Pistol packing Malcolm

He invented punk rock! He taught Vivienne Westwood how to make clothes! He bred Adam Ant in his underground laboratory! He would even claim to have invented the wheel, given the opportunity. He is Malcolm McLaren, the carrot-topped couturier so often referred to as a “punk Svengali”. From his fetishistic boutique on the then fashionable King’s Road, he allegedly masterminded the entire latter half of the 1970s. Shooting from the hip with the Sex Pistols, he brought the nation to a shocked standstill with a salvo of talentless filth masquerading as music. His bondage trousers were on the legs of all self-respecting fashion victims; his band were banned by everyone; his screen-printer managed the Clash.

“I,” he drawls hoarsely, with the ease of one who has said that word many, many times before, “I don’t know much really. I’m very old now.” For all the overweening arrogance with which he is automatically associated, there is a disarming humility in his voice. His body, immaculately dressed in a single-breasted black suit and open-necked pink shirt, is pumped full of whisky, right up to the bizarre helipad of curls atop his head. As a result, the expression in his eyes is, for want of a better phrase, pretty vacant. Could this harmless individual really be the skilful manipulator who held the country to ransom with Jamie Reid artwork?

One gets the impression with Malcolm McLaren that his wild assertions are little more than tricks played by his memory, quoted entirely out of context. Taken as a whole, his anecdotes are fairly convincing reminiscences, and when he claims to have introduced Adam Ant to the Burundi beat that made him popular, it almost rings true. The cheap hype which surrounded his statement that he paid someone to wipe the fingerprints from the knife which killed Nancy Spungen, for example, made no mention of the fact that he has no idea whether Sid Vicious was guilty or not.

As the band manager, McLaren was aware that Spungen could have a Yoko Ono-like effect on the unity of the band: “Once, we took Sid to this private dentist, who we’d bribed to knock him out for an hour with anaesthetic. While he was out, we tied Nancy up, threw her into the back of a van, and sped towards Heathrow to put her on a flight to America. Unfortunately, when we stopped at a red light, she rolled out of the doors and started screaming that she’d been kidnapped, so we couldn’t get rid of her.” Of the film Sid and Nancy, McLaren avers that the real Vicious was “far less loveable than Gary Oldman. I preferred Sid, because he was such an arsehole.” Sid was apparently so talentless that another bass player would be hidden backstage at gigs, plugged into his amp, allowing Vicious to get on with the more important business of beating the audience around the head and neck with the guitar.

McLaren has not spoken to any of the Pistols in years. Although the reason is obvious in the case of Vicious, he professes to be puzzled by the acrimonious attitude of John Lydon towards him. A story involving the manager, the PILster and a pair of groupies indicates that the ex-Johnny Rotten has always taken things to psychological extremes. “He actually slept underneath the bed! I thought that was so strange, to go to such lengths to avoid there – for a start, there was virtually no room under there.” When pressed for his views on Lydon’s later work, he admits to having little truck with Public Image’s output, feeling that it lacks the intrinsic humour of punk.

A chance encounter between the two is unlikely, since the entrepreneur has lived in virtual exile in Paris since 1980. “We were taken to court for fraud after we said, in the film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, that we’d conned the music industry. The case was going against us – one of the defendants had died of a heroin overdose, which never looks good – and so, on the morning the verdict was due, I went to the bank and took out £50,000 in cash. I hid it in my socks, down my trousers, everywhere. Then I drove straight to Heathrow, and got on the first flight to Paris.” McLaren feels Paris is far less staid and conservative than England: “It might look old-fashioned, but there is a real opportunity for innovation there, which there just isn’t in this country.”

An entire generation older than the snot-nosed oiks he managed, a world-weary McLaren feels he is getting too old to still be perceived in the same way as he was 20 years ago. “I sit on the Millennium Commission with Richard Branson, but they just have me there as some kind of court jester.” As for the musicians of today, McLaren moots that, if he could manage anyone, it would be Pulp: “I like them because they’re so stupid. All good music is stupid.”

This sweeping assessment of popular culture would appear to explain why bondage trousers never became as universal as their antithesis, jeans: “In the end, I think bondage trousers were just too intelligent for most people.”

First published in Cherwell, Friday 17 November 1995.

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