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A New Attitude : Ex-Puppeteer of Sex Pistols Abandons Spoofs for Politeness on Lecture Circuit

February 24, 1990|JESS BRAVIN

FULLERTON — Malcolm McLaren, the art-school expellee who exacted revenge on the world by unleashing the Sex Pistols, came to Cal State Fullerton Thursday to warn of the newest youth craze threatening suburbia: "The return of etiquette."

"In the past, I might've been somewhat against it," reflected McLaren, whose London leather goods boutique--Sex, it was called--was a spawning ground for the Buzzcocks and Boy George as well as the Pistols in the 1970s. "But nowadays, I rather like the reservation of it. Etiquette is so romantic," he mused.

Now 44, the one-time puppeteer of spoof-musicians Adam Ant and Bow Wow Wow sounded more like Prof. Henry Higgins than Svengali. Fortunes were made, sure, but McLaren, an intellectual as well as a fop, saw his orchestration of no-talent vulgarians into rock stardom as an amusing social experiment.

"The concept was to be good by claiming to be bad," he said of the Sex Pistols. "By not playing, by not turning up at gigs, we made a movement out of it. It was mind-blowing."

Propelled by driving, barely intelligible anthems like "Anarchy in the U.K.," the Pistols released a platinum record before disintegrating with the heroin-overdose death of the group's bassist, alleged murderer Sid Vicious.

"It was wonderful to see the aristocrats of the rock industry terrified at this audacious and ridiculous concept," McLaren said, recalling the self-mutilating band's onstage razor-blade antics.

Like the other celebrated poseur of his era, Ronald Reagan, the McLaren who once shaped a generation through style now finds a receptive audience on the lecture circuit.

Taking the university lectern in his striped Oxford shirt and V-neck sweater, McLaren told the assembled students that when he was their age, "the thought of a career seemed absolutely vulgar."

Possessing no talent as a writer, musician or visual artist, however, McLaren realized that only one profession seemed open to him: "Plunder. I asked myself, could I enter the world of plunder like the great masters?"

He found inspiration in the world of English literature. "Like Fagan, I decided to get a lot of little boys to do my stealing for me."

With the demise of the Pistols--and the fading popularity of their look--McLaren turned in the early 1980s to the next fad in fashion/music: New Wave.

Viewing New Wave more as "a new hair style" than a musical trend, McLaren repackaged punker Adam Ant as an 18th-Century pirate, and assembled Bow Wow Wow, a synthesizer dance band distinguished by its singer, a bald, half-Burmese 13-year-old girl named Anabella.

By 1982, the admitedly non-musical McLaren was releasing records under his own name, and scored a hit of sorts with the square-dance novelty tune "Buffalo Gals," from his "Duck Rock" album. Not a composer or a lyricist, McLaren calls himself a "director" of music.

He recalled his early creations somewhat uncharitably, describing John Lydon, nee Johnny Rotten, as "a New Wave Neil Diamond," and the ex-dandy Adam Ant as a pathetic failure "who should've stuck with being a pirate."

At the Fullerton lecture, however, students seemed more interested in McLaren's philosophy than his colorful past.

In seemingly random answers to the students' serious questions about the state of Western culture, McLaren gave cryptic clues to a Weltanschauung that embraces everything from rubber marital aids to Puccini operas.

Asked to assess the lessons of the 1980s, he announced, "Girls are more interesting than boys.

"They understand the word nuance. They aren't afraid to use the word pretty. I mean, girls aren't afraid to go into a room and say, 'Isn't this a pretty room,' " he stressed.

McLaren praised the invention of the fax machine, asserting that it will lead to a triumph of the written word over its old enemy, the telephone conversation.

He offered reassuring words to Americans fearful that the United States has lost its place in the world economy: "All those Orientals on the other side of the Pacific are desperate consumers of Marilyn Monroe, rock 'n' roll and Coca-Cola," he said.

But mainly, he professed the virtues, nay the ubiquity, of posing as a principle of human behavior.

"From the girl back in the '50s who stuffs tissues in her bra to show that she has a bigger bust than other girls at the prom, to the lad with electric-shock hair in black leather who whips himself with chains to show he's not part of the money pit called London--they're all brilliant poseurs," he said.

"Posing is the repackaging of the form, whether you use it for a lofty intellectual pursuit or you use it just to get down and boogie," he said, adding disconnectedly, "and the form is that basic instinct of the beat."

McLaren, who now lives in Hollywood, told The Times he is hard at work trying to repackage his own form.

He has a film project, called "Waltz Darling," which depicts his hero, Oscar Wilde, discovering rap music on a trip to Africa in 1880.

And, perhaps inevitably, he revealed a budding alliance with the corporate incarnation of posing, the Walt Disney Co.

The wholesomeness-based entertainment conglomerate had invited the ex-Sex Pistols' manager to Orange County to discuss the reformation of "The Mickey Mouse Club" under his guidance, McLaren said.

"You know Hollywood," he said. "They desire to stay in touch with the taste of the people."

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