10 Questions for Musician John Lydon | reviews, news & interviews
10 Questions for Musician John Lydon
10 Questions for Musician John Lydon
The punk and post-punk icon lets rip
John Lydon (b. 1956) is the singer and creative engine of Public Image Ltd. He was previously the frontman of the Sex Pistols. The latter group broke up in January 1978 when he was 21 but their brief career continues to cast a giant shadow over popular music, defining punk rock. Lydon, however, went on to form the musically more intriguing Public Image Ltd, releasing era-defining albums such their eponymous debut and, perhaps the ultimate album of the post-punk era, Metal Box. He went on to work sporadically with varying PiL line-ups during succeeding decades but reappeared with a newly cohesive unit in 2009 (pictured below right), bouncing back with their most visceral album (This is PiL, 2012) and live shows in many years.
Lydon has presented a variety of TV and radio programmes, toured with a reformed Sex Pistols in 1996, 2003 and 2007, created “Open Up”, one of dance music’s greatest tunes, with Leftfield in 1993, and notoriously did a TV advert for butter in 2008. Lydon’s biographies, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs (1993) and Anger Is An Energy: My Life Uncensored (2014), are both bestsellers that remain in print. A new PiL album, What The World Needs Now… is released this week. Lydon has been based in California since the 1980s and theartsdesk spoke to him there.
THOMAS H GREEN: In the song “Betty Page”, you refer to Page, Mae West, Louise Brooks and the “greatest pornographic country in the world” – what’s behind the song?
JOHN LYDON: Becoming an American citizen. America more than happily accepted me. I now carry an American passport. That’s three to my name – Irish, English and American. I hope they knew what they were inviting in. I like the history of a place to be accurate and this is the greatest pornographic country in the world but it pretends to be an evangelist state. Those women were absolute individuals and, for me, there’s a sense of hero worship around what they did and what they achieved in very severe times. They’re the people that gave women the vote, much more so than “burn the bra”.
You’re a great admirer of women, then? I don’t mean that in a Carry On sense…
[Laughs uproariously] You should mean it that way. I love Barbara Windsor equally. And Diana Dors. All these great wonderful characters that are not caricatures. And Cilla Black, oh my god, poor old dear. You know I once sang into Cilla Black’s tights. It was an early Sex Pistols gig right near Blackpool Pier. It was the Sunday she had off and a pair of her tights were in the dressing room so I put them on the microphone and sang through Cilla’s tights. It was probably the best Pistols gig I’ve ever done, just because of the thought of it.
I saw the PiL show in 2011 at Heaven – it must have gone on nearly three hours, it was brutal and punishing – did you enjoy it?
It almost killed me, very hard work but worth it. Heaven! We couldn’t get any of the other places so thank you, gay nightclub. It was a brilliant, beautiful atmosphere. I had a lot to get out of the way. I hadn’t played for so long and people had forgotten an awful lot of it. I wanted there to be a solid reminder. This is PiL, this is a valid, valid part of music. For me to be up there that length of time wasn’t really like an endurance course. It was important. The songs are deeply embedded in the life I lead.
In his history of post-punk Rip It Up And Start Again, Simon Reynolds certainly gives PiL due credit. Have you read it?
Apart from your own autobiographies – are there any books about events you’ve been involved with that you like?
No. Yes and no, but not off top of my head. I’m just going through a Jimi Hendrix biography which I find fascinating. And I like the Viv Albertine book even though it’s just a big pile of gossip. It’s done in such a fun way. There’s something to learn from her.
I wasn’t going to mention it because you appear in a very explicit manner [with Albertine attempting and failing to deliver a satisfactory blow-job on Lydon]…
[Laughs uproariously] You know, there it goes! I thought she dealt with rejection rather wonderfully.
When I came across that book in the shop, it fell open on that very page.
There you go – it was well-thumbed. Listen, everything and anything interests me, anything done by a human being. Even if I bitterly oppose their points of view I won’t bitterly oppose them as human beings. I could enjoy the Margaret Thatcher memoirs just as much as I can the poetry of Ted Hughes. I’m not one of these fellows that’ll cut his nose off to spite his face. In all things I find an interest
There’s a throwaway line in the recent single “Double Trouble” – “In the meantime, we’ll get a bucket”…
[Interrupting] It’s not a throwaway line. It’s an actuality, There’s not one throwaway line in it. The only thing that got thrown away was the sewage. It’s about the repair of a toilet. It’s an argument that [Lydon’s wife] Nora and me had about repairing a toilet and I told her to get a plumber. It’s my own fault the argument started because four years earlier – women have very good memories for these things – I did actually install a whole new toilet in another bathroom, so the expectancy was I’d do the same. My laziness was to just get a plumber in and the end result was very positive. It’s a kind of theme tune.
Watch the video for "Double Trouble"
I was going to suggest that song and others on the new album have a high quotient of humour – would you agree?
They're just the way I am. The album is much more free-flowing, partly because of the enjoyment we got out of working with each other. The last five years we became very, very close. Bruce [Smith, drums] and Lu [Edmonds, guitar] I’ve known for half my life so that was always there, but with Scott [Firth, bass] as well now. We’ve become a very finely tuned unit and we know each other’s likes and dislikes. There was no record label telling us what to do. Our only bosses were ourselves and our motivations and this is the best record I think I’ve ever made because of that. It’s conversational.
In retrospect, what are your feelings towards your 1997 solo album Pyscho’s Path?
Loved that but I was very angry with the record label for letting me down. They made a promise if I did the Pistols tour they’d promote that record. Somewhere in between that Pistols tour [and the album] the man at Virgin left and no one was put in his position so my project was shelved. It’s a bitter-sweet memory, I think its a stunning record. I don’t always want to make solo records. Flowers of Romance I view somewhat as a solo album. I couldn’t get the band into the studio at the time. I much prefer working as a cohesive unit. [On Psycho’s Path] I used toilet rolls and an accordion I threw down a staircase because I really loved the sound it made. The whole album was made in my house. I bought somewhat of a small studio and that came about in the years when I wasn’t allowed to make music. I decided I’d do commercials and things – the music for them. Indeed, I was doing a live internet broadcast every weekend so I just built up bits and pieces. It turned into a studio. You can make a solo record that way but you can’t make a band record that way. For PiL what we like is big natural live acoustic excellent rooms and that’s what we’ve done [on What The World Needs Now…], just like the previous album. It’s a barn in the Cotswolds, a 60- to 80-foot-high ceiling and solid stone walls so the natural reverb is glorious. All the energy and work goes firstly into mic placements so there’s no need for electronic trickery at the end because we’re happy with the live sound we’ve created.
Listen to "Grave Ride" from Psycho's Path
Is "Shoom" on the new album named after the seminal acid house club? It sounds quite acid-housey.
It comes from Bruce messing about on a drum machine and he created a “shoooooom” pattern. I put the lines over the top because it reminded me of my father. It’s exactly how my Dad used to be, a great sense of humour. He’d sit in the pub and just deliver with perfect timing these one-liners. I’m echoing me dad there.
It’s a bit of a swear-athon...
I don’t believe there’s any such things as a swear word. Anything that comes out of a human’s mouth can’t possibly be a swear. It’s called communication. You can communicate well or badly. Sometimes certain words have the wrong effect if used at the wrong time but they’re all words and they’re all as valid as each other. I will delve into my Anglo-Saxon background from time to time. Anything I can do to make the Oxford English Dictionary fatter than it already is, I will do.
On Vivienne Goldman’s "Dirty Washing EP" from 1981, on the track "Launderette" you have a production credit – how were you involved in that?
Fun to do. We were friends and I had nothing better to do and I was invited over. I didn’t do much but I was more than pleased, really, to be given a credit. It was a good record.
It was the dawn of Adrian Sherwood’s career.
Yeah, he sparked on from there.
I’m surprised, over the years, you haven’t had more to do with him.
No. No, no, no, I’m not too interested in white man’s reggae.
Listen to Vivien Goldman "Launderette"
The new song “Corporate” seems to not only be calling out large companies as murderous, but also suggesting the human race may be doomed? Do you believe that?
I don’t know about doomed. It’ll be doomed if it doesn’t face up to its commitments. You can’t forever hide behind celebrity gossip and think that’s going to solve the universe. I’m watching very intently from an American point of view, as that’s where I live, but this is still relevant to Britain and every other country: politicians are leading us down a very dangerous path, they’re trying through sheer dullness to suggest it’s pointless to vote and there’s certain alleged comedians that followed that line. I disagree bitterly. Less than a hundred years ago none of us would have the right to have an opinion, even. I won’t give up the vote and I’ll fight bitterly for it. A classic example of how power is being abused in America: Donald Trump. It’s bloody obvious he’s trying to buy the Presidency. There was a chap before him too called Mitt Romney who had the audacity to suggest that corporations are people too. What that really meant was that corporations wanted to presume the right to block-vote for all of their workers. In other words, take your vote away. This is the world we’re looking at.
The song seems to muster your bile.
[Following a somewhat icy silence] Not bile.
Perhaps I chose the wrong word.
I reckon you did.
Sometimes a subject requires you deliver it with this gusto. Other songs require a more laid back approach for maximum effect. You can’t just shout your way through life otherwise you’d be a rapper and who wants to be that?
You once did a great rap song, “World Destruction” with Afrika Bambaataa.
Many moons ago [it was 1984]. We didn‘t know what rap would turn into which is a disgraceful commercialization and rather a bitter world where they’re all shooting each other. That’s unhealthy. It’s the most corporate thing I think I’ve ever seen. It comes fully loaded with the Nike brand. That’s disturbing to me.
Watch the video for "World Destruction" by Afrika Bambaataa featuring John Lydon
Do you have difficulty balancing a genial 50-something soul with public expectations of a personality you developed as a teenager?
I can’t help the sensationalist headlines that have plagued me and I’m actually not responsible for any of that. I’m a worthy adversary to what I call “the shitstem” and for as long as I live the shitstem will be on my back. That’s a good thing, that’s healthy for me. It maintains my integrity and reminds me constantly that I must be doing something right to be constantly castigated. Most importantly in all of this, I’m 59. I’ll be 60 next year, and that’s a great wonderful thing.
My mum and dad reckoned their sixties was one of the jolliest times of their life.
I agree with your mum and dad. The foolhardiness of quotes from Pete Townsend – “hope I die before I get old” – absolute nonsense. Live for as long as you possibly can. For me the greatest sense of achievement would be, if I could, for 100 solid years, to make music. One whole century. Now that would be something and I think it’s possible. I’ve waltzed through the first 60 years of my life. With all the difficulties that have been put up in front of me I’ve never allowed self-pity to creep in or indolence or apathy or laziness – so I’m doing quite well.
There’s a song on the new album called "The One" which is kind of a Sixties pop song – where did that come from?
If anything it’s a sly T-Rex indicator. That’s a happy memory of juvenile delinquency, you know, kiddie discos. At the time T-Rex was very popular, all those kind of records, glam rock really. If you didn’t know the stuff there was no way you could nuzzle up to the girls dancing to it. It’s about that – girl-chasing – [Sings] ooh, baby you’re the one – trying to be a smarmy lovebird and admitting it too. Looking back it makes me laugh and it also makes me blush.
Does it bother you when you hear of old PiL members getting back together and performing without you [a reference to Jah Wobble and Keith Levene’s album and concerts]?
It doesn’t but they should be writing some new stuff of their own and stop pretending that I can’t sing. That’s what I’ve been reading from them. Their commonality seems to be that they hate me and cannot wait for any opportunity to go on about how bad a singer I was. Well, if that’s the case, why were you taking my money and what were you doing in my band?
You worked with Stephen Hague on the album 9 – what are your memories?
I loved working with Stephen Hague. I wish I’d listened to him more closely, though, He was offering me some really good advice which, years later, I paid attention to. This was regarding the quality and range of my voice. At the time I was rather belligerent about anybody telling me anything because it was so difficult trying to squeak money out of the record labels. I find it a bit easier now because I’m comfortable with the people I’m working with. I pay great attention to their ideas. Indeed I’d even use the word “guidance”. It’s really delicious to be able to share with them like this. It’s what I’ve always looked for in life and I’ve finally found it.
Overleaf: Watch PiL live at Glastonbury 2013 - whole concert
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