June 18th, 2012 | Interviews

ward robinson

Over the past 36 years, there have been exactly two good ideas for what to do with a rock band, and Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd singer, John Lydon, is the person who came up with both of them. Alongside Lydon (a.k.a Rotten), the most recent lineup of PiL includes alumni Lu Edmonds (also of the Damned and the Mekons) on guitar, banjo, saz, keyboards, etc., and Bruce Smith (also of the Pop Group, the Slits, and New Age Steppers) on drums. New bassist, Scott Firth, has played with Pentangle, Steve Winwood and the Spice Girls. Lydon has lived in Los Angeles for over two decades. One afternoon in May, I met him at a hotel in Marina del Rey, where he spent the day doing press for the new record, This Is PiL—PiL’s first album in twenty years. We were joined by his manager and best friend, John Rambo Stevens. Immediately after we all met, we fled the loud, windy poolside for a deck overlooking the harbor, where beer and cigarettes perfumed our farts. This interview by Oliver Hall.

How did PiL write this batch of songs? Jamming? It seems like ‘One Drop’ might have come out of a jam on ‘Death Disco.’
John Lydon: Yeah, all of them. They all come that way, that’s how we work. ‘Deeper Waters’ was one take. That was complete improvisation, and we just loved the end result, and there it is on the song. I think it’s an astounding achievement songwriting-wise—very little I’d written down, but I had plenty of ideas in my head, and each band member felt the same, and we just improvised it. It was done on a very difficult day because we needed to promote that we were doing this, so a lot of press were there. So we were kind of almost like showing off, or bandstanding, or whatever, but at the same time recording, and ‘Deeper Waters’ just happened like that. Loved it. So you felt like the way we perform live—we take, like, obviously, PiL standards, or classics, or whatever you want to call them, and turn ‘em upside down and inside and outside. And that’s what happened with ‘Deeper Waters.’ But it comes from conversations we’d had on the tour bus, amongst each other, y’know. The lyrical content is based in sound, thoughts, and reiterating various different moods and moments from not only myself but the band members.
Can you elaborate on that a bit?
John Lydon: For instance, a conversation with Lu, which came after. I never realized—and I’ve known Lu for nearly thirty years, really—that he comes from a very long line of admirals in the British navy. And that’s a fantastic, like, eye-opener for me. I know him in many ways, as a really genuine, warm-hearted person, but also a bit of a crazy. And then he comes from these, you know [laughs] intelligent warfarers, shall we say. So that’s in the song, that essence of Lu. Lu loves this song as much as I do. When we were recording it, I was giving out vocal lines, and he was feeding off ‘em, and he was giving guitar tones, and I’d jump on it. The way we improvised that was fabulous. It taught us that this would be an easy album to make, right? The crux, the problem of it, was broken three days in, just on that. We stopped analyzing ourselves and overcomplicating everything with thought, and that’s the end result. All the songs from there on in just flowed really really well. [Burps]
It always seemed like PiL would be a dream situation for a guitarist—
John Lydon: Lu’s not a guitarist. He plays the guitar, but he plays everything. [Laughs]
Yeah, he plays the sax?
John Lydon: Yeah. Everything.
How did he pick up all these instruments?
John Lydon: Well, there’s a man who thirty years ago used to be the lunatic guitarist in the Damned, and he got bored with guitars, and he started experimenting with different musical structures and notation systems. And one thing led to another, and he ended up working for the Russians and lived in Siberia as a cultural attaché, basically teaching people how to repair and play traditional instruments in the far eastern regions of Russian-owned territory.
That’s why he’s so skinny.
John Lydon: It sounds ridiculous when I say it, but that’s Lu. And there’s no ego in it, that’s his genuine attachment to the universe. I don’t know if he’s, like, what you would call a creative person; he’s a member of the universe in a really wonderful way. He picks up on the message and spirit and tone of folk musics, and reiterates it beautifully. He understands my voice completely. Thank God for Lu. I love and adore what he comes up with, sound-texturally. Fantastic. Then you’ve got Bruce, who’s—oh my God, every drum gadget and rhythm machine in the universe is in Bruce’s brain! He operates like a computer! A confused computer, alright, but never Casiotone, ha ha. Fantastic.
He’s got that grin on his face when he plays.
John Lydon: Yeah. Well, he’s James Brown-ing it on the drum kit! These two people should never, ever be seen or work together. It wouldn’t be possible. I’m the piggy in the middle that makes that kinda spin very well. I don’t know if I could work quite so well, particularly lately, without them two. In fact, those were the two members of PiL—cuz it’s been two decades that we’d been apart—that I absolutely wanted to work with the most. Absolutely. And they had battles amongst each other, battles of will, shall we say. ‘It will not be structured!’ ‘It will be structured!’ These are their internal battles, and I’m six of one and half a dozen of the other, in my approach to music. Great. And then you throw in the middle of that, Scott Firth [laughs]!
His background is fairly different.
John Lydon: It’s extremely different, and wonderful for it.
It doesn’t matter.
John Lydon: It doesn’t matter! His all-across-the-board playability was absolutely what drew all three of us to him instantaneously. And the second I spoke to him on the telephone, I was in L.A. and he was in Cornwall, it was great. I knew he’d work. I’d never heard him play a note, but I knew that he’d played everything from the Spice Girls to Stevie Winwood, and I thought, well, that’s pretty damn good. That means he can’t be a snob, right? It means he won’t be a problem dealing with my voice! Hopefully [laughs]. And he wasn’t. We get on so well! It’s astounding to all of us, too—well, except when it comes to who pays for the last bottle of wine. But we do. You’ve gotta bear in mind that I’ve been in bands where we’ve argued tooth and nail, y’know, from going back 30 years ago, and I don’t want that to be the case. I’ve found a really good juxtaposition of events, that we like each other, we respect each other, we play well together, what we do complements each other, and we do it intuitively. It’s not by design, it’s by nature. That’s a great, great thing, and it explains This Is PiL. There’s no great intrigue in the title either. I had a battle with a French journalist the other week. ‘Zis is PiL—what does zis mean?’ Let me explain, this is really funny. So I got up on my uppity high horse, and go ‘I don’t need to explain that, it’s PiL, that’s it!’ He goes, ‘No, zee opening note out of you ees a burp.’ And it is, I never realized, I’d forgot! Uuuurp, this is PiL! [Laughter]
That is PiL!
John Lydon: That is PiL! It’s confusion, it’s many things, but it’s uncontrived. To the point where I’m not even aware that my own album has a burp as its opening note, because I wasn’t thinking of it like that. It sounded to me like a perfect tone. I have the mentality to go to the engineer, ‘Record everything! Just record everything, don’t ever hit the stop button!’ ‘Rrrrrp, this is PiL! P-i-L!’ [Lydon laughs and gives a thumbs up.] And wonderful for it. You know what I mean, that happy bunch of accidents and incidental tourists that goes into making a song? If there was any contrived approach to this, it wouldn’t work. And thank God, before we recorded this, we were in Europe, and thank God she’s alive, too, my wife, she managed to set fire to the kitchen in London, through no fault of her own. But in the same said kitchen that went up in flames, and sent her to hospital, was all my lyrics and prerecorded ideas [laughs]!
So that was the first batch of ideas—did you save anything?
John Lydon: No, nothing. Not a dicky. All of it went up in flames. And if there is a God—it’s disputable—but there’s something in nature saying, ‘Lay off being contrived, John. You’ll go into this empty-handed, and let’s see if you can come up with the goods.’ And that’s what happened. I was thrown into the deep end, and quite rightly, and bingo! I think what we’ve achieved here is amazing. Not only to ourselves, but hopefully to a bigger world. You’ve gotta stop listening to this cart-horse nonsense that’s out there! It’s fodder, and it’s ripoff, and it’s unoriginal, and it doesn’t love music, it doesn’t love people. It loves money, and it’s not worthy of the money.
It seems like pop music is cannibalizing itself.
John Lydon: It is, it’s eating itself. It’s feeding on its own ideas. Well, actually, it’s feeding on our ideas! There’s a hell of a lot of PiL out there. But done by bumholes. The rear end of the universe. And this was always the problem with record labels, with PiL, that they couldn’t grasp it at all because it didn’t sound familiar. It didn’t come from an easy opportunity mindframe. It didn’t have ‘Grammy’ stamped all over it, therefore the accountancy brains were working negatively against us. But they would always sign bands that, two or three years later, wanted to sound like what we’d just done, way back then. That was infuriating for me.
Even now, when you play festivals, I’m sure you hear it.
John Lydon: Yeah. Yeah, and yet we’re still treated with some kind of suspicion. It’s very hard for us to book gigs. These last two years, we were very dependent on the money from gigging to put this album together, and it’s been a nightmare at times to try to deal with the shit-stem. They treat us with a great sense of suspicion. I think they’re scared of us coming back and stealing the trophy. But, you know what, we don’t want your trophy. We don’t want the accolades, we just want to be able to get on with what it is we do.
It seems like it’s always been sorta difficult with PiL, right? It’s always been a struggle.
John Lydon: Yeah, always. Always. I’ve always had to find outside sources of finance, which usually meant my own wallet, you know?
And other projects.
John Lydon: Well, it means I have to sell a dodgy caravan, y’know, to meet a wage packet! Y’know, the blessings were, from the Pistols, I had a tie-in to a new record contract, which meant I could form PiL in the first place. But because of that tie-in, it meant there were restrictions and limitations on how far I could expand my universe. So it ended up a negative. And because the contract was so long-term, it was so binding and restricting, it kept me in a state of solid debt, and I couldn’t earn the money to recoup said debt. So I had to wait out the contract, and that’s the position I found myself in. And there’s been no one in the wonderful world of musical journalism that’s understood or supported me throughout that period. They’ve all quite happily stuck knives in my back, and accused me of selling out for doing nature programs, or butter adverts, but quite frankly, how on earth am I supposed to finance this? And even more quite frankly: is anything that I’ve done outside of music detrimental to the character, persona, and vision and image of what John Lydon is, was, and always will be?
They would have liked it if you had made shitty records.
John Lydon: Yeah. Well, that ain’t gonna happen. That ain’t gonna happen. I’d much rather be fondled by a gorilla in Uganda than put out a dodgy record. [Laughs]
John ‘Rambo’ Stevens (manager): Or Rwanda.
John Lydon: And Rwanda, yeah! Yes. And while we were in Rwanda, that’s that civil war—there was a lull in the fighting. Quite an amazing thing is that we, innocently and stupidly enough I suppose, brought the children in from two different warring tribes and had a really good night of singsong. No violence.
What, the band did?
John Lydon: No, me. Mr. Rotten and Mr. Rambo. We were doing a program on gorillas, ‘cause it’s all in that zone, alright? And the civil war took a lull from the fighting to just say hi to the two Johns [laughs]. There’s a bigger backdrop to it all—it isn’t just me doing gorillas just to be happy-go-lucky, this is a very dangerous time to be in that part of the world. But that gets lost in the media, y’know. Whatever, y’know? There it goes. I don’t do anything for the money, or crap, right? I have to be completely interested in it, and that’s how it is with me. But no matter what I do, there’s always some detractor. But you will find, dear sir, that these detractors are the people that have imitated and copied and stolen off my ideas for an awful long time, and that’s basically the entire music industry, the fashion industry, and the hairdressing establishment [laughs]. They’ve all nicked something from me, but they don’t give me anything back. All’s I want is some kind of respect, but now, I’m to the point in my life where I don’t even want that from them. I don’t want nothing fuckin’ at all. So fuck the lot of you. Our own label, our own money, we sink or swim by our own devices now. And it’s the situation I should have been in with PiL right from the start, but that would have been financially impossible.
When you started PiL you had no money.
John Lydon: No money at all. Remember, I was in a court case with the Pistols, with the management, that denied me access to any funding at all. I was brassic, piss-poor, zero pounds. Zero. With an enormous tax deficit. And I managed to crawl out of there—it took me twenty years to crawl out of the contracts I was then obliged to.
Has that situation improved at all? I know, because I bought all those shitty bootleg records [Pirates of Destiny, The Swindle Continues, etc.]. The market was flooded with them.
John Lydon: No, the Pistols are up the wazoo in problems! It’s just never, ever been sorted out. It’s unprotected. The institution that you call the record industry is really, basically, your major enemy, alright? Always, when there’s bootlegs, they’re looking for a fake connection between you and the bootleg company, rather than stopping that happening. And unless you go out and personally do it yourself, then you’re tarnished with what is, basically, a really inferior product. You’re tarnished by implication. And you’re unprotected. So then what you have to do is you have to spend all your money tying up these copyrights and—[sighs] it’s an endless problem. So Johnny doesn’t only have problems with PiL, he’s got them with the Pistols. But, ‘allo, I’m here, aren’t I? They’ve tried to clip both wings but, arf! arf! I shall fly again. [Spreads arms and sings] ‘I believe I can fly. . .’ [Much laughter] I should be on American Idol!
You should be!
John Lydon: I wouldn’t stand a chance. In fact, no one with any talent there would. That’s a show that’s looking for Las Vegas lounge lizards.
And part of it’s the cruelty, this cruel spectacle of seeing people get—
John Lydon: Humiliating, yes. I really hate it, it’s so awful. I feel so bad for the people that commit to that being that’s what a career is. That’s not a career. You win nothing. You become a joke. You’re never taken serious—you’re that oddity that was on American Idol.
You’re a freak.
John Lydon: Yep. You’re a lounge act! Many of them, to me, I think they belong on cruise ships, in the entertainment lounge.
Singing George Gershwin.
John Lydon: Now that wouldn’t be a bad idea. Maybe I could get PiL on the QE2! ‘An Evening with George,’ by PiL. [Laughter]
If only I knew somebody in the cruise-ship industry, I would grease the wheels!
John Lydon: D’you know, PiL could do a two-week cruise ship, and we still wouldn’t finish our catalog. That’d be at two hours a night. That’s how vast our range—it’s a lot isn’t it?
As I rode the train home from your [2010 Club Nokia] show, I was listing in my head all the songs I wished you’d played. And you played a good two and a half hour set.
John Lydon: And it doesn’t even touch it.
No, there were 20 or 30 songs I still wanted to hear.
John Lydon: That’s quite great. I know what you’re saying, and that shocks me, too, when I look at it, because I consider myself quite a lazy bastard! I watch far too much television. But it’s been really prolific, in a very subtle way, and none of it shoved down your throat. [Deep belch] And all the time, fighting against the shitstem. And not even deliberately—I mean, I couldn’t give a toss if the shitstem existed or not. Y’know, if that makes certain people happy, that’s fine, I just don’t consider myself a part of it. But it constantly hackles me and heckles me, and is eroding away at me, and is in contempt of me. And I haven’t asked for any of this interest from it. The only chance I ever got to go to the Grammys was when I did my Rotten TV!
I remember that! Who did you interview, Sarah McLachlan?
John Lydon: Well, I accidentally—I don’t know these people! But, um, Puff Daddy came up, and I thought he looked like a pimp! And I didn’t know him, like, ‘Go away, I’m working!’ And he was furious. And, ah, another time—this goes back a long time. Because of Rotten TV, and Rotten Radio, and very many other things, I went to a VH1 production of the—what was it, the fashion awards or something, I can’t remember now, Ellen DeGeneres was the comedian introducing it—anyway, on the way in with my wife Nora, I accidentally trod on Jennifer Lopez’s dress, and it tore, and she was with Puff Daddy at the time. So this is two bad counts on poor ol’ Puff! [Laughter] And the ferocity of her look! I know her as a very different person to that one on American Idol, right? Wauugh, that’s an angry Latino! And that’s how the world really is. What can I say? They’re right, I don’t belong in their universe, I don’t want anything to do with it. Because I am clumsy by nature, and I will tend to trod on a dress that’s twenty-two foot too long. I view the pavement as my right, and if you’ve got your dress sprawled all over it, I’m going to accidentally trod on it. So funny. To this day, still remembering that look! Yes, speaking of American Idol, oh, my God! The day I did the Grammys, Steve Tyler and Aerosmith, they came up! Yeah! My God, Steve, you look old! It was good to meet Bonnie Raitt there. Oh, love her! Oh. Heaven. That voice. God almighty, love her. There’s a lot to be said for an old biker moll.
That’s how you see her?
John Lydon: Yeah, she’s got that grit, that true grit. She’s capable of handling a Harley as well as a guitar, there’s the attack. And she does women proud, I love her for that. I digress. Sorry.
This recent review I saw of PiL, it was a good review—
John Lydon: [Laughs] Just the one?
No, I think you’ve been pretty positively reviewed—
John Lydon: Alright, alright, let’s deal with it then. [Giggling] This is gonna be great!
This review used the phrase ‘uncompromising art music.’
John Lydon: [Squawks]
And I wonder what you think about that, because to me that’s a misunderstanding. You don’t dance to uncompromising art music.
John Lydon: Yeah, well, that’s a juxtaposition of events in one sentence showing the ignorance of the writer. Alright? Art is compromise, basically, because it’s an imitation of nature. And PiL is definitely not imitating nature, or anything. What we do is natural. We are organic. I declare us as folk music, right? And I know that annoys every folk twanger out there, but that’s because they don’t understand that folk is supposedly—and to my traditions of Irish background, and English background, and understanding the roots of reggae, and Greek, and Turkish cultures, which are all part of my early background, and the diversity of family and friends that I grew up through and with—folk is honesty. It’s just telling it as it is. Pop music is where all the complications of art creep in. And I love to write a pop song with a folk sensibility. Now, a review that puts a sentence like that together, that’s an act of spite [chuckles], jealousy, malicious, vindictive—wonderful. That’s exactly the kind of conclusion that justifies my existence on earth. Don’t you just love a bitter neighbor? It’s something to wake up to in the morning. Listen, do you know the film The Wicker Man?
Oh, yeah! The original, not the remake.
John Lydon: Oh, the remake’s dreadful! But I think that the film could be redone a third time with PiL as the backdrop musically.
That would be perfect.
John Lydon: And it would be perfect. And you would understand it fully. And you would know me deep down, heart and soul. It’s like the Burning Man festivals. Hello! I’m there! This be Johnny!
When you talk about the folk people resisting your idea of what folk music is, they must have the idea that folk music is something that’s set, and it doesn’t change.
John Lydon: Yes. Yes, that’s right. Because they’re imitating some bizarre concept of a 17th century family enjoying themselves ‘round the hearth with a harp, right? It’s a delusionary—like the Republican party’s delusion of—what were those terrible programs from the 50s. . . Harriet and something-or-the-other.
Ozzie and Harriet.
John Lydon: Ozzie and Harriet, that vision of what life is, when it really isn’t? They’re stuck in that, and it was really a shame for me. Augggh, the classic example was that we were somewhere in Europe, and we were on the same bill as [Irish folk band] Clannad. Now, I love the singing, tonal quality of the woman who sings in Clannad, but what a bunch of shit-faced, stuck-up fucks they proved to be. They weren’t even bloody Irish; two of them came from Northumberland in England, right? The whole thing was so middle-class and snotty. Now, you have to understand what middle-class means in England. It’s a different thing than here. It means spoiled and privileged, right? Living in luxury cottages and pretending to be at one with nature.
Rambo: Well, that’s your thing, is really stealing the old culture back—
John Lydon: Yeah, stealing it!
Rambo: —and learning their own culture back, and thinking they know best that know where they got it—
John Lydon: And dictating, [posh accent] ‘Well, we’re the ones what know it all.’ And they don’t know nothing! Folk music is from the folk, for the folk. Not a bunch of privileged bleedin’ harp-dwellers. Really pisses me off, right? The snobbery of it. Now, no folk music—none of it, in its truest form—has snobbery in it. It’s a music that’s absolutely undisciplined, for starters, and accurate to its listeners because it’s coming from the heart of that community and culture. And these bastards have co-opted it. And dare to look down their nose at me! [Posh moaning] ‘It’s not like your singing, really. . .’ Well, isn’t it? I’ll try harder next time. Fuck off! They’re closing it down. This is what they’re doing, man—they’re closing it and narrowing it, so that younger generations have no access, through this wall of snobbery, to their own culture.
Like it’s not something to be added to with successive generations.
John Lydon: Yeah. Brick wall on that.
The way you describe it, it’s the same situation with jazz music in America, because it’s all become conservatory, museum—
John Lydon: No, it’s become worse than that! It’s become Japanese! Right? Because they can imitate, to the note, to the last drop of breath—digitally, they can reiterate this. But does it feel any better for that? They kill it. Do you want Ornette Coleman as done by Susaki-san [?]?
Rambo: That Irish band, they were trying too hard to make it so perfect. You know, like white people doing reggae. . .
John Lydon: Yeah! [idealized pastoral Irish accent] ‘Oh, and here’s a song now about me walking down the lane, and seeing a goat on the cahr-ner, and posting me letter’—oh, shut up, you fucking bitch! Who the fuck d’you think you’re talking to? They’re oblivious to the problems of poverty and starvation that most folk music is about, right? Folk music is completely political, it always has been. But no; they’ve erased it into this… making-furniture-look-old genre. With a touch of Fleetwood Mac. Tusk! [Laughter]
With two real tusks!
John Lydon: ‘Sanded down, and then a touch of mahogany glaze, roughly brushed.’ Aging. Deliberate aging, and fakery. There’s that universe, and they don’t understand anything at all about music. Completely not. I am a member of the folk, I am one of the folk, I am folk music, and that’s how it is. And we will con-tin-ue. And there will be folk to follow me, and music will continue to progress in a very positive and steady way, always with the voice of rebellion. And no touch of découpage, is it? Is that what they call it? Or faux painting? Rustic? Fuck off. I leave rustic up to Neil Young—you know when he wrote Rust Never Sleeps, that cheeky monkey? ‘Oh, this is the story of Johnny Rotten, the king is gone but he’s not forgotten.’ So we ring him up, don’t we, for the VH1 show, right? ‘I never heard of Johnny Rotten,’ says Neil Young.
He said that?
John Lydon: Yeah! Fuckin’ hell, man, you wrote a song about me!
Rambo: Madonna said the same.
John Lydon: Madonna said the same, never heard of me. I had a picture—this was really hilarious at the time—of her running around in London going, ‘Ooh, hello, do you like my English accent?’ with a Sex Pistol belt buckle on! Not even an original, a bootleg belt buckle. That’s life.
What do you think the real story is? Do you think she hadn’t heard of you?
John Lydon: Oh, stop it! That’s a bitch on heat.
Rambo: She nicked all the Sex Pistol-type clothes and things, didn’t she, punky-looking ones.
John Lydon: She was smirking around trying to be a member of the royalty at the time, and therefore…
Ah, you’re out.
John Lydon: She was social climbing. Alright?
Rambo: She asked permission to use our song in her film, so she must know us by now.
John Lydon: It doesn’t matter what the reasons are. It’s: don’t tell fibs, ‘cause you will get caught out. That’s all. All across the board, I don’t mean to, but I’m pretty damn pervasive in culture, and I have to put up with that. Am I fed up with it? Yeah, and no, because it’s an endless source of amusement. It’s alright.
Rambo: They’re always trying to pigeonhole PiL, whatever John does—it could be this or that. No one knows what John—
John Lydon: He’s me manager and best mate, and he ain’t got a clue! How long have I known you, John?
Rambo: Forty years.
John Lydon: Yeah. Plus.
You grew up together, right?
John Lydon: We grew up together in the same area, in the same manner, so we have the same sense of values and principles. You understand? That’s how we know each other. That’s the tie. And I don’t see much of that happening in the world.
Values and principles.
John Lydon: Yeah, I don’t! And I can’t fathom it at all. I’ve never done anything to rip anyone off. I’m not interested in copying, or doing-a-vague-version-of. And the end result is, I’m bad news. I hope I’m bad news, ‘cause I think there’s money in bad news. [Laughs]
Not your kind of bad news.
John Lydon: Not Entertainment Tonight bad news.
Rambo: They’re all sitting on the fence, waiting to see where we go with this, with everything he done with PiL. And we keep proving ‘em wrong. And now they’re slowly starting to wake up, the journalists, and everybody else, man. It’s an uphill struggle getting gigs, getting everything but—
John Lydon: You know what happens when you sit on the fence. You get chafed between the legs. And that explains the Clash.
One of my best friends teaches at Compton High, and he drew my attention to something you said about ‘White Man in Hammersmith Palais,’ [Lydon groans] ‘cause he really appreciated what you said—something like, as soon as you look at it as a difference, you’re lost. You shouldn’t expect a medal for being the only white face in the room.
John Lydon: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, no, in fact, you’ve put yourself in opposition. You’re the enemy by that very statement. That’s right. [After a conversation with the waitress during which all double over laughing:] That’s how people inter-react, right? That’s folk. That’s folk at work. This ain’t me green tambourine.
Like the song, you mean? The Lemon Pipers?
John Lydon: Oh, I loved that song when I was young. [Sings] ‘My green tam-bou-rine. . .’ I thought, what on earth are they talking about? Great, though, huh? Gets the brain whirring. You need that at an early age. You need music to puzzle you. Not to mollycoddle.
Maybe mystery is the wrong word, but there’s not a lot of work you have to do to to figure out today’s popular songs.
John Lydon: I know. No. It’s a bunch of people bouncing up and down, and you can hardly spot which one is the singer. It’s a pile of people making clumpy noises, and this monotonous beat that’s so… you’re so used to it, the backing track is so familiar by now. It’s that studio trickery. And, y’know, when people talk about PiL being a dub or reggae band, they just don’t understand that either at all! Their ignorance is not blissful at this point, it’s destructive.
Obviously you know a good deal about dub and reggae, but it doesn’t make it a dub or reggae band.
John Lydon: No! Not at all. I know a good deal about many things.
So what went wrong from your point of view? I know that’s a naïve question.
John Lydon: Journalism. And bandwagons—hopping-on-to, at the latest scene, the latest category that everyone can become a part of. Record companies financing this kind of derivative nonsense. First there’s a message, then there’s derivative nonsense. Reggae got ruined because it became all focused around Bob Marley. Well, it was a wonderful form of music before, and after, and during, including Bob Marley. Including, not exclusive, including. And that wasn’t appreciated or understood. I grew up with that. I know it. I come from early ska. This was played constantly when I was young. What I don’t like is people who didn’t have that background in music, didn’t grow up with this, thinking that they can co-opt into it because they’ve bought a few clever CDs, and then think they know everything about it. You don’t buy a culture; it is in there, or it isn’t. What you should be dealing with is the musical backdrop you come from, and share that with me. Show me your world experiences. Share that. Give me a clear message of where you come from, and don’t try to buy into somebody else’s life. Because this isn’t a lifestyle for you to adopt; it’s my life. And if my life has any sense of style at all, you are destroying it by trying to imitate it. What I want to do is share your universe with my universe, and appreciate each other on that level, as in-di-vid-uals. I hate poseurs. Hate them! And there’s so much of it going on out there.
What do you think about—it seems like punk, as an idea—
John Lydon: Oh, God, every bloody hairdo I’ve had has been copied. It’s insane, it’s ludicrous! Bloody hell. If it’s the hair that made Beckham, well, he owes me a lot! If the safety pin has become a form of ‘fashion statement,’ well, then, hello, y’know? Zandra Rhodes, et cetera? This goes back thirty years, right? Why are you copying that and then denying where you took it from? ‘Cause you didn’t come up with it yourself. You knew I was grounded in a cultural activity, but you think you can co-opt that into a fashion statement, something as vacuous as a fashion statement? So wrong. So wrong. The clothes I wear, it’s ‘cause I don’t care for clothes in the same way that imitators do. I love every aspect of clothing. I love it; I love the juxtaposition of events I can get into in the morning, right? I wake up and I go, ‘Yeah! Grrrrr! This with that! Rrrr!’ And I can go out and be whatever I want to be, and project whatever image I want, but it’s never based on ‘Blah-blah looks like that, therefore. . .’ The exact opposite. And if I’ve ever been misunderstood, it’s for all of those things.
Well, I think there’s a sense of fun in what you do, and spontaneity, that makes a difference.
John Lydon: Total fun. Total fun. And enjoyment of life, because all we have—all we know about—is life. Learn to enjoy this. Heaven is on this earth. One of the few things Bob Marley said that I completely agreed with, was that. And there’s quite a few others, and there’s a lot I didn’t. But: ‘Heaven is on-a this earth.’
Didn’t you meet Bob Marley?
John Lydon: No, I never met him. No, I knew a few of the band. Still do.
I think one of the things that appealed to me so much about PiL music, when I started listening in my early teens, was that it stood out—a lot of the stuff my friends were listening to was real ambulance-chasing, Goth, death-worshipping stuff, and I felt like PiL dealt with feelings of pain and suffering, came out of real feelings of pain and suffering, but it wasn’t gloomy—
John Lydon: No, it’s not genre.
—there’s something joyful about it.
John Lydon: Yeah, no, it’s to solve the problem. To deal with the pain, and look for a happy conclusion. A proper exploration of your inner self. Come to grips with yourself. God, is that so difficult to get across? Apparently so. Y’know, my probably bitterest enemy in the first 20 years of music was the journalists themselves, that would work against that. ‘Cause they came from a different class, and so they had a different point of view on it. And so they couldn’t believe that anything was genuine, it had to be an image, a fake, an affectation, because that’s indeed what they were projecting. So they weren’t reviewing me badly at all. They were reviewing themselves badly! And that, in itself, is a great strength of spirit. Gives you inner resolve. As Shakespeare said, ‘Smile in the face of adversity.’ That’s PiL! Listen to the songs. They’re telling you this; they’re telling you this all the time. They’re clear. Implicit. They give you room to be yourself. They’re crying out for you to communicate back something of equal clarity—your life’s perception. That’s why a PiL audience is what it is, it’s a great combination of incredibly varied lifestyles.
That’s something that runs all through your career, is this idea that you want to hear back, right?
John Lydon: Always. Always. If it’s art, yeah! The art of communication. Not the art of fraudulent canvassing.
John Lydon: Yeah! I can read, I can write, but it don’t really matter.
Rambo: [Sings] I just come down from Ipswich Town, I can drive a tractor.
John Lydon: It’s an old football chant. [Sings] I can’t read, I can’t write, it don’t really matter / I just come down from Ipswich Town, I can drive a tractor. It’s an ugly chant at the opposition. [Laughs]
When I was driving down here, I heard a story on the radio about how Manchester City is owned by a family from Abu Dhabi now.
John Lydon: Mm-hmm? Oh, money money money money. What can I tell you, I’m an Arsenal supporter. Have been all my life, since I was four. Here’s the general consensus of Arsenal. We do not buy success. We buy young players, and we train them, from an early age, and they become part of a team, and team spirit, above all else, matters.
Rambo: Then they fuck off and join someone else.
John Lydon: And then they fuck off and join someone else, for money! And in fact, three of Arsenal’s last year’s squad were in the Man City winning team this year! It’s a shame that they don’t stay loyal, right? Well, this is what happened with PiL in the early formative years. Many of those members went on and thought they could do better elsewhere. They didn’t, but, y’know, that ain’t me problem.
Here’s my question. Everyone asks about Keith Levene, but I wanna know about Jeannette Lee.
John Lydon: [Laughing] She became a housewife!
Was she in the band? Did she play an instrument?
John Lydon: That’s a human being that was involved and around, d’you understand? You don’t have to play anything to be part-of. Anyone who’s talking to you on a daily basis is inspiring you one way or the other. [Laughing] But it just helps when they’re actually doing something! And I don’t mean instrument-wise, ‘cause it isn’t about that. We don’t look for musicians, we look for human beings. And you connect in all kinds of weird and odd ways. That was when we were gonna go off and experiment with cameras, and the wonderful world of video, but—bloody hell, where’s the money coming from, y’know? I’ve got a record label barely tolerating the music as it was, and Flowers of Romance was a very [laughs] uncompromising piece of work! And Virgin were furious, furious when they heard it! Yet, that was a huge hit in Japan. Now, go figure. So, when they tried to rescind on the contract, I get into lawsuits with them, at the time. Or the release of ‘Love Song’ as a single—they refused to release it in England. Although technically I broke contract, I released it in Germany under another label, and it hit number eight in the first week, so bingo! Rather than let me go, which was what I wanted, was to get off the record label, no. They decided to keep me on, and release it anyway, and not sue me for breach of contract. Bastards! And these are the games I had to play behind the scenes, and all the time being proclaimed as being just awkward for the sake of it, in the media that deliberately didn’t want to understand that these are important battles, and they’re not just mind games from an idiot. I mean, it was great, and it was thrillingly stupid for a long period of time, and many British journalists fell into it—was this all an elaborate hoax on my part? Am I just doing it to take the piss? What, fuckin’ hell, at these prices? Are you joking? You know? My heart and soul was being torn apart, mentally, with these dilemmas and problems of trying to raise wages on a weekly basis for a band, and all kinds of things. And it to be dismissed, ever so casually, like that? That’s wicked, wicked stuff. And so, you know, you tell me, are the paparazzi my enemy? No, man! You can take my picture all day long, upside down, inside out! You can do an anal cavity photograph of me. That’s fine. But don’t talk shit, and don’t talk lies. You don’t need to do that. The hurt and damage you do—that leads on, by the way, leaves you open to the victimization of liars and fake lawsuits and many, many situations. I don’t know if John Travolta, at the moment, is innocent or not, but I’ll tell you what I think. Nine out of ten times I’d give him the innocent vote, ‘cause I understand this form of corruption. If any one of them men, at the time, felt molested by him, that’s when they should have acted. Not now, some time later. Really hate that kind of corruption.
And once the story is out, the damage is done.
John Lydon: And what harm has that man ever done to anyone? Oh, come on, you know? And does anyone remember when his kid died?
Just a couple years ago.
John Lydon: A couple years ago. In my mind, this man is still suffering a loss of a child, and they’re bringing this onto him? ‘Hallo, I’ve just lost my son. Can you play with my willie?’ Does it really sound fucking capable? Fuckers. Trying to tarnish him with ‘Oh, he might be gay.’ Well, who cares? He’s a human being, you bastards! Don’t drag the man down.
Rambo: And the other one, your ‘con man’ one. When they called you a con man. He goes, ‘Well, if I’m a con man—’
John Lydon: Then I’m the best con man the world’s ever known!
Rambo: He must be the world’s greatest con man. Fuckin’ ‘ell! If you’re a con man, fuckin’ ‘ell! You must be fuckin’ brilliant! [Laughter]
I’m another one of your dupes!
John Lydon: Y’know, ‘I can’t wait to dupe society with ‘God Save The Queen’ and ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ And that’s only for starters!’ [Laughter]
‘Wait until you see what I’ve got up my sleeve!’
John Lydon: ‘Ha ha! Here comes some Flowers of Romance, slap that one on, you dirty buggers!’ [Laughter]
Rambo: Also, there’s [Lydon’s 1997 solo album] Psycho’s Path. To me, that’s like a great album, know what I mean?
John Lydon: Hated it!
Rambo: They hated it, didn’t they. They didn’t give a toss. And then Virgin—
John Lydon: I told ‘em! Listen, Flowers of Romance. In one interview, I said, ‘Yeah, look, I used everything.’ And I did, because money was short. I did use fax tube rolls and toilet rolls, right?
Rambo: Psycho’s Path, you’re talking about.
John Lydon: Because I wanted to get that Chilean pipe effect, and I found by going [farting noise] down these different tubes, I got it, and it’s on the record. And the NME in England goes, ‘Disgusting! Outrageous! Ought not to be allowed! Who does this man think he is, farting through toilet rolls? That’s not music!’ Well, it fucking well is! [Laughter]
Rambo: John, you’re talking about Psycho’s Path?
John Lydon: Yeah. [Exit Rotten to toilet]
Rambo: Right, right. One of our publicists, for Virgin, went to the show, she loved the show, and she said ‘What was that sweet song that John was singing? I knew every song.’ And she tried to be, like, singing before anybody else, because we went through the catalog. And I go, ‘Well, that’s about Gacy, the serial killer.’ She goes, ‘Oh, how come I’ve never heard that?’ ‘You have heard it—it’s you lot that took off the label.’ You know what I mean? They no longer fucking distribute the song, they took it off the label. And yet here they are, the Virgin lot, singing along, thinking it’s a great song and that, ‘Psychopath.’ Only just now we got the songs back out, the catalog. They’ve re-released them. You couldn’t get 9, you couldn’t get Happy, I managed to get it so you can get it online. Then Japan came in; there was no record [deal] in Japan, the thing expired with Columbia, and EMI Japan took it over and did a good job, released the whole catalog. The same as in England. Psycho’s Path is out there. You couldn’t get that a couple years ago, or a year ago, y’know? Our record label was there, but they didn’t even know the fucking song. And saying how great it was—but it’s also about a serial killer [chuckles]—and saying how great the song is, loved the song and all that, and it was them that fuckin’ never carried on issuing it. It’s an uphill struggle really.
[Rotten returns]
John Lydon: You won’t believe who I just met in the toilet. Hugh.
Rambo: Who?
John Lydon: Hugh. Hugh Jass.
Was Dick Hertz in there?
John Lydon: No, just Hugh.
Good, Dick is an angry man.
John Lydon: [Rambo reminds Lydon what we had been talking about] Yeah, Gacy—I decided to write a love song to Gacy. But that’s me being flippant. It was understanding the psychology that goes into the making of a serial killer, because as a human being, we’re all capable of this inside ourselves. We know this if we bother to really analyze ourselves. I don’t know what the education process is that we decide, at some point, not to go down that trail. And it’s worthy of analysis.
You think it’s education that makes the difference?
John Lydon: Self-analysis. Being able to analyze yourself internally. And that comes with having to face your own demons, and to know that—from that point onwards, you learn not to judge people quite so harshly. Because there but for the grace of God go I, alright? That’s a position—that’s why I love Obama so much, because he challenges on all those levels, intellectually. I think he’s the finest president for ever such a long time, and I’ve seen many of them.
What do you think of Cameron and Clegg?
John Lydon: Two cunts for the price of one. Coalition? No. Poison. Poison. Backroom boys, both corrupt—and Clegg is the backdoor Johnny. Showbiz term. You’d have to be a ballet dancer to understand it, I suppose. [Laughter] Theater people can be very funny. I normally hate theater. I hate the plays, and I can’t bear sitting and watching them because the way they pro-ject is so fake. But when they’re offstage, and you hang out with them, and you go drinking with them, they’re hilarious! They’ve got such great insights into humanity. And if only that could be put on the stage. That’s the shame of it—it’s the after-theater that counts more than the pre. And that’s the problem with the music industry, too. The people aren’t real until they come offstage.
Offstage, they’re different people?
John Lydon: Yeah, they’re much more interesting to me. Onstage, whatever this thing is they’re trying to project, it just comes across as not true. And that upsets me.
[Rambo tells us we have ten more minutes, because John has an interview with Reuters.]
John Lydon: Oh, they’re great. ‘What is your favorite color?’
Rambo: Can we finish on PiL?
John Lydon: Oh, we haven’t even done the interview yet! I forgot about that.
Can I ask you about particular songs on this record? I like all the songs, but I think my favorite is ‘Reggie Song.’ Can you tell me about the lyrics?
John Lydon: Yeah. The basis of that is a very good friend of ours, in particular of John [Rambo]’s, called Reginald. Known him all our lives, he’s Finsbury Park born and bred, and a proper Arsenal Land human being. The struggles he has to go through—he tries his best in life, y’know? He has a Jamaican background, and all of that, but that don’t matter to us. We’re Park boys. He wants to do the best for his kids, but he can’t! You’ve got a political shitstem there, they’re screwing him at every opportunity, and this leads to many, like, downward spirals occasionally. But the bloke’s managing to keep it together, just, y’know, on a string, really. He’s a lunatic! Very much like I am.
Rambo: We’re all lunatics.
John Lydon: We’re all lunatics, but we love each other, because we’re truthful and honest with each other. And Reginald deserves an accolade for that. And, for me, he came up with the term once: ‘shine like a beacon.’ He goes, ‘Johnny, you shine like a beacon!’ And I went, ‘in the Garden of Eden!’ And bingo! There’s a good refrain. Because it’s the truth, we want to get back into the Garden. Finsbury Park, to us, is the Garden of Eden. It’s not an actual geographical place, it’s a state of mind.
Well, this reminds me of the Marley quote, and ‘The Room I Am In.’ John Lydon: ‘The Room I Am In’ is about drug depression and comedown.
In the council flats.
John Lydon: Yeah. When you find yourself alone, and you can hardly cope with that! Alright? That’s mental bloody torture. It’s something I’ve been through, and I know most of the people I know have been through that. And it’s odd that it’s harder for a girl. When you talk to women who’ve been through it, it’s much more painful for them. ‘Cause women deal strictly on emotions in these painful situations, where fellas can, like [makes agonized face]. But it’s still so hard to get out of. And that’s the cross: do you go over the line and become an addict, or do you go through the comedown? And that’s what ‘The Room I Am In’ is for. And anyone who’s been through that will know that experience. I hope. That’s me trying to be really, really, basically bloody honest with ya, and share that, and it’s a fucking painful thing to have written and done.
Tell me about the line about heaven.
John Lydon: Yes. No matter what you are in, wherever we are, it all, in itself, is in heaven. This is heaven. Life. Don’t make it your personal hell. That’s what the bastards around you are trying to push you into, but don’t go there voluntarily! Love your life. Love yourself, and, my God, you’ll learn to love others. And that’s not egotism—it’s something quite different. To truly learn to love yourself is to know all your faults, and to fucking admit them to yourself! You don’t need a psychiatrist or an analyst to do this for you, because that’s not solving the problem. That’s having someone else think your problem through for you, and settling for a cozy one-liner result, at $400 a session. Tragic. That’s a song of tragedy, but hope, y’know? I solved it. I’ve been there, done that. Hello, you’re not really alone, ‘cause we all know what you’re going through. And if you come out proper the other side, we’ll all love you to pieces, but even if you don’t, we’ll still love ya. Love ya.
John Lydon: Mmm. What a row that is! That’s married life arguing with itself. Y’know, that shared animosity, where it can get really bitter, and you say things you later regret, right? That’s that song. ‘Separate, inter-hate. . .’
But it’s also, if I understand it right, it’s about transforming that into something else, right?
John Lydon: Yeah. There’s hope in it. There’s a way out of this. Once you catch yourself behaving this way, you know then there’s a way out of it.
You’ve been painting your whole life, right? The cover. . .
John Lydon: I did a painting years ago, very similar to this, the same buffalo thing. My first visit to the Guggenheim art museum in New York, I loved it. I was thrilled by that building, and the spiral—I think it’s the greatest design. I don’t love many modern things, but I love that building. That’s art-friendly, it’s user-friendly, and you feel involved with the things in it in a really, really personal way. There was a Kandinsky section, and he was painting something similar to that. I can’t quite remember the original, but I went, ‘Oh my God, that’s dead right!’ After walking three or four spirals, this glared at me, and it’s always struck me in my head that that bloke was cracking on something good. I loved the colors, and the use of those colors, and those are the colors I’ve always painted with, so it was like a—daily affirmation. But it is, and that’s the PiL fucking buffalo! We have to charge through life. Spindly legs or not, we do the best we can!
‘Lollipop Opera.’
John Lydon: ‘Lollipop Opera’ is the backdrop to Finsbury Park. That’s all the different musics and sounds that we all grew up with.
You said Turkish and Greek, which is not something I would have expected.
John Lydon: Oh, yeah, there was an enormous mixed variety of community, and we all listened to everything. It was there all the time. The only thing we knew about, like, racism was when Chelsea supporters would come down and be sieg heiling! And they looked ridiculous, with their bald heads going, y’know? It’s like, look, Hitler lost the war! Mugs. [Laughter]
Is there going to be a PiL book?
John Lydon: Probably, but no rush.
Someone’s going to tell that story. It might as well be you.
John Lydon: Well, many people have tried, but it will be me, eventually, and it will be the one that you’ll respect, because it will be the truth. Many have tried. Many have died… [Laughter]
Rambo: ‘And fifty died, at the hands. . .’
John Lydon: [Sings] ‘Of Johnny Rambo!’ Johnny’s a famous hooligan. Actually, it was Reggie that wrote the song for you! Reginald.
Rambo: No, he didn’t.
John Lydon: No? I thought that was always Reginald.
What song?
John Lydon: Oh, it’s a football chant for John. He took on about seventy-five Tottenham. And won.
John Lydon: Just by not backing down, and being utterly fearless, and standing up for what you believe in. Odd, that. Shocking.
How long ago?
John Lydon: This is when you were, what?
Rambo: Twenty-five, thirty?
John Lydon: Twenty-five?
[Rambo and Lydon sing] ‘Fifty tried and fifty died at the hands of Johnny Rambo / What you gonna do when they challenge you to the hands of Johnny Rambo / Fifty tried and fifty died and fifty tried.’
John Lydon: Rambo: Reggie made the song popular.
This was a great pleasure for me. Thank you.
John Lydon: Peace.