Hard News by Russell Brown

151

The best kind of villain there is

The cover of the Rip It Up magazine of July 1983 is one of my favourites. It features Kerry Brown's vibrant photograph of Malcolm McLaren, fairly glowing in a bright orange sweatshirt with 'Punk It Up' in block lettering across the chest, 'Duck' down one arm and 'Rock' down the other.

"It's easy to customise things," McLaren had told me. "I just walked into a shop in New York and had the letters put on."

Malcolm McLaren, the former manager of the Sex Pistols, died overnight, aged 64, after what is said to have been a long battle with cancer.

We didn't actually have an interview set up. But Rip It Up's editor and publisher, Murray Cammick, had discovered McLaren would be staying at what was then the Intercontinental and suggested I go up and see if I could get something.

As it happened, I was there just in time to see him arrive, blowing through the revolving door in a zoot suit. I gave him a little time to settle, then called him in his room to ask for an interview. He said yes without hesitation and came down to the bar.

It's worth noting that McLaren wasn't an entirely popular figure at the time. He'd been sued for Sex Pistols royalties (for the first time) by the band, and had, through his own contrivance, emerged as a less than sympathetic figure in the deeply messy film The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle.

1983 was the year of Duck Rock, a flawed but visionary patchwork of New York street dance, hip hop and salsa and Soweto, devised by McLaren and produced by the people who became The Art of Noise. It was the first hip hop music that millions of people heard. He was accused of being a plunderer after the record became a global hit, both because he pilfered influences and because some foreign artists weren't properly credited. (He told me he'd paid his black South African artists directly because he refused to give any money to white-owned record and publishing companies.)

In person, he was vital, interesting and interested; as generous with his time as he was with the drinks. We talked for quite a while. The following is some of what was said nearly 27 years ago.

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"The days are going when people are going to buy albums. Music will get bigger but in a different way. People are buying it and doing it in more ways than they ever have before.

"But that doesn't necessitate them buying albums and the industry's paranoid about that, but I don't think they have the vision to understand that it's a growth industry, but in a different format than they're used to.

"It might be that some kids just likes the pair of socks that Boy George is wearing and that is the only reason they want to look at Boy George and they get the socks and that's their bit of it.

"They might not actually want the record. That's only 10 per cent of the whole thing.

"If the industry thought like that they'd be more up. They think like the days of the Beatles when everybody bought records and stayed inside their houses and played them. Those days are over because everyone wants the socks more than the records, 'cause they can be seen. You're more happening if you've got the socks. Who cares if you've got the record? Nobody goes back to your bedroom anyway."

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"You were running on tremendous adrenalin. You winged it all the time. You played with fire. It was great, you were living it so you were never aware.

"My original concept when I formed the Sex Pistols was I wanted them to compete with the Bay City Rollers. But it never turned out that way.

"They were nothing like them. They did more than compete with them, they took the world by storm in a very different way and left a smouldering hole.

"Anarchy crept into a child's vocabulary, people understood what it meant. And they loved it because it meant doing everything that your father and mother didn't want you to.

"And to relive that from the days of James Dean or Elvis Presley was too difficult. It had to be told in other terms. So 'Anarchy in the UK' became an anthem. So did 'God Save the Queen' and 'Pretty Vacant'. They were all songs that related to that.

"All those groups – Adam and the Ants, Boy George, ABC – they're all punk rockers. People don't realise that.

"It was funny because we put Mick Jagger and everyone else aside and they all ran back into their closets and houses in the country and bohemian retreats.

"But as soon as the Sex Pistols died they all came out and cut their hair. Mick Jagger said 'I'm the Godfather of Punk', he even wore the same t-shirt as Johnny did. Pete Townshend said 'Hold it: I'm the Godfather of Punk'. They were all godfathers! I thought, what audacity! The Rolling Stones sold more records after the Sex Pistol than they ever sold before."

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"The great thing about cassettes is you never feel precious, do you, giving someone a cassette? Giving someone a record seems sort of … but if you've got a cassette in your pocket you can say 'Have a listen to that – I got it over there last week.' And that bloke takes it down the line to someone else. It's a very rapid way of spreading ideas.

"With a record player you gotta get the thing clean, you get the bloody thing on … it's so 1910 – it's not 1983!

"The record companies still think that home taping is the curse of the industry. It's been one of the greatest assets that popular music has had invented for it!"

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"I suppose you can't help working with the young because they're the ones with the energy, with a bit of anarchy in them. They haven't yet got responsible. Luckily, I've remained irresponsible and a fool. I'm technically one of the most unprofessional people you're ever likely to meet.

"For all my expounding on cassette players I could barely work one myself. Hopeless. I just got for the concepts. Sometimes I think I'd better really learn how to do some of these things, understand them. But at the end I don't bother because perhaps it's better left. Technology is useful but you can have your friends do it for you."

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"How would I like to be remembered? Loved by a few because he was hated by so many. I like that idea. I never wanted to be loved by everyone. You can't get anything done then."

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I finished the story like this:

Epilogue

"Look after yourself mate." His handshake is a loopy upside-down affair with the left hand, but the intention's there.

An entertaining, even inspiring man to speak with. An independent, highly motivated man who had a major effect on the popular culture that took me through my late teens and beyond. A man who doesn't vote or fill in census forms. And friendly.

An exploiter? Certainly. An egotist? Naturally. But also an anarchist.

The best kind of villain there is.

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