John Lydon: “I love putting myself down as a couch potato who just watches TV, but that’s not the actuality at all”
As a younger man, John Lydon had a fondness for working on Christmas Day. The first time he did so was in 1977 at a Sex Pistols concert for striking firemen and their families. Camcorder footage of this less-than-celebrated event shows the children of the emergency servicemen plastering Lydon – or Johnny Rotten, as he was then known – with cake while others hand out presents that their parents could not afford. Onstage, the band plays with unity and poise.
Barely three weeks later, it was all over. The Sex Pistols disbanded in Los Angeles following a now legendary appearance at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom. Bloodied but never bowed, John Lydon dropped the name Johnny Rotten, dropped the Sex Pistols and formed his second band, Public Image Ltd. PiL, as they are usually known, performed their first gig on Christmas Day 1978 at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park, the then down-at-heel North London neighbourhood in which John Lydon was raised. Even an enormous brawl in the Rainbow’s stalls didn’t stop Public Image Ltd from making their point.
This side of The Beatles, it’s difficult to nominate an Englishman who has had a more profound influence on modern music than John Lydon. The singer, who as a child used to mime along to Alice Cooper’s I’m Eighteen, by 1976 had grown up to be the young man who did nothing less than give punk its voice. It may have been New York’s Ramones who gave the nascent genre its sound, but it was Johnny Rotten who on Anarchy In The UK announced to a startled public that ‘I am an antichrist’ with, as the writer Greil Marcus phrased it, “a fury that sounded as if it could level the whole of London.”
Considering the Sex Pistols were the band that terrorised a nation, in the intervening years John Lydon has become something verging on a national treasure. If such wooly affection dulls his sharper edges, it shouldn’t. He can still be a reassuringly combative presence – in fact, during the first of two interviews for this piece he proves himself a full-on pain in the arse – and a substantial body of work with Public Image Ltd is consistently exploratory, restless and challenging.
So, without further ado, here is an audience with the the largest presence in the history of punk.
In your earliest days you faced some truly terrifying audiences. How does performing now differ from doing so back then, if indeed at all?
“Every crowd is frightening. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small nightclub or else an enormous arena, or indeed something like Tallinn in Estonia, which was 178,000 people, it has the same effect, and that’s the fear factor. You don’t want to let anyone down and you certainly don’t want to make a fool of yourself. For me, stage fright is an essential part of my make-up. I wouldn’t be able to handle what I do without it. I actually studied this and learned that without the stress factor I would never go through with it.”
I’ve seen you play with both the Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited, and you seem to be a different performer with both bands. Is that fair?
“No, it’s not. Please let me enjoy that one. It is what it is. Some nights some venues just have a completely different atmosphere and you have to be fully prepared to handle it. Walking onstage all casual is never going to work. Your environment completely defines you, and, bing, the violin string with either snap or it will resonate perfectly.”
Despite a hiatus, Public Image Ltd has endured whereas the Sex Pistols did not. Why is that?
“Well there was a lot of management issues, and issues all round, in the first set-up. Also it was willy-nilly thrown together; it was my first opportunity and I was making music with strangers. I felt alienated and outside the inner workings of the Pistols. I was made to feel unwelcome, too. There was a lot of resentment. I managed to squeak through that because I was thinking, ‘Wow, this could be something that I’m actually really good at.’ So by the time I got around to forming PiL, I knew I had something going there for me. And I knew it was going to be much easier going than the Pistols, too.”
Which band are you prouder of?
“PiL because they’ve done the most.”
Tell us about the 2018 documentary about the group, please, The Public Image Is Rotten.
“It was really some filmmakers who wanted to experiment on us, I suppose, and through a contact we decided to let them film. And then it expanded through the years and shape-shifted into entirely different things from what I thought it was originally. I thought it was a mobile documentary of us, but in fact it really turned out to be a history. These things happen; when you’re not putting the money up yourself, you kind of have to grin and bear it. I bear it very very well because I think it’s a fine piece of work. And a lot of the people involved, especially at the end, were easy to work with.”
Are you an easy person to work with?
“I think so.”
Really? We’ve done two interviews for this piece: the first time was terrifying and this time you’re very pleasant. Are these the two extremes of your personality?
“Well, if I feel I’m being offended I will offend, and that does make a difference. And quite a lot of people want to be sarcastic and to take me on. So I will behave accordingly, because my words are my bullets.”
I wasn’t trying to be sarcastic, though.
“Well, maybe you were being jumpy. That can irritate me.”
John, we’re speaking in London. How has the city changed since you grew up here?
“I just don’t really care. It’s an environment that either I adapt to or I don’t. I’m not the kind of person who walks around judging my scenarios. I will say that the city is far more complicated than it was when I used to live here. You have these road taxes and God knows what else. I don’t know how old folk manage. Everything has to be done on a computer; everything is confusing. Even the rubbish day comes with a whole list of rules. It’s just nonsense. You need a manual to survive in London. There’s too much government imposition.”
Despite you having lived in California for many years, I still identify you as being a Londoner.
“Well that’s your vision.”
But is it correct? You’ve still got the bloody accent.
“Well, that’s never gonna go, is it? I’m not the kind of person to be easily swayed. This is the way I talk and that’s it – I like it. It actually helps my singing and me putting the words together. It’s how I think and feel.”
What do you remember about a concert at the Ritz in New York in 1981, at which it was reported there was a riot?
“There was no riot. It was hilarious. What happened is that the club had installed cameras and we offered to use them while we played our record from behind a screen. You have to remember that I didn’t have a full band behind me at that time. We had only flown in that morning and it wasn’t supposed to be a real gig as such. We used a drummer from the drum store on Broadway – some old fella – and we were gonna create some music and move the cameras about and project some exciting images on the screen in front of us. We were behind it with all our equipment. I remember some people were pulling on the canvas mat that we were standing on, which caused the record to skip, and then everybody skipped a beat. I don’t know what they were expecting – there was no full PiL band there and things just got misunderstood. There was no riot. If there was a riot it was the softest thing that I’ve ever seen. It was more like a bubble-bath infringement.”
Weren’t you standing behind the screen repeating the words “silly fucking audience” over and over again?
“I don’t remember any such thing, but I am highly flippant at times. I would casually flake that off. I do love to tease and if I sense that a situation is going weirdly wrong I’ll tease it back into entertainment.”
After the Pistols disbanded in February 1978, you seemed to get your show back on the road pretty quickly. Is that how it seemed to you?
“No, not at all. That was a difficult time for me. I really struggled through all of that, and I worked very, very hard to set PiL up. Still to this day I don’t feel that that effort was fully appreciated. I showed myself some amazing stamina. But I knew that it was the right thing to do. I knew that there was room in me for PiL to be something far greater than my initial first steps.”
Public Image Limited’s first British concert came 11 months after the Sex Pistols imploded at the Winterland in San Francisco. Considering you had a new band, a new identity and a different name, that’s pretty good going.
“Well, when you say that it was 11 months, that’s not long, is it? But to me it felt like years because it was so full of activity. I love putting myself down as a couch potato who just watches TV, but that’s not the actuality at all. It’s non-stop, really, and that’s because I really really wanted PiL to work. Of course there was the court case [involving the Sex Pistols] but also, there were problems with the record company. Their attitude was that they didn’t want to see me going out with unknowns. I was, like, ‘Hello? the Sex Pistols were a band of unknowns!’ They just made things more difficult than supporting me – it’s just that the less support I get, the stronger I seem to be. It shouldn’t be like this, but the story of my so-called career is that I really received fuck all support. The key thing is to accept this without self-pity.”
Despite these problems, you were signed to Virgin Records for 15 years, this despite you calling owner Richard Branson a hippy.
“Now, I need to say something about that. I have called Richard Branson a hippy and I have had some fun with that, but underneath it all I consider him a good friend. And he knows that.”
When Public Image Limited started out, you had a big flat in Chelsea. What was that like?
“It was like party central. It was a place for bands, and for friends. In fact, most of [PiL] moved in there because none of them had any money. It was like a dormitory in a university. But we all lived on top of each other, and when you do that things can get tense quickly.”
In 1986 the Sex Pistols won a court case in which you gained control over your own music. At the time, this was virtually unheard of.
“It was, yes. I’m just pleased that we had a good barrister who realised that what was happening was wrong and that we were getting screwed. Without the law, the law would have won. Oddly enough, the barrister I had was the person they based – what was it? – [popular 1980s short story series] Wimpole Of The Bailey…”
Rumpole Of The Bailey.
“Rumpole! I remember him very fondly. He was a very very chirpy chap – very witty. And that helped a lot, that did. People trying to penny-pinch you out of your music and your name and your money and your career and trying to stifle you is sad. But we triumphed in the end.”
That Rumpole Of The Bailey connection is quite the coincidence because the books’ author, John Mortimer, defended Virgin Records in Nottingham after they were charged with obscenity for their window display of the Sex Pistols album Never Mind The Bollocks… Here’s The Sex Pistols.
“Oh yeah, he might well have done. There are a few nuggets of information that have slipped through the cracks over the years. I had a lot to do with that as well, because I did turn up in the court in Nottingham. I insisted. And I was furious that Malcolm [McClaren, the band’s manager] didn’t, which I thought was very weak of him. For me, it showed what can be in life and what isn’t when you rely on people like him who are supposed to be adults.”
Will the Sex Pistols play again?
“I see no reason.”
Well, people want to hear you.
“That’s fine, they can put the record on. They don’t have to go through the painful, painful scenarios that we’ve had to endure as people with each other. We’d rather be friends than enemies, and I guarantee you that we’d be enemies within 30 seconds of going on tour. And you just can’t inflict that on human beings. It’s too tragic. And I get on really well now with Paul [Cook, drummer] and why not? We really are good mates, as we should be.”
The Pistols played a joyous concert in Huddersfield on Christmas Day 1977 and were broken up less than a month later. What happened?
“Well, you got the horrid scenario with Sid [Vicious, heroin-addicted bass player], you’ve got the dreadful Nancy scenario [Nancy Spungen, Sid’s heroin-addicted girlfriend], you’ve got the dreadful Malcolm-in-hibernation scenario, and you’ve got me, Steve [Jones, guitarist] and Paul not talking scenario. And we’re all on the road in America! That’s almost guaranteed not to work. I was always ‘yippee aye ow!’ about being in America. I spent our tour of America just staring out of the window and looking at the landscape. Towns like Tucson, Arizona, had a great romance to me, because of my dad’s love of cowboy films. The others had no aptitude for that at all, so we were living completely different lives. And, again, we were being poisoned by the corrosive management who were spreading innuendo, rumours and lies. It was ugliness personified really, when it should have been about us all getting along with each other.”
Famously, your final words at what became the last Pistols gig for 18 years were “ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” What exactly did you mean by that?
“That was how I felt.”
But did you mean that you had been cheated, the audience had, or both?
“I meant that all of us had been cheated. All of us. I meant that this had become a Rolling Stones fiasco where everyone should be doing better. It was just a monumental fiasco of couldn’t‑care-less. I wanted commitment. They were asking what the fuss was about. Well the fuss was about the fact that I meant what I said, and I still do. My music means a lot to me.”
How are your eyes? Apparently they’re in bad shape?
“Oh they’re terrible. On tour it’s like I’m playing while looking through cotton wool. But I’m dealing with another situation that’s even more important than this, so I haven’t yet had the time to get them fixed. I’m well used to walking into doors, put it that way.”
May I ask what this other situation is?
“No, I cannot go into it. But as usual my life is never easy. What I do know is that you’ve got to take care of the people that are around you.”
Are you a happy person?
“Generally speaking, yes I think I am. I love humour and I find that it answers most of life’s problems. I think without humour I’d never have endured all this. You can’t do this deadpan. That doesn’t work. And as long as you know that if you put two or more human beings together you’re going to get a fiasco, everything will be fine.”
Interview originally published in July 2018.
Read this next:
A run-through of the 10 most compelling biopics from the world of rock’n’roll, filled with sex, drugs and, um, wild factual inaccuracies…
Enter Shikari reconfirm their status as one of Britain’s best live bands as they headline Download Pilot on Saturday night.