As the most famous poster boy of punk and as a celebrity personality, John Lydon has dedicated his life to ruffling feathers through both song and snarling public commentary.
He’s a natural born entertainer, but he’s also a character of inconsistencies, and he has a habit of squealing over his own sound judgement when he’s starved of attention.
Frequently noted by both the mainstream and underground music press, Lydon is a shameless contradictor of thoughts and arguments. And yet, as the former Sex Pistols singer and the son of working-class Irish immigrants, many expect him to retain liberal, left-wing political views. This week, Lydon appeared on ITV’s casually right-wing programme Good Morning Britain to promote his new songbook, chuckling with hosts Piers Morgan and Susanna Reid and answering their questions about current affairs. Lydon – who has lived in America for many years – backed Brexit (“The working class have spoke, and I’m one of them, and I’m with them. And there it is.”) and described his meeting with Nigel Farage as “fantastic”. He went on to defend President Donald Trump: “What I dislike is the left-wing media in America are trying to smear the bloke as a racist, and that’s completely not true. There’s many, many problems with him as a human being, but he’s not that, and there just might be a chance something good will come out of that situation, because he terrifies politicians. And this is joy to behold.” He also called “a possible friend,” before laughing.
Since his ITV appearance, Lydon re-emerged on Virgin Radio yesterday, accusing the “rag-and-bone trade of what we call the media” of misconstruing his intent, stating: “I didn’t expect to be misunderstood, I think I speak very clearly. America now has a new President and whether you like him or not you have to support him or you will destroy the country. You got to make things work.”
These topics – America, the Trump administration, Britain and the European Union – have haunted Lydon’s slippery rhetoric for years, and his attitudes towards all of the above haven’t always been so aggravating. In an interview Metro, published in April last year, the Lydon appeared to be staunchly anti-Brexit: “To leave [the European Union] would be insane and suicidal…We’re never going to go back to that romantic delusion of Victorian isolation, it isn’t going to happen. There’ll be no industry, there’ll be no trade, there’ll be nothing – a slow dismal, collapse…It’s an act of cowardice really, it’s running away from issues instead of solving them.” And on Trump, he said: “It’s a minority at best that support him, and it’s so hateful and ignorant. I agree with the basic principle that we’re all fed up with politicians, but you can’t replace them with businessmen, which is surely the more corrupt form!”
And this isn’t the only inference of anti-Trump backtalk. During a performance with his band Public Image Ltd on the Stephen Colbert Show in 2015, Lydon snapped “Don’t you dare vote Trump.” When asked by Yahoo Music this year if he saw the current administration as a big comedy, Lydon replied: “I think it’s deeply hilarious. I think he’s deeply confused and possibly deadly. Let’s wait and see, shall we… And the man definitely knows how to make an enemy, which is no small feat in the modern world. Most people are jaded now. That seems to be the fashion of the day. “Oh, it’s all been done before. Why bother?” Well, hello! Look who’s come to wake you up. He’s a really awful, awful, bad version of the Sex Pistols – the negative side.”
Over the years, there have been even more troubling contradictions. Lydon consistently spoken in support of female punk and post-punk bands such as X-Ray Spex, The Raincoats and The Slits (his wife, Nora Foster, is the mother of the late Ari Up) but over the years he’s been accused of abusive behaviour by singer Duffy and branded a “sexist pig” by an Australian TV presenter after he gave a callous and patronising interview.
Since The Sex Pistols’ infamous Bill Grundy TV appearance, John Lydon has goaded audiences with rants that were once steeped in a kind of aggressive punk sarcasm, but have now softened into slapstick irony. The simple, mundane explanations for his recent controversies is that he’s an opportunist who agitates to fuel his commercial appeal, or that he’s willing to override his values for the buzz of being at the centre of attention. If anger really is an energy, as Lydon once famously sang, then now is the time for him to review how he channels it.