Caroline and Paul in 1977, photo by Sheila Rock
Caroline Coon came to London at sixteen to study painting and do some occasional work as a model. She soon became something of a fixture in the Sixties scene, hobnobbing with musicians, acting in short films, and helping to found Release, an agency that provided legal aid for young people arrested on drug possession charges. She left art school in 1968 because the art establishment had declared that figurative painting, her preferred mode of expression, was dead,* and turned her attention to journalism instead.
Writing for magazines such as Sounds and Melody Maker, she was among the first journalists to give punk any kind of legitimacy in the popular press, the general journalistic consensus at the time being that most punk bands were best “returned to the garage immediately, preferably with the engine running,” as voiced by Charles Shaar Murray in his review of the Clash. She became romantically involved with Paul Simonon and professionally involved with the rest of the band, helping to design sleeves for their records, including their first single, “White Riot,” and eventually managing the band when they fired Bernard Rhodes.
Her activities in the public sphere were not always met with praise, however, and the Stranglers famously dedicated their fantastically misogynistic 1977 song “London Lady” to her. Caroline’s response, via her website, is that “[i]n fact, the song is a woman-hating fantasy with lyrics indicative of what clinicians call ‘small penis anxiety’ and evidence of the sexism and misogyny that contaminates the male dominated music industry to this day.”
In 1980, Caroline began work on the film Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains, acting as a special consultant and, essentially, resident punk, designing makeup and costumes with an authentically punk feeling. She was also instrumental in casting Paul Simonon, Steve Jones, and Peter Cook of the Sex Pistols as members of the English band the Looters, fronted by Ray Winstone. The film was not an immediate success at its initial release but has a well-developed cult following.
Caroline remains an active artist and often uses her work for purposes of political agitation. Her current projects include pressing for the legalization of marijuana and other controlled substances and advocating for sex workers’ rights (perhaps inspired in part by her 1977 interview with sex party hostess Janie Jones?). She recently gave a keynote address at an academic conference in Belfast on the topic of the Clash, arguing that the band has been overlooked by most academics because they point out some uncomfortable truths about the left’s relationship with money and popularity. She keeps a blog about what she’s been reading recently and which political causes inspire her the most.
*Art schools’ 1960s-inspired stance on figurative painting lost them many talented artists, like Caroline Coon herself, Paul Simonon, and Billy Childish. That is a topic I would definitely like to explore further, as it’s near and dear to my own heart as well.