When John Lydon announced to a room full of spectators in Los Angeles in 2019 that “punk music for me was positive, proof positive that we could change our lives by music, meaning what we said [and] attack the political systems,” he did so with a stridency that recalled his younger years. By the time he’d moved on to verbally haranguing Marky Ramone, two seats down, the 63-year-old appeared like nothing so much as a demented slab of gammon berating the panel on Question Time as to how “we” won two world wars and how the best way to deal with Brexit would be to call on Bomber Harris to level the European Commission in a carpet of fire.
That John Lydon is increasingly a bizarre and crotchety old man is not much beyond dispute. That the one-time singer with the Sex Pistols occasionally says things that sensible listeners wish he had not – his description of the cretinous Nigel Farage as “fantastic,” for example – is also a matter of public record.
But it’s worth noting that on the subject of punk, John Lydon knows of what he speaks. Because without him, punk wouldn’t exist.
In 1976, in New York City the Ramones gave punk rock its sound, a caffeinated pop bounce that would endure down the years with bands such as The Dickies and Green Day. But in London, that same year John Lydon – or Johnny Rotten, as he was then known – gave the genre its voice.
Without him, the whole movement would have been a footnote. That it is much more than this is down to the laser-eyed fury with which Johnny sang. In dismissing the Queen – the Queen! – as being a person who ‘ain’t no human being’, the Pistols terrorised a nation in a way that today it is impossible to do. That week in 1977, the occasion of Her Majesty’s Silver Jubilee, the official charts were rigged so that Rod Stewart sat at Number One, this despite the fact that the Pistols were selling four times as many copies of their own seven-inch single. The band, and Johnny Rotten in particular, were deemed so beyond the pale as to be recipients of the highest compliment the British establishment can confer – a moral panic.