In preparation for Public Image Ltd (PiL)’s upcoming Leicester show in November, Great Central talked to John Lydon about the Sex Pistols, eye contact, being seen as a popstar, gossip and ants. Yes, ants.
“I’ve been told I’m king of the punks, well as king of the punks, I ain’t following no one’s rule book.”
It doesn’t matter what music you’re in to, everybody’s heard the name John Lydon (or that of his alter ego Johnny Rotten) at some point in their lives. The London bred King of Punk has a lot to show for himself, and though he lives in sunny L.A. these days, there’s no doubt that he’s had a massive impact on the UK music scene, and continues to do so today. “I could write an entire catalogue of things I’ve done in my life or where people know me from” he claims.
Lydon has been in the music business for five decades. Starting out as the Sex Pistols frontman in the mid 1970’s, only to leave the band three years later. “I definitely walked away from the idea of being a pop star when I walked away from The Sex Pistols. I didn’t like it and I didn’t like what they wanted to turn Johnny Rotten in to. I’ve been told I’m king of the punks, well as king of the punks, I ain’t following no one’s rule book.”
He went on to start PiL in ’78 and on an ‘equal membership’ basis, something his label weren’t prepared for. “The members I picked were all unknowns really, which is something that created tension with the record label, who were expecting me to have superstar band members.”
Where the Sex Pistols were Lydon’s launch in to the music business, it’s fair to say that PiL was more his sort of thing. “I was bored of the genre and the discipline that people were trying to inflict on me under the guise of punk. For me, I never started music to adhere to a religious manifesto of what you should or shouldn’t wear, so PiL opened the doors even further and created a far wider universe. I bothered to get out of the verse-chorus format, which the Sex Pistols were never very good at anyway and then went in to self-exploration rather than just attacking institutions, which is again what the Sex Pistols were very good at. But it is true to say that the first crack of the door opening was the pistols, yes.”
“You’ve got to be yourself and flog yourself as hard as you can”
To this day, musical integrity is very important to Lydon, and he’s vocal about it. “Too many people, when they start in the music business, feel like they need to adopt a style that someone has already created. They’re trying to fit in to categories and genres and live up to an expectation they have from a previous famous person. That is completely the wrong move, and you get lost in a quagmire of identical sounding people, which is very unhealthy, very uninspiring and a talent killer. You’ve got to be yourself and flog yourself as hard as you can, and I mean that in the British way of flogging, not the American way which includes whips.”
Despite being a part of the ‘industry’ for such a long time, it’s clear Lydon sees himself as an outsider. “I find it kind of almost hilarious to see how miserable a lot of these very wealthy muso-types have made their lives: endless divorces, hatreds, bitter discontents. This is of no use to me. It’s a well-trodden path, but that ain’t the one I usually use. I’d rather go wander around in the woods than use the highway to hell.” Despite which, Lydon’s life has been routinely dissected publicly, much to his discontent. “It can be seriously hurtful, particularly when they attack my family members, which they have no right to do. Bring it on to me, by all means. But it’s really quite insidious, some of the stuff you have to deal with over the years. We’ve had problems with Wikipedia and things like that in the past because they tend not to research their details. What appears to them as unimportant, is very important to us. It creates a bone of contention. One lie expands in to this universe of Chinese whispers. So much for Al Gore’s information superhighway.”
“My principles are the same as when I first started”
Lydon joined the Sex Pistols when he was 16 years old and there’s no doubt that spending his entire adult life in the public eye has influenced the way he looks at life and at the world in general. “My principles are the same as when I first started; I’m not in this to lie and collect vast amounts of money by being deceitful to people and so this is where I find myself now after all these years: a happy and content soul, because of that.”
“It’s a lot to go through mentally and many people fall by the wayside and feel inadequate about themselves. Over the years, I have grown mentally, I’ve become more astute – but then I’m the kind of persons that thinks that the longer I live, the more I have to learn, the more I do learn, and the more respectful I become of what it is that’s a challenge in life; to be able to stick rigidly to the basic values and principles of it, which is don’t tell lies – there’s no need for it. You’ve only got one life, live it as well as you can.”
In ’92 PiL went on hiatus, allowing Lydon to focus on other things. He penned a biography, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs which was published in ‘93 and focused on his life up until the collapse of the Sex Pistols. He created a solo album, Psycho’s Path, which was released in ‘97 after Lydon came back from a Sex Pistols reunion tour: “When I got back from tour, all the people that had been working on the album had left. That made for the release itself to be minimal, and for the album to have a minimal response. It was more or less squashed, which was a great pity.”
“The ants are all happy because they’re helping each other, and people should do the same. What use is any government if it isn’t helping its disenfranchised, sick, wounded and ill?”
Other than that, Lydon appeared on or contributed to numerous television shows. “The things I was doing back then in the TV world were really really informative to me and I noticed that music is in everything. If you find a poetic beat in watching the news, for instance, you’ve discovered something really, truly wonderful.”
“A lot of the programs I did over those years were about animals and insects, and I learned from all of it. I learned to really enjoy the pulse of life. What makes a thing want to live when its life is so difficult? Why I want to be an ant? Well, the ants are all happy because they’re helping each other, and people should do the same. What use is any government if it isn’t helping its disenfranchised, sick, wounded and ill?”
Finally, after a 17-year hiatus, it was announced in 2009 that PiL would reform for five UK shows, and the band hasn’t stopped since. On the 28th of October the band will reissue their albums Metal Box and Album as 4 CD and 4 Vinyl box sets, and will celebrate that release by playing four UK shows, one of them at Leicester’s O2 Academy on the 19th, and the band have fond memories of the city. “I enjoy playing Leicester very much, it’s a PiL-town for us. Audiences are always bang on; they know the songs. I like the smaller venues because they’re up-close and personal,” and that’s exactly what Lydon wants from a show, “For me; what was going wrong with the Pistols was that it was getting too big, it was heading towards auditoriums, and that’s not joy. If I can’t make eye contact with people in the crowd, I’m not very happy. That’s the joy for me, when I’ve made that human contact, which is something you can’t really be feeling when you’re propagated in to the superstar persona like they wanted to do with Johnny Rotten. If you’re a superstar, you’re expected to be above that sort of thing, but that’s idiotic. I play festivals from time to time, and I enjoy them, but I much prefer the intimacy of a small venue.”
Catch PiL at O2 Academy Leicester on November 19th.