McLaren, the Punk T-shirt, and being a magnificent noble failure

News of the death of music impresario Malcolm McLaren was both the cue for various media tributes and also for bringing back personal memories and lessons.

Even now, at the age of 51, I am perhaps a punk at heart. (As the recent strained Achilles tendon brought on by an over-exuberant response to a pub band’s version of the Undertones ‘Jimmy, Jimmy’ testifies…)

As a 19 year old in 1977 London, I wish I had made more of the punk scene. Sure, I saw a number of bands in pubs and clubs. (Seeing the Jam at Poplar Town hall for 30p is still regularly milked as an anecdote.)

But I remember going down the Kings Road in the spring of ’77 before the Sex Pistols had a hit with ‘God Save the Queen’, with a mission to buy a T-shirt I had seen, which was printed inside-out with the image of the Queen with a safety pin through her nose. (You know the one, that one that become the iconic statement of the punk era.)

When I got to the shop run by McLaren and fashion designer Vivienne Westwood however, I discovered the shirts were a pricely £8. Considering I was only earning £2 a week in my part time job (this was an age when a pint of beer was 20p – so if a pint is £2 now – the T-shirt would have been the equivalent of £80.)

At the time I thought it was a rip off, and was too much to pay, and therefore never did buy the T-shirt. (I wonder how much an original T-shirt would be worth now?)

If I could go back in time, knowing what I know now, I should have bought the T-shirt. Sure, it was ridiculously expensive, but this was, in hindsight a major opportunity to make a statement, a purchase to go down in legend.

In my last book, ‘The Upturn: your part in its rise’ I talk about Golden Swan opportunities, where we have unscripted, unexpected and uninvited opportunities. Because they have not come to order, or prescribed by ourselves, the real danger is that we then miss the moment, a chance to make a real difference.

In this case a chance I blew the opportunity to really mark out the fact ‘I was there’.

How often are we faced with opportunities and we let logic, arguments that it is not the right thing to do and we let our actions be ruled by these sorts of justifications.

Sometimes in life however, you have just to say sod it, (or stronger) and do the magnificent thing and seize the Golden Swan opportunity. (The best brief ever given to me as a Brand PR consultant was the client when asked what do you want me to do for you, replied with: “Just be magnificent.”)

Reading McLaren’s obituary he was apparently once told by one of his art teachers; “We will all be failures. But at least be a magnificent noble failure. Anyone can be a benign success.”

Sure, I saved myself £8 in the spring of 1977. What a benign success.

Far better though, had I spotted the Golden Swan opportunity, and despite the short-term penury, bought the bloody T-shirt and have done the magnificent noble thing.

Are you going to be guilty this week of being a benign success? Or will you seize the chance to do something magnificent and noble?

Thank you Malcolm McLaren for the lesson.

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