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Malcolm McLaren - about the renaissance of the romantics, the punk aesthetic and the era of bullshit (interview)

ab022In the year 2000 Malcolm McLaren, maybe best known for his role as mastermind behind the punk-legends Sex Pistols, had an exhibition of his artwork in the Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, ZKM, in the german city of Karlsruhe called "Casino of Authenticity and Karaoke". At this occasion Patrik Tschudin sat down with him, together with Rene Agiugah, a reporter from the german newspaper. What you'll hear McLaren saying in the interview - among many other inspiring and provocative things: "Failure is liberating! (...) I'm no less punk than i was yesterday! punk rock is basically about the noble persuit of failure! (...) Johnny Rotten became my archenemy! (...) Bury the fucking legend! (...) The Situationists were major mentors of mine! (...) Everything the Situationists said in the sixties became true. (...) When I helped put 'Good save the Queen' on number one and had it banned from the radio at the same time, Guy Debord called me up on the telephone - I've never spoken to him in my life - and he said: 'Thank you very much for getting my record to number one!' As far as he was concerned he owned that record and he owned that idea. And I thought, brilliantly audacious and truely wonderful and I never forgot it. I agree with him, it was his idea, yes! (...)

The internet will define this centuries culture and politics. (...) Mr. Napster is a Saint! (...) open source software: fantastic! (...) I'd much rather see a world where things are for free, but - what's more important than that - where things are not for sale! that's the distinctive idea!"
{audio}{/audio} ... Interview with Malcolm McLaren


  • Why did you get into the whole teddy-boy thing in the 70s?

I did it as an act of revolt against the hippies. I made myself a blue suit, copying the cover of an old Elvis Presley record, and I walked down the Kings Road to try and do something with my life. I wanted to be exploited but no cunt would even look at me! I was brought up in a family that worked in fashion and I had my art school hooligan imagination. The two came together and I set out to create antifashion.

So eventually, after weeks, I was stopped by an American guy dressed completely in black who pointed to a little hole in the road and invited me in there to sell clothes. It was 430 Kings Road and that’s where I began to create the “art school look” for the street. My girlfriend at the time, Vivienne Westwood, had a kid by me. She was a schoolteacher and I had to look after the kid. I convinced her to leave her job and I bought a couple of sewing machines.

  • So what was your first shop like, exactly?

It was called Let It Rock, which I later changed to Too Fast To Live Too Young To Die. That part of the Kings Road was known internationally as the tastemaking, rock and roll capital of the world, so people like the New York Dolls were drawn to it, along with people like Iggy. It was in the era of kaftans and beads so I put a jukebox in there that blared out rock and roll constantly.

But when the shop got successful I couldn’t bear it. I only liked it when it sold to the young and dangerous. When we sold to just anybody it became a commercial exercise. Whenever it started making money I closed it down. This would make Vivienne mad.

  • Can you explain your concept for the Dolls a little bit?

The idea behind the Dolls was to dress them in red patent leather and to debate the politics of boredom. I wrote a manifesto that was titled “Better Red than Dead.” It was at the close of the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal was soon to arise. The idea was to put a certain social and political commentary back into pop culture. That was the start of the stage that the Sex Pistols would later perform on.

  • What made you want to open the store SEX?

I wanted to sell things that were normally sold in brown paper bags under the table. I tracked down manufacturers all over the UK… black rubber t-shirts, black rubber raincoats, tit clamps, and cock rings. We sold it all.

  • Well then why did you close it down?

It was at the peak of the Sex Pistols’ popularity. At the start, they appealed to the intellectually curious and the emotionally connected but then they became a fucking household name.


  • And you had people like Boy George, Adam and the Ants, and Bow Wow Wow hanging out there asking you to make them a look, right?

They were there, yes. What happened was, I was involved in a French independent record company called Barclay. On the side they used to make porno movies and they wanted to get me to put some music to it. They said, “Don’t fucking give us a hard time with any music that’s copyrighted. Use African music or something.”
I went up to the library at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and they had a big music collection. I fancied the girl there so I would go every day and look at her and listen to ethnic music. She played me one of these records, mistakenly, at the wrong speed and it fucking blew my ear off. I thought, “What the fuck is that? It’s a hell of a beat.” So I took the idea back to London and I gave it to these kids who were called Adam and the Ants.

At the same time, Vivienne was diving into 18th-century fashion with these cheesy ball gowns and I said, “If you’re going to do that, Vivienne, you’re going to have to give it a label that kids will understand.” Vivienne was like, “Fuck the kids! I want to sell to elegant women.”

But we didn’t have a shop like that. We had to stay in the pop culture. We had to label it somehow, so I came up with this idea of taking images of pirates from the 18th century so the kids could key into it. I needed a group that looked like pirates. I told the kids in the shop: “You’ve got to look like a pirate! You’re not from this corny back alley of London anymore. You’re from Zanzibar and that’s going to give you license to play these drums that I’m now going to play to you that have this ethnic beat and you’re going to look like pirates!” That’s how Bow Wow Wow came about.

  • You say that you dedicated your life to being a flamboyant and magnificent failure. What is so beneficial in failing?

McLaren: For artists from the 19th century like Blake, Byron, Shelley or maybe even Vincent van Gogh the artistic process was one long eternal struggle, which never ends and never ever succeeds. And the only great art comes out of that struggle. It’s like being on a train. There maybe a destination but you never arrive there – because when you do, you are dead! So, in this romantic age still prevailing in the 1960s, you were taught that from day one. Today, if people were told that, they’d probably drop dead in front of that lecture because they’re such scaredy-dares now! They can’t cope with such thoughts! Those thoughts are far too deep today.
Being a failure was part of an old-fashioned, authentic, romantic way of life and vision for an artist. Today the process of creativity can be better compared to a Karaoke-like experience – an “Ersatz”-world, where the messiness, where the struggle doesn’t exist. In a Karaoke world everything is made easy, you never fail. But in an authentic world failure is something you embrace. It’s almost a noble pursuit. I come from that world – it supported me in creating the punk aesthetic.

  • Did you honestly believe you could stop the commercialisation of the world?

MML: We sat about the task by declaring ourselves not for sale and creating little torpedo missions: some of them in the form of a group like the Sex Pistols – which we knew was going to fail, but no problem! Suicide bombers go to kill American tanks and know that they are going to die and fail. By the same time you do it because it is for a greater course than just yourself. And so – in some respect – there’s a kingship spirit between that suicide bomber and terrorist to us back then, who were unquestionably culture terrorists of a similar nature.
We were fighting what was an obvious, difficult, never-ending and probably impossible struggle to shoot arrows at this oncoming juggernaut of what was a corporate machine that was going to sweep us away and turn this whole culture into nothing more than a Karaoke playground. And once you understand that, you understand there’s a balance: there’s a Karaoke culture and there’s an authentic culture. The authentic culture is probably not very big right now. If you look around here and try to find something authentic, it’s like looking for a ruby in a field of tin – impossible to find!

  • What will there be after this »Karaoke« culture? What comes next?

I kind of conceived that the romantic age is coming back in a very different form but very much within the new generation of the computer-literate of this century, which are the seven-year-olds, who unquestionably can understand Contemporary Art and its references, because from the day they’re born they can see what an »M« means. Before they can read they know that this is McD…, the place where you buy fast food. The same respect to Contemporary Art: they can understand all the multi-references – they can read the logo. Their ability to understand Contemporary Art at a very early age, their ability to google up any kind of information they want, means the intelligentsia of this generation is probably, unquestionably I think, going to be far, far, far better informed than any generation previously. That means if you take that as a leap of faith, even before they reach puberty they could be far more informed than the older generation who are in their early twenties. And far more adept at manipulating the culture than the generation earlier.

  • So the future is not sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll but teen artists?

I think at the moment they’re going to think that sex is very overrated. And I think the reason is because it’s associated with bullshit – for example Volvo Cars doing advertising with a girl in a Bikini. Every time they see sex, it’s kind of located to something bullshit. So it looses its integrity. It’s like you are pouring more and more water on the wine. Sex has been abused in that regard. It will have to be found in some other arena. I always thought when punk rock exploded that it was better than sex. I think we’d love to see the next generation finding something else of a similar nature. It’s all too obvious, this culture at the moment. I don’t believe in it!

South Bank Show - Malcolm McLaren

A South Bank Show from Autumn 1984 featuring Malcolm McLaren. Presumably a vehicle to market his new album, Fans, it features interesting interviews with Boy George, Annabella Lwin, Adam Ant, Steve Jones and plenty of others.






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