IN April 2004, the Victoria & Albert museum in London staged an exhibition of the work of Vivienne Westwood. The show was a celebration and a culmination of the fashion designer’s move from the margins of the industry in the 1970s, where she was creating clothes for the punks who hung around the King’s Road, to her 21st-century incarnation as first among equals in British haute couture.

The exhibition was hugely successful, but it did have one critic. Malcolm McLaren, who had been Westwood’s partner in their shop in 430 King’s Road through its various incarnations in the 1970s; Let it Rock, Too Fast to Live too Young to Die, SEX, Seditionaries and World’s End (the name it continues to operate under today).

On viewing the exhibition catalogue, McLaren was horrified to find that his own contribution to Westwood’s story seemed to have been written out of the story.

“It’s like calling Dolce & Gabbana simply ‘Dolce,’” he suggested in an aggrieved letter to the V&A, “or Viktor & Rolf simply ‘Viktor’. And how about calling the Victoria and Albert the ‘Victoria’?”

“Through this exhibit,” he continued, “the V&A is effectively erasing my life and destroying my career and legacy.”

It was hardly the first time McLaren’s cultural contributions had been questioned or downplayed. In 1987, John Lydon, looking back on his time in the Sex Pistols, the band McLaren helped create, said of his former manager: “How very little Malcolm had to do with it and how much praise he’s accepted on his own behalf since. We wrote the songs, we did all the work, we did the gigs, we led the lifestyle and he just seemed to have collected the accolades.”

From the 1970s to his death in 2010, McLaren had been at the heart of British fashion and music. McLaren’s life encompassed not just punk and the Pistols, but 1960s student protests, 1980s pop stardom behind the scenes and in his own right, a spell in Hollywood and a reinvention as a visual artist before his death in 2010 at the age of 64.

And yet for many his contribution was marginal at best; someone whose greatest skill was advertising himself.

What is the truth of it? Who was Malcolm McLaren? Which of the many epithets attached to his name – chancer, charlatan, provocateur, rebel, artist, “a complete con man" (according to Sex Pistol Steve Jones), “the most evil man on Earth,” as Lydon at his most splenetic once had it – was closest to reality?

Maybe, a little bit of all of them.

Paul Gorman was 15 when he met McLaren in the mid-1970s. “My brother knew him a little because he ran a shop along the road. He struck me as a very magnetic, charismatic person who was full of ideas. The way he spoke I found very exciting.”

Gorman, who would become a writer charting British pop style in the late 20th century, ran into McLaren a few times over the years. When he was putting together The Look, his 2001 book about the fashion of pop, he asked McLaren to write the introduction.

“He was a fantastic collaborator even on that tiny little level. He was really interested and engaging. I found him to be generous, funny, endlessly exciting, verbose and extraordinary. Singular. There was nobody else like McLaren.”

And that perhaps explains why Gorman has spent the last six years writing The Life & Times of Malcolm McLaren, a biography of the man. The result is a brick of a book (800 pages and counting) that attempts to reclaim McLaren from being written out of the picture.

“Across the board, in music and in fashion, he was in danger of becoming obliterated,” Gorman suggests. “Because of what had gone on between them, Westwood was intent – has been for a long time – to rub him out of the picture and anyone who knows about them knows it was an absolute 50-50 collaboration.”

Westwood would go on to forge her own path in fashion, of course, a designer more than worthy of a V&A exhibition. But it was McLaren who helped set her on the way, was her fiercest critic and closest collaborator as she established herself.

“Like he did for many people,” Gorman suggests, “he opened the doors for her and she has got this supreme technical ability and creative drive. And so as soon as he had opened the doors for her – I’m not saying this in a patronising way – she took the ball and ran with it and became that magnificent creation that we know.”

Westwood, of course, stuck to the path, followed its course, drew on her brilliant technical ability and built a career in fashion. In truth, the idea of a career never interested McLaren. “I am a product of the 1960s. All I have ever felt is disruptive,” he once said. “I don’t know any other way.”

Perhaps, but if you want to, you can trace McLaren’s contrariness, his desire to provoke, to upset, back much further than his student days, all the way to childhood.

Malcolm McLaren was born on Tuesday, January 22,1946 in Stoke Newington, London, to Emily and Peter McLaren. Emily’s mother Rose, who lived next door, was in attendance at the birth.

She would be in attendance throughout his childhood in a way his parents wouldn’t. By the end of 1947 his father had left the family home, sure his wife had been unfaithful, and wouldn’t see McLaren or his older brother Stuart again until 1989.

“That’s an extraordinary thing to do,” Gorman points out, “to not see your son for 40-odd years, even halfway through that when McLaren was really famous.”

His mother Emily, meanwhile, took a job as a travelling saleswoman soon after her husband left and her disinterest in her son was quickly apparent. As Young Kim, McLaren’s partner in the years before he died, said, “He came from a family without any love, frankly. His mother had abandoned him.”

That left him in the company of Rose, who in later life would boast that she was descended from Portuguese aristocracy, who hated the man she married and carried that anger with her throughout her life.

Rose made for a curious surrogate parent, to say the least. She told the young McLaren inappropriate stories, mythologised her past and shared a bed with her grandson into his teenage years. He would later tell a story about how she would wind silken ribbons into his pubic hair to discourage him from sexual encounters, hoping he’d be too embarrassed to undress.

“My mother thought she was the most evil person that ever walked the planet,” McLaren once said of Rose. “She was a harsh woman, and, although I respected her, she had no regard for morals or principles.”

The same accusations, Gorman points out in his book, would also be levelled at McLaren.

“It’s quite difficult to ascertain what the grandmother’s game was,” Gorman suggests. “She was definitely transgressive in terms of personal relations. But that triggered in him this spirit of adventure.

“She was obviously a piece of work and she infused in him this wish to be a contrarian. He goes into fashion, but he wants to be anti-fashion. He promotes the Pistols as the band that can’t play. Every single time there’s a contradictory element to it.”

In many ways, McLaren’s life was spent putting into practice Rose’s notion that “to be bad is good, because to be good is simply boring.” It played out in the shop he set up with Westwood, then his partner in life and work, in the 1970s after years at art school, where, along with bondage trousers, T-shirts showing semi-naked cowboys and bondage gear, he once designed a T-shirt emblazoned with a photograph of one of the shop’s leather hoods, the legend “Cambridge Rapist,” the name newspapers had given to the culprit behind a series of sexual assaults around the university city. McLaren then added a quote from the Beatles: “It’s been a hard day’s night,” and an image of Brian Epstein.

McLaren meant it as a comment on media coverage of the assaults, but it also displayed an indifference to suffering that you could say McLaren was guilty of on more than one occasion.

It was certainly on display during his time managing the Sex Pistols, when he approached train robber Ronnie Biggs to take part in the film The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle (much to Lydon’s disgust). The film itself, of course, was funded by McLaren funnelling the band’s earning into it (Lydon wasn’t best pleased with that either).

The death of Sid Vicious further drove a wedge between McLaren and Lydon, and added to the Pistols’ notoriety, though Gorman believes that, in retrospect, McLaren did all he could to help Vicious who would die of a heroin overdose four months before being tried for the suspected murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen.

You could argue that McLaren’s desire to take things too far peaked at the start of the 1980s when he was managing the band Bow Wow Wow. He encouraged the male members of the band to visit prostitutes, persuaded the band’s 14-year-old singer Anabella Lwin to appear naked on the cover of an album in a recreation of Edouard Manet’s Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe, and suggested calling a magazine that was to accompany the cassette release of Your Cassette Pet, Chicken, a term used by American paedophiles.

“That was an absolute mistake,” Gorman admits. “McLaren recognised that kids from 12 to 16, 17, were buying music. The music industry hadn’t noticed. Also, cassettes were taking off, but they were difficult to market. He was proposing putting it on the front of a magazine and selling them through newsagents, selling it on garage forecourts.

“So, he had a fantastic marketing proposition and, of course, he takes it too far.

“There was no paedophilia involved, but to call it Chicken … I think he had a crisis after the Sex Pistols, and he becomes quite brutish about women and trying to encourage Bow Wow Wow to behave as lads. It’s all a bit odious, isn’t it?”

You could also point out that McLaren was guilty of the same abandonment of his son Joe, after his stormy relationship with Westwood came to an end, that he himself had suffered at the hands of his own father, although, Gorman points out, he was more present in Joe’s life than Peter McLaren ever was.

In short, McLaren the man could be as flawed and human as the rest of us. Maybe more so.

But the case against isn’t the only case to be made. For Gorman, McLaren was an inventive, innovative artist, whether in fashion or music. Inspired by the situationist ideas he absorbed as an art student in the 1960s he constantly pushed the envelope. Without McLaren, you wonder, would punk even have happened?

“It would have happened," Gorman suggests, “but it wouldn’t have had the political edge and the visual flair.”

McLaren wasn’t always in control of the media storm around the Sex Pistols, but he knew how to make the most of it.

And as well as the Pistols, McLaren encouraged bands such as Subway Sect and the Slits. He was, as Pistol Glen Matlock once said, an enabler.

“He’s absolutely instrumental to the formation of so many bands,” Gorman points out. “He goes up to [Subway Sect’s] Vic Godard, who is hanging out at a gig with all his mates – they’ve dyed their clothes grey – and says, ‘You should be a band,’ and provides rehearsal space for them.

“He provided rehearsal space for Siouxsie and the Banshees. He is either actually involved in encouraging people in the movement or people are reacting against him and forming their own idea of it. So, without him, no punk really. There would be something else, an energetic hard rock thing.”

Of course, McLaren’s goals were not always the same as his charges, which would eventually lead to his falling out with the band he helped create, the Pistols.

“They had different aims, ultimately,” Gorman says. “His aim was to create a project that would upset the entertainment industry first and then the wider world. Their aim was to become professional musicians, which they all did, apart from poor old Sid.”

In the 1980s, McLaren would himself become a pop star (“as if Colonel Tom Parker became the act,” music critic Paul Morley said of the move). His 1983 album, Duck Rock, made with Trevor Horn, was both a world music album decorated with McLaren’s own inimitable input, a celebration of sampling and an introduction to hip-hop and B-Boy culture to a British audience through singles like Buffalo Gals and Double Dutch.

It was a highpoint for him, but McLaren quickly moved on. He was always one for new ideas rather than exploiting those he’d already had.

“Within two years of Buffalo Gals coming out he’s doing interviews in LA saying, ‘I don’t want to talk about music anymore. I’d rather go and pitch a project at Columbia,’” Gorman points out.

McLaren moved to LA with the intention of getting into cinema. He enjoyed his time there, and even had a relationship with the actor Lauren Hutton, but it wasn’t a particularly productive period.

“I’ve lived in LA. It’s a lovely place,” says Gorman. “It’s also quite a square place. You could be picked up and dropped pretty easily and that happened to him in many respects.

“But, also, his ideas were too wild for them. Good luck making a movie called Heavy Metal Surf Nazis. It’s just not going to work.”

And sometimes he didn’t want it to work. In meetings he’d sometimes blow things up just to get the blood pumping. “There is a sense,” Gorman writes in The Life & Times of Malcolm McLaren, “that McLaren was never quite comfortable, or firing on cylinders, when life was without conflict.”

“Better,” McLaren often said, “to be a flamboyant failure than any kind of benign success.”

Is that what he was, though? The history of British pop and British fashion, for good and ill, would look very different without McLaren. The provocateur never went away. His platform for his bid to be London mayor in 2000 included the idea of legalising brothels opposite the House of Commons “to help get rid of sleaze scandals".

But in his latter years he was beginning to be recognised as a visual artist thanks to his film installations Shallow 1-21 and Paris, Capital of the XXIst Century. And the truth is, he always had been. The idea of the con man, the charlatan, the names he was called, the role he was given in pop mythology always had to overlook the inconvenient truth of his creativity.

Maybe the truth of it comes in something, Gorman recalls,McLaren told him in 2008. "I said I was a charlatan," McLaren told his future biographer. "Obviously, I’m not a charlatan, No charlatan says, 'I’m a charlatan.' I didn’t think people would believe it."

The Life & Times of Malcolm McLaren, by Paul Gorman, is published by Constable, priced £30. A documentary on McLaren’s life will be broadcast on Radio 4 later this month.

Malcolm McLaren’s Scottish roots

The surname is the clue. The McLaren family traced their roots to Balquhidder in Perthshire. His parents even had a Scottish piper at their wedding. McLaren saw his inherited Scottishness in romantic terms. “It was very important to him,” Gorman believes. “And I think he realised it set him apart in a way. He talked about his Scottish roots all the time.”

Throughout his years at art school he would wear a tartan scarf and tartan was used in the punk designs he created with Westwood.

That romanticism smashed into reality, however, when he took part in a reality TV show called The Baron in 2007 when he found himself in the fishing village of Gardenstown in Aberdeenshire. One of several celebrities running to become baron of the village, he provocatively suggested turning it into a “heathen paradise” and urged its inhabitants to “take lots of drugs and drink yourselves stupid.” This did not go down well. His declaration that “Jesus was a sausage” was the last straw.

“Never, ever go to Scotland if you can help it,” he said later (although he would return to appear at the Edinburgh Fringe before his death).