The Sex Pistols are reunited at Finsbury Park tonight. Malcolm McLaren will be doing something else
the interview MALCOLM MCLAREN
Sunday 23 June 1996
"I thought they needed food more than fashion," McLaren explains chirpily, sitting at a pavement table outside a Charlotte Street cafe, a stone's throw from his home in London W1. "I think food is one of the last arenas now where people can have a point of view. I think people have discovered that what you eat is who you are, and it's a question of do you want to be a McDonalds hamburger or a saddle of lamb or some exotic risotto?"
Which does he want to be? "I don't know, but it's an interesting thing to think about - it's what herbs or chemicals your body wants to indulge in, it's how you become something else. You feel different after you eat an Indian meal from how you do after you've eaten an Italian one. And I think we've got into that now: we never knew it before because we weren't allowed to know it." McLaren takes a rebellious sip of his creamy cappuccino. "I think school dinners proved that 100 per cent," he laughs, "because school dinners made you not care about food."
But what about Poland? Where does it stand in all of this? "Poland stands on the edge of Europe and at the frontier of Asia and there's a sense there - due maybe to how people have lived through a whole Marxist revolution and a Stalinist purge and now they've broken free of all that and gone back to a socialist government - that they're on the verge of creating a point of view that hasn't been seen in Europe for a while." What does that mean exactly? "Maybe that being on the edge of it all and looking in and wanting to join has made them be more driven and ambitious."
The way McLaren describes it, Poland's attitude to Europe sounds oddly reminiscent of that of an impressionable teenager, John Lydon in the mid- Seventies say, poised to enter one of his and Vivienne Westwood's famously intimidating clothing emporia. "I think it is a little bit like that, and I think that's what's exciting about it." McLaren adjusts the sunglasses perched on his very sunburnt nose and embarks on a history lesson. He does not have time for full stops: his subordinate clauses mass in the unruly but purposeful ranks of a revolutionary army.
"When I opened my shops on the Kings Road and changed the facade from Let It Rock to Too Fast To Live ... to Sex to Seditionaries to World's End and ultimately, my favourite of all, Nostalgia of Mud, which was like an archeological dig - if you walked in you fell three feet into a pool of mud to search for the ruins of such things as fashion clothing - it was more about art than fashion. It was all about creating an environment that appeared almost impenetrable, so it was impossible to walk in unless you were desperate to become a member, otherwise you would appear to be a trespasser." McLaren is enthused by this memory and becomes exceedingly twinkly. "I loved that feeling, I loved the idea of the shop that you feared entering. I always tried to create that unease, which is why as soon as a shop became successful I closed it down. I suppose that attitude was the result of the art school process that I'd gone through in the Sixties."
What was that art school process? "You were told from the moment you entered, 'Lad [McLaren briefly swaps his usual endearing Dickensian squawk for the Yorkshire bass of Brian Glover], you wouldn't bloody be here if it wasn't for old William Morris,' and you'd say, 'Who the fuck is William Morris?' And they'd bring out this little card of some chintzy wallpaper print, and over the years you got to know about this Luddite visionary who had persuaded Queen Victoria that every single village throughout England should have an art institute so that every miner or farm worker or builder or fishmonger could make a pot, could weave a tapestry on the weekend.
"But the 5,000 art schools that were created from the beginning of the twentieth century," - McLaren is in full flight now, and only a major earth tremor is going to stop him - "turned into the most fantastic havens of the dispossessed, of the disenfranchised, of the unemployable, of the brilliant spirit that gave you, God bless them, English rock 'n' roll." McLaren is incandescent with delight. "I'm afraid old Bill Morris, if you're up there somewhere [points skywards], we couldn't be bothered to make those funny armchairs and puritanical tapestries from mediaeval times. The artisanship went into guitar playing, and hip hip hooray for that."
In understandable need of a breather, McLaren reaches for his inside pocket. "I've left my cigarettes in my house. Would your friend [indicates outraged photographer] mind going over the road for me?" His initial difficulty locating the cash to sustain his deadly habit elicits an offer of charity. "I don't need the Independent on Sunday to buy me a packet of cigarettes," McLaren chuckles, unfurling the sort of crisp roll of notes you'd expect to find in the pocket of a man who makes a healthy living as a "mercenary" writing themes for Nike, Audi and British Airways adverts. (Believe it or not, the man who invented the Sex Pistols wrote the soundtrack for the one where a big crowd of people form a huge smiling face.)
After travelling the globe for his 1982 magpie landmark album Duck Rock, and living in Paris, Milan and Hollywood - learning the ropes of the movie business and developing the (still ongoing) project which is closest to his heart: a film history of English rock 'n' roll through the bloodshot eyes of legendary Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant - McLaren is very happy to be back in London.
He's been in the studio for the past couple of months "creating a new group". What sort of group? "Black drum and bass guys from Tottenham and some girls from Belgium who are equally disparate and desperate.
"What's happening at the moment," McLaren continues excitedly, "is everything's bleeding into everything else. It's all becoming very egalitarian: the snobbism's going, the class structure that this country has always been weighed down with, even in pop music sometimes, seems to be suddenly blowing away.
"I think maybe it's due to all these salt-of-the-earth Northern creatures: Damien Hirst, from the North, Pulp is North, Oasis is North, Goldie is from the North [well, Wolverhampton], Bjork is from the very, very North. They've all descended on London and cracked a few skulls and things are beginning to happen."
What kind of things? "I think we're not looking to history in the same way we once did. People like Vivienne Westwood are always going on about returning to the 18th century. Although Vivienne was my girlfriend and I worked with her for years and years, I was never into that. The 18th century Vivienne looks at is the 18th century of about five people who never had to work." McLaren guffaws, almost shame-faced. "It's got nothing to do with us. Of course there was creative thinking going on then, but there's creative thinking going on now as well."
Asked to give examples of the type of contemporary creative thinking that most impresses him, McLaren cites "people wearing British Telecom trousers who don't actually work for them - 'OK, we don't have a job, but let's pose as if we do' - that's a very cool idea." He also greatly enjoyed the film version of Trainspotting: "It gave a wonderful glamour to drugs. We don't look at syringes as horrible things any more; we see them as wonderful aesthetic objects," McLaren cackles demonically, "and that's brilliant, that's a new aesthetic - a new way of reading signs."
On the subject of signs, how does he feel about the Sex Pistols getting back together? "I wish I cared more. I try to but I can't. I suppose it's because it's antique, it's in a vacuum, it's in a frame - it's part of a compilation of oldies." McLaren pauses. "If you think about it, is it really any different from a Gerry and the Pacemakers reunion?"
Does he derive any perverse enjoyment from the fact that, while being globally reviled as the ultimate Fagin/Svengali figure, he is the only one not making any money out of the exploitation of the Sex Pistols' legacy?
"It is hilarious really, and I do think that The Great Rock n' Roll Swindle was a testament to that. When it comes to actually answering the question, 'Who killed Bambi?' " - McLaren smiles with the serenity of one who knows that the half-century he's been on this planet for would have been a lot less fun without him - "I'd have to say that I just don't know."
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