This is Malcolm McLaren as he likes to see himself: the Left Bank bohemian, the unappreciated maverick, the exile nursing a glass of chilled pinot noir as he sits in his favourite bistro on the Boulevard St Germain, not far from his appartement. He even, towards the end of this paragraph, compares himself to Oscar Wilde. ‘I first came to Paris to lick my wounds at the end of the Seventies,’ he says, over-enunciating his vowels in a fluty voice that is part estuary geezer, part high duchess. ‘It was after I’d been taken to court by the Sex Pistols because they claimed I had mismanaged them. I had mismanaged them, of course. I was in the business of mismanagement. But I soon realised that Parisians love anyone the English hate. I felt like Oscar Wilde must have felt when he became an exile here. The main difference being that I had zillions of girlfriends.’

The main difference? Clearly we are in the presence of a healthy ego here. The walls of the bistro, incidentally, are hung with giant mirrors that angle away from the wall at the top, so that diners can contemplate themselves. And above the cash register there is a small black and white photograph of Picasso, who was also a regular here. Wilde, Picasso, McLaren. It soon becomes apparent that my dining companion would have no hesitation in mentioning those three names in the same breath.

‘We’re just in the process of moving at the moment,’ he adds. ‘From the 9th to 8th arrondissement. We had a bit of a clear-out. My big Knoll desk was bought at auction by Nicolas Sarkozy. We had to move because we needed a better concierge, one who would deal with packages and be discreet.’ The ‘we’ refers to Young Kim, his 34-year-old Korean-American partner (a graduate of Yale University who is now a fashion historian). ‘This will be my fifth appartement because although Parisians in general love me, I always seem to have trouble with my immediate neighbours. Any bit of noise or rowdiness and they want to complain to the police and put a petition in the town hall. Before you know it you are being taken to court by the landlord of the building. I’ve had that twice. And if you put up the black flag and say ”f— you” then they make your life even more miserable.’

At 61, McLaren’s hair is no longer auburn and wiry, but neatly cropped and frosting at the temples. He is wearing a sensible blue shirt – although it does have a gravy stain on the front – and as he talks he rolls up one sleeve only, the other remaining stubbornly buttoned down. It is as if he only half means business today. He has, he confides, got a stinking hangover. To combat it he orders, in passable French, a beetroot salad, one which leaves his tongue red. ‘I sooo needed to eat something,’ he says, with a roll of his eyes. He holds his knife like a pen and, as he talks, which he does for three hours without flagging – talk, talk, talk – he holds his fork limply, his wrist loose, conducting with it. Perhaps it is all part of the aesthete look he seems to be cultivating: Brian Sewell meets Dame Edith Evans. He is the consummate chameleon, after all.

After his heady days managing the Sex Pistols (and later Bow Wow Wow), McLaren reinvented himself as a pioneer of scratch and hip-hop, having hit singles with Buffalo Gals and a techno version of Madam Butterfly. But after that, nothing. Well, nothing much. With the composer Yanni he arranged The Flower Duet to accompany the BA commercials. He ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of London in 1999. He produced a film, Fast Food Nation, that did quite well at the box office last year. Oh, and he has appeared in a reality show set in a remote village in Scotland. It was due to air this autumn but may now be shelved because another of the contestants, Mike Reid, has since died.

The plot was this: three ‘celebrities’ competed to win the title Baron of Gardenstown, which the TV company had bought. McLaren was the obligatory awkward cuss, something of a tradition on reality shows since John Lydon (Johnny Rotten as was) appeared in I’m a Celebrity?… Get me Out of Here! It ended, fairly inevitably, with McLaren being hounded out of the village by the angry locals he had insulted. ‘You never saw such deformed, awful looking creatures,’ he says now. ‘It was an absolutely sorrowful place. Never, ever go to Scotland if you can help it.’

Not one to brood on past failures, McLaren is now planning to put on a Broadway musical. He also fancies himself as an artist. He has, indeed, persuaded a gallery in New York to put on an exhibition of his work later this month. But McLaren being McLaren, he has, at the time of writing, yet to come up with any exhibits. ‘In the art world I am a sought-after creature,’ he says haughtily. ‘To participate in whatever, to endorse whatever.’ It turns out he is also a consultant on the board of Phillips, the contemporary art auctioneers.

But try as he might to branch out into other art forms, it is the Sex Pistols for which he will be remembered. The band just won’t go away. They have, indeed, just announced a concert to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of Never Mind the Bollocks, one of the most influential albums in rock history. Original members John Lydon, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock will play at the Brixton Academy in London on 8 November.

When I ask McLaren what words he thinks will appear in the opening paragraphs of his obituaries, he doesn’t say ‘manager’ and ‘Sex Pistols’, although this is clearly what he has in mind. ‘I would have thought “skulduggery”, “charlatan”, “svengali”. Or maybe: “The man responsible for turning British culture into a cheap marketing gimmick.” ‘ And a man obsessed by his own self-image, I suggest.

‘Completely. I have always loved the idea of being someone who can disappear, of never having an identity. It was probably due to my dysfunctional childhood.’ He delights in recounting the picaresque details of his upbringing in Stoke Newington, north London. His father left when he was two, so he was raised by his grandmother, Rose Corre Isaacs, who promptly turned him against his parents and his siblings. She was the eccentric daughter of wealthy Portuguese Sephardic Jews (they were diamond dealers). McLaren was still sharing his grandmother’s bed – at her insistence – when he was 14. ‘She lived for chaos and discomfort,’ McLaren says. ‘She was very possessive and wouldn’t let me have anything to do with girls. But if I was causing mayhem at school, that was OK.’ Sorry to trade in stereotypes, but given how domineering his mother figure was, does he wonder how he managed to turn out straight? ‘Sometimes. I don’t know. Most people think I’m gay.’

He talks at length about the art schools that played such a significant role in the counterculture of the 1960s. He attended several and fell under the spell of the French Situationists,who promoted absurdist and provocative actions as a way of enacting social change. ‘I went from one art school to another, being chucked out, changing my name, getting another grant. They were all geared towards thinking that it was better to be a noble failure than a vulgar success. It meant you were not afraid to break rules. You wanted an adventure not a career. We saw ourselves as romantics in the tradition of Byron, Keats and Blake.’

After running out of art schools in 1971, McLaren moved into a London house that was pretty much a commune. It was there he met Vivienne Westwood. ‘She was a complete autodidact going on and on about…’ He adopts a northern accent ‘…”culture”. I always found her very annoying.’

Not that annoying – they had a child together. ‘Yes, well sometimes when you are annoyed by people it becomes attractive and stimulating. The house was full of American draft-dodgers and she would walk around it completely naked. Naturally, being young – I was only 17 – my testosterone meant I couldn’t help but be attracted to her body. I found myself in bed with her one night and lost my virginity to her and suddenly she handed me the bill. She was pregnant, and what was I going to do about it? I went to my rich grandmother who gave me the money for Vivienne to have an abortion. Vivienne took the money and spent it on a cashmere twinset instead.’

Did he have no moral qualms at all about an abortion? ‘Not really.’

Does it not make him shudder to know that that foetus turned into a sentient being, a grown man who has gone on to have children of his own? ‘I know, I know, it probably should make me shudder but it doesn’t. It makes me confused. At the time there was nothing about me that suggested I could take on the mantle of fatherhood. I had come from a strange non-parental background, the idea of children was… Well, I was barely 18.’

Their son, Joe Corre (named after McLaren’s grandmother), is now a successful entrepreneur, co-founder of the lingerie chain Agent Provocateur. Father and son are not close. Does he ever wonder what Joe must think when he reads about how his father wanted him aborted? ‘I don’t think he had to read about it. That well has already been truly poisoned. Hell hath no fury like a woman scored. Dear Vivienne.’

But it must mess with his head. ‘Oh, I was upset for a while but…’

No, not his head – Joe’s. ‘Unquestionably it turned him into a raving psychotic. Unquestionably.’

McLaren remembers turning up at the hospital in the snow a few days after Joe was born. ‘The nurse was extremely rude. She said: “What took you so long? Are you a long distance lorry driver?” I thought, f— you.’

Did he feel any fatherly instincts at all? ‘Not really. I was lost in that terrain. I’d been brought up to destroy families.’

But he and Vivienne did have a stab at being normal parents, for a while. ‘We never really had sex again after Joe was born, but we did live together. We became this odd couple. Most of my art student friends didn’t like Vivienne, I think maybe because they were jealous of her. They didn’t want to share me. I was this strange creature who didn’t show any sexuality, one way or the other, so they felt possessive of me. I went into depression for a while, then decided to make myself a blue lamé suit, copying Elvis, and I got Vivienne to help me. That was the big change. I realised she was a gifted seamstress.’

Joe was dispatched to a series of boarding schools, freeing his parents to pursue their unconventional business. Together Malcolm and Vivienne opened a clothes shop on the King’s Road which eventually became Sex, the store that pioneered the punk look of bondage trousers, ripped T-shirts and spiked dog collars. ‘We decided we needed mannequins to model our clothes and that was when we invented the Sex Pistols, with Johnny doing his audition there in the shop.’

Although McLaren protests that he was a mismanager, actually he proved to be inspired. The band had played only a few small gigs before being signed (with a large advance) by EMI in 1976. After a notorious appearance on Bill Grundy’s early evening television show – in which they swore live on air – the Pistols were fired by EMI and then signed to A&M Records for another large advance. That contract lasted a week – the record company got cold feet after the band went on a drunken rampage, smashing up the A&M headquarters. It was then that the young (and brave) Richard Branson signed them up to Virgin, for another huge advance. To celebrate, McLaren organised a boat trip down the Thames so that the Pistols could perform ‘God Save The Queen’ outside the Houses of Parliament (‘the fascist regime’), on the day The Queen (‘she ain’t no human being’) was celebrating her silver jubilee. The boat was raided by police and McLaren was arrested – in another blaze of publicity. When the band split up the following year, amid the inevitable stories of heroin abuse, murder and destruction, McLaren kept the rights to Never Mind the Bollocks. John Lydon took him to court in 1987 and won the rights back. McLaren and Lydon have refused to speak to each other since. It is safe to assume that McLaren’s name won’t be on the VIP list for the anniversary concert.

‘I thought the fashion was much more important than the music,’ McLaren says of the Sex Pistols now. ‘Punk was the sound of that fashion.’ It seems a contrary thing to say, but then he is a contrarian, and the band was his baby – so I ask about the fashion, specifically the swastika T-shirt that Sid Vicious always wore, at McLaren’s behest. In retrospect does he consider it to have been a gratuitous and sick provocation? ‘Not at all.’ Does he think he could get away with it today? ‘Probably not, but back then we were still on the tip of Sixties libertarianism.’

I suppose what I am getting at is that, well, he was Jewish. Didn’t he find the swastika repulsive? ‘Not at all. I didn’t give a damn about all that. I thought it was just great.’ He didn’t give a damn about the Holocaust? ‘Look, sometimes a younger generation doesn’t want to inherit the history of an older generation, so we wanted to appropriate the swastika for ourselves. We wanted to have a clean slate. We decided that we liked certain icons from the past and wanted to reinvent them. We were trying to mix pop culture with politics and art.’

On the subject of politics, I say, the thing I always found confusing about punk as a movement was that you had bands such as the Clash wearing Rock Against Racism badges at the same time as the Sex Pistols were wearing swastikas. ‘Well, the Rock Against Racism I was never interested in. I thought that was too naff. It didn’t annoy people enough. I wanted to be childish; I wanted to be everything society might hate. The idea of sounding sensible or serious was abhorrent to me. I was the ultimate mismanager because I was looking for ways to create chaos. The Sex Pistols were young and ignorant. They didn’t have the political references, they have to be forgiven for that. But what they did have was raw energy. All the energy of Never Mind the Bollocks was about desire for change. We wanted to create an artistic movement that would be like a political revolution. We wanted anarchy. It’s easy to forget how grim things were in the 1970s: the oil crisis, the three-day week, hyper-inflation, unemployment, no wonder there was disaffection.’

Now look at them. John Lydon said recently he quite likes The Queen, after all. Richard Branson is a knight of the realm. Vivienne Westwood has not only had her own retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum, she is also a Dame of the British Empire. Even McLaren’s son has been offered a knighthood (he turned it down in protest about the war in Iraq – having learned a thing or two from his father and mother about self-publicity). Would McLaren turn down a knighthood, if one were offered? Tellingly, he doesn’t say no. What he does say is: ‘The thought of the English Establishment ever coming to terms with its culture of deception…’ He trails off. ‘England deceives itself. It is a nation of liars.’

So, yes or no? ‘I can see why Vivienne accepted hers. She is a true capitalist. She would have loved to design for The Queen. She takes herself very seriously and is very stubborn. You are either with her or against her, in her view. She hates being laughed at. She can come across as radical, but she is extremely reactionary.’ McLaren rarely sees Westwood these days, although her name is the one he mentions when asked if he’s ever really loved a woman, apart from his eccentric grandmother.

When I suggest that he could always make a donation to the Labour Party, he laughs and says he prefers David Cameron to Gordon Brown because ‘I’ve had my fill of Scotsmen.’ I suggest to him that, deep down, he has the exile’s craving to be accepted by the country that he thinks rejected him. ‘Actually I don’t, but the English will have to accept one day that punk is their most valuable contribution to 20th-century art and culture. They will see it is as being as fundamental as the invention of the motor car, as impactful as any painting by Picasso. They will have to accept that punk was sexier than sex itself – and that it changed lives. Everyone from the bank manager, to Ken Livingstone or Damien Hirst has to acknowledge that punk is the ultimate measurement of cool and is the only way to sell things.’

Bank mangers? ‘Banks use the Never Mind the Bollocks cut-up ransom-letter typography in their advertisements.’

True. So he sees punk as his legacy to the world? ‘People are beginning to learn the truth about punk, and how instrumental I was in the development of it. That will change the way people will think of me. That will be in the obituaries. As barbaric a culture as it is, the English Establishment is coming to terms with the fact that punk was the best thing that ever happened to it. It wouldn’t be the country it is today without punk.’

Hmm. It sounds as if he is taking politics seriously, after all. But what, I ask, was the lasting political message of punk. Cash from Chaos? If so, isn’t that rather shallow? ‘I think it is very hard for artists to have political convictions. That is why I use art as my raison d’etre, not politics. It is the only way I can get on with myself.’

He’ll be telling me he has some moral fibre next. He laughs. ‘No, I have no moral fibre, at all. Codes of behaviour simply trap you.’

He must have some, I suggest. I mean, he wouldn’t, say, murder someone, would he? ‘No, I suppose not, not even Vivienne Westwood when she was annoying me. I’ve come close, but no. I wouldn’t think myself worthy enough to kill someone. Even if they needed to be killed. I wouldn’t have been the best man to do it.’

Not worthy enough. This doesn’t sound like the Malcolm McLaren we know and hate – the braggart whom John Lydon once called the most evil man in the world. It seems he is more complex and self-aware than he is given credit for being. Indeed, when his girlfriend – slightly built and stylish and in black clothes – arrives to meet him, he more or less admits that he is too selfish to entertain the idea of more children. ‘I am enough for Young to look after. The older I get the more brat-ish I become.’

They divide their time between France and America. ‘I’ve lived a restless life,’ he reflects. ‘I can never settle anywhere.’

Strangely, after three hours in his company, I find it hard to decide whether McLaren is likeable or not. Certainly he is entertaining. There is something pantomimic about the man. He is an engaging raconteur with a range of comedy voices – impersonations of Italians, plodding northerners and a sneery whine for Johnny Rotten. And he is endearingly childlike and buoyant in his enthusiasm for new ideas, constantly trying to understand a world in which he has always feels himself a misfit. But he can also be a bore, not knowing when to stop, or not bothering to stop. He likes to stick to the past; is less sure of the present. I suspect he knows all this, but, in punk tradition, he don’t care.

On one level he is the eternal hustler, still wanting to big himself up after all these years. But there is pathos here, too. He cynically claims all he was ever interested in was ripping people off and making money. But when I ask whether all his various business dealings have left him a wealthy man he looks uncomfortable and, for the first time, unsure of himself. ‘I don’t know what you mean by wealth. If by wealth you mean being able to do exactly what you want then yes, I am wealthy. I pretty much do what I like.’

I take that as a no. So, on his own terms, does he feel he has been a failure? He falls silent for the first time in three, long-winded hours as he considers this. ‘A magnificent failure,’ he says, eventually. ‘I am the walking, talking magnificent failure.’ He shrugs. ‘The ultimate poseur. So maybe I don’t need to do anything else in life. Maybe that is enough. What do you think?’ There is a smile in his voice as he asks.


James Blunt

It could be the homes around the world; his military bearing; or that he’s our biggest musical export since Elton. For whatever reason, being called annoying, a philanderer or – worse – middle class doesn’t exactly keep James Hillier Blount awake at night. Nigel Farndale met him

It’s not the sight of the groupies that haunts me, but the sound, or rather the absence of sound, as they ghost past us on their way up the stairs to the dressing-room. It takes me a moment to figure out that the reason they aren’t talking to each other is that they don’t know each other. One of the band members, the keyboard player, I think, has picked them from the audience on the basis of their looks. Half-a-dozen of them, all in their late teens and early twenties, and all, surprisingly, in pretty frocks, as if they were going to a Sunday school meeting. They have been separated from their friends like lambs weaned from their mothers. The silence of the lambs.

The ‘us’ they are filing past is James Blunt and me. He has a bottle of beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other, and not a hair in place – tousled just so, like a Renaissance painting of John the Baptist – but they don’t realise it’s him because he has changed out of the suit he was wearing on stage and is now in jeans, T-shirt and leather jacket, as well as a pink feather boa and star-shaped novelty sunglasses. But I’m getting ahead of myself. This is the end of the day; we need to go back to the start, well, to the middle, when the seats are empty and the Texan sun is at its most unforgiving.

A barefoot and unshaven Blunt is wearing normal sunglasses and shorts as he plays his piano, strums his guitar and sings his plaintive songs into the microphone for the sound check, all the while looking out with his soulful eyes over an empty, open-air arena in Houston. At 5ft 7in, he’s not a tall man, but he has presence and an unaffected manner – a certain maturity, too, one that you wouldn’t normally associate with a pop star in the ascendant.

But then he is 34 and this is his second career, his first being as an officer in the Household Cavalry. He joined after graduating from Bristol University with a degree in sociology. He became a champion skier for the Army and not only saw active service in Kosovo, but also guarded the Queen Mother’s coffin when she was lying in state.

Tonight he will be supporting Sheryl Crow, though, since his second album ‘All the Lost Souls’ and the single from it, ‘1973’, went straight to number one in America, he is arguably the bigger act these days. Indeed, not since Elton John has there been a more successful British singer-songwriter in the States.

His first album, ‘Back to Bedlam’, also went to number one over here, as it did in 18 other countries, making it the biggest-selling album of the millennium. It even entered the Guinness Book of Records as the fastest-selling album in one year. But it was his first single that really put him on the map. You’re Beautiful became the sound of that summer. It was everywhere, and still is – having become a favourite at weddings, funerals and bar mitzvahs. I even heard a brass band playing it at an agricultural show in the Yorkshire Dales this summer.

As well as millions of sales, James Blunt has won Brit awards, Ivor Novello awards, MTV awards and various Grammy nominations. In terms of credibility, he’s headlined at Glastonbury and won the respect of the world-weary music press. Yet not everyone loves him, as he points out when we get something to eat in the canteen area back stage.

‘After Back to Bedlam really started selling,’ he says, ‘there was this sudden aggression towards me in the UK, for whatever reason, and that focused my mind, made it clear to me what I was doing and why I wanted to do it. I write songs for myself. I don’t write them for you, or for anyone else, I write them because I have experiences that I need to process. I don’t have the answers all the time, but I do have lots of questions, and I express them in the songs I write.’

He is, I think, alluding to a poll last year of ‘the most annoying things in life’, which put him at number four, just behind cold-callers and queue-jumpers. ‘I haven’t met anyone who voted in the poll, have you?’ he says when I mention this. ‘That poll probably came from a website that was after some publicity. You and I could do the same poll very quickly right now and it would count as a poll. We could do one about annoying newspapers, for example. I promise the Sunday Telegraph wouldn’t be in my list. My parents take it.’

His father, a retired colonel in the Army Air Corps, manages his son’s finances. His mother arranged the purchase of his six-bedroom villa in Ibiza (he also has a chalet in Verbier and recently bought a place in Chelsea). ‘I’m not married,’ he says, ‘and so the support structure in my life is my parents. I’m closer to them now than I have ever been.’

He certainly isn’t married, as the photographs of him emerging from nightclubs with various high-profile women on his arm attest. Tara Palmer-Tomkinson was probably the best known socialite, Jessica Sutta, of the Pussycat Dolls, the most glamorous. He also seems to be photographed regularly cavorting on beaches with bikini-clad models such as Petra Nemcova, whom he dated and then dumped – unceremonious dumping being his way of ending relationships, according to the tabloids. He once said he found himself in a swimming pool in LA with nine naked women. ‘I was the only bloke. It was the only time I wished my mates were there, purely to spectate. I had arrived. It was a moment.’

Now he says of the tabloid interest in his peripatetic love life: ‘Last week I went to my home in Ibiza and was photographed by the paparazzi in my swimming trunks with girls. What is the point of that? I’m not that bothered, but maybe the media should be concentrating more on global warming or the Russian invasion of Georgia.

‘Looking at me in my swimming trunks is not a great sight. It’s a waste of time. There generally is a long lens pointing at me wherever I go, these days. I’m comfortable with it. I appreciate how things work. But my record label said something about my always being photographed coming out of nightclubs and I thought, “But this is what I do. I was doing it before the second album came out, so what is different now? You didn’t tell me to stop then.” I’m not going to change my life because of these people. I don’t see why I should.’

His label also gets him to dye his grey hairs and be enigmatic about his love life, which is an old tactic dating back to the Beatles – they had to pretend they didn’t have wives and girlfriends so that fans could fantasise they were in with a chance.

Actually, at the time of going to press, Blunt seems to be going out again with one of his old flames, Verity Evetts, an Oxford-educated barrister. He has also stayed friendly with some of his other exes, the socialites at least. He told one – an ex who got married not long ago – that he doesn’t feel ‘centred’ at the moment and would like to get married as well. Then again, he also said that he never tires of singing You’re Beautiful night after night because it gets him laid night after night.

Either way, he tells me he has grown used to the idea that his mother will probably find out from the papers what he has been up to, and with whom, before he has had a chance to tell her. ‘And my [two] sisters are quick to email me about things in the papers, laughing their heads off. I get healthy, ritual abuse from them, and give it back myself.’

As we are talking, I can’t decide whether the way Blunt smiles all the time is disarming or disturbing. He’s like a victim of a religious cult, smiling at the beginning of the sentence and at the end. I guess he has a lot to smile about, but also I sense a great deal of insecurity to disguise.

Then, I’m distracted by the sight of Sheryl Crow playing table tennis across the room. She has been holding her adopted son in one arm as she bats with the other, and now, even more distractingly, she is heading straight for us. ‘Are we going to have one of our little conversations on stage again tonight, James?’ she says. ‘That flirting thing. I think it worked well last night.’

They discuss the duet they will sing – a cover of Cat Stevens’s The First Cut is the Deepest – then we both watch her shimmy away, her blonde curls bobbing. ‘She’s very down to earth,’ he says. ‘I’d met her a couple of times, which was why she asked me on this tour. We do end up playing a lot of table tennis on the road. We’ve done 117 shows so far this year, in 117 cities, and there are a lot of hours to fill in the day.’

As he sleeps on his tour bus with his band, one city tends to blur into another. When I joke that he is in Cincinnati now, he looks genuinely confused. ‘No, this is?… Oh, right. Actually, I always get the tour manager to say where we are just as I’m going on stage. I still managed to get it wrong the other night, saying “Hello Dallas” when I meant Austin. I’m surprised I got out alive.’

He is funny on the subjects of things that go wrong. ‘People are normally surprised by my show, which is more energetic than you might think. Jumping on the piano. Jumping out into the audience and running up and down the aisle high-fiving them. But going off the stage can be quite dangerous. I broke my finger once. My legs carried on when I jumped off, and I smacked down on the ground. The spotlight was on me, and when I got back to the piano I hit the wrong note and thought, “Why did I do that?” And I looked down and saw it was because my finger was broken, sticking out an angle. Look,’ he says holding it up. ‘It’s still crooked.’

On another occasion, in Chicago, he jumped 8ft off the stage. ‘When I began running to the audience, a security guard stuck his arm out and I thought, “Does he want a hug?” Then next thing I know he’s rugby-tackled me. He wouldn’t release me and I was screaming in his ear, “I’m the f—ing singer.” I had to wait for the other guards to pull him off.’

I would have thought Blunt’s training in unarmed combat would have helped. I presume he still works out. ‘No, never. Couldn’t handle it. Too boring. I am a hyperactive person though.’ He likes an adrenaline rush, as well, having recently bought an 1100cc Moto Guzzi V11 Sport motorbike. There’s also the skiing, which he still does, and the riding. Actually, he tells me, he never really liked horses before joining the Life Guards. So why did he join that particular regiment?

‘Well, it is a reconnaissance regiment.’ But they are all so tall in the Life Guards, did that not make him self-conscious? ‘Some are. The Foot Guards tend to be taller regiments, though. The Life Guards take a few shrimps, as well. Besides, they are on horses, so height isn’t so important. Also being in that regiment had the benefit of being in Knightsbridge. I got a chance to be in London and meet people in the music scene.’ And groupies, as it happens.

As he paraded up and down the Mall in plumed helmet and shiny breastplate, girls would stick their phone numbers down his knee-length boots. But it was his time in Kosovo that really made girls swoon. He used to strap his guitar to the outside of his tank, because there wasn’t room for it inside. He had learnt to play the violin at five, the piano at seven and the guitar at 14, while a pupil at Harrow.

He writes his songs on piano and guitar. ‘But mainly guitar because it is easier to carry around. It’s like a child messing around with a toy. If a tune comes to me I don’t record it instantly. I think if I remember it, then it must be worth remembering, and if I forget it, then it was forgettable.’

Does he have any anxiety dreams about forgetting lines or chords? ‘Not yet. Perhaps I will tonight. Perhaps you’ve jinxed me. But audiences aren’t judgmental, and if things go wrong and you can look them in the eye, that is fine. The only people who are judgmental are the journalists. I will be conscious of you being there in the audience judging me.’

Blimey. Sorry about that. Is it true he signs breasts? ‘Not that I remember. Not that I’m fussy what I sign. A lot of men started coming to the shows after I appeared on Top Gear last year. That was such fun. I spun the car five times. I thought I might as well make the most of it. I am competitive.’

He recorded one of the fastest laps, but I’m surprised blokes didn’t think him manly before that, given his tour of duty in Kosovo. ‘It’s because I sing songs that are heart-on-your-sleeve and therefore I must be overly emotional. Nothing I can do about it. I could pose more, but I am comfortable with my masculinity.’

He has said that his lyrics are autobiographical, in which case, are we to assume that the lyric on his new album, ‘I killed a man in a far away land’, means he killed a man in a far away land? I only ask because in the past he has said that he would never try to exploit what he went through, what he saw. ‘You should ask any soldier how many lives he has saved. How they do it is no one else’s business. What I took from my experience in Kosovo is that you are told from one day to the next who your enemy is and it keeps changing. That’s what is happening in Iraq, too. I believe in looking people in the eye, looking for the common humanity.’

He is a great believer in looking people in the eye. He will use the phrase again later and it seems to reveal a Christ complex, or a John the Baptist one. That direct and challenging stare of his. It would also explain the hair.

It is time for him do some photographs before he goes on stage and, endearingly, he says he is ‘not fussed’ about the grooming he is offered before they are taken.

On stage his features contort with passion when he sings. The big video screen goes in tight on his face. His voice is by turns soft and tremulous and forceful, but always high. Having seen him in concert once before, a couple of years ago, I notice the tone of his banter has changed.

‘Wow it’s hot tonight,’ he says now. ‘I’m surprised any of you are wearing any clothes. We could all take them off and get friendly.’ It is suggestive, designed to get the teenage girls in the audience screaming. Before he used to joke about his ‘girlie voice’ and taking helium to get it that way, and being ‘a bit wet’ and the ‘housewives’ favourite’. I think now he has realised that, actually, he is a proper musician, a popular one, too, and that he doesn’t need to apologise for it.

Afterwards, back in the dressing-room, he strips to the waist as he talks because he wants to take a shower before going back on to do his duet with Sheryl Crow. ‘Things got a bit hairy out there when I jumped into the crowd,’ he says. ‘Did you see that? Some thought it was some kind of sport to grab me.’

I watch his duet from the side of the stage and notice he whispers something in Sheryl Crow’s ear and then she starts running her hands over his trousers suggestively, patting them. Afterwards, I ask what he said. ‘”Is now a good time to ask for your phone number?” She was checking my pockets, pretending to look for a pen.’

He shows me round the gold-coloured tour bus where he will be sleeping tonight as they drive to their next gig in Dallas. It is full of hi-tech equipment and is nicely air-conditioned but there isn’t much space in the bunks. ‘We do live in close proximity,’ he says. ‘Some of us stay up late. This is the crew end, they have to get up early.’

Where do the groupies go? ‘Never have groupies on here. Never. They’d only get in if we invited them in. But we’d only ever invite friends in.’

Does he sleep OK? I heard he has to take sleeping pills. ‘It is a bit of a rough sleep, but better than a hotel and taking planes all the time because you have to get to the airport two hours early, which is miserable. Then your flight gets delayed.’

He is drinking champagne from a plastic cup. ‘This is for your benefit,’ he says. ‘The tour management went out and bought a bottle of champagne because he thought I should be seen drinking it. Better for my image. Isn’t that sweet? Normally, we drink vodka and beer. In fact, I think I’d rather have a beer, now. Want one?’ He opens a well-stocked fridge then takes me to the back of the bus where there is some seating space. He has one small case which he pulls out from a cupboard. It continues a few pairs of socks, T-shirts and a spare pair of jeans. No photographs or mementos. ‘This is all I have for 14 months on the road,’ he says. ‘I’m not known for style.’

Does he know how much he is worth? ‘No I don’t, not very interested in it to be honest. I travel with hand luggage only. That is why I always seem to be wearing the same clothes in photographs. If a tabloid says my clothes aren’t fashionable or my hair looks stupid, I really don’t worry about it. Don’t have any hair gel.’

In London, he takes the Tube or the bus. He prefers pubs to restaurants. When he goes to Ibiza, he flies easyJet. Still, that’s at home. Presumably on the road he can afford to be more self-indulgent.

Another lyric that we can only assume is autobiographical is ‘I’ve taken a s—load of drugs’. It is. Though his only comment on the subject is that he has ‘a comfortable relationship with drugs’. His relationship with fame is less comfortable. Oscar Wilde said there were two forms of tragedy: not getting what you want, and getting it. Is that how it felt for him when he went to number one? ‘Actually, I don’t think I had been dreaming about it. Certainly, I hadn’t anticipated being so recognisable so quickly.

‘I do remember getting a phone call from the record company, who said both the single and the album have gone to number one, and thinking, “S—, this is not what I expected.” I hadn’t prepared myself for it. Number two is great. Number two is nice. I sensed then it would mean having to change from being a musician to being a celebrity and that that would be a change for the worse. Fame doesn’t affect me, but it does affect everyone else around me. As for celebrity, it is the worst invention of the modern world. Gossip columns treat your life as if it were a cartoon. Relationships reduced to cartoons.’

Although there are other public-school bands around at the moment – Radiohead, Coldplay – Blunt seems to have suffered more than most from a perception that he is too posh to be credible. His family name is Blount (and his middle name Hillier), but he changed it to Blunt to sound, well, blunter and more proletarian.

When he tells me he would nevertheless still send a son of his to Harrow – ‘I think I would. I think I would. Public schools make individuals rather than sheep’ – I ask what he makes of the mood change now that the old Etonian David Cameron has made it OK to be posh. ‘Is it? I must come back to Britain immediately. Is it really safe to come back?

‘It’s not a dirty word to be posh, people come up to me and no one gives a damn if I’m posh. It’s about having a normal conversation and looking people in the eye.’

We head back to the dressing-room where he puts on his feather boa and novelty sunglasses then we wander back downstairs to have a word with Sheryl Crow, who is signing autographs. This is the moment at which the keyboard player says: ‘This way to the good-time room girls’ and the silent groupies dutifully appear.