John Lydon refuses to settle down
It’s 1975, and pop-art provocateur Malcolm McLaren has heard rumours of a 19-year-old prowling King’s Road with dyed green hair and the words ‘I HATE’ scrawled at the top of his Pink Floyd t-shirt.
McLaren invites the kid to audition for the frontman role with a group of deviants who’d been hanging around SEX, the notorious boutique shop he’s running with Vivienne Westwood. With a psychopathic glare, a twisted sense of humour and no intention of mustering up a fuck to give about singing in tune, John Lydon – soon to be known to the world as Johnny Rotten – passes the test.
But McLaren’s big experiment would become much more than a mischievous postmodern prank. The Sex Pistols would jerk England out of its bleary 60s hangover, causing an earth shattering eruption that would change popular culture forever, before they rapidly perished barely a year after the release of their debut single.
But Lydon’s metamorphosis into Rotten had, in fact, begun well before this. Raised by Irish parents in what he describes as a multicultural, working class Finsbury Park estate, he contracted meningitis at the age of seven. The illness sent Lydon into several comas, leaving him with severe memory loss and spinal curvature. In reaction to the hostile and condescending attitudes experienced on his return to school, he learnt how to adopt a ferocious persona to resist bullying and oppressive authority.
As an adolescent, Lydon found himself squatting in Hampstead, aligning himself with three other individuals also called John. Two of the Johns would later play bass for Lydon. The first was John Beverly, the narcissistic Bowie fanatic who later became Sid Vicious, and soon died from a self-inflicted heroin overdose at the age of 21, becoming immortalised as an icon of lustful nihilism. The other was John Wardle – i.e Jah Wobble – whose propulsive freeform dub style was the driving force behind the first two albums by Public Image Ltd., the band for which Lydon applied the radicalism of punk ideology in a literal, musical sense to exhilarating effect.
During the years leading up to Public Image Ltd.’s 2009 reunion, John Lydon has become a prominent TV personality, appearing on Judge Judy, I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! plus a cluster of his own nature programmes to name a few, and those who resent such self-parody-for-cash tactics were particularly disappointed with 2008’s Country Life butter advertising campaign. Yet despite all this, the current incarnation of PiL have enjoyed a surprisingly ‘credible’ comeback due to the fact they’re sounding impressively energetic onstage, and 2012’s This Is PiL felt like a sincere continuation of the band’s legacy. With this premise in mind, it’s understandable why he sounds so chipper when he picks up the phone from his LA home.
There’s been some flattering reviews of the stuff PiL have done in your current incarnation. What qualities does a musician need to possess in order to tour with you?
There’s a criteria with me; it’s not musicianship, it’s personality. To me, this is a highlight of my entire life, I’ve never been in a band that’s put so well together. There’s no jealousy and the respect is quite overwhelming.
Your Glastonbury set seemed particularly triumphant, did it feel special to you?
I really enjoyed my gig there. It was a warm healthy reception from the audience, and it was fun to be on the same bill as The Rolling Stones! I was very disappointed with them, I thought that was their big opportunity to remind everyone what all the big fuss was about in the first place. No – it’s show business gone wrong that lot.
What didn’t you like about it?
The stop-starts, the three different camera regimes going on, the costume changes. I’ve never been a big fan of men in tights.
Do you think there was more gender equality in the initial punk movement than the traditional rock’n’roll culture that preceded it?
Listen, I’ve stated this in me book, there was no equality at all until punk came along. Punk broke down all those prejudices and barriers. And all female bands, all mixed sex bands, or whatever, all stood on equal footing. You know, some of us knew fuck all, but we all had the bottle to stand up and try. And in that, you know, brothers and sisters in arms. It’s a shame that the squabbling crept in. But not amongst bands like The Raincoats or The Slits or The Pistols, we viewed it a bit differently. We didn’t all feel the need to be standing at the bottom of the barrel pulling each other down.
Right, so would you say that the scene generally lacked a sense of camaraderie?
To me it never should have ended up the way it did, all this ‘we’re the best punk band’ stuff, it turned out to be quite revolting. There were some things that The Clash said that really, really challenged my sense of good nature. I mean talk about class war, Joe Strummer was living in a mansion. No. Fuck that. Look, he pretended to hop off buses, you know, like in his studded leather jacket. It’s nothing personal, I liked Joe. But you can’t be a champagne socialist, you’ve got to be more honest with us than that.
Are you saying that the competitive attitude was due to insecurity?
Yeah, and a bit of resentment. He was basically from a pub rock background and when The Pistols came along he felt the need to compete with that. A shame.
To you did he seem comfortable with himself in his later years?
No, because those mohawks never looked right! It was really upsetting to a lot of people when he died, because none of us had any idea that was going to happen. And that’s the thing, death is only around the corner, so let us be nice to each other. Cause I tell ya, if you’re having bitter arguments with people and they go and die on you, you don’t want that guilt on you for the rest of your life. No, it’s not worth hating, anger is an energy, it shouldn’t resort to hate. Unfortunately there is that hate element in there. The old punks, to this day, they’re so resentful, they will not see the truth.
Do you think the punk ethos has been misinterpreted as a dead end ideology?
Don’t be thinking this is about violence, it’s not. It’s about serious social change, always has been. You’ve only got to read the lyrics or listen to them once to know better than that.
OK, so how does the anger become misdirected?
Well you can go and smash up a McDonalds and think that you’re saving the universe, you’re not. All you’re doing is smashing up a McDonalds, there’s no bigger issue involved. Violence and destruction never really gets anyone anywhere. As we know with wars, the result of any war is not a victor or a loser but an ongoing war therein after. Because the resentments become deeply entrenched, and on and on and on and on. Do we need the government to lead us into these affrays any longer? I don’t be thinking so. What I’m talking about is beyond anarchy. Anarchy to me is a joke, that’s just posh kids spending mum and dad’s money and trying to be rebels.
How did you feel about something like the Occupy movement in the States?
Wonderful. The Wall Street movement I thought was fantastic. It was peaceful, and there was so many different challenging concepts thrown about, but somehow they all managed to band about together. It kept the brains sparking. But of course, the way the media presented it, they tried to joke it down, to make it seem pathetic or silly and squalid.
And how about UK politics, did you keep an interest in the student riots?
Yeah, it was fun wasn’t it? One of Pink Floyd’s sons was running around there! [laughs] But it doesn’t matter if your dad’s a billionaire or lives in a trailer, these university fees are too fucking high. The end. And this is what Britain had offered to its subjects, and they’re good offers. The National Health Service – do not be rubbishing or dismantling that – and education. And if you’re going to turn all these things into a profit making situation, then you have to face what America has become: greedy, stupid, illiterate and with people dying unnecessarily.
I live in America, I’m constantly raising this issue and being called a communist or a socialist or whatever. I don’t take any of that as an insult. They’re all ways of trying to deal with the world’s problems. That sounds nice doesn’t it? You can see why I like being alive. I don’t let life get me down, I’m glad to be alive, thank you very much.
You know, the common perception of you probably doesn’t see this much optimism.
Well, you’ve got a media there who were out to manipulate, destroy, shatter or submerge or smear or tarnish in any way they could, and we pretty much let them have a field day with that. And absolutely in the Pistols’ case, they profiteered from it. Actually they made us famous! But the image they were projecting was not the correct one. There was a sense of irony in the Pistols and in PiL too, this is important.
It was fun listening back to the Time Zone track you did with Afrika Bambaataa. Did those early hip-hop records excite you?
Well, that was really the beginning of it, working with Bambaataa. And yeah, of course, I had a very enjoyable time in New York, there was all sorts of interesting cross cultural things going on which were both thrilling and inspiring. But ultimately, rap got sucked up into the system, and it’s now the devil it was supposed to be in opposition to. I find the stuff right now rather pointless, it just seems to be people shouting at me over stolen back beats.
I want to ask you about moving forward musically. The time between The Sex Pistols splitting up and you forming PiL was a matter of months. After being attacked by a mob aroundthe release of God Save The Queen, you injured your hand, preventing you from being able to play the guitar…
Yes, I got stabbed in the wrist with a stiletto blade. It went in one side of the wrist and came out the other, it severed a tendon on my big finger, I’ll never play the guitar again. I’m left handed and with it being on my left hand, it’s very awkward.
So would you agree that in a way, your inability to play the guitar prevented a reliance on traditional rock chord structures and riffs, making you take a more radical approach to writing music for PiL?
That might be what helped me out of being a cliché. It might well be. But I’ve never over considered it. For me songwriting is a series of happy coincidences, rather than a pre-planned agenda. It’s the one thing I truly love, I’ve found my way.
I’m interested about the Capital Radio show you appeared on while you were with the Pistols, when you confused the punks by playing stuff like Captain Beefheart and Can. You could argue that in a sense, an artist like Captain Beefheart is actually more punk than many of your original peers…
Oh absolutely, I totally agree. Completely. And that’s what I was trying to tell these wannabe punks. We weren’t selling you a rigid uniform here and a series of musical clichés, but that we come from a rich musical background and want to progress that way too. The army that hitched onto us was actually an enormous negative.
So these bands who are still playing a version of that old fashioned ‘punk’ sound…
It’s really all rather horrible isn’t it? It’s karaoke really. And Green Day have to be the worst karaoke band around [laughs]. You know I met them in Russia? They were bitter and twisted. And they were amazingly ignorant, not only about the history of punk, but the history of music period, or history in any shape or form! When the record company got hold of them, they must have really known they’d found some dummies, that they could lead them in any direction they wanted. And they’re more than willing.
Was there a time with the Pistols that you were happiest?
Umm … the pressure was overwhelming, relentless. Being public enemy number one sounds like fun and all ‘oh yippie, headlines’ but there were violent challenges with that. If you were caught alone on the streets, it was pretty intense, endless attacks. I can hardly say I enjoyed all that. The violence was real. We were there declaring a social change. That, we learnt from the alleged hippie generation, was unacceptable. And in fact, the alleged hippies were the most resentful to change.
Well there was the Christmas Day benefit gig you played …
Yeah, in Huddersfield. It was a Christmas party for the children of the firemen that were on strike. We went to the club on Christmas Day, did two gigs, one for the youngsters in the afternoon and one for the older lot later. It was one of the most amazing gigs I remember. To see the children understand the lyrics, much better, much clearer, and understanding the sense of fun. We had a brilliant cake fight that day.
The photos and footage show a more tender side to Sid.
Well, Sid was a great joker, and a very friendly, open chap. But the drugs of course altered that. He was feeling inadequate and the drugs covered that up, that completely changed his personality and he became practically unbearable. But I kind of blame myself for that, for bringing Sid into the band. I thought he could have coped with the pressures, but I soon realised that he wasn’t quite equipped for that. The fact that he couldn’t play and had no hope or potential of ever learning was beside the point!
But there’s live recordings, he wasn’t as bad as everyone said he was, was he?
Oh yes he was! The best gigs were when we turned his amp off, and Sid would never know the difference! No bass at all, it was quite enjoyable that way.
Well, I suppose he looked alright.
He thought so! Poor thing. I miss him very much. I miss all my friends who died stupidly, or any way at all. I’ve never come to grips with death, the loss is too overwhelming for me. When I perform a song like Death Disco live, that breaks my heart. Different elements of it keep cropping up. But it’s a healthy way to clear your mind, rather than hold all of these things in. Shout therapy, scream therapy, whatever you want to call it. That’s the way it works, how you relate to an audience or how an audience relates to a band, a communality in there.
OK, thanks for your time John.
Cheers. May the roads rise and the enemies always be behind you. May they scatter, batter, flatter and shatter!