Malcolm McLaren: 'I'm most probably a missing link'

The Sex Pistols supremo who helped to revolutionise popular culture in the Seventies wants to be recognised as a serious artist

The Big Interview,Jonathan Brown
Friday 27 November 2009 01:00 GMT

Is Malcolm McLaren in danger of joining the ranks of Stephen Fry, Alan Bennett and the late Queen Mother by becoming a national treasure?

Thirty years ago, as Svengali to the world's most notorious rock band the Sex Pistols the very notion would have been unthinkable. But in an era gorging on nostalgia and starved of cultural authenticity the suggestion doesn't seem so out of place.

McClaren has Establishment links for sure. He is the former partner of the designer Dame Vivienne Westwood with whom he had a son, lingerie entrepreneur Joseph Corre, who once ostentatiously declined an MBE. He has presented his own much garlanded shows on the BBC, which once banned his band's records; appeared in a reality-television programme alongside the late EastEnders star Mike Reid (though declined I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here!) and has been invited to perform his one-man evening of anecdotes and tall tales at the Royal Festival Hall and the Sydney Opera House after successfully premiering at this year's Edinburgh Festival. In 1999, he even toyed with the idea of being Mayor of London.

When I caught up with him he was busy at the Gateshead's Baltic Centre for Contemporary Arts staging the world premier of his new film, Paris: Capitol of the 21st Century, which he unveiled in person before a sell-out audience who had also come to avail themselves of the great man's wit and wisdom in a post-match discussion with a leading cultural critic. Yet surprisingly for someone of McLaren's famously vaunting ego, the notion of being nationally treasured seems to be something that he has only half considered.

Dressed in an expensive-looking tweed suit and knotted grey scarf, looking more like a respectable don from one of the ancient universities than the man John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten once described as the "most evil person on earth", his voluble pronouncements were providing entertainment for those sitting both near and far in the restaurant of the Tyneside gallery. However, he couched the assessment of his place in the history of modern British culture in strangely modest terms. "I'm most probably a missing link that a lot of people don't know. Someone has to tie the loose ends between the Sixties and the Nineties. That has been left open (to me) because no one is aware what artists had to face in the Seventies," he says.

According to curators at the Baltic, it is as an artist "whose time has come" that we should now regard the 63-year-old godfather of punk turned adopted Parisian where he lives in self-imposed exile with his American-Korean partner Young Kim, 37.

Fresh from some acclaim for his "musical painting" sequence Shallow 1-21, a serious of faded scenes taken from Sixties home-porn movies and set to music, his latest piece continues in much the same vein – a repetitive 62-minute appropriation of clips from a private archive of French television adverts and other "lost" films. Some of the – at times – amusing sequences were created by McLaren's artistic pin-ups such as Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp from early on in their career when they were required to take on any work they were offered. It was this previously little-known episode in the history of art that fired McLaren's imagination and – it is hoped – will help secure his late-life credentials as a serious artist now finally in the right place to be appreciated.

Reading the Baltic's CV of McLaren's life, he gets talking at quite extraordinary length about the eight years he spent at art college in the 1960s and early Seventies, an odyssey through outlying suburban institutions then largely unchanged since the 1930s and culminating in a three-year fine art course at Goldsmiths. According to him, everything that followed his traumatic departure from art school where he had been sheltering from the world of work as if it were a "dreadful disease" or a "visit to the dentist" has been an expression of his art.

Yet the former King's Road shopkeeper, who helped bring us the notion of "cash from chaos", has little time for those who go to art school in the search of fame or riches of the sort reaped by modern-day artistic mega stars such as Damien Hirst. He and his contemporaries, by contrast, were well versed in the "noble art of failure" and McLaren recalls with admirable verve the opportunities afforded his generation of "dysfunctional war babies" who were given the time and space to experiment before Mrs Thatcher stepped in to close down the old art schools, turf out the corduroy-suit wearing lecturers, the "impossible oiks" masquerading as students and turn culture into a marketable commodity and art into a respectable career.

Thatcher is a word that crops up several times during the conversation. The Iron Lady came to power as the punk flame died though and Mclaren has a sneaking respect for her – in stark contrast to the dreary world of Britian in the 1970s in which he finally graduated. "This was a failed, miserable country whose infrastructure was dying by the hour. Industry was collapsing – there was nothing," he says. But she like him was a cultural revolutionary. "Without her, we would never have had Blair or Cameron. They are just the imitators."

Yet for all his admiration for that time at art school – it was not there that inspiration would strike. Learning how to make state-subsidised rabbit-skin glue or sketching in the Egyptology department of the British Museum was all very well if one chose to set out on the distinctly non-Thatcherite "lonely adventure where there could be no success" that was an artist's life. But the real action lay elsewhere beyond the decaying institutions. It was through listening to pop music and by visiting the small clubs and galleries off Oxford Street that the future direction emerged. "A new world was available by tuning into the radio or simply going across the road. That world was spelt out inevitably by pop music that connected to certain contemporary artists; that connected to certain contemporary fashion and connected to some contemporary politics, all completely unconnected to anything in art school," he recalls.

That relationship between art, music, fashion and politics comes as close to any as explaining why it was that the most famous bands with which he was associated – first the New York Dolls, then the Pistols – could generate such excitement in 1970s. And why it is so lacking today in a music world dominated by X Factor, though he sees Simon Cowell's extraordinarily lucrative creation as wearying rather than worrying, symptomatic of a culture that is "not in good shape" and overrun with the "pollution" of globalisation.

The music world was one he felt "not worth staying in", besides the media were against any further "interventions" from him while record company bosses would "hide the family silver" when ever he came knocking.

Inevitably, it has been hard to surpass the notoriety that he enjoyed at the time of punk, one that he never could have envisaged on the day he first stepped out in an electric-blue lamé suit to walk down the King's Road and see what fortune threw his way. The story of that day looking for his first break is as fantastical as it is entertaining. Accompanied by the teenage Westwood (they had met had at a London squat and she was soon to fall pregnant by him), he was ushered to a Chelsea hole in the wall by a mystery American impresario who gave him the keys to the premises and who was never to be seen again – events that apparently happened quite regularly in the Seventies, he says. From selling a few records and art books, he was able to build the legend that became Sex – the boutique he founded with Westwood that created the punk look. Here he was soon repelling Vogue photographers, counting Keith Richards among his early (dissatisfied) clients and even coming to the attention of a young Charles Saatchi.

In the decades after the Sex Pistols' messy split, the tragic death of Sid Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, a bitter courtroom battle with Lydon, which saw him cede control of the group (and £880,000) to his former protégé, he did have commercial and critical success. There was angry post-punk Bow Wow Wow (an appropriation of Manet's Déjeuner sur l'herbe, apparently). He was an early convert to the cause of hip-hop scoring a massive global hit with Buffalo Gals, pioneering African sounds and by the end of the decade he was busy reworking the music for British Airways advertising campaigns. There have been forays into film: Fast Food Nation in 2006 was a respectable hit and music for Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol. 2 based on a sample taken from the Zombies hit She's Not There and which features in the Shallow sequence. But it is small beer compared to his heyday at the helm of the Sex Pistols.

"It is not a question of peaking. It is just very hard to top it," he concedes. "Everything begins to look very small in comparison – unless you come to terms with the idea that small is beautiful you could be traumatised by that."

Shallow exhibits at the Baltic in Gateshead until 10 January

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