Thursday 31 July 2014

June 1979

The Spoiler Part One

There’s a certain person not unconnected with IPC that Alf Martin, the editor of Record Mirror, has some sort of history with, so when Alf finds out that one of the publisher’s magazines, Melody Maker, is planning a big relaunch with an exclusive Malcolm McLaren interview as the star attraction, he has a discreet word with me.

‘Can you track down McLaren and get an interview?’ He’s looking for a spoiler, a newspaper term for upstaging a rival by getting an exclusive on their exclusive. I have two weeks. Philip Marlowe for a fortnight.

It’s a tough ask. I don’t know Malcolm like I know the band. Managers don’t figure much in my life, probably because of my short-lived PR stint. Malcolm kinda passed me by. I talked to him backstage a few times and at the odd reception but that was about it.

I make a million phone calls. I hang around near his Glitterbest offices off Oxford Street. I go to his favourite bars and clubs. I ask Steve Jones when I bump into him at the Marquee. ‘Never know where the fucker is. He can be hard to get hold of if he doesn’t want to be got hold of, y’know what I mean?’

I do now. It’s impossible to locate him. He obviously doesn’t want to be got hold by me, that’s for sure.

Then one fine day, spoiler deadline looming, in desperation I ring the office number a final time and Malcolm answers.

‘Well, I’ll say this for you,’ he says. ‘You’re tenacious. Let’s meet up.’ He must know the score. He must know the Melody Maker relaunch hinges almost entirely on him. He must. What a smooth operator …

We arrange to meet at a Covent Garden wine bar for lunch on Record Mirror. Bet he doesn’t show.

He does. Three hours later I have my shorthand spoiler. I split the interview into two parts and Alf splashes the first with Malcolm on the cover the week before the Melody Maker relaunch hits the shelves and that week we don’t need to splash the final part – it’s just a spread inside. That’s so last week’s thing. Cool, huh?

Regrets? He’s had a few -- but then again, too few to mention at this stage of the game. And it is a game, never doubt that.

Now, Malcolm McLaren sits in the corner of a Covent Garden wine bar eating duck, out of luck, doesn’t give a fuck. He’s only too willing to discuss motives, coups, idiosyncrasies, top hats and tales. Well, what else is there to do on a rainy Monday in London when you’re used to perfumey Paris?

That’s where his makeshift home is at the moment. But he’s not there to sip coffee in the Champs-Élysées and watch the girls go by. Too unproductive for a man like McLaren. No, he’s now involved in the lucrative European porn business. ‘The continent has a fabulous porno film market − but they just don’t make them for younger people. I want to make them with good music, good stories. They’ll love ’em.’

I’m sure the kids will love anything this five-and-dime-store hero can come up with. He met a bunch in London recently. ‘I expected them to slag me off. Instead they asked, "What’s next, Malcolm? What are you going to do now?" I gave them something at the end of the day. They knew Johnny Rotten was simply an idea, an idea that gave them the excuse to leave their jobs and have an adventure instead of carrying on and playing safe. That’s what they’re grateful for.’

Gratitude is probably the last thing McLaren thought he would get when he set out on the road to ignominy three years ago with the Sex Pistols, those pig-swill idolatry bashers. It wasn’t gratitude this red-haired conjuror sought. It was, he shamelessly admits, greenbacks.

‘I set out,’ he smiles and wipes some orange sauce from his mouth, ‘to swindle the rock-and-roll industry out of one million pounds. I failed. It was just nine hundred and fifty grand.’

But wait. That wasn’t all he was after. ‘And I wanted to cause chaos. Cash from chaos. I use a word which the British have always found distasteful − exploitation. I wanted to make the show-business world cry. I really took that word "exploit" and bloody well pumped it dry, using it in any shape or form without mercy. I’m ruthless like that.’ He orders a pot of tea. ‘Every time I came up with the germ of an idea, the industry shook. I created a lot of problems both economically and philosophically. At the end of the day, I made the audience more important than the act and for that I will never be forgiven.

‘I replaced the star with the image − and that was the Sex Pistols. I always made absolutely sure that the band would never be stars. When Johnny Rotten took it upon himself to be one I threw him out. And when Glen Matlock left I brought in Sid Vicious simply to procure more money.’

Well, it wasn’t for his musical abilities, that’s for sure.

Apparently, our hero knew his cheapskate chimeras would never sell that many records. ‘Out of all the money we made, only about a hundred and fifty thousand was profits from records. Most of the money was obtained by fabulous advances that I secured from companies at the moment of signing. By the time we brought out "God Save The Queen", which I reckon only sold about forty thousand copies worldwide, we were the number-one band. We were the great talking point, an attitude, an image. But we were never a band. Oh, there were a few cute songs like "Anarchy" and "Queen". But they weren’t important. We were the fabulous symbol of ruin, of no future. The "Destroy" T-shirts I had in my shop sold like hot cakes – fifty thousand in the UK alone.

‘I know it’s been suggested that I’m the big con man of the world. Well, let me tell you, I feel very proud to be called that. My hero is the man who "sold" the Eiffel Tower to a fool.

‘I’m not a liberal. I love extremity. Most people want you to tear down things. They want you to be shocking. They don’t want you to be seen shaking hands with Sir John Reid − they want to see you throw a pie in his face. They don’t care if a band can play. They want to know it can’t but that it’s still up there, on top of that steeple, shaking music by the neck. I never allowed the Pistols to think they were good. I prevented them from becoming stars . . .’

Recently McLaren was successfully sued by John Lydon and reckons he had to pay out around £60,000 in legal costs. ‘I was warned six months before the case that it would happen but I just carried on regardless and was so ill-prepared when it arrived that I created my own burial.’

He says he can’t discuss certain subjects involved in the case for legal reasons. ‘I could be held in contempt of court but I don’t care. I’ll never go behind bars for anyone. My companies − Glitterbest and Matrixbest − are now in the hands of the receiver and my shops have been closed down. I haven’t got much money left. There’s some in Brazil and some in the States.’

So what happened to the proceeds from his great ‘swindle’?

‘I spent it all on a few hot dinners, a few plane rides, and generally having a good time. It was a shame it couldn’t continue, but I suppose I had to get found out in the end.’

He attributes part of the blame for his downfall on the movie, The Great Rock ’n’ Roll Swindle, the bowel-movement account of the Pistols’ history. In the film McLaren tells, in a series of easy lessons, how you can swindle the music business. Examples − ‘Don’t play, don’t give the game away’ and ‘Always remain a mystery.’

He says he put a lot of time and money into the project and is disappointed with the result. ‘It’s like a half baked Hard Day’s Night and all I could do to disassociate myself from it was to get my name taken off the credits.’

He sips his tea sedately and smokes profusely. His laugh is both frequent and infectious and promotes curious stares from other tables for the duration of his recital.

The movie should be released in a month or so and will no doubt raise a few eyebrows and incite deer to commit acts of atrocity since their patron saint Bambi gets topped by either a hippie (never trust them) or the Pistols, it’s hard to make out which.

‘I was concerned with getting money for nothing,’ says McLaren, as he orders a second pot of tea. ‘I’m just a good salesman, a clothes salesman.’

True, very true. But there is a little more to our silver-tongued Svengali than that. What follows is his own account of his picaresque adventures before embarking on ‘The Swindle’. Of course, it may or may not be true − but I can assure you it’s fun to read . . .

Next: More Malcolm

Adapted from the book Tell Me When by Barry Cain

© Barry Cain 2013

Check out Barry’s new novel, Wet Dreams Dry Lives



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