In the latest in our series of studies of key designs created at 430 King’s Road in the 70s, THE LOOK investigates Prick Up Your Ears, one of the last provocative acts from Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s store in its incarnation as Seditionaries.
//Orton (standing centre), Queen, July 1967/Seditionaries t-shirt design spring 1979//
The outrageous graphic has until now been chronologically filed alongside the likes of Destroy and God Save The Queen, which were produced at the peak of punk media frenzy in the spring and summer of 1977. In fact, Prick Up Your Ears did not appear until the dog days of Seditionaries, in the spring of 1979 after the publication of John Lahr’s masterly Joe Orton biography of the same name and the release of dystopian gang movie The Warriors.
//First edition paperback cover 1978/Halliwell’s Loot poster 1966//
On publication in October 1978, Lahr’s book caused immediate cultural ripples, ones which were felt particularly keenly down the wrong end of the King’s Road (where “blackmail” lettering had been used for promotion of the Sex Pistols in much the same way as Orton’s lover Kenneth Halliwell had created newspaper print collages for his partner’s work 10 years earlier).
“When the Sex Pistols broke up in January 1978, I ended up in Los Angeles, staying and living for three weeks in The Tropicana, next to Duke’s Coffee Shop on Santa Monica Boulevard,” explains McLaren.
“Three doors along was, and still is, The Pleasure Chest. I got this and some other t-shirts there. Joe Orton was someone I much admired, so when the book came out I dedicated this to him with the quote from his diaries.”
The book’s unblushing presentation of the promiscuous proclivities of its subject (as essayed in his diaries) had the chattering classes agog, while Lahr’s sympathetic celebration of the dramatist’s life matched the cool audacity of Orton’s work.
//Orton outside 25 Noel Road 1964 (c) Leicester Mercury/”Cheap” fur coat (c) Joe Orton Online//
The plates in the book displayed Orton’s great look, which reflected his and Halliwell’s ascetic lifestyle: cheap white t-shirts, Empire-brand jeans with giant turn-ups, desert or baseball boots, corduroy jeans, motorbike jackets, hooped tops, army surplus caps and coats. The clothes marked him out as a pioneer of gay style and enabled Orton to press home his image as an outsider not just in the dinner-jacketed Theatreland of the West End but society at large.
Orton’s reputation as a homosexual outlaw had already been bolstered by his incarceration for defacement of public library books as detailed in this BBC4 documentary:
Lahr took the title of his book from an unreleased play of Orton’s, who had toyed with the idea of using it for a rewrite of Up Against It, a screenplay he was creating for The Beatles at the time of his death on August 9 1967 (bludgeoned by Halliwell who then took a fatal overdose).
Less than three weeks later Beatles manager Brian Epstein was himself found dead of an overdose (and also later appeared on a McLaren shirt when his image and a mock report of the circumstances of his demise were added to the Cambridge Rapist tee).
Arriving as punk’s potency dissipated, Lahr’s book confirmed Orton’s position as one of the movement’s guiding spirits. “Reject all values of society,” Orton is quoted as telling his friend the comedian Kenneth Williams.
This outlook certainly chimed with McLaren, who had paid tribute four years earlier when the playwright’s name was added to the “right” side of the SEX shop’s infamous You’re Gonna Wake Up t-shirt.
//Orton on You’re Gonna Wake Up tee, 1974/Inside 25 Noel Road (c) Leicester Mercury//
It is said that McLaren at one time investigated shooting a version of Orton’s Up Against It screenplay starring the four Sex Pistols. Certainly Prick Up Your Ears was also the title of an early song by another set of McLaren proteges, Adam & The Ants.
//Diary entry on the t-shirt and in John Lahr’s book//
With the t-shirt title lettering taking its cute from promotion for Hill’s movie (which was released in February 1979), the base image of the Seditionaries design was a cartoonish depiction of a homosexual orgy. The figures were then scrawled with “punk” characteristics – mohawks, piercings, tattoos – and overlaid with a two-colour screen and an appropriate extract from Orton’s diary: complimented by theatrical impresario Oscar Lewenstein on a new fur coat, the playwright reflects that he looks better in cheap clothes because “I’m from the gutter. And don’t you forget it because I won’t”.
The biting tone and aphoristic ring could have come from one of the Sex Pistols themselves. Not that any of them wore it; Prick Up Your Ears’ joylessness reflected the circumstances in which it was produced. The band had long since split and John Lydon had not only launched his new group Public Image Ltd but also a legal claim against McLaren. Over in New York Sid Vicious had just died from an overdose.
//Orton in Morocco 1965/Seditionaries 1978//
Mirroring this disarray, Seditionaries itself was in free-fall. Open infrequently, Westwood was wondering whether to give up fashion design for a degree and McLaren was preoccupied with the fall-out from the Pistols collapse and desperately trying to complete the band biopic The Great Rock & Roll Swindle.
The t-shirt briefly featured (in censored form) in Seditionaries music press mail-order ads, though the recession bit hard during the winter of discontent, and, with fresh inspiration coming from 18th Century romanticism, piracy and the Burundi beat, the shop was boarded over in the latter half of 1979, awaiting transformation over the next year into World’s End.
Prick Up Your Ears was to receive wider exposure over the coming years when it was licensed by King’s Road neighbour BOY along with the rest of the 430 “punk” designs (for, it is reported, the paltry sum of £200, such was Westwood’s impecuniosity).
Sales received a fillip in 1987 with the release of Stephen Frear’s biopic film Prick Up Your Ears.
This, of course, starred Gary Oldman, fresh from his starring role in Alex Cox’s Sid & Nancy as – who else? – one-time 430 King’s Road shop assistant Sid Vicious.
Many great images and insights into Orton’s life and work can be found at the lovingly put together Joe Orton Online, which includes the added bonus of the hilarious collection of letters fired off to national publications in the persona of busybody Edna Wellthorpe.