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Bernie BantonBernie and Karen Banton

Kevin SpaceyKevin Spacey

Malcolm McLarenMalcolm McLaren

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  - 10 July 2006

Malcolm McLaren

Malcolm McLaren

Malcolm McLaren
Photo by Gary Johnson

"There is nothing more dangerous than an idea whose time has come," so the saying goes. Malcolm McLaren knows this intimately. He is a trafficker in ideas, some of which have been considered very dangerous indeed. Here's a taste of his work.


ANDREW DENTON: Please welcome the ever-searching Malcolm McLaren.

ANDREW DENTON: Now, I know you've just arrived and you are, sort of, in time-zone warp at the moment, aren't you?

MALCOLM McLAREN: Yes, I just got off the plane from Paris. But I was okay because I got to see the end of the World Cup, and then I fell asleep.

ANDREW DENTON: You are here billed as 'one of the world's influential elite', to talk about the future of popular culture. What is it you actually do for a living?

MALCOLM McLAREN: That is a really good question and I always find it very difficult to answer. I think, somehow or another, I remain permanently cool. I guess that's because I entered this world -I don't know what you'd call this world, this professional world -with the job of sleeping with the media. In doing so, it enabled, empowered a change in the world, as I saw it. That came about through something that the media thereafter labeled 'Punk Rock'. Punk rock was an idea, and when people ask me what I do is, I try to, with all my ability, I try to make ideas happen, ideas that could change life.

ANDREW DENTON: At art school you were taught that failure is actually a noble thing.

MALCOLM McLAREN: I was taught that to create anything you had to believe in failure, simply because you had to be prepared to go through an idea without any fear. Failure, you learned, as I did in art school, to be a wonderful thing. It allowed you to get up in the morning and take the pillow off your head. What made punk rock so fantastic was that it was so absolutely true. Because it was wonderful to be able to sell something that was horrible. It was this brilliant idea in which we turned -we made ugliness beautiful.

ANDREW DENTON: Let's go back then to your childhood, which was the seeds of this for you. You were raised by your grandmother, Rose.


ANDREW DENTON: What became of your parents? Why didn't they raise you?

MALCOLM McLAREN: I was brought up in a world that was very dysfunctional. People slept with each other because they weren't sure if they were going to wake up in the morning again. People did all sorts of strange things at that time, during the war. So after the war, when things looked like they were going to be happening again, no matter how austere that world was, so people fell in love and fell out of love, you know. Love was something you could buy, depending on whether you could afford it. So I guess my mother sold herself -I think she was about 16 -to a guy, and then I think she decided against it, or my grandmother, her mother, had better ideas after a while. I was brought up by a grandmother who really had better ideas for everybody because she basically didn't like life. Life for her was a shit. She ended up getting forced into marriage and having a kid, my mother, who she didn't really like. To be honest, I don't blame her. I never liked my mother either.

ANDREW DENTON: So we'll leap ahead here a bit. So your mum ended up passing you back to your grandmother, and Rose paid for your father to go way. Is that right?

MALCOLM McLAREN: Yes, I think the deal was that -she didn't like him. I didn't know what he -I never knew my father. My mother, she seemed like an older sister gone strange. So I would only eye her from one end of the corridor and duck into an alcove and watch her go by. She was a little man mad -nothing wrong in that. But my grandmother would give her hell, because we all lived in this big old house, so my mother was always rooting and tooting off with who or whoever, up and down the country. We never really saw that much of her -we, that's me and my older brother. So we were virtually brought up by my grandmother, who had this one idea. It was quite a fabulous idea, actually. Whenever we got into trouble, and I got into heaps of trouble at school, she would always go to the headmaster and say, "Boys will be boys." Then, afterward, she would grab me and just say, "Look, to be bad is good," and I thought, "That's good." Because she said, "To be good is simply boring. So who wants to be good?" I just took that as my baton. I could run with that forever.

ANDREW DENTON: So your grandmother, as you said, she gave you this baton that 'bad is good' and 'good is bad'.

MALCOLM McLAREN: And she painted that world.

ANDREW DENTON: How hard did you run with that? What were you allowed to do?

MALCOLM McLAREN: I felt that that world encouraged me to look at the world in a different way. I think that what allowed me to understand the world was to be able to understand how to tell stories. School, for my grandmother, was a place -she literally handed me cotton wool and cotton wool is what I would have to put into my ears and face the wall, "If anybody else should have anything to say you don't like," i.e., the teacher at the front of the school classroom. So my grandmother taught me, from a very early age, to disregard anybody with any air of authority, of course except herself. So I studied and lived and was framed by my grandmother. My grandmother, and probably those art schools lecturers who taught me about failure, were inadvertently responsible for me and for punk rock, I suppose.

ANDREW DENTON: You were quite an entrepreneur though. I'm fascinated with this because you've said, "The Pistols were like my work of art. They were my canvas." One of the stories about your time with the Sex Pistols is that you were at an airport with Sid Vicious.


ANDREW DENTON: And he needed to be sick. I think he was using heroin at the time probably.


ANDREW DENTON: And you held him back.


ANDREW DENTON: So that he would vomit in public, rather than get to the toilet. True story?

MALCOLM McLAREN: I don't recall it. It sounds good. But I don't recall it. I have to be honest.

ANDREW DENTON: Understanding the impact...

MALCOLM McLAREN: But it sounds good, and I'm sure it's exactly the story the press wanted to write. But, hey, you know, it just continued the mythology.

ANDREW DENTON: Because your grandmother and you believe in chaos as a principle...

MALCOLM McLAREN: I did, yes, well, I suspect that's kind of what makes my blood flow. I always feel more comfortable in chaotic surroundings. I don't know why that is. I think order is dull. There is something about this kind of desire for order, particularly in Anglo Saxon cultures, that drive out this ability for the streets to become a really exotic, amorphous, chaotic, organic place where ideas can, basically, develop. Grow. If you don't have that, it's very difficult to see how the culture can progress, how ideas can actually -well, having said that, I can contradict myself by saying I suppose everybody hangs out, not on the street, they hang out on the Web today.


MALCOLM McLAREN: And it's a different world, a more virtual world. No less lawless. In fact that's what makes the web sexy, is its lawlessness. Pray to God it stays lawless. All of that I did in the 70s and continued in the 80s and so on, now nestles on the Web, I think.

ANDREW DENTON: I introduced you by saying you're a man of ideas, and you clearly are. I'd like, though, to talk about heart.




ANDREW DENTON: Your heart, yes.


ANDREW DENTON: Your parents weren't there, you were raised by a grandmother who taught you the opposite of most conventional morality.


ANDREW DENTON: Where has there been love in your life?

MALCOLM McLAREN: I think love actually comes out of work, for me.

ANDREW DENTON: Not from your children?

MALCOLM McLAREN: Well, from every -from whoever you're working with.

ANDREW DENTON: Are children work?

MALCOLM McLAREN: Be it children. Well, work in the sense of, kind of, working towards creating relationships, working in trying to express an idea. Love comes out of that, a love that I personally care about a great deal. Because I think love only works if you admire the person you're supposedly loving. That's often a tricky thing, you know.

ANDREW DENTON: I was struck that John Lydon, Johnny Rotten, said...

MALCOLM McLAREN: I never loved him.

ANDREW DENTON: No. Nor he you.


ANDREW DENTON: He said something interesting in an interview a couple of years ago. He said, "Malcolm is a lonely man and I'm glad of that." Are you lonely?

MALCOLM McLAREN: Well that's because he's Catholic, I would venture to say.

ANDREW DENTON: What are you? Are you lonely?

MALCOLM McLAREN: No. Not at all. I can be. That's a question of what you want. I think the sad thing with John, may I say, was the problem was, he was somebody we did -and I have to be truthful here -we did really manipulate, fool. But that's how the group would work. It didn't work in another way.

ANDREW DENTON: So you didn't manipulate -sorry?

MALCOLM McLAREN: We did manipulate him, lie to him, fool him. But we couldn't do anything else. He would be going every Sunday to confession with his mother, and, you know, meanwhile Jones was thieving out of Keith Richards' house on Chaney Walk in Chelsea.

ANDREW DENTON: To which Lydon has said, "Malcolm McLaren didn't create me, I already existed. It's an absurd suggestion."

MALCOLM McLAREN: Well, he did, but he was a dishwasher, you know. He didn't really have much going for himself. So in some senses he's right, he was created, but it wasn't a very attractive one. We made him more attractive and we gave him a better moniker. Johnny Rotten was a much nicer name that Johnny Lydon. I think without us, he couldn't have done what he did. We'd spend hours -he's Irish, you know, so he'd drink and drink and drink. We'd spend hours sitting in a pub, I with a Bloody Mary, one, two, three, and he with his gallons and beer, and me and my art school buddies would constantly debate the world, the 'shit life' as they say, and he would soak it all up. 'Anarchy in the UK', 'God Save the Queen', 'Pretty Vacant', they couldn't have been written without all of that. And, hey, you know, gave him those remarkable trousers to wear with the strap between the legs.

ANDREW DENTON: A few years ago the remaining members of the Pistols collaborated in a documentary, "The Filth and the Fury", looking back over the Pistols' time and somewhat disputing your version of events. Talking about Sid Vicious and also about heart...


ANDREW DENTON: Sid, as we know, overdosed after the end of the Pistols.

MALCOLM McLAREN: Yes, indeed.

ANDREW DENTON: This is what Johnny Lydon had to say about the death of Sid Vicious.


ANDREW DENTON: Now, you're one of the "they" that he is referring to.

MALCOLM McLAREN: I suspect I am.


MALCOLM McLAREN: But he's an extraordinary liar, you know.

ANDREW DENTON: What, Sid's not dead?

MALCOLM McLAREN: No, no. The fact that I suppose we made money out of that. That's not really true. First of all, Vivienne adored Sid. Vivienne, my erstwhile partner. I had basically robbed the till, so to speak, to go to the US and put up, oh, tens of thousands of dollars for his bail. It was pretty obvious, after a short while, that Sid had definitely killed Nancy. But I thought, "Okay, that doesn't mean to say he has to die, too, or live the rest of his life in prison. I have got to get him the best goddamn lawyer to get off this, and if I have to even wash the knife, I'll bloody pay have that done." Whatever it took. So I traveled across New York to find the best possible lawyer I could...

ANDREW DENTON: I'm going to cut through you, because without going into the particulars of the case and the ins and outs, I think what John is referring to there is not those particulars, but more the sense of the duty of care that you as the manager had to them as the band.

MALCOLM McLAREN: Oh, that's ridiculous, really. Hey, I was taught that by the time you're 13, you're a man. These guys were 18 and over. You can't tell an 18 year old what to do.

ANDREW DENTON: Though you said before that you didn't manipulate John properly, you didn't create him properly. So which one is it? Is it that you were manipulating these guys, or they were their own free agents?

MALCOLM McLAREN: I think, in respect, I manipulated the business. There was a business. There was this record industry -horrible. And there was the group -adorable. I tried to make that group really, really, really manipulate, change that industry. So that's what my role was as a manager. In terms of their personal lives, that's something else. I'm not a nursemaid. I'm not a travel agent. I'm not a real estate agent, and I didn't sleep with the band. So, you know, I am not truthfully involved with their lives in that way. Whenever they got into serious trouble, I was there. I was there for Sid. Let me say, the group definitely wasn't, and particularly Rotten, and it was part of the reason that led to the court case because we spent a great deal of money on Sid's trial. I don't know what to say about that. I think John and Sid were virgins and I think when Nancy got involved, coming from New York and tried to bed Rotten and couldn't, ended up bedding Sid, and at that point Sid and Rotten's lives were separated. John looked for attention from other people, and I think he wanted me to recognise him as the leader of the group. I couldn't. You know, the leader of the group was Steve Jones. He was the artful dodger, he was the guy thieving everything, and the guy that actually came to me to ask me to put together a group for him, of which Rotten was one of the people I put into the group. So I couldn't do that. I didn't want to do that because I didn't want to be that close to him. He was very annoying. This was him, he was like that. I loved it, I thought it was a great image...

ANDREW DENTON: It made your name.

MALCOLM McLAREN: But I didn't want to sleep with him.

ANDREW DENTON: It made your name, it made you a lot of money. They had to take you to court to get one million pounds back from you. I mean it was good for you, wasn't it, all these things?

MALCOLM McLAREN: I don't deny any of that. It was a supersonic wonderful adventure. But you don't have to sleep with them as well, you know.

ANDREW DENTON: You're a grand dad now. Does being bad still feel right?

MALCOLM McLAREN: I don't know any other way. Listen, Oscar Wilde said something very wise - "When you're young, you know everything. When you get to middle age, you're suspicious of everything. And when you get old, you believe in everything". I haven't reached that point yet. So for the moment I'm still back there, I know everything, I prefer to be bad. Yes. Unquestionably.

ANDREW DENTON: Good luck with it, Malcolm. Thank you.

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