As the pop provocateur responsible for the Sex Pistols, Adam Ant, Bow Wow Wow, Buffalo Gals and, most recently, a hip-hop version of "Madama Butterfly," Malcolm McLaren has been called many things. A surprising number of them start with the letter "p": pirate, philosopher, pillager, prophet, plagiarist, philistine, plunderer, punk puppeteer. He's been described as pompous, preposterous, perverse . . . and that's by his friends.
McLaren loves it.
With his curly, electric brown hair and gently roguish demeanor, Malcolm McLaren is a charming pop eccentric, easily bored but never boring, always searching for the tart pop of his dreams. He seems to alternate between looking for an edge and going over it. If many artists are in the game to see how much they can get, McLaren seems to be in to see how much he can get away with.
Another thing: McLaren can't read a note of music. When he makes an album, he story-boards it, like a film, so that the musicians will have an idea of what he wants. And while his albums carry his name, McLaren can only play one instrument.
Of course, he plays himself quite well. Many ideas have leapt off McLaren's wall into the musical mainstream, propelled by an outlaw innovator who has been described as the missing link between Leonardo and Conan.
"No, no, I'm not a musician," McLaren concedes gaily. "I'm more of a director, an artist by contractual obligation. I'd like to be able to play something, but then again, I'm sure there are other people that can play it better than me."
But nobody plays Svengali better than McLaren. Like many of the other leading figures in England's art-rock movement, he emerged from an art school background -- an uncertain one, given that he was kicked out of seven different schools. By the mid-'70s, McLaren was headquartered in one of the King's Road's trendiest clothes shops with his partner, designer Vivienne Westwood. Even he admits that was a seemingly inauspicious launching pad for the great British punk revolution.
"Sex was the name of the shop and what was happening on the streets was evolving out of the store selling sex clothing as fashion. It was all black, shiny, rubber, plastic, leather, what have you. And I sold a lot of it to kids. And these kids were the dispossessed and the disaffected. They'd abandoned their idols -- David Bowie, Roxy Music, Marc Bolan, the Faces -- and found their way into my shop because it looked like an oasis in a sea of glitterdom.
"Of these kids, some wanted music to go with the clothing; they were looking for a scene. It was a natural follow-through. They were beginning to look so different, and I formed a group out of some of those kids, by accident, not design, and called them the Sex Pistols, to suggest the idea of being young assassins."
The "kids" included future members of the Clash, Pretenders, Jam, Buzzcocks, even a young Billy Idol and Boy George. "It was incredible. And that started it all, it all exploded out of that," McLaren says. Punk would be less about music than confrontational style and attitude -- not surprising, given the minimal musicality of many of the participants.
"I've always said that it wasn't a thing that people even had to buy. People had to be it themselves. That's why it spread like wildfire and created a thousand groups in its wake. Punk rock became more than a group, it was an attitude and an outlook and something that a lot of kids of that generation built their politics and life style around.
"Today, music is so packaged that the artist is never allowed to spin off and fall off the edge, he's never allowed that danger in his music at all now. And that's the reason that you've got such a bland musical culture today."
That blandness has certainly not been McLaren's fault, as he'll be the first to tell you. From the pop piracy of Adam Ant to the supra-style of Boy George, McLaren has made things interesting, though often only briefly.
After the Sex Pistols (like most McLaren projects, it proved better in theory and early practice than in the long run), he went to France, scoring soft-porn films. An employe of the clothing shop asked him to come back and take on a six-week project reviving her boyfriend's career.
"Adam Ant was a late punk rocker beginning to look a bit like a hillbilly," McLaren recalls. "He wore kilts and a little bit of makeup, but there wasn't anything interesting or fiery about him. His image was, I suppose, a little old."
Redefining Adam Ant's image from aging punk to precocious pirate was a brilliant stroke, and a decided contrast to the anarchic antisexual annoyance of the Sex Pistols. McLaren synthesized several romantic outlaw cliche's -- the pirate, the highwayman, the Indian brave -- into one colorful, sexually upbeat figure, providing him with an exuberant, polyrhythmic backup. Even that was a lucky accident: While working on the porn soundtracks, McLaren had punched up an African track at the wrong speed -- 45 instead of 33. "It was the music of a tribe of Burundi. And I thought, that beat's incredible. It was so powerful. I kept listening to it over and over again. And I thought, ooh, and I locked that in my brain. And when I came back to England and took this job, working with Adam, that was the beat."
McLaren had by then decided that Adam should look "as fiery and magical as what this music conjured up for me. And the only way a white guy like him could do that was by associating himself with the pirates of Madagascar, 'cause pirates steal everybody's culture and shove it all on their backs, so you could have this ramshackle mixture of exotic clothes. And Blackbeard used to take his hair and braid it and dip end cloths in oil and wrap them 'round the end of his braids. And then he'd set them alight, just as he was to board a ship. I said, 'Can you imagine that, Adam, when you go on stage with your hair on fire?' "
Adam couldn't, so instead of lighting the hair, McLaren wrapped it in gold braids and ribbons. Then he added something he remembered from Geronimo, "this white line Apaches wore across their face, which apparently meant war. That's what we're here for, boy." Adam, of course, was a smash, and the pirate look swept England, though Adam and Malcolm were soon to go their separate ways.
"I designed clothes and went the whole hog on that wagon," McLaren says. "I renamed the shop World's End and turned it into a Spanish ship. . . . And I really just got very, very involved and I wanted someone a pirate would kidnap off the coast of Madagascar, a young, sort of native girl that he would molest and finally develop into a pirate girl of his own. . . . And I went in search of this young girl and finally found . . . Annabella."
Annabella Lwin was a sensually precocious 13-year-old Burmese/English girl McLaren found in a laundry. Soon, bedecked in a Mohawk and the usual swirl of ethnic/electric clothing, she was fronting Bow Wow Wow, a band whose initial impact was as a news item after their first work came out on cassette ("My Cassette Pet"), featuring a catchy anthem ("C30-C60-C90-Go") that was an exhortation to tape piracy.
McLaren and Bow Wow Wow soon separated, a falling-out process he's quite familiar with. "I couldn't ever manage groups," McLaren admits. "I kind of mismanage, but purposely."
Tired of mismanaging -- he says he'd gotten into groups mostly because he liked casting -- McLaren started to make his own records. In 1982 he released "Duck Rock," a project done with producer Trevor Horn. Mixing cultures the way Julia Child tosses a salad, McLaren took seemingly disparate musical elements, fused them into new conglomerations and emerged with several surprise hits. "Buffalo Gals" brought together square dance calls, hip-hop scratching and rap; "Double Dutch" recreated Zulu chants and Harlem jump-rope rituals over a funky Caribbean beat. This do-it-yourself Dance Party touched down in Swaziland, Botswana, Tennessee, the Bronx, Peru and Cuba, with McLaren McLuhanizing his sources into a global Village People.
More recently, as a result of having to come up with background music for a fashion show in Paris, he's discovered opera. He set an aria from Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" over an electro-funk beat, with added counterpoint from a soul singer and McLaren's own modern narrative. It's different, all right, but strangely compelling.
McLaren, of course, has never been to an opera. "No, never," he admits. "And I don't think I ever will . . . The only thing I liked about opera is that it sounds expensive and I think that's really important, because music today sounds ever so cheap. People are looking for value for their money, and opera sounds expensive. It sounds grand and it sounds important. And if you don't know what Cho Cho San is singing about, it doesn't matter as long as she's having a hell of a go. Those arias are really crazed. I mean, intense.
"And the stories are so unique, powerful, timeless and everything." Not to mention royalty-free. Still, the money seems to be unimportant to McLaren, as is the music. Once again, it's fashion that helped make hip hopera so intriguing, and being a fashion star, not a pop star, is what really intrigues McLaren.
"I know that for a new generation on the horizon, music is probably not at the top of their shopping list any longer. And the reason is that the actual price and shape of their sneakers has become a far more appealing, and even more subversive, aspect of their culture. The way the laces are drawn, what that represents, what language is in there, seems far more important to their communication than buying something that is being shown on MTV heavy rotation.
"In England, we don't listen as much as look. You can have a portrait or poster of Boy George and you can stick it on your bedroom wall, but you may not own a record by Boy George. The day comes when somebody turns off the sound and just watches images, maybe focuses on the socks the singer is wearing, then runs out and finds he can't get those. Does he want to buy the record? It doesn't even occur to him. And the industry is beginning to pick up on that, and I think that you'll find that by the end of this decade, the record industry won't be called the record industry. They'll just be selling anything and everything.
"I don't know in what shape or form, but another kind of underground will occur that has very little to do with music. The people will find another way, because you do. You always want to seize or create your culture."
Which may be a signal for Americans to batten down their culture. McLaren has moved to America, for at least a year. He's talking to several producers about translating his "Butterfly" to Broadway and about experimenting in film.
"There's a lot of pleasure but, at the same time, it's a very difficult thing to actually manipulate and create people out of people. The adventure and the fun is usually gained from the unexpected, and it's the creation of the unexpected that is the evil thing. That's when you really get off, you know.
"That was very much the background to the Sex Pistols and Adam and George and all those things. It was creating the unexpected, or finding a way in which the unexpected would happen. It wasn't unexpected to us, but it appeared unexpected and that was wonderful. It always jumped out of the closet. It always seemed to strike a note outside of the norm. It was never quite in the format and that's when I always knew we had a good groove going. I was always anti-fitting into the beat, you know.