Transcript of an interview with Malcolm McLaren
Paris, Saturday August 3rd 2002
McLaren: People always ask me that same question, you know. What does [punk] mean to you and why do you still believe in it today. And you say well, give it another ten years, and we're truly inside the 21st century, and then you have to look back, and you have to pick out, well, what was the 20th century really about? Of ten things that you might talk about, in the whole of the 20th century, culturally -- from the invention of the motor car, to Pablo Picasso, I definitely think punk rock's going to be in it. In the top ten cultural phenomena, and things that produced that century and created certain lifestyles, or changed irrevocably life itself, punk rock will be one of them.
Momus: This leads nicely into my parallel worlds question. I was on tour and I met Sylvain Sylvain of the New York Dolls...
McLaren: Oh, right!
Momus: ...just three weeks ago in Atlanta.
McLaren: In Atlanta?
Momus: I think he lives in Atlanta now. And he told me that he still wants the ticket which you offered him to fly to London and become the singer in the Sex Pistols! I think that was the day before Lydon walked into your store and became the singer.
McLaren: That's right. I think we offered him, we offered Richard Hell. I was in New York. New York changed my life in a way, inspired me. I don't think punk rock would have quite had the model -- it was a model that was born out of one's desire to, I suppose having created a kind of anti-fashion you were seduced by the idea of creating something that might be called anti-music. Why? Because music represented for you a legitimate aristocracy that you really wanted to dismantle. Rock and roll had become legitimate, and you always loved it when it was outlawed. It didn't seem an outlawed activity in 1974, when I started to work and create the group that we called the Sex Pistols. That happened just after I'd been to New York. In New York I saw a kind of thread that seemed to drag from Chicago and this sort of garage rock and roll music -- 13th Floor Elevators, the Standells, 'Ninety Nine Tears' by whoever, I can't remember...
Momus: Question Mark and the Mysterions!
McLaren: Yeah, all of this kind of semi-garagey punk rock, which you could call it at that time, before the media grabbed that name, this kind of rock and roll was always fermenting, and the Velvet Underground were always rather a dominant central force, although somewhat broken and fragmented by then -- within it there was this wonderful downtown trashy rock and roll sound of the group called the New York Dolls. That group was a huge turning point in my culture because I never thought ever before, because I'd coveted so much the rock and roll of the 1950s, which was sort of what I grew up with, through the Rolling Stones, through, therefore Muddy Waters, through the Blues, through all the machinations of the early boy bands of the late 50s, created by the New York music industry, I'd borne and lived and discovered the pop music culture through all of that... When I saw the New York Dolls I was just thrilled and astonished by what I felt was so bad! I couldn't believe anybody could literally get on stage and be that bad! It was beyond my comprehension! I was shocked! I'll never forget, I was with my girlfriend, Vivienne Westwood, at the time, we went to see them play in some little downtown arts center in Soho. I was at that time, at Andy Warhol's Factory, I was putting on a little fashion show, we were trying to sell some clothes out of our King's Road boutique in New York. And we met with this downtown demi-monde set, whose centre attraction was unquestionably the New York Dolls. And I thought 'How can New York parade, support this, it's amazing, they're so bad, they just sound dreadful!' I adored it. Every day I adored it more and more until I was hooked, you know? Being bad is... they're brilliant! They're great, I love this group! I just adored it. I loved every song, I listened to every song of that first album they made, they were fantastic.
Momus: I'd like to steer you a little away from telling these stories which I'm sure you've told so many times and make you speculate a little bit about parallel worlds. What would have happened if you really had made Sylvain Sylvain the singer in the Pistols? Because we associate the New York Dolls with, say, the Rolling Stones or Glam Rock, and it's a major cultural divide there between punk and glam.
McLaren: Well obviously if Sylvain Sylvain had become the singer, or if Richard Hell, who was my first choice, when I got back to London, had come to London and become the singer, it would have been a very different group. It would have been far more drug-driven than it actually was, regardless of Sid's major habit, and it would have probably been more nihilistic, and probably would have been, unquestionably, definately not as English as it was.
Momus: Would it have been a big seller? Would punk have happened?
McLaren: (Long pause) I don't know. I don't know the answer to that. Probably, yeah. Unquestionably they would have been because there was a kind of synchronicity. It was Richard Hell, when I saw Richard Hell at CBGBs, this little downtown nowheres bar on the Bowery, and I saw him, he had on a perfectly-groomed torn, holed T shirt. His head was down, he never looked up, he sang this song 'Blank Generation', his hair was spiked, he had a kind of nihilistic air, he looked contemporary to me, he looked everything that rock and roll wasn't. He had a poetry about him, he, for me, was very very creative, he really was art, and I thought 'That's exactly who I want to sell in my store, that icon!' That's what I was already selling, it was uncanny that I was tearing holes in T shirts, not putting safety pins in at that time but tearing holes in T shirts, making pulled-down clothes, deconstructing, and here was a guy who had done with his own T shirt and he just looked great and I don't think it would have been anything other than a hit.
It's because there was a direct connection with the Velvet Underground, which was one of my favourite groups, and I just thought, oh wow, this guy is just perfect.
Momus: But if we imagine Richard Hell as the singer in the Pistols, the whole issue of the Britishness of the Pistols would have been completely undermined. I mean, you described the Dickensian urchin element of punk, it wouldn't have been Dickensian with Richard Hell!
McLaren: No, more Rimbaud, more poetic, more French, more European...
Momus: Yeah, which the British don't like!
McLaren: And the British wouldn't have liked it! It would have been full of Baudelaire comments, it would have been Richard spouting off in a different way, the group would have been very much a backing band. It would have been a different thing. I'm not even sure it would have survived as long as the Sex Pistols, who, I have to say, didn't survive that long! I think maybe this group would have survived even less and they probably would have drifted out of London and drifted to New York and broken up very quickly.
You know the energy of groups that are held together, as you probably know, are held for all kinds of reasons, sometimes it's literally because they live up the road from each other.
Momus: But it's usually because they're successful or not.
McLaren: Richard Hell was just because I was international, the shop was international, I was very happy to bring a piece of New York back, as well as myself back, from New York at that time. I didn't see the Sex Pistols as anything more than a vehicle, at that time, to basically push the boat out from the shop, it was just a wonderful little idea that I cared about because I thought, wow, to try and make an anti-music statement. What I'd seen, what I'd been swept off my own feet from, with the New York Dolls, what I adored from Richard Hell, what I'd discovered in the whole S&M scene, this idea that, yeah, you could get kids to really experiment with their sexuality, the look of all that, the black leather, the studs, the tit-clamps, the dog-collars, the whole S&M process and style that was harbouring around Christopher Street at the time, the New York Dolls were coupling up with pearl necklaces and little girls' sweaters... I kind of liked all the trashiness of that and I was very taken with it, the imaging on a lot of these T shirts in the pleasure chest, which I literally brought back to London, the tits T shirt, the gorilla T shirt, the Snow White T shirt, all of these were just literally T shirts I had purchased in New Orleans and particularly in New York in the S&M scene. So I was bringing all this stuff, and the New York Dolls, and Richard Hell, back to the shop.
Momus: But making a localised British version.
McLaren: When I walked into the shop a day after coming back from New York I put up all the posters of the New York Dolls in the shop, and people never knew who they were. And a poster of the group Television, which Richard Hell was in. I think a poster of 'Blank Generation', his song, a clipping from the New York Daily News. And suddenly the shop was like a sort of information center, and it had a kind of magic because it was different from all these other shops. It was called Sex, it had a look that was definitely subversive and anti-fashion, I had to have music, this was the music that most people were seeing as part of the shop, it was a natural for Richard Hell to come in.
As it happened Johnny Rotten came in, Richard Hell turned it down, I was supposed to be looking for John Beverly, who eventually became known as Sid Vicious, I didn't find John Beverly, I found his mate, Johnny Rotten. It wasn't originally the person that Vivienne originally thought would be good in the group, it was this guy John Lydon who became John Rotten. If it had been Sid it would have been completely different because Sid didn't really write songs, he didn't really write lyrics, he was a brilliant singer.
Momus: We're waiting for your autobiography so we'll read all this in the book. But I want to ask you things that we're not going to read in the book. For instance, I have a feeling -- my personal take on punk -- that the British people loved the malady but not the remedy, and that punk was an expression of the British malady, that it was an exaggeration of everything that was wrong with Britain, and a protest against everything that was wrong, but it somehow also incarnated the hatred of sex and sensuality, and what you did after punk, with New Romanticism and Bow Wow Wow and all the rest of it, was much more French-influenced and much more about sensuality, and that did not have the commercial success. And most of the things you've done have been much more a direct expression of your values which are...
McLaren: I think Bow Wow Wow could have been commercially successful, it was going to take a longer time, they were on the cusp and could have been very easily a big group in the Unites States. They needed that third album, it's always the third album...
Momus: They're still touring the USA to this day, I see!
McLaren: But they needed that, they didn't have the third album and I had left after the second album, I wanted to make my own record at that time, I wasn't frankly that interested in pursuing them. But I did genuinely think if they got a manager and they were able by then to write their own songs. Because I wrote pretty much 95% of the lyrics and I think by then they were ready to write their own, I thought they'd have to to get that third album over. And I can honestly say they would have survived. I think the Sex Pistols were never going to survive beyond one album. They still are today, 30 years or whatever it is later, they're still a one-album band. Because it could have only happened through this unholy alliance of energy that really wasn't in sync, other than there was a kind of common cause to do something. There was an inner hatred and jealousy, but there was a common cause to do something. And I do believe that Lydon was perfectly ready to (makes a loud vacuum noise) swallow up every idea that was surroudning him. And there were many, many ideas with me and Jamie sitting in the pub in Cambridge Circus, night after night with Rotten and the other band members. And whatever evolved evolved out of that. That was only going to happen for a while. And that had a real energy because it was like (makes loud sucking noise again) it was like someone sucking up new blood, new ideas, and they fermented, and he was ready to write them in the most vitriolic and intense and the most passionate and the most unpretentious -- which is amazing! -- in the most unpretentious manner possible.
Momus: The influence of the Pistols seems to be on marketing, the art world, and fashion. But now if you look at musicians, what they're influenced by is (Public Image Limited's) 'Metal Box'.
McLaren: Yes, yes, yes.
Momus: Nobody actually says 'We listen to the 'Never Mind The Bollocks' album and copy the chords and so on.
Momus: It doesn't seem to be a musical thing. In that sense it's almost a karaoke record.
McLaren: It was an event. It could have been a story, it could have been a movie. It wasn't a musical landmark, it couldn't be, you were only still presenting the same rock and roll chord structures as albums and previous groups had before. You weren't singing blues, you were ranting and raving and you were getting away with it, with a couple of pop twists here and there, and ideas. But what you had was an immense look, a look that unquestionably was going to change the way people were going to think about themselves. A new generation wanted to ally themselves with a new look, and this was the new look, and it was the look that was a hit. And the new look did not depend on you buying the record. It just depended on you turning your jacket inside out, you know, putting your hair up, or wearing a dog collar, or smashing your shirt and scrawling with Pentel a circle with an A in the middle! Or wearing a chaos armband or raiding your mother's closet for safety pins, or literally just leaving school at 15 rather than 16 and sleeping in the park. Or starting a group by stealing a guitar out of Woolworths, or whatever it was. It didn't depend on you buying the record, it wasn't that kind of act, it could never be. So no-one was running around buying Sex Pistols records. People were very much wanting to be there at the event, and the fact that they couldn't be at the event made the event an enigma that could never be resolved. And that's what kept the Sex Pistols on the top of the media pile for eighteen months.
Momus: Would you be unhappy if your contribution there was seen as a great marketing achievement, or would you prefer it to be seen as a great style achievement, or a musical achievement...
McLaren: No, it had nothing to do with the music, I've always said that, I didn't care about the music!
Momus: No. But the word marketing you now use in a fairly negative way, you say everything's too much about marketing.
McLaren: Well, because we -- when I say we, myself, Jamie Reid, friends that weren't strictly involved, Vivienne, fractionally -- you were doing what you didn't quite achieve at art school, you were doing what you were supposed to achieve as a painter, but you weren't painting any more, that was not what you did. This was an art event. I never ever thought the Sex Pistols were anything other than an art thing. And the fact the art world's finally caught it up...
Momus: So it was brilliant marketing by accident?
McLaren: Oh yeah, marketing became something you had to play with. As I said to you, the objective was 'Jamie, how the fuck are we going to design a cover that says 'Don't buy me!'' How are we going to do that, let's fucking do that. Let's make the most ugliest, the most atrocious, let's really strip it right fucking down, we're not having any stupid group on the cover, no crazy faces, we're just going to run this like a fucking clandestine campaign, it's going to be a record that's gotta disappear. The first single of 'Anarchy in the UK' was in a black bag with no hole in the middle. Years ago, all records had holes in the middle. We were coming to the end of that era in 1976 where holes in the middle -- this is how pathetic the record industry is -- were suddenly... (Voice of gormless music industry type:) 'Wow, we have a new idea, we don't have to have a hole in the middle, hey boys, you can have your picture on the cover, that'll be great!' No, I said, we just want it in a black bag, with no hole in it, that's perfect.
But the record company didn't want that. I said 'I don't want the name EMI, I don't want the name of the song, I don't want anything, we just want it in a black bag.' And that's how the record first came out. Now, to find one of those black bagged records of EMI is pretty nigh impossible, it's the rarest, more rare even than 'God Save The Queen' on A&M. But that was the first release by the Sex Pistols.
Momus: And that came from art school.
McLaren: Completely. It was the counter of marketing. 'Well fuck me, Malcolm,' says the marketing man at EMI, 'how the hell is anyone going to find the record?' I said 'That's the whole point. We don't want 'em to.' (He sounds remarkably like Johnny Rotten at this point.)
Momus: No, they didn't understand. But is that the destiny of Guy Debord and all the rest of it, to become, basically, just a cunning kind of inversion of marketing which becomes the new marketing?
McLaren: Well I think the whole Situationist thinking, all of that, was really just a question of understanding... and the Situationists ultimately failed in one respect, and that was they actually believed that the media war and the spectacular commodification of the world turned into just one big show was actually never going to happen. I don't think they ever really believed it, including Guy Debord. I think they believed they could change it. As with all predictions, you make predictions but you don't necessarily believe they're going to happen. I don't think anybody in the 60s believed the commodification of the planet would actually physically happen. It has happened, we're in it. We are part of the spectacle. And it was a question, well, what do we do now? We suffered immense anger and pain in the 70s, leaving art school, with 'What are we going to do now?' We've followed the noble pursuit of failure, we don't want any benign form of success, how are we going to turn that into a continual light of adventure? How are we gonna do that? And yet we were in a commercial world. So, how were we going to be in a commercial world. So I said to Jamie well, you know, this is what I've been doing in fashion on the King's Road. Great, I said, and I'm totally immersed in pop culture, I don't mind at all, we can fuck with that, and, ultimately, Jamie came in on my side. He was actually not, at first, at all interested. He was still back in the days of thinking Situationism, he was running a little press company in South London, he was turning out little subversive magazines to the few, the discerning few who were interested in culture in that way, but it wasn't commercially driven at all. It wasn't upsetting anyone. And when he saw the Sex Pistols he thought, well, we can do this. And I said 'Look, all I'm doing, Jamie, is I think they should compete with the Bay City Rollers.' And Jamie said 'Don't be fucking mad!' And I said 'That's what I think, we're just going to make a look. They're younger than the Bay City Rollers, I think they're better looking, I think they're going to look great in these clothes.' And he said 'Malcolm, we can do something much, much bigger.' And I was always acting on my gut, I was always looking for something... I thought 'big' was competing with the Bay City Rollers and winning. When I realised competing with the Bay City Rollers was just irrelevant, because what we were doing seemed to just take it over and beyond and change, it was happening. But at the beginning I didn't quite see how. It was only by being with Jamie and others I suddenly realised, okay, we can go in this record company and we can turn it over, we really can. There was no question. We had no fear! After about three months we were totally manipulative. We strategised, we were manipulative, and dare I say it, we were very manipulative with the band. We couldn't say everything. Because when we started, some of the boys were thieves, and some of the boys were just good boys, kind of like in rock and roll bands, good boys trying to be bad boys. Rotten was really a good boy trying to act like a bad boy. Which made him, perhaps, more hysterical, and I mean that in the most profound sense, made him more passionate in his delivery. The other guys... they didn't have to prove a lot. They all really were street thieves. So they were just up there trying to get away with it. They didn't have to do much more than just try to get away with it. But Rotten had to prove that he had done it, and was getting away with it. And that was a different thing. And we could never confront him on it, we let him just travel on. We kept quiet. And it was probably half the reason for their success and half the reason for their ultimate demise. Because once Rotten had realised that we had allowed him to think that we believed that he was a member of the Hell's Angels, when we truly knew he wasn't, but we listened as he drove us all insane to prove he knew the biggest rogues in East London, once he knew that we listened but we weren't really... it was the beginning of the end. And that really was really after keeping our mouth shut and really trying hard over a year, it doesn't seem a long time but it was a long time then, and after that it was not plain sailing. We were never going to be able to do what we... We couldn't manipulate. We'd manipulated EMI, we'd manipulated A&M brilliantly, it was easy, it was game, set and match within two weeks. Me and Jamie, that was just the easiest thing. Virgin was very tough, and we pushed and pushed and we basically got caught between the group and the record company. We couldn't fight both sides. It was the old story, we stretched ourselves too thin.
Momus: Have you seen the film 'The Filth and the Fury'?
Momus: What do you make of the accusation in there that you were somehow sculpting with human flesh and that that somehow...
McLaren: Well, we did. Well, it's true. I don't deny any of the accusations. But I think, from where I stood, it was a hell of a lot more fun than it was made out in that movie. It was hysterical at times. And very, very exciting.
Momus: Are you still interested in Situationism, did you for instance read Andrew Hussey's book 'The Game of War'? You were probably interviewed for it...
McLaren: Yes, yes. No, it wasn't interviewed for it, I thought it was an excellent book. There's a new book come out, not about, more about Lebovici who patronised him towards the end of his life, when he opened a company called Art Media and he got murdered mysteriously, no-one quite knows how or why, but he was Debord's patron for the last ten years, after the end of the 60s, I think. The last twenty years.
Momus: I read 'The Game Of War' just after September 11th, and I had a strong sense that everything that was being described as happening in Paris at the end of the 60s would have been seen in the US in 2001 as a form of terrorism. All those guys, if you'd beamed them into 21st century America, would probably have been arrested!
McLaren: Well, we were caught by the Special Branch, we were definitely on FBI lists. We had the FBI trailing on the entire tour, up until the end, until San Fransisco. I guess probably because, first of all, Warner Brothers were not a company that I would say, even at that time, were very savoury. I think they had a really murky past, I think they were very mafia. But that's just part of the American schtick, the American industry, it's just all wound into one. But I thought that was partly to do with it. I thought the other thing to do with it was the fact that we were travelling in Evil Kneivel's coach, who was in prison on tax evasion charges, and that was given to us by Warner Brothers, and we had two heavy ex-Vietnam guerillas actually in charge, and we had to be really careful, because they actually had a price, it was $25,000 to bring us from one end of America to another, and get us back on the plane and out of the country. That was the deal with Warner Brothers, because we were only in America on a six week visa, or less, and we had to get out. I don't know how much they gave a damn, as far as they were concerned we were just sort of hooligans, as Warner Brothers said, you know, 'The management we don't want to deal with, the group are talentless, we'll take Johnny Rotten.' That was the only person that actually the American company genuinely thought was worth preserving out of the group when it was fragmenting and we were all disintegrating and on our last legs, really.
Momus: Could you have done all this, let's turn the clock forward ten years and it's 1985, would anything like that have been possible a mere ten years later? Would it have been Sigue Sigue Sputnik or would it have been Frankie Goes To Hollywood? Was the atmosphere that much more difficult to work in during the 80s?
McLaren: Well the 80s were feelgood years, the 80s were years in which everybody felt they'd already, in England at least, experienced punk rock, and they felt that now anything was possible. It really was an era in which it was about making money, a lot.
Momus: So what could you have done in the 80s?
McLaren: I don't know, I left the country in the 80s. I left the country after I made a couple of records, I think about 83, and I went to Los Angeles, god knows why. It was a different place, it was far away, one could re-invent oneself, and I joined the movie industry. And I don't think it was such a smart move.
Momus: Did you basically have the same experience Bertolt Brecht had, which was that he could make movies but they were so compromised...
McLaren: Yeah, it wasn't... it was a very, very, very big learning curve and I wasn't prepared for it, I was thrown in the deep end, and I was also, stupidly, convinced that nobody knew me. I actually thought, this is the naivete of the English, that you go that far and nobody knows who you are! I actually literally thought that! I thought I could learn a different medium, which I'd been fascinated by, and for some time I worked my way into that industry, working for all those illustrious Hollywood directors like Spielberg and Barry Levinson and movie companies like Columbia and so on. But I was totally wrong. I was merely someone who was considered for his part, but I was also someone who was also going to be swallowed up in the big barbecue, I'm afraid.
Momus: It was like the music industry, only worse?
McLaren: Yeah, it was very difficult because I didn't have a gang. I think, you know, it's very hard on your own. You need a gang. The gang gives you strength. I feel that the gang element is absolutely vital. For me, I can only work within a team, I have to work within a team, I can't work just on my own. I felt that it was very hard to get a team together in Hollywood because everyone is on their own, always. It's one of the things that happens in Hollywood, people are too scared to be in any team, people don't have that kind of loyalty, you know, Hollywood breeds the exact opposite, you'd kill your mother if it meant you getting yourself a part, a production role or a directorial role or whatever it was. No, teams were out, and I fell in love with an actress there, for many years, and that was my salvation, a brief respite, but not, in any way, sufficient to merit any kind of profound understanding or progression with my life. I realised that and I literally left Hollywood with a toothbrush. I left my house, my entire possessions, even my archive, which I'd brought from London, and I literally climbed onboard and came back to Europe, and I actually lodged myself here in Paris.
Momus: What about the parallel world in which Junck is a big hit? I mean not just how that would have felt for you, but what kind of world would that have needed to be, for Junck to have been a huge hit?
McLaren: That idea came out of a profound interest... When I could sum up the culture by forming two words, Authenticity and Karaoke. And most artists spend their time trying to authenticate the karaoke. I thought, wow, I'd just been lecturing in Asia, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and I saw all these karaoke bars. And karaoke had always seemed to me to be an Asian phenomenon, rather than a European phenomenon. I mean, we toyed with it, but didn't really understand it. We didn't even know the meaning of the word, which means 'Dead orchestra'.
McLaren: Ha ha ha ha! I mean, it's a kind of phenomenal idea, that's the actual literal Japanese translation, dead orchestra. So that idea, I just thought wow, you know, could one, I thought it was just very sexy to think of creating an Asian group that could change the context of European and American pop culture.
Momus: But I'm interested not so much in the story of how the group came into your mind, but... there's a book that came out a couple of years ago called 'The Tipping Point'...
McLaren: Yes, I know that!
Momus: It's about why certain things pierce through into the public consciousness and others don't. So Junk didn't tip anything...
McLaren: Well it did, they just never released a record. It never really happened. They had one show in New York that was just a promotion show by Estee Lauder or someone...
Momus: Yes. But there is no Asian supergroup that has done that, on a global level.
McLaren: No. Well, Chinese people have an aversion to being in such groups, it was difficult. Most of those girls came out of Singapore, which is quite illiberal in that regard. It's not a done thing. But I just thought 'Kung Fu girls that can sing 'Foxy Lady Coming To Get Ya'' -- that idea suddenly changed what 'foxy lady comin' to get ya' meant when Jimi Hendrix sang it. I just loved that. That's what the karaoke thing was doing for me. How could I authenticate it? That's how I could authenticate it. Getting a Chinese girl to sing Hendrix, actually doing it, changing the context of it, and actually making it more profound. And speed it up, and make it happen, and hey, throw in a few Chinese words for good measure if you want. Just co-opt it, take it, swallow this world, and spit it out in your own way. Copy it, damn right, but by you copying it, it's just going to sound a hell of a lot different. And maybe even better!
Momus: But the world in which that record is a commercial success, is that world a world in which everyone is Malcolm McLaren? In other words, is it something that only appeals to you?
McLaren: I don't know. I have yet to try it. I'm going to put it on this record, I'm going to do it on this record. Because I think all the things I have ever done, if I have a parallel world, my parallel world is probably fashion. The nearest, as damn it. With all my political background, with all my sense of social awareness, in the end it's just an antennae out there that somehow grabs hold of what the culture is, you know. What is the magic? That's the only thing you ultimately care about, how can you make it magical? The Sex Pistols were, for a moment, very magical. Magical because you didn't know how it worked. There's always this phrase which I've kept with me for maybe 25 years, which Christian Dior said: 'Fashion is the last repository of the marvellous and the designer is the last possessor of the wand of Cinderella's fairy godmother.'
Momus: Ha ha ha, great!
McLaren: And to me the Sex Pistols were the last repository of the marvellous! That's where I was coming from. And that was the look, it was to make the marvellous. And you can't make the marvellous by it being full of chiffon and lace, but you may make the marvellous if it's full of old dirty chiffon and torn lace, and somehow projected by a guy with a sneer and a sigh and a kind of attitude that says 'Don't buy me!' That to me was marvellous!
Momus: And you don't know the route to the marvellous at any given point. That kind of reminds me of Jung's character typologies, where he says that there's the intuitive thinking type, which he says was like a business man, always making investments but never quite knowing where to put his money. In a sense, could we see you as a 'culturepreneur', this horrible word, the culture entrepreneur, this person who doesn't really know exactly what's going to be the next hit but is always trying new combinations of things in an almost random way. With your antennae, as you say. But is it a culturepreneurian thing?
McLaren: (Long pause) I don't know what one's role is, you know, it's so difficult. I'm a typical product of a generation and a world where being a painter was not necessarily doing any painting. What did you do? You had to create trouble somewhere, somehow, you had to cause some commotion, you had to make some mark, you had to do something with all these years of living in a haven of disenfranchised creatures, including yourself, representing a world that was different from the outside world. That's all. And when one was thrown out into the real world you became extremely angry because you didn't know quite how to deal with it. And I don't think I know any more how to deal with it today than I did then. And I'm still constantly scraping at the surface to try to actually make a mark. And I see certain conceptual artists like, you know, Damien, with their little provocative statements and I see the Tracey Emins of today doing the same, and I think of the characters that were in my generation not necessarily doing anything quite as fashionable...
Momus: Well, there was Warhol, of course...
McLaren: Yes, but he was not my generation, he was a generation before me. The godfather! And I think that my generation in England couldn't do that. We were still obsessed by music. We were also obsessed by fashion. I think the new artists were not obsessed by music, because they felt themselves bigger and better and bolder. They were not really quite as obsessed with fashion to provide themselves with an identity. They thought that they could do it all through art. They thought they'd swallowed fashion and music and they were bigger and better and could create these silent debates. Think of Gavin Turk's portrait as Sid Vicious. It's a musical, fashion and art statement all in one.
Momus: But it's not mass production. Those YBAs, they retreat from the idea of playing with the mass media, which is what you've always done. They go back to having patrons and making individual handmade artworks. So in a way isn't that a retreat from the faith that you have in the population at large -- and which Warhol had as well, because Warhol loved to see his art on paper carrier bags and postcards...
McLaren: Oh, I think they're much more traditional than Warhol, I think they couldn't -- I think Damien's attempted to do it. But you have to remember that Warhol was a far more profound, and far better artist than any of these guys. Not only because he was the origin, but also because he could deal with music, and he did deal with fashion, and he did deal with movies, all of it. And all of it he dealt with with much more style. He was much more commanding. He controlled the media. These people don't control the media, they worship the media, they are driven to the altar of the media. They are the media's tools, a marketing man's dream. Warhol didn't need a marketing man. Warhol didn't really have agents, precisely. Warhol had his own Factory. These people don't really have that, they're not really quite as good. They're more students of the philosophy 25 years later. Of course they're the children of Andy Warhol, but by being the children of Andy Warhol they're not necessarily going to grow up to be bigger than Andy Warhol, or make a more profound statement than Andy Warhol.
Momus: And do you think you have children in that same sense? Like McGee or Alway or people like that? Might they be your children who are destined never to make quite as big a statement? I mean, McGee, okay he made a lot of money, probably more money than you've ever made...
Momus: ...but I don't think Oasis are going to be remembered... Obviously, they're not going to be remembered in the same way.
McLaren: Oasis were really just too much about music.
Momus: But it's like a karaoke version of the Pistols too.
McLaren: Yeah, they didn't have anything else. It's just taking an element. You can't do that. It's just not going to work enough. Not in the way they presented themselves. It might have done, if they didn't present themselves as anything other than black shadows and then it was just music. They may have actually survived and they may have been more profound. The fact that they tried to present themselves as something more is where they ran into trouble, because they didn't really have anything to say, and by not having anything to say people ultimately got bored with them. It's fine, the brattish behaviour and the pranks and all of that, it's all great, all part of their style, but it wasn't really enough, because the aftertaste is just not interesting. You know, you drink a glass of wine, the aftertaste is dreadful sometimes if the wine is cheap. It hasn't been cultivated and it hasn't been developed. Same thing. The wine was weak. It was like water had been poured on it. That's the aftertaste with Oasis. And it's the same with a lot of groups, and it's the same with a lot of art. I don't know even if Damien Hirst or any of these people are going to be remembered in 25 years time, or are going to be treated with that much importance. I think they were an event. And I think they are an event of the 21st century. An event which dismantles the notion that art needs to be more than a product. I think art, even in the days of Andy Warhol, even though he tried to turn it into a product, he couldn't. Because everything that Warhol produced always was art, always, always, always. Everything that these guys produce, in my opinion is a product, but by being a product, I'm not sure it will have as much of a lasting impact. Because it doesn't have the sensuality. It doesn't have the ability to make you want to be a part, it doesn't give you a signal to develop out of, it's a very regimented form, not matter how conceptual it is. One can break it down, there's a very Do It Yourself aspect to it.
The YBAs, if there was a programme like Pop Idol called Art Idol..
Momus: Which there is in Japan, by the way!
McLaren: Okay, ha ha ha!
Momus: Takeshi Kitano does it.
McLaren: Okay! Well I think that unquestionably these are the kind of artists that would be created. But I don't think there's anything wrong. I think a lot of them are great. And I certainly am always curious. And as long as you're curious about them, that's great. And I feel very much part of it. But it is different. You cannot compare. Warhol was living in a world in which the media was totally naive. Warhol was living in a world in which people were far more naive, more gullible, more seductive, and in some ways a lot more sexy. You know, you couldn't make those movies today. I would be impossible.
Momus: You could do it on a very indie level.
McLaren: Yeah, on a very indie level, but also on a level that is much more regimented, more conformist. The level he was working on wasn't a conformist level. It was totally open, like an open world. There were no barriers, there were no bookends, there was no precedent.
Momus: But it was the 60s, when anything seemed possible. Another 60s figure who shares your initials is Marshall McLuhan. I don't know if you were influenced by him...
McLaren: We all read that book. The medium is the message.
Momus: But you have a similar idea about... McLuhan said that artists were possibly the only people who could step outside the context of what media was telling them all the time and see it as just a message which was self-enclosed.
McLaren: I think that's right, I think artists can do that. But I think artists are very difficult to find today. I think artists are not in the obvious places. I think artists have definitely gone into hiding, I think artists... they haven't been crushed, it's just that the media has become so overwhelming, in terms of its control and it's all-encompassing. It's like, all views are the same views. We live in a world where you are only responsible for your actions while your performance is being made. As soon as your performance is ended, whatever it is, you're no longer responsible. That's the kind of karaoke lifestyle. You don't have to observe a world where you have to form a critique any more, because all views have become the same. And therefore, for the artist, he's very hidden. He or she is a really difficult character to find. They could be bandits, they could be terrorists, they could be computer hackers, they could even be roadsweepers, I don't know. They could be anywhere, but they're not in the obvious places.
Momus: So when September 11th happened, you were probably appalled as everybody was, but did you feel in any way that Bin Laden was doing anything like what the Situationists had envisioned. Did you feel that the attacks on the World Trade Center were in any way like a brilliant publicity strategy?
McLaren: For what?
Momus: Well, for a different way of thinking about the world.
McLaren: Oh, I think it's too early to look at it like that. It's a wake up call. It made people feel incredibly lazy. It made people suddenly incredibly guilty at their own laziness and their inability to think beyond themselves. It made people very angry because of that. And it made a lot of people also start to think about the world outside themselves. And that, culturally speaking, was no bad thing. I think that the ultimate effect will be that we will inevitably care less and less about our own culture. Because it will become something to defend that most people will not necessarily be so willing to defend. I think it's difficult for us to get enthusiastic about defending our own culture, because basically we've decimated it, demystified it, desecrated it, made fun of it. We have loved it, hated it, we don't know whether it's worth as much as people are pretending it to be, when it comes to the crunch. Do you care? Are you going to cry a million tears if Tate Modern was blown up tomorrow morning...
Momus: Ha ha ha!
McLaren: ...with all the art in it? Is going to really bother you? I don't know whether it really will. Are we really going to get sad if Los Angeles suddenly fell into the ocean? And Hollywood with it? Would we really cry a million tears for the next ninety years? I don't know. I think we're very immune now to this, and I think the reason is we've never believed in less. It's very difficult for us, even though we would love to, we'd love to have had an ideology.
Momus: So is nihilism stronger now than nihilism was in '76?
McLaren: I think it's a different thing...
Momus: It's consumer nihilism!
McLaren: It's taken a different form. The culmination of a karaoke culture today is being seen in the form of Bastard Pop, it's what's going on in England right now. The culmination of a karaoke culture is being seen in the form of Hollywood imitating itself again and again. The culmination of a karaoke culture is seen in Dior becoming rock and roll. The culmination of karaoke culture is basically a sense of a world that will ultimately destroy the messy process of creativity. That's what I think is happening. The actual mess that it takes to create anything really new is being driven out. Anything to do with mess is considered not cool. People make art by a telephone call. People make music by a telephone call. People almost make commercials and movies by a telephone call. You know this. People don't have to read a map to go anywhere. That is a brilliant metaphor today. You don't have to read a map. You have this -- GMS, is it? -- this thing you put on a taxi...
Momus: There's no more derive, you can't derive any more.
McLaren: There's no more derive, you just get 'You are arriving, now please turn left, you have arrived at your destination.' You can never get lost. You can go to the desert, with GMS, you can be in the middle of the Southern Algerian desert, and you'll never get lost.
Momus: I like the idea you had for your mayoral manifesto that you could go through any museum and that they'd be open at any time and that you could go through any museum and that would be an alternative route through the city.
McLaren: That's right. That's just the idea of not having the pavement dictate the way that you walk.
Momus: You went to the British Museum a lot when you first went to London. Which is something I did as well. Because it seemed to propose different ways of living, it was different societies at totally different times of history, and you could see that everything you were experiencing as necessary was just arbitrary.
McLaren: Wow. Wow, wow, wow! Well, that's what's happened with technology. You have to make a seriously determined effort to take technology away from your life. That is not progressive in the ordinary sense. That is a huge conundrum for people, because it's making people debate whether they believe in the future. Now if they can't believe in the future it's very hard for the culture really to go anywhere. And there's no point really trying to revive, because nostalgia is dead tissue. It's a real problem. Therefore this idea of getting rid of the messy process will continue to go on. But the act of rebellion, you see, is in the idea of creating the messy process. Now, if the messy process is the destruction of the World Twin Towers, that's a sort of... If that's the symptom, whether it's a symptom of another culture's reaction against... because when we... it's because the logical development of getting rid of the messy process in the karaoke world is to get rid of all religions. Because religions are a very messy process. The pope, Catholicism. The religion in the desert, the Muslims, these are messy cultures, cultures that can't come together in this new world. So the idea of George Bush today is to push this...
McLaren Transcript F
They managed to climb back into another medium. But I think the time has come I'm about to, through music.
And now I'm doing a show in New York about Paris, a theater show. And I might do this thing now which I'm just on the verge of writing and exploring... I'm doing a musical album about fashion. I'm going back to my own roots, if you like, trying to find my own authentic origin feelings, making almost a petit histoire of pop culture, but trying to make it sound like just a few frocks, really. And I'm doing that for the purpose of creating a new show about a new frock.
Momus: Is that something to do with your history of rock music as seen by a family?
McLaren: No, what I'm doing is I'm making an album about the life and times of a house, a fashion house. Dior, to be precise. And that's giving me a big palette to dip into, from a musical perspective. Because it sort of runs parallel with the history of pop culture after the war. So, rock and roll, blues, variete, film, dances from the mambo to the apache to Charleston revivals and jazz, all ending up in one pop cultural soup, and the sort of modern contemporary classical world, which, for me, was very dominant here with these kind of new composers like
McLaren: Yeah, and later Satie and Poulenc and Les Six, and at the same time in America John Adams and, latterly, Phillip Glass. I'm kind of interested in looking at them all in a very unpretentious, culturally magpie-like way, hopping and skipping and marrying bits, and putting them together. I'm just sort of absorbing it all like a fan. It's a bit like looking for new cloth at a designer's show. So that's how I'm going about designing these themes and songs and that song I played you was my attempt at creating how Hollywood might have, in the more fantastical way, created their version of rock and roll, a sort of marriage of an old Charleston ragtime song -- 'I Want To Be Loved By You' -- with a Muddy Waters song, and got some young boy to do it with a lot of energy and bring on the strings and I'm using Matsiani's Intermezzo and baroque it up and give it a big production and I'm thinking 'Yeah, that's great!' and now I can see how Dior's clothes from Belle Epoque were transposed and coveted by Hollywood and turned into a rock and roll teenage look. I like that, this is how America co-opted Dior and turned it into something that, for want of a better word, became a... the first, street, from being a couture and about reviving his mum's clothes, after the war and his Belle Epoque desire to go back to a world pre-war, here was Hollywood taking it and turning it into something you jived around and lindy-hopped to and you listened to Little Richard.
Momus: It had some of the same feeling as the vogue stuff you were doing before Madonna then went and used her vogue thing.
McLaren: Well it's all going to have that gay thing because it's all fashion and it's all about the show. I'm not going to do anything that isn't about the show.
Momus: It's more about low culture and high culture marrying and making hybrids.
McLaren: I think that's what you can do now. I'm just totally into the idea of taking rock and roll history and just turning it into a big show. I think the time has come. It's karaoke, you might as well just put it on one big charabang and whoof! Open it up and here they are, it's a series of frocks!
Momus: Don't you need lots of money? Can you get money from the fashion industry?
Momus: Like Dior will pay?
McLaren: I don't know about any of that, but in terms of theater, a great show that's musically fun and happening and has all the elements in it that you can recognize and accept, it's time for that. You don't want to hear some maudlin Andrew Lloyd Webber song, I certainly don't, and I'm at an age now, I'm happy. I'd love to look at the house of Dior and see where it came from and where it's taking us to. You know, from Christian Dior through to Yves St Laurent and a skip and a jump to John Galliano. If I can do that in an album of songs, I kind of like that, that's something I can do, that's something I know about, and something I can feel, and something I can genuinely do with music, which maybe most people wouldn't, they don't have a feeling for that. I decided, being in Paris, hey, I'm round the corner from the Dior salon, I know John, I know the world, I know and have had experience in that world and I'm walking the goddamn same streets, so, hey, that's what I decided I would do in Paris. This would give me a real mark. I'm not making an album as a tourist. When I made 'Paris' I was making an album as a tourist, as a naive tourist, as a Scottish hooligan on a lost weekend, looking for some crazy romance, you know. It was a different desire. So you were open. Now I'm more of a workman. I've arrived, I'm in it, and I'm using the things I know about, I bring it to the table. I'm here with a very different kind of cause.
Momus: What do you think of Jeremy Scott?
McLaren: I think Jeremy Scott was typical. In musical terms he was like they guy from Dead Or Alive (sings 'You Spin Me Round Like A Record'). Pete Burns, that's what Jeremy Scott reminds me of. He came from Liverpool to London, made that record, and went back to Liverpool years later. Jeremy Scott did the same. It was okay, he made a moment, he had a moment, it was very dishy and very happening, he was a bit of a one-hit wonder and he went home again.
Momus: Pete Burns has become a drag queen in San Fransisco. I saw these photos of him in Castro with lots of collagen in his lips when I was there earlier this month.
McLaren: Oh has he? So he's gone off and reinvented himself? Okay, maybe Jeremy will reinvent himself in Hollywood. He'll end up doing haute couture for Steven Speilberg or something. I don't know, he may end up a costume designer on some epic.
Momus: I think he was almost like a bouc emissaire. Somebody had to bring back the 80s, and he was just in the right place at the right time to do that.
McLaren: Just like that guy from Dead or Alive. He came out of punk rock, but he made a disco record.
Momus: He seems a bit extreme for the Paris world, being an American, obviously.
McLaren: Too much a show.
Momus: There wasn't so much of that restrained elegance.
McLaren: Well, there's nothing restrained about John Galliano, but they can't have more than one showman. I think that's the point you learn. You know, there was only one Elvis Presley, really. And then there was Gene Vincent, there was Eddie Cochran, there was Vince Taylor and he came to Paris, there were all these sorts of blokes, but there was only one Elvis. And there can only be one show kind of guy, like John Galliano, he is the Elvis Presley of haute couture. As instinctive, as innately talented, as raw, as working class.
Momus: What about McQueen, what do you think of McQueen?
McLaren: Too close to his own culture for comfort. Can't look out.
Momus: Too British?
McLaren: Yeah. Couldn't look out. Clever, very good craftsman, but too caught in his own world. He can't... didn't like women enough.
Momus: Well, none of them... Yves St Laurent, did he like women?
McLaren: I think so, more than Dior, I'm sure. The reason Yves became a giant, Nick, is that he did like them. He would never have gained the status he did. He adored girls.
Momus: I like Cardin, but he was different from all those guys because he had this futuristic vision.
McLaren: Cardin was very businesslike. He was more than a designer, he was a very different kind of guy. But the parallels, you talk about parallel worlds, that is a parallel world, and it's merged. They've had to accept a rock and roll star, they needed him. John Galliano was the one they took. And he is The King, no doubt about it. And France will covet him and love him to death.
Momus: I wanted to ask you about skating, because in New York especially you keep coming across this obsession with skating as a template for all cultural activity and I just found this paragraph (translates a statement by artist HervŽ Paraponaris from a free street-style magazine called Kink): 'The skateboard appears as a solid representation of urban cultures. Adulated or feared, it represents a radical attitude in the city and its strong capacity for creation often brings it close to the visual arts. Like them, it has taken its place in the city, which has become a territory to be conquered, a dynamic space, a place of mutation. There, it liberates the body from gravity, which nails it to the ground.'
McLaren: I think that's very true. When I was in Hollywood, the only thing that I really was excited about was surfing, because it was alien to Europe, to where I came from -- London, urbanism. It was religious. You went out and you said 'Fuck the land, when I'm in the ocean I'm in another world.' And you couldn't wait to get back in that ocean; that world was those waves. I could understand that obsession and I always thought that culturally, if I was to do anything in Hollywood, that's what I wanted to do. I always wanted to make a major surfing movie. All I had was a title: 'Heavy Metal Surfing Nazis'. Ha ha ha ha! But I couldn't get it through.
Momus: But it seems a little strange when you get people like Harmony Korine, or Dennis Cooper, or Geoff McFettridge, a whole bunch of young artists, writers, film-makers, designers, and they're all talking, not about those activities, but about how they came up through skating and formed this mystic brotherhood, and it almost becomes this religious, kind of Masonic thing. I mean, why does skating become the template for everything?
McLaren: Well, because everybody's looking to provide themselves with some cultural identity, and that cultural identity tends to be, with the young, annexed to a sense of freedom, an ability to control space. No-one believes that artists really do control space, we don't recognize any longer art, in the traditional sense of painting and sculpture, as something we care about... we don't care about the space they control, we care about another kind of space because urbanisation and the world, culturally, is a much more... we're far more aware of the times... it's about environment, it's about what Debord talked about, it's about the leisure, it's about how you change a city, it's about how do you change your life, you know? They all go back to Diderot and those guys, you know, the artist is far closer to the criminal because the act of crime was considered sensual because it changed life, and by doing that they were outlaws, and the artist had something in common; they both break the rules. Now that's an old 18th century Romantic thought, but one that really was kept alive through the era of Baudelaire, and was kept alive through the era of 20th century thinkers, Jack Kerouac 'On The Road', that's the early days of skating, 'Easy Rider', the motorbike crowd, 'The Wild One', all those things are landmarks and skateboarding is part of that link. If Guy Debord was alive today and just happening, he'd be into skateboarding!
Momus: Ha ha ha! Yes, but yesterday's rebellions become today's orthodoxies, I mean I think what bothers me about that quote about skating is that it's now become such a cliche for film-makers or whatever. Instead of talking about film-making per se, they talk about skateboarding and it's a way of getting what Pierre Bourdieu called 'cultural capital', the cultural capital you get from saying 'I'm part of a youth group which is in the know, and I'm qualified to talk about this', and you accumulate cultural capital, or in this case 'subcultural capital', which is the same thing as cool. I mean, I skateboarded when I was young, but I would never talk about that as something relevant to what I do today.
McLaren: But these kinds of -- what you thought were details -- become really fundamental, become important.
Momus: And become orthodoxies!
McLaren: Yes, it can become orthodoxy, absolutely. Hey, who knows. You know, I talk about theater as a show, it may sound archaic, but it may suddenly become very contemporary. I don't know. We no longer care about what is a trend, however much everyone is trying to brand trends and, as you say, create 'subcultural capital' out of them, the trend is not the thing that's really moving the culture. What's really moving the culture today is style. It's all about the presentation.
Momus: Skating is a style.
McLaren: Yes, it's become more and more a style, and it's style that's governing everything, and style is unique to you, it's about your idea of styles, that's all. And that's the DIY aspect, and that's why they keep coming back with punk rock, only because they have to seize upon something that was ultimately, now the jury has gone home everybody has finally realised, it was really about style, it wasn't about anything else. And that style was so powerful that it retained its enigmatic quality, that you couldn't easily co-opt. You continue to attempt to co-opt it and in the end it's about making ugliness beautiful, it's about destroying in order to create something that liberates you from orthodoxy. And although they are trying to make it an orthodox style, inevitably I don't think they ever will. In my opinion punk rock will stand as a brilliant artistic event that allowed you to not care about orthodoxy, that's all.
Momus: Do you ever think that punk rock actually heralded in the Conservative government of 1979? Perhaps people recoiled from that vision of anarchy, no future and the rest of it.
McLaren: Well I don't think art really parallels politics, I think art is separared from politics. Politics can try to co-opt it. We all know Tony Blair invites Oasis to 10 Downing Street and Johnny Rotten has been lobbying the Queen to try and get into the Buck House party of the Golden Jubilee party, but failed... We all know this desire because the desire is to be accepted in order to earn money. If you're accepted you earn money. If you're unacceptable today, it's no longer a currency. Outlaws are not de rigeur today. Romanticism is not on the map yet. It may come about in some strange way. It often does. We don't live in a Romantic age, although we all might deep down desire it. We don't.
Momus: Did you see 'Hello Culture' which was Matthew Collings' series on Channel 4 about Romanticism and how it influenced punk rock and things like that? I think he was talking about punk as a latter-day Romantic gesture.
McLaren: Well, I unquestionably agree. But it did more than that. It actually gave people who would never ordinarily have had the opportunity to express themselves an absolute right to do that. And people believed in it. I think punk rock really gave people a fundamental belief in themselves. That's really what was at the core of it.
Momus: But I can imagine being sixteen years old now and thinking that punk rock is just the sneer that a fashion model does in i-D magazine, or it's a series of very dense ironic references that the media and people in the know play with... Or, on another level, it's a series of really sincere hardcore bands in America.
McLaren: Well, maybe it does that as well, yes. Hey, it's just like everything else, it's quite insidious in the way it gets inside all things by all kinds of manipulations; some people trying to co-opt it, some people trying to let it breathe, but ultimately I could honestly say that there has not been such an artistic gesture since. It really is a landmark.
Momus: A lot of my work could be seen as a backlash against punk, a backlash against that Romanticism. What I've done, to try and shock people of that generation, people like McGee, is that I've gone back to Classicism, I've gone pre-French revolution, basically, gone back to the Ancien Regime, played harpsichords and sung rather witty little salon songs with very rude titles like 'Coming In A Girl's Mouth'...
McLaren: I understand, I understand. But again, inadvertently you wouldn't have done it without punk.
Momus: Yeah, cos it's the antithesis to punk's thesis.
McLaren: But it has its roots in that.
Momus: But if punk became an orthodoxy, how would you undermine it, how would you shock the guardians and the curators, the people who are at the V&A and who now do very serious exhibitions about punk style?
McLaren: I told you, the only thing that I think that is at all valid now is that you have to accept this fundamental of a karaoke culture, and how do you use it, do you authenticate it, do you subvert it, what do you do with it? This has arrived, it is, we are all in it, we are all the advertisement, we are all part of the spectacle. What do you do with it, that's all? I was amazed, I would have thought that by the time we reached 2000, we would have debunked punk rock by now. Hey, it's all over, it's all locked up, it's all in those big buildings over there, it's all in storage, we're moving on, we're looking at a new culture, but we're not, we're still in it, we're still referencing it, we're still looking back over it. We're not out of the 20th century, we've got one foot in it and one foot in the 21st.
Momus: We're kind of condemned to keep repeating it and repeating it, in an obsessive compulsive gesture?
McLaren: For the moment. But I think in the end we'll run out of steam.
Momus: I mean, that's one of the reasons I live in Japan now. Although we still have these things going on in Japan, there's this distance from everything, so everything is equally strange and equally foreign to them and they just make these collages, and actually, I guess it is totally karaoke, but it's also very creative in the sense that they break it up like dung beetles and they make it into this little ball and they roll it up the hill.
McLaren: Yeah, that's why I've always believed in the Asian phenomenon. They would take Western pop culture and they would deliver it back in a very different form. It may be temporary, but that's why I've always loved the idea of taking something like Jimi Hendrix, 'Foxy Lady', mixing it with 'Jet Boy Stole My Baby' and having girls sing it from Shanghai. And that's it, that's the statement now, that's where we're at, that's the ultimate goal. And it's not about 'you'. The culture today isn't about 'you'. Theater musicals are about 'you', it's about 'I am' songs or 'I wanna be'. At the moment we don't write songs about 'I am' or 'I wanna be'.
Momus: It's more like 'he said', 'she said', putting quotation marks around everything.
McLaren: Because we don't know what 'I am' is.
Momus: What David Bowie was in the 70s, everybody now is like that. Everybody changes their image every year. Everybody's kind of confused, it's like a palace of mirrors. So what comes after post-modernism?
McLaren: Well I think we're out of post-modernism.
Momus: Because of September 11th?
McLaren: Yes, I think that's partly it, but I think we're out of it because we have this sense that we really get very excited about people who believe in something. And post-modernism was such a jigsaw, such a facile facade. Pop culture is still very in it, but, as I said to you, the authentication, this question of finding the authentic, is very important. Right now they're making this huge documentary about the history of the blues for American television. Scorsese is involved, everybody is involved in it. It's all about looking at the roots of things again, what was it all about. I don't know whether they'll find anything particular, other than it was definitely anti-Christian. If you can say anything, that's what it was about. That's what rock and roll was about. Rock and roll finally became very Christian. And now it's about corporate religion. It's about being someone who is just singing for a living. It's very simple. And because you and I and many others still have this foot in the 20th century, thinking pop culture should be about something more, we have unquestionably a constant problem. But I am afraid to have to admit, to say, no-one ultimately cares that much. They're not looking for a surprise in pop culture. They're looking for a surprise in something else. They really are.
Momus: You were interviewed in Wired about your views of the future, and Bjork did something in the same series, just a little paragraph about the future. And yours and Bjork's were totally different. You were saying everyone's getting less and less interested in music per se, whereas Bjork said 'Everyone's getting laptops now and they can all play music now much more immediately'.
McLaren: That doesn't mean to say they're interested in music, they're interested in the process. What she fails to understand -- she's not very bright -- she fails to understand the fact that it's not the music, it never was, since the Sex Pistols. No-one made music because they were interested in the music, after the Sex Pistols, they were interested in the process. How do you become a musician? What (tape ends)
McLaren transcript G
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but you talk to any kid of 14, 15 who's got their own laptop, they just love processing. How do you break this down, how do you control this, how do you do that? That's what we're all interested in. When you come to design it's all about the process of design. When you're making movies today it's not about 'What are you trying to say?' but about the process of making movies. That, dare I say, is often about style. That's what it's reduced to. That's what process ends up being. Process isn't really enveloping a new thought and a new content, it's the process for the process' sake. Why? Because I think most people concern themselves today with bolting the hatch down and trying to make a living. It isn't very attractive, but it is, for most people, a way of achieving something that they think they can control. And I think that young people today, culturally speaking, are feeling that if they can understand the process they can understand how to control culture.
Bastard pop is a typical phenomenon made out of people desiring to control the process. Well, we'll take Kylie Minogue and we'll put her with Eminem. It's the 'marriage of', it's the process. I'm into that too, I love bastard pop, I think that's great, that is part of Do It Yourself. But it's only about the process. Punk rock had something else to say, because it was also trying to destroy an old oligarchy, it was trying to destroy an industry, it thought it was fun to do that, to pull it all down. That was great, that created an energy. You don't need that kind of energy today, the process has been given to you through technology. There's no need to scream and shout, you can do it in the privacy of your own home. That's what people have got to. And I think that whether there'll be an energy that grows out of that... the jury's still out. But culturally speaking, nobody is really putting anybody up on the altar. The media try to constantly create phenomena, but we can see that the phenomena are usually local, they're not international. The only one that's managed recently to be internation is Eminem. Why? Because I think he still screams about the fact that he doesn't like his mum! And that's important, we all don't like our mums, so we can all relate to that. And he does it in a phenomenally brilliant way with a lot of style, and we love him for that, and think 'Jesus, there's still someone screaming about how they hate their mum! How fantastic!' And I think Eminem is one of the best artists on the planet, because of that. Because he is beyond the process, that's there, but he's not driven by the process, he's driven by something else. Very few people have that kind of anger. And when you think someone has that anger, that anger, for the moment, now, is worth its weight in gold. I don't think you can have that anger at our age, but you can have that anger at his age.
Momus: Bin Laden is our age, and Bin Laden obviously had that anger in a different way.
McLaren: Yeah, different, absolutely. That was a phenomenon we were all shocked by, and we never believed anybody could have that kind of anger, and the fact that he did was a wake-up call, and it made us all feel terribly lazy. It made us all feel, wow, that's extraordinary!
Momus: I'd like to hit you with something I'm known for saying, which is that in the future everybody will be world famous for fifteen people. It's the idea of a world where everyone just makes records in their bedroom and distributes them by mp3 files over the internet. And the logical result of that is that your music is heard by fifteen people. But it's not the same fifteen people who might have heard it in the past -- your family and your friends -- but fifteen people scattered all over the world, one in Singapore, one in Australia, and so on. So the idea is that there's no more mainstream, just a lot of tiny cells, transglobal bubbles. Eminem surprised me because he was like an angry, quite relevant mainstream star who managed to sell a lot of records. So the mainstream continues to be vital because of people like Eminem. But the alternative scenario to that -- and it's happening alongside -- is that people are making the records they want, for fifteen people, and they don't need the music industry. So, for you, is that nightmare world?
McLaren: No, I think it's a very healthy world, I don't think it's a nightmare at all. It's ultimately democratic, it's taking the media and it's basically using it in ways that, twenty-five years ago, could never be used. Nobody would have dreamed of being able to do that, to dream of making records for fifteen people. Today it's all possible.
Momus: But I think each of those people, at the moment they're making records for fifteen people, but they all dream of being the next Eminem.
McLaren: I don't think it's really true, that. Making music is a bit like buying a new pair of trousers, maybe music is just fun for a moment, it's like, I'm going to make some songs for the weekend. I'm not making some smocks for a year.
Momus: But you do dream that your little acorn will become an oak tree!
McLaren: Well, maybe people do, I didn't think they did, I thought they really literally made them for the weekend and I think that's so interesting. But you know there's been Sunday painters, there's always been people that went to ateliers and painted, Matisse started out as a Sunday painter. He was one of the few who decided he'd give up law and become a full-time painter. There's always been this thought that you don't necessarily have to commit to being an artist for life, and have to be appreciated by the world, no more.
Momus: But there's this huge over-estimation of the media in general. People do believe the media are something almost religious and so they want to be part of that priestly group of people like Kylie, or whoever, who seem to be part of that inner circle of media deities.
McLaren: But Kylie, you have to understand that they are marketed, it's a very different phenomenon, these artists are not real artists.
Momus: They know exactly how many dollars it takes to get their particular product to a certain level of brand recognition...
McLaren: Yes, they're not real artists, it's a business relationship. It's not what most people feel they're part of, or could be part of. They're just not making those kinds of deals with their work or their culture. That's another world, a different world. I don't even think about such things, it's meaningless to me. That's like complete prostitution.
Momus: David Bowie calls it 'cruise liner entertainment'. But I think you and I are probably more like the Japanese in the sense that we have an almost religious respect for what you can do with popular culture. We lived through the golden age of popular culture, mass production -- monolithic and yet somehow manipulable. And there is some sort of weird aura which previously people would have seen around an icon in Italy, but we see it around mass produced objects, there's something magical about them. And I think that's what makes Japanese commercial magazines and pop music and fashion so good, it's because they put a religious amount of effort into it. I mean, people can buy the Banana Republic-type clothes that people want to wear, you can make the pop music that most people want to hear, most people are happy with very little, but it's this over-estimation that change things for the better.
McLaren: Most people buy compilation albums. The only country that's never bought compilation albums, believe it or not, is America.
Momus: They had K-Tel!
McLaren: It wasn't significant. Only today have they suddenly got into the idea of compilation albums. Virgin have decided to release Now That's What I Call Music, and it's doing incredibly well. That's a new phenomenon in America. America has always been very artist-based. They are about to change. Even huge major corporations in America never released compilation albums. It wasn't something they could market.
Momus: They're not called things like 'Flogging A Dead Horse' though, which they should be!
McLaren: No, they're not.
Momus: Calling a record something like 'Flogging A Dead Horse' suggests that, okay, this is really nasty and tacky and we're going to emphasize that, but somehow there's a utopian idea that music is more than that, and that the media should be reproached. So what you're doing releasing a record like that is you're making a reproach to the media industries and, implicitly, saying they should aim higher.
McLaren: It goes hand in hand with fast food, you know. It's a fast culture. It's sort of 'Hey, you wanna know about rock and roll, it's all here, in five boxes, you know, $30, it's on the rack'. And even in America -- in America pop culture was always holier than everywhere else, they began it, they will end it, I don't think all of us, over here, have ever had the same kind of earnest belief in it that America had.
Momus: But don't you think Britain is always making interesting pop culture because it was secondhand, it came from America, but...
McLaren: No, the reason they made pop culture in England was in order to escape from England. That's the reason they made it. You got up and made a record because it was one way out of the system. You used it. It was the perfect way to get out. You could relate it to what you thought was the unliberated. That's what pop culture said to you in the 50s, and what it said to you in the 60s.
Momus: Wasn't it also ironic? Like, when you were selling teddy boy jackets, that was ironic, wasn't it?
McLaren: But that was a revival, it was digging in the ruins of past cultures that you cared about. It was giving them another brief moment in the sun. It wasn't about doing anything new. It was an hommage. It was nostalgia. That's why I stopped it. That's why I went to Sex.
Momus: Britain was always, in a sense, reviving American pop culture, although it was only a month or two after those records came out. But it took a while to get those Little Richard records to Liverpool... Maybe it wasn't revival, but it was quoting, quoting the gestures of American pop culture.
McLaren: I'll tell you why, because America decided to get rid of pop culture like that. They did what England's doing now, they created the first boy bands, in around 1958. Once Elvis Presley got in the army, once all the southern white trash which they couldn't control, which they felt was dangerous, illiterate, horrible, fucking their 13 year-old cousins, getting involved in rape charges, beating up the A&R guy... all these guys from the south were out of control. They didn't want them around. They had got the idea, they created the Brill factory, they could write the songs, they could get young boys off the street to Brooklyn, they could carry them places, nice and clean, no difficulty, and they could make them sing. And they created a different kind of pop music. That was the music they determined to sell everywhere for a few years.
Meanwhile, kids in London and elsewhere in Great Britain and probably in Europe were left, they couldn't play rock and roll music, they ended up in these strange little havens; Hamburg! Why? Because it was run by gangsters. There they could play in little clubs, as the Beatles did, to GIs on leave, through the Marshall Plan, through America having become a part of the Atlantic Alliance, and pop culture in England was feeding off, literally, military camps! You know, they were listening to the music they heard back home years ago. So somehow we were in a holding pattern. By the time the dawn of the 60s happened there was a new generation who'd never heard any of this music before. When they saw the Beatles playing it, when they heard the Rolling Stones playing it, they thought to all intents and purposes it was new, it was theirs! They didn't think that it was made back in the 40s and these guys were just copying it.
When these guys went to America they couldn't believe that even America hadn't heard this music before in these white collegiate campuses. And I remember Jagger saying to Jeff Beck 'Don't say anything! When you go over there, pretend it's yours, keep your mouth shut!' And for all intents and purposes, England suddenly had this domination. They were now exporting what they called the Beat Revolution which was really a karaoke version of what had already been created in America. And America, the new generation, no different from the English, were swept off their feet. They loved it all. But dare you enter the Harlem Apollo, and people would just be vaguely bemused. Intrigued! What were these white boys with hair over their foreheads, these existential looking creatures who were slightly asexual, playing this music which our mums and dads had been listening to back in the 40s? But it was accepted amongst the new young mainstream white generation. Slowly and surely the English revelled in it, used it, exploited it, gathered behind it, and suddenly we had a rock and roll culture. It was there, but we were lucky, that we managed to hold it and not allow it to disappear. Had it been for the rock culture industry of America, I think we can honestly say it would have disappeared off the face of the planet. You would be looking now at blues and R&B and rock and roll as a phenomenon that existed then. You wouldn't know how to do it now. The only reason you know how to do it now is because there were these funny little gang behaviours. You have to understand that rock and roll was driven and controlled by the gangsters at the end of the 50s and the dawn of the 60s in London and Germany and France and everywhere. Albeit it was inadvertently connected to the mafia in America, who were still harbouring it in niche-driven companies and because they controlled the juke box industry. The juke box industry was like a messenger service. They could hump those juke boxes over to all those army camps. They could hump the records with them.
Momus: It's a little like that in Japan, the yakuza control the slot machines and the clubs...
McLaren: Without the mafia and organised crime, rock and roll would never have happened.
Momus: Is that something you addressed in 'The Ghosts of Oxford Street'?
McLaren: No, no, I tried. That was a bastard TV show, the original script was hacked to death and I swore I would never make another programme again, that was it. But basically after that I tied up with a few independent film producers in London, I wanted to make a story about the history of pop culture from the point of view of organised crime. I wanted to make a film which said, clearly, and proved, as much as it could be proved, that organised crime was responsible for rock and roll. And why did we all like it? Why was rock and roll always something that was related to outlaws? Because it was a criminal activity. It was organised by crime, it was paid for by crime, that was the reason they created the three minute song, because they got these old-fashioned big bands, jazz, swing-style bands, and cropped them down to little four, five men combos, as the jazz break became a break they could put in, became a middle eight, they got the group down and they got a kid on a street corner to write some filthy lyrics. Bingo! They had rock and roll music that they could feed into fruit machines, juke boxes, and they could get rid of the live acts. So the mafia did that. The next stage was, suddenly, they couldn't believe their luck, people wanted to buy this shit, so they controlled the radio stations and then they started the record industry. And all those independent record companies that flourished at the end of the war were all mafia driven and mafia controlled. Many people lost their lives, Bobby Fuller was strapped to a juke box and thrown in the East Harlem river because he wanted royalties. Chuck Berry... Peter Grant, who worked for Mickey Most in London, was told to go out to America and find Chuck Berry and find certain artists, because they needed them to top the bill, they needed the credibility of the real rock and roll stars. The Rolling Stones was insufficient. Peter, go to fucking America and get Chuck Berry! He went to America, he met Chuck Berry at Cleveland Airport, Chuck Berry was dressed like a chauffeur. Peter Grant turned round and told me, he said, 'Are you Mr Grant?' He said 'Yes,' he said 'Are you Chuck Berry?' 'Yessir! I've come to drive you to Chess Records!' And as Chuck Berry drove him in this car, he said 'What I'd like you to do, if you'd like me to come to your country, I want you to go in to my record company -- I'll stay outside -- and I want you to try and collect royalties for me.' Peter Grant had never heard the word 'royalties'. He actually said to Chuck Berry 'I didn't know you had a royal family here!' He didn't know what he meant! He went in to Chess Records and these guys drew a gun on him. They went 'Are you the limey come to take us out? Get off our fucking carwalk or we'll shoot your fucking legs.' And Grant, heavy, big actor, was a professional wrestler for some period, played with these guys, he said 'That's not how we do things in England!' He did this whole number, and eventually he sweetened them up, they realised he was all right, he was as much a thief as they were, he was cool, although he wasn't, he was a genuine bad one, but he got Chuck Berry to come to London, as he did with Little Richard and so on and so forth. That was the world of rock and roll then.
Momus: I don't know how much has changed, really. I was dropped from Creation Records for running off with a 16 year old Bangladeshi girl whose family then went in to the Creation offices saying 'Give us his address!' and McGee just couldn't take the pressure. He was going to have to bring the same flunkies in with baseball bats who protect Primal Scream when they do they drug deals, and he didn't want that, if we're going to have to add security in the office because of that we're going to have to say goodbye. So that's why I parted company from Creation. Which is almost like a Little Richard-like story.
McLaren: Well Little Richard, the amazing thing with Little Richard -- Peter Grant told me this -- was that he got Little Richard to come in and he wouldn't do any soundcheck, he wasn't interested, he didn't understand what they were talking about, he'd never heard of it. And he was told to go over to the hotel, he was staying at the Regent Palace, and Pete had to go over, and it was his birthday, he told. Fucking, he said Mickey fucking Most, Domino Arists, who I worked for as well, he was the promoter, told me to go over. So I get out of bed. So I went over there, Malc, I walked down the corridor trying to find the room he was staying in, I knock on the door and hear all these screams. I open the door and there's Little Richard in bed with these two young boys. I couldn't believe it, I went 'What the fuck are you doing?' And he took the carpet off the floor of the hotel, in the suite where Little Richard was staying, and he rolled Little Richard up in the carpet and he put him on his shoulder and he walked him all the way to the gig and he landed him at the back stage, put his clothes on, and Little Richard went onstage. That was the story.
Momus: Isn't that Roman Polanski over there?
McLaren: I think it is. Now Roman Polanski's been allowed back in America. I don't know why, but he has. They've allowed that. Ever since he won the Palme D'Or with 'Le Pianiste'.
So all those stories are kind of wonderful, because I realised that it was all a swindle. Ha ha ha ha ha!
Momus: So you see that criminal underworld as being a part of the same messy process?
McLaren: Yeah, yeah! It would never have happened. The Sex Pistols would never have happened if it hadn't been for that shop, they were disparate characters who never had any organic synergy, they were pushed together, they had to do it...
Momus: And they'd really stolen their guitars from David Bowie?
McLaren: Yeah yeah yeah they did yeah yeah.
Momus: And when you met him, what did Bowie say about that?
McLaren: I don't think he gave a damn when I met him. It was all part of the bravado. I liked David Bowie, I thought he was a very cool guy. I liked him a lot. He was incredibly intelligent. He always felt he didn't have an education, that was his biggest thing. When I met him in Hollywood that was the thing he regretted the most. He said he'd love to have gone and studied the history of art. He felt he'd always missed something. He'd attempted and tried. I thought it was strange, I told him, 'But you've done well without it, there's nothing to learn, what you know is anything anybody needs to know, you've managed. I said Cezanne couldn't draw, but he managed regardless, you know, he wasn't a Rome scholar, I said, you know, Matisse was a Sunday painter, you became a Sunday musician and then turned yourself into a fully-fledged musician, you were originally a mime artist, you moved into another world, you managed to make it work, you know, you did your cut-up lyrics, you created your own spontaneity, you managed to create, with finding your own messy process you found your form. You did it!
Momus: But perhaps if he had studied mime art he would have been turned off it. I mean, I studied literature and it put me off it.
McLaren: You know, Mick Jagger was an economics scholar, Phil Collins child actor, Elton John Royal Academy of Music...
Momus: You went to about five art schools!
McLaren: I did it, I went through it all. And to be frank I don't think I could have done anything without it.
Momus: Did it give you a sense of playfulness about things?
McLaren: Yes, I think it gave you arrogance. You were self-appointed, an arrogant angry young man. But what it really gave you was this ability to fail, and fail magnificently, as a noble pursuit, and never become a benign success. I think that's the essence of all the motivation.
Momus: Now you're writing your autobiography. Is that the master narrative that's emerging, the idea of failure as something flamboyant?
McLaren: Failure as something flamboyant and something very creative, something that allows you to do things new, that otherwise you wouldn't. It allows you to be stupid, really. And it allows you, by doing that, to control your own stupidity and make something brilliant out of it. And the failure is really the success, actually. And that's what the Sex Pistols, for me, was about. The success was in the failure. Almost programmed into it, in a funny way. Looking back, every decision I made was one of utter mismanagement! Ha ha ha ha ha!