This encounter with Malcolm McLaren, former manager of the Sex Pistols, was commissioned as part of The Word magazine’s “27 Minutes With” series and appeared in the issue of July 2012. Its story comes from a trip I made to New York with him in 1981, where he was launching his new project Bow Wow Wow; I was interviewing the band for the cover story of NME, 3 October 1981.
I am staring, with deep unease, at a double bed in the Barclay Hotel, New York City. It’s a perfectly nice bed. The problem is that I have to share it with Malcolm McLaren.
I’ll go to great lengths for my employers the NME, but there are surely limits. Aren’t there?
Across the room, the ginger pop Svengali looked relaxed. “You ’ave that side,” he twinkled merrily. “It must be a mix-up. I’ll go down and sort it.” And with that he disappeared. I undressed cautiously and slept fitfully, but McLaren never returned that night. Disappearing was a speciality of his. “Where’s that fucker Malcolm?” I once heard Johnny Rotten snarl from the Sex Pistols’ stage. And, “Where’s that fucker Malcolm?” his new clients Bow Wow Wow would ask regularly over the next two days.
So now I had only one thing left to worry about. The race riot Malcolm was planning for tomorrow evening…
The whole wheeze had started with a phone call 12 hours ago: “Malcolm ’ere. Got a US visa?” Bow Wow Wow were making their American debut that night. I had an hour to dash home for my passport and meet him at Heathrow. In the end McLaren himself was terrifyingly late, but supremely calm. Chaos, to him, was not so much a theory as a daily regime (hence the botched hotel booking). At the other end we were detained by US customs on account of some pornography he happened to be importing.
Malcolm McLaren wasn’t really a singer or a musician, although he made some terrific records. But he was certainly an artist in ideas, and a performer in conversation. Our flight to Kennedy was about six hours long, but it seemed no more than 27 minutes. Malcolm held forth in a mad, unstoppable monologue that held me spellbound. It was unforgettable. I don’t think he paused for breath.
What did he talk about? Well, ominously for Bow Wow Wow, he scarcely mentioned them. This was the band he’d prised away from Adam Ant, having steered the struggling punk towards stardom with an image overhaul and a big Burundi beat. Now he’d teamed them with a 15-year-old girl called Annabella Lwin. In a strange foreshadowing of the download age, their shtick involved a rebellious celebration of mix-tapes and the newly-invented Walkman. (“Home taping,” announced the record industry, “is killing music”). To ram the point home there were pirate costumes for the band, designed by Malcolm and his partner Vivienne Westwood.
Then he embroiled poor under-age Annabella in a fresh controversy. He persuaded her to pose naked on Bow Wow Wow’s LP cover. It became the major outrage of 1981, rivalling The Sex Pistols at their worst. And yet I sensed that Malcolm had already lost interest.
Instead, clutching my arm like the Ancient Mariner, he gabbled about the future of music, as revealed to him on a previous trip to New York. Forget rock’n’roll, man. That was over. Tomorrow belonged to hip hop, and to sampling. He’d been to the South Bronx: “Unbelievable! It’s a total no-go area down there! No police, literally no money in the whole area. Unbelievably heavy … I was the only white face.” He spoke in awed tones of the block parties, and kids who span on their heads.
“And the DJs! They rap over things you won’t believe. It’s funk, sure, but it’s riffs by The Shadows. Or Gary Numan. They’ve never even heard of Gary Numan, but they just like that abrasive electronic noise and old jangly guitars. They’ve taken it beyond funk.”
I began to catch his drift. People like me, who bore on about the organic roots of music, are obsolete. Tomorrow will steal its music like lead from a church roof, in fragments, caring only for sound and nothing for context. Like a situationist salesman he sold a vision of the future in five seconds flat. He swept you along with his pop-eyed stare, astonished by his own cheek. It might work, man! OK, it might be disastrous. But won’t it be fun?
What I realised was that Malcolm didn’t care if any of this was true. It was ideas that got him high. As I say, this was 1981. And looking back, I think he saw the future more clearly than anyone else I knew.
One last prediction caused me concern, however. Tomorrow night, for Bow Wow Wow’s show, he’d invited “hundreds of black kids from the Bronx”. A lot of them had never even been to Manhattan. To suddenly see all that privilege, that rock biz decadence, those luxury shops! To Malcolm’s hyper-powered imagination, this meant one thing: “There’ll be a riot, man!” Anarchy in the USA. It was a re-run of the fantasy he’d nurtured three years earlier, touring the Sex Pistols through the redneck towns of the Deep South.
The “black kids” duly turned up. They were in fact the DJ Afrika Bambaataa and his Zulu Nation. They revealed the hip hop arts – breakdancing, scratching, rapping – to the white hipsters of Manhattan, who were properly amazed. The Zulu Nation wore T-shirts showing a massive outline map of Africa, with a tiny USA inside. But they were peaceful, polite and happy to be there. We were even invited to a block party. Was Malcolm disappointed by all this? I never found out. He’d disappeared. The revolution was once again cancelled.
Malcolm McLaren, the arch-manipulator, could not control events from one moment to the next. He was a dreamer, not a schemer. He never came back to my bed and I never met him again in my whole life.