural flux in the most individual way possible. But never, of course, creating that culture; the forces, the tides, are too strong for that.

Looking back to Simon Cowell, with his child stars, his television studio backdrops, his editorial control, we see the world of neutered infantilism that the age of commerce has always promised. We can now relieve ourselves of the uneasy coupling of the name Cowell and the word impresario, while at the same time worry about the implications for our culture that he is probably more powerful in his own time, and without question far richer, than any other cultural entrepreneur in history.

Sjeng Scheijen’s Diaghilev – A Life (translated by Jane Hedley-Prôle and S.J. Leinbach) is published by Profile Books.

Published on 1 June 2010

Peter Rosser (1970–2014) was a composer, writer and music lecturer.

He was born in London and moved to Belfast in 1990, where he studied composition at the University of Ulster and was awarded a DPhil in 1997. His music has been performed at the Spitalfields Festival in London, the Belfast Festival at Queen’s and by the Crash Ensemble in Dublin.

In 2011 the Arts Council acknowledged his contribution to the arts in Northern Ireland through a Major Individual Artist Award. He used this award to write his Second String Quartet, which was premiered in 2012 by the JACK Quartet at the opening concert at Belfast's new Metropolitan Arts Centre (The MAC).

Peter Rosser also wrote extensively on a wide range of music genres, with essays published in The Journal of Music, The Wire, Perspectives of New Music and the Crescent Journal. 

He died following an illness on 24 November 2014, aged 44.

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