conducted by Rob Banks
A God Save the Sex Pistols exclusive
was the company Malcolm McLaren formed to 'solely represent' (albeit 'exploit')
the Sex Pistols in the UK. With their total disregard for the status quo combined
together with the grim social climate, & of course a moronic English press,
it turned out to be a relatively easy task. However, as word began to travel across
the Atlantic to the USA, McLaren quickly realized he would need a creative individual,
that understood the Sex Pistols, and more importantly could represent and translate
his ideas. Rory Johnston was the man he chose for the job.
How did you get involved with Malcolm McLaren?
I was working in a hotel bar, The Portobello, to earn some extra money. I was
an art student at Chelsea School of Art, and I'd seen the Sex Pistols play there.
Malcolm used to come in the hotel bar with his friends, unusual people, because
it was an after hours place. This was back in 1975. He was very interesting and
we just sort of hit it off. Our actual working relationship didn't really start
until the late 70's. I'd moved to the States by then, but I was back and forth
for one reason or another.
How did the working relationship come about?
I'd seen what was happening from almost the beginning and felt inspired by the
whole thing. So I basically just called Malcolm up from America one day, and told
him I had a good feel for the States now, and if he needed someone I was available.
To which Malcolm's response was; " Well Rory, as it happens, I do need someone
out there - someone that understands us."
Then you obviously had similar ideas or aspirations as Malcolm, which were quite
shocking back then.
Well yeah, but Malcolm was a bit of a Fagan really. People were drawn to him.
I give him his due, he was a catalyst, he inspired other people to come up with
good things, and he could get an idea off the ground. Even the band, they ended
up starting because they hung around his shop, somewhat indirectly obviously,
but the shop was still an inspiration or a magnet that drew those people together.
I know it's been hashed over a million times, but the problem between John &
Malcolm - was it strictly the money, or more the clash of characters?
Oh God, I can only venture an opinion there. They were both young with ambitions,
Malcolm was years ahead of John though, much more worldly, and I don't mean that
with any disrespect, he just was. I think that probably made for a potential clash
early on. There was definitely a meeting of the minds at the beginning, they both
wanted to dismantle the music business, deflate the whole thing, and get rid of
those idiotic rock stars around at that time. but from two different perspectives.
The money part had to come later because there wasn't any at the start.
Malcolm really wasn't a manager in the conventional sense, was he?
No. Not at all. Malcolm seems to view everything he does as a piece of art - a
social statement. He was influenced by a group of very extreme activists back
then, very radical people that wanted to change things in England.
Did you get along with the Pistols from the get go?
Well yeah, as much as one could do in those circumstances. As I said, I was a
fan from very early on, but slightly older than them. They were characters, you
know? There was a core of people around at the start that followed the band, which
I was one of.
The Bromley Contingent.?
No, The Bromley Contingent was just one of several groups or factions that followed
them - and most of these groups were connected through Malcolm, or the shop "Sex".
RB: The shop "Sex"
and Vivienne Westwood. Can you tell me a bit about that?
Well, it was kind of scary going into Sex at first. It was like, Christ! What's
all this? Leather masks, rubber T-shirts, rubber dresses - all kinds of 'fetish
wear'. "Sex" soon began to evolve quickly over a period of time as they became
more sophisticated with their ideas and designs. Everything changed, the name
(Seditionaries), the décor, and of course, the clothes. It was also in a location
where there had been other shops, other progressive underground shops. The Worlds
End location was the more underground end of the Kings Road district. Vivienne
was great, she was a cool person. Everyone has their quirks about this whole thing
and the people in it; in retrospect she was a real character, easily as strong
as Malcolm, and very determined.
When did you start handling their affairs in America?
Around the time of the A&M Records signing.
Were you in London for the signing?
No, I was in Los Angeles. I'd been receiving information in fairly big chunks,
because it was a lot harder to communicate across long distances back then, remember
- there wasn't email, very few faxes, and calling on the phone was very expensive.
Malcolm came over with Stephen Fisher (Sex Pistols lawyer), and I was ferrying
them around. They were quite striking; you had Malcolm in his black bondage gear,
and Fisher in his very formal pin stripe English lawyer gear! We went over to
the A&M offices on La Brea and peoples' jaws just dropped! People were genuinely
shocked everywhere we went. It was hilarious.
How did the meeting go?
Oh, it was so long ago now, A&M made an offer or proposal basically. I wasn't
privy to the fine details; they were going to be done in London. All I knew really
was there was an American deal to be done and it was going to be A&M. That
was why I was there. They needed a person in the A&M office representing the
group. Malcolm wanted to make sure the message wasn't going to get diluted, which
he was very afraid of, and not just the music being diluted but the whole package.
RB: What was your
reaction when they were thrown off A&M so soon?
I was waiting for Malcolm to call, and give me the green light to go down to A&M
and start getting things sorted out. Three days had gone by after the deal was
supposed to be signed and I'd heard nothing. So I called Malcolm and he goes (imitating
Malcolm - very well), "Oh Rory didn't you hear? We've been kicked off the label".
I said, "How the fuck did you think I'd know! You don't think A&M would call
me to tell me that, do you?". It was quite funny really. It was then that I fully
realized just how much of an upheaval they were causing in England. Kicked off
two labels in a matter of weeks! Stuff like that just didn't happen back then.
It was incredible.
Did you get one of those A&M singles?
Nah, the shipment from A&M was held in US customs, it's probably still there
somewhere! (Laughs) Malcolm did give me a few God Save The Queen T-shirts to promote
the A&M single, but I gave those away.
Were you surprised when they signed to Virgin, a hippie label?
It was quite a radical move. Virgin was a very small label in contrast to EMI
and A&M. I was suspicious because the Sex Pistols were so anti-hippie. I did
think there must be an ulterior motive somewhere.
Destroy a hippie label perhaps?
Maybe. The thing was, Branson was a hippie - but he was no fool. Virgin would
do for England I guess.and time was running out of course, they needed to get
the single out (God Save The Queen) before the Queen's Silver Jubilee. We signed
to Warner Bros., in the US because they were the most ardently interested. Casablanca
was very strong, I had meetings with MCA, and Epic was interested too. Warner
Brothers were picked basically because they were the biggest and very enthusiastic.
RB: What was your
reaction to Never Mind The Bollocks when it was finally released?
I absolutely fucking loved it. I'd been sent demos and other stuff prior to the
release. Actually I was sent quite a long tape, with some different mixes on just
before it came out, some of which I thought were stronger than the final cut.
I left that at Casablanca though. Never Mind The Bollocks was fucking amazing,
not only on a musical level but for many other reasons too.
It really broke new ground on every level, didn't it?
Yeah, politically, religiously. It was like an earthquake, it created a lot of
fear & tension within the musical hierarchy. It changed everyday peoples'
attitudes and lives.
Absolutely. Why did Warner Brothers release the single "Pretty Vacant" with a
different sleeve and different B- side?
What happened there was, when a record was supposed to be released, Barclay (the
Pistols French label) would flood the UK with imports marginally ahead of time,
to compete with Virgin. So Branson, in his infinite wisdom, tried the same trick
in the USA. I mean the record shops in America were full of UK copies of Never
Mind The Bollocks before Warner Brothers could get theirs out, so they were losing
market share, in effect. At least 150,000 copies were shipped in through Canada!
To make the US product more attractive, or unique, Warners changed Pretty Vacant's
sleeve design, and changed the b-side to 'Submission'. Submission was chosen as
there was still debate as to whether or not it would be on the LP. As for 'Bollocks',
Warners used different sleeve colors, changed the track running order. and added
an inner sleeve. It was basically their (Warner's) way of saying to Virgin, "Fuck
RB: Moving on to
the 1978 US Tour; that tour killed the band.
Well no, it was a catalyst. The problems had been building up prior to that. I
wasn't aware of how bad it had actually got until they arrived in the States,
and it was obvious to me then that it was pretty bad. I was getting all my information
from Malcolm, which was only one side of it. My job suddenly turned into trying
to keep the peace between Warner Brothers, Malcolm, & the band.
I'm surprised Warner Brothers didn't insist on a proper tour!
They did, they tried to! Let's put it this way, the original tour that was proposed
was a tour of Texas. Only Texas. That was the original tour. Texas was a dangerous
state, full of rednecks. We thought we could get an honest reaction there, like
there had been in England. It seemed like it would be a good starting point for
the band, guaranteed violence, guaranteed tension. Hopefully a few bans here and
there, too. Malcolm was worried that he wouldn't be able to manipulate things
in America like he had in England, because it was so big, and he definitely didn't
want Warner Brothers to present the Sex Pistols as just another rock 'n' roll
The compromise was the tour that Warner Brothers came up with, which was a huge
compromise for them, especially when we made it clear we would not play New York
or Los Angeles. There were gigs originally planed for the north-east, in 'rust
belt' areas, but they had to be cancelled because of problems with visas.
Do you think Warner Brothers were scared of the Sex Pistols?
(Laughs) No they weren't scared. They were the very opposite of most English companies,
and very heavy-handed. Warner Brothers thought the Pistols were going to be huge;
they thought they had the next Rolling Stones. That tour was wild. Sid was out
of control. He had two minders. I had to watch him too, he nicked my watch one
night, an antique that was my father's! I had to cut hotel room phone lines.all
sorts of things. It was fucking crazy. Sid was always trying to get out and score.
The last time I saw Sid - after the tour was over - he'd run off. He was in Haight-Ashbury
and had OD'd. Boogie & I found him and he was blue. So we called an ambulance,
and they managed to save him. There was so much chaos at the end of the tour and
no one really knew what was going on. Anyway, after he'd got out of hospital we
took him to LA Airport and he looked great, he was happy because he was going
home to see Nancy. He gave me a big hug and said thanks, but then he accidentally
OD'd on the plane with the 'prescription drugs' they'd given him!
You must have got to know Sid Vicious quite well then?
Well I remember Sid back when he worked at the shop, when he was just a kid. He
got really caught up in trying to be, "SID VICIOUS". It was insane letting Sid
join the band; Sid was their most rabid fan for Christ's sake! Then again, that's
probably why Malcolm wanted it. (Laughs)
How did you feel about the split at the end of the tour?
I felt that the situation at San Francisco was terrible. It seemed to me like
Malcolm wanted it to end there because of the problems he'd been having with Rotten.
Instead of being conciliatory about it - including John in the project - and giving
him more of a sense of ownership in the project. Instead the attitude was more,
"This is my project and not yours". The whole situation might have been salvaged
right there. I suggested we go play the north-east coast gigs that we'd cancelled,
hoping it would hold things together. We all knew it was going to be a crazy ride,
and everyone was up for it, but Malcolm obviously had a different agenda on that
tour, which was very different to Rotten's. Malcolm still wanted to control everything,
including the film. It was very clear he didn't consider the band to be any more
than his creation. Warner Brothers were furious with Malcolm when they heard about
it. They'd put a lot of time and money into the Sex Pistols and believed passionately
in the band.
The film (The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle) was a major problem, wasn't it?
RJ: It turned into one,
it shouldn't have been. There were all kinds of great ideas being thrown around.
I got the introduction to Russ Meyer going in LA - it could have been brilliant.
RB: Do you think
"The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle" made a mockery of it?
Yes and no. It got kind of weird. It got kind of nasty. There was a war of words
going on with everyone at that point too. The stuff we'd come up with Rodger Ebert
in LA would have been a fucking great film, when the Pistols were still a band
& together. We spent a long weekend in the Sunset Marquis knocking out ideas.
We laid down this template and called it, "Who Killed Bambi". The film that came
out was very different in the end. Only certain scenes have good memories for
me, unfortunately the film as a whole is very one-sided. It's strictly Malcolm's
point of view.
Did you see anything of Sid while he was in New York?
No, Sid had really severed his ties with everyone by then, and I'd relocated from
New York to Los Angeles. When Sid was charged with Nancy's murder I offered to
help him, I knew Sid would need a good lawyer very quickly, so I called F. Lee
Bailey and a couple of other famous lawyers. Everyone wanted the case - it was
very high profile. I did this as a friend, and not for any other reason than that.
I didn't really have much else to do with Pistols by then, it was finished, and
I was into other things.
You went on to manage the Avengers didn't you?
Yes I did. They should have been a lot bigger. She was good - Penelope (Houston)
was great. They should have kept going! I got Steve Jones to play on a few songs
and produce some early recordings. Steve really fell in love with California &
LA. We hung out a lot and he got a good feel for it out there. There were a lot
of talented individuals in the early Punk scene on the West Coast around that
time. Belinda Carlisle was actually the president of the Avengers fan club!
Did you continue to work with Malcolm after the Sex Pistols had split?
Yeah, I did Bow Wow Wow with him for a while. Then he went on to be an artist
himself, so I managed them on my own for about a year and a half. I haven't seen
him for a while now though. He's pretty much just concentrating on himself, rather
than working with other people.
What about the Pistols, did you stay in touch with them?
Yeah, I see them all from time to time.
What do you think to the post Pistols stuff?
PIL were fucking great, especially the early stuff with Wobble & Keith Levene.
They should have been a lot bigger. That was another group with a load of potential
that went south too soon. The Professionals were cool too, I think they would
have done better if they had a lead singer.
Did you see any of the Filthy Lucre Tour?
Yeah, I saw a show in New York that was great, then one in Tokyo. The funny thing
about that gig is my son was sat next to Paul's daughter, I remember looking over
and just laughing. God, that felt strange. The tour started out good, but I heard
it got strained by the end. They made loads of Filthy Lucre! (Laughs)
Have you seen the new film, The Filth & the Fury?
Yeah it was good - a good rebuttal!
Who else have you worked with?
RJ: God! Loads of people:
The Clash, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Blondie, Bowie, Philip Glass, The Doors
& Nigel Kennedy, Youth & Jaz Coleman amongst others.
Who has been the most rewarding to work with?
Rewarding? It depends on what you mean by rewarding. The most exciting was the
Sex Pistols. the most educating was Bow Wow Wow.but working for Decca Universal
- with classical artists like Russell Watson & Nigel Kennedy has been very
are you doing now?
VP of A&R at Decca Universal - New York City.
Who do you like today & how do feel about the music scene in general?
RJ: What a question!
Well, for the last ten years there's been a lot of very good stuff coming out
of a lot of different places. The good thing about working for a classical crossover
label is you appreciate music from all genres. I mean you've got people like Moby
in the top ten; even Madonna's most recent stuff has been very good. The boundaries
have really fallen down.
What are your plans for the future?
Make lots more records, with other great artists.
Is there anything you'd like to say on the Sex Pistols to close the interview
RJ: Thank you,
Rob, for being persistent!
Interview by Rob Banks, March 22nd 2001
God Save The Queen A&M t-shirt; © Rob Banks personal collection.
Jaz Coleman, Santina Protopoppa & Rory Johnston; © Rory Johnston personal
PART OF THIS INTERVIEW MAY BE COPIED OR REPRODUCED IN ANY FORM WITHOUT THE AUTHOR'S
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