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A Report on the Sex Pistols

Page 3 of 5

Malcolm McLaren, who has a reputation for being two hours late to everything, is also two hours late to meet me at his apartment. Vivian Westwood ushers me into their bedroom, where I wait until she finishes cutting a half-inch or so of her two-inch hair, presumably to make it stick out better. The room is modestly furnished in black and white, a constantly recurring color theme that – along with the incessant rain, bad telephones, warm beer, incompetent hotel service, yellow journalism, cretinous newspapers, lack of time with the band, money that weighs more than it's worth, cricket on television, geographically separate streets having the same name within London's city limits, riots between Marxist and neo-Nazi splinter parties, and a hangover – is convincing me to change my name to Chuckie Suicide and go Sid Vicious one better. The only color in the room is a poster of the equally depressing Red Ballet. The bookshelf includes Orwell, Dickens, de Sade and Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism. First in a pile of albums on the dresser is The World of Billy Fury.

Westwood appears a few years older than her husband and wears no makeup over her sheet-white skin. She wears a white blouse and black bondage pants tied together at the knee and thigh. Finishing her hair, she sits on the black bedspread and gives a history of her boutique. They are, she says, still awaiting a decision on the government suit against their pornographic T-shirts. "We've always been about provoking," she says. "If you want to find out how much freedom you have, make some kind of explicit sexual statement and wait for it all to crash down around you."

She says Rotten was the first to rip his own shirt, but, contrary to some accounts, gives Vicious credit for first using safety pins: "A mate who owed him money ripped up his apartment one night – shredded the rug, the walls, his clothes, everything. He had to use the pins to hold his trousers together."

500 Greatest Albums of All Time: 'Never Mind the Bollocks (Here's the Sex Pistols)'

When McLaren finally arrives after midnight, he is stil wearing the mangy black sweater I saw several nights back. The long strings of matted wool keep reminding me of Johnny Rotten's piles hanging out of his pants. I ask why he presented the New York Dolls as communists.

"It was just an idea that came out, like a can of new soup," he says. "Rock & roll is not just music. You're selling an attitude too. Take away the attitude and you're just like anyone else, you're like American rock groups. Of course, maybe there's just too wide a market there for a good attitude. The Sex Pistols came about because on the streets of Britain they're saying, 'What is this 1960s crap, paying five pounds to see some guy the size of a sixpence when I'm the dole?' The kids need a sense of adventure, and rock & roll needs to find a way to give it to them – wham out the hardest and cruelest lyrics as propaganda, speak the truth as clearly as possible."

"What did the Dolls as communists have to do with the truth?"

"I don't know," McLaren admits. "I'm not a communist. I'm rather anarchistic. I was trying to make them more extreme, less accessible. Most bands won't do that sort of thing, but they must find a means to provoke."

"Aren't there easier ways to break a band?"

"I love to go the hardest route. It keeps you up. It keeps the truth happening. Too many of the new groups are getting sucked up by the record companies too early. The movement will got diluted."

Since his own problems with record companies are by now legendary, I ask about his negotiations for an American deal.

"Well, Clive Davis called the other day: bullshit artist number one, this guy," he says. "I said, 'Weren't you the bloke who told the press not to identify itself too closely with the punk movement?' He said he didn't mean the Sex Pistols – you must look on groups as individuals, not as part of a movement. I said I believe in movements: 'Get it straight. We're not part of your talent roster. We'll have none of your stars.' He said Patti Smith was on Arista and she was a punk. 'I don't want your old hacks,' I said. 'You should have signed the Kinks in 1964 when they had something to say.'

(Reached in New York later, Davis commented, "This cannot be typical of what McLaren thinks because he's told me that he's heard many good things about Arista, and I or my representatives have had about 20 conversations with him. This sounds like a hatchet job, like an isolated and fragmentary quote, since it is from a man who is very interested in signing with me and my company. My reaction is amusement.")

"These record company presidents, they're all whores. Two months ago, their doormen would have thrown us out. We sell a few records and they phone and want their pictures taken with us. Mo Ostin [of Warner Bros.] is flying in with his lawyer tomorrow, and I couldn't get past his secretary before. I've been in and out of CBS many times. Walter Yetnikoff [president of CBS Records Group] sang me 'Anarchy in U.K.' at breakfast at the Beverty Wilshire to prove he knew the group. He said he wasn't offended by Johnny Rotten saying he was an anti-Christ. 'I'm Jewish,' he said."

(Walter Yetnik off commented later: "I was saying it as a gag. I'm not looking to pick a fight with Christianity.")

I ask why he places the press right down in the sewer along with record company presidents.

"Because the music press are basically Sixties culture freaks. They imply we're not original, they try to maintain this facade of knowing every song, every riff, every lyric, as if they invented it. One recent headline had us as 'John, Paul, Steve and Sid,' like we were the Beatles! That's fucking disgusting! They were trying to make us fun. It shows the vampire nature of the Sixties generation, the most narcissistic generation that has ever been!"

"So why are you putting up with me?"

"My man in America told me to. If we do Rolling Stone, we might not have to do another interview for two years. This band hates you. It hates your culture. Why can't you lethargic, complacent hippies understand that? You need to be smashed . . . This is a very horrible country, England. We invented the mackintosh, you know." McLaren gestures as if he is opening his coat for a lewd display. "We invented the flasher, the voyeur. That's what the press is about."

Seeing no need for elaboration, I change the subject to why he selected Russ Meyer, of all people, to direct the film.

"Right from the beginning, I knew he was the right guy. He was an action director, and he was an outcast from the regular studios. I liked his sense of color. We didn't want a grainy, black and white, Polish, socialist, realist movie . . . "

The phone rings and McLaren answers. "What's that? Elvis Presley died? . . . Makes you feel sad, doesn't it? Like your grandfather died . . . Yeah, it's just too bad it couldn't have been Mick Jagger."

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