(Courtesy of The Stool Pigeon)
"SORRY, I'M NOT BOB GELDOF. I'M INTERESTING!" PUNK LEGEND ON PIL, IPODS AND MISSING MALCOM
Words Cian Traynor
Photography Mattia Zoppellaro
Asking John Lydon to consider his legacy triggers a candid eruption. There’s pride, of course, but also frustration at others who copy and sample rather than experiment in the uncompromising spirit he’s championed for 35 years.
With a persona that’s equal parts street urchin, drill sergeant and pantomime villain, it’s easy to miss the underlying drive: forging ahead regardless of expectation, dropping ideas once they’ve run their course and holding a mirror to the reaction. ‘If you’re outraged by reinvention, butter advertisements and reality show appearances,’ he seems to ask, ‘what does that say about you?’
As a child of working-class Irish parents in London’s Finsbury Park, Lydon contracted meningitis at age seven, leading to a coma that erased his memory. Apart from leaving him with an eye-popping stare, it forced Lydon to develop an autodidactic streak and a way of neutralising bullies with his snarling wit.
Recruited by Malcolm McLaren to front the Sex Pistols as a teenager, Lydon became “the biggest threat to British youth since Hitler” for the rabid social critique behind Never Mind The Bollocks – a nihilistic antidote to everything that preceded it. But by 1978, the band collapsed under the weight of constant controversy and mismanagement. Sid Vicious was dead and Johnny Rotten reverted to John Lydon, forming post-punk pioneers Public Image Ltd with bassist Jah Wobble and former Clash guitarist Keith Levene.
Albums Metal Box (released in 1979 as three 12-inches in a film-canister) and Flowers of Romance managed to be experimental yet commercially successful, despite incensing punk purists. Similarly, shuffling the band’s line-up and steamrolling toward the dance-rock of Album and Happy? earned an alt rock following in the US but divided early converts.
After eight albums and a rotating cast, Lydon put PiL on hiatus in 1992, letting its influence stew until a string of rapturously received shows in 2009 and 2010 signalled a self-financed comeback. Record Store Day marked the release of One Drop, a vinyl-only taster EP of PiL’s first album in 20 years, This Is PiL, out later this month, and the 56-year-old Lydon feels pumped. “I’m full on, me. Full. On. You’d have to break both my legs and rip my head off to stop me performing.”
Were you ever frustrated that PiL didn’t get more recognition?
Oh, I thought PiL got plenty of recognition. I think we’re still a legendary outfit and one that’s been misunderstood at times. PiL will always be in a state of evolvement but I think the majority of people are a bit backwards. They try to pigeonhole you with the past all the time! I mean when I was in the Pistols it was considered unacceptable. Then I started PiL and that was unacceptable – people wanted me to be like the Pistols. Then I evolved PiL into many different guises and at each step people kept trying to drag me back to what I’d already done. You have to alter your perspective, or else you’re repeating yourself. And that’s never healthy. But as life goes on, you learn more. You learn to control deeper emotion and you’re able to analyse yourself more correctly. But if you’re still stuck in the landscape you began in 30 years ago, it’s rather pointless bothering.
PiL’s common denominator seems to be a hurricane of ideas.
I can’t help it! I was born with a mind of utter chaos – non-stop thoughts. The only time I’ve really been able to relax my brain was when I was seriously ill. But I like it like this, ideas flowing to and fro all the time.
Do you think that made working with labels more difficult?
Record labels hated the novelty of new ideas or directions and that always worked against me. They’d sign bands up that were clearly influenced by what I’d just done and wouldn’t have any problem doing that. When you pave new ground, unfortunately, you take all the whacks, the punches and the kicks. You get very little of the respect. I’m constantly opening doors for other people to jump through and everyone seems to be profiting from that except meself. I’m still the only man dippin’ his hands in his pockets and putting his money where his mouth is. I don’t mind that. It gives me the freedom to do exactly what I need to do. But it has to be noted.
Can anything be cutting edge anymore?
I think anything can. But the majority of people in the entertainment industry wish nothing more than to sound like somebody else. It’s certainly not my problem. More of them, please! It just makes me shine like a diamond in a pile of horse. [laughs]
What was it like teaming up with Afrika Bambaataa, another innovator, in 1984?
Great fun. It was the birth of hip hop, really. Wonderful fella.
Do you listen to any new hip hop?
No. I’m finding it very repetitive and if I hear one more sample of PiL with some arsehole yapping at me over the top… it’s quite unbearable. And it’s thievery, really. I mean there’s some great stuff, of course, but so… much… drudge. It’s a shame.
What’s the difference between approaching Psycho’s Path and a PiL album?
The challenge was much more seriously on me for Psycho’s Path but I enjoyed it and stepped up to the mark. I knew it would sound completely strange to a lot of people but it had to… because by all accounts inside my head is a very strange place indeed.
What keeps you going?
Life. As long as there’s another human being alive, I’ll have a song to write.
Certain musicians don’t like revisiting their back catalogue, lest it be seen as admitting their best days are behind them. What do you think of that attitude?
I think that’s absolutely foolish. Pah! You have no future without your past. One thing relates to another. I love the picturesque view that these are all pieces of the jigsaw puzzle… and I don’t think it’s ever fully completed until the day you die. But up until that point, don’t be removing any of those pieces. I love my past, I love my present and I am going to love my future!
It’s easy to see ‘Rise’ as a pop song now but at the time it must have been quite different from what else was in the charts…
Yeah, there was a lot of animosity because it was a different sound, a different emotion than what people were comfortable with me for. Everything I’ve ever done seems to be this struggle to make people stop being ignorant and just start listening. There’s always been this suspicion that somehow this has all been a jolly good prank. That’s been motivated by a load of spiteful warmongers in the British media. It’s a resentment going back to the early Pistols. “Who do I think I am? How dare I say these things?” Well I dare quite nicely, thank you. [laughs]
You’re possibly the only person who had Miles Davis contribute to an album and then not used it. Easy decision?
Yes! Because it was the wrong thing. Sorry, I’m not Bob Geldof. I’m interesting. [sarcastically] “Look! All these people are on it!” Bobby will laugh at that. He’s good fun, is Mr. Geldof.
You said before that Can “reminds me of what we were trying to do with PiL”. In what way?
I never said that! I would never put it that way. I respect people who take risks. Can would just be one of countless influences as extensive as my record collection. Good things done by good people will always affect you; it doesn’t mean you want to sound like that. The opportunity people give you through their own work frees you up to be yourself. It teaches you how to think inwardly, not outwardly. The most generous thing any human being can do is be honest. I think I’ve proved that point for a solid 30 years and I see no reason to change that.
Do you think that honesty dates back to when you came out of a coma and you depended on it?
Yes. Very much. It’s still in there. Why would I want to lose that early memory of having to learn to trust others? It’s so important.
Are there parts of your life you wish you could recall in better detail?
It all came back to me. Everything. But it took years and years.
But what about since then?
That’s why I try not to forget anything. Good or bad. I count it all as necessary. I don’t mind knocking myself and being open about that. I don’t think honesty is a risky business. It’s a good thing to wake up in the morning and know you haven’t lied to anyone. Continuing that process is very healthy indeed and I’m surrounded by people who wouldn’t tolerate it [otherwise]. Although the Irish in me loves to tell a fib from time to time! [laughs] Storytelling, I call that.
Do you think there are certain periods in life more conducive to creativity?
Life is full of different stages. The way you feel at 18 is very different to how you feel at 30, which is again very different to how you feel at 40 and 50. I’m only half a century young and I can’t wait for what unfolds in the future. I like the thought processes of evolving and changing. I find them all highly entertaining and not the slightest bit threatening. The more you learn, the better person you become. I don’t think it’s exceptional that there’s been a lot of tragedy in my life, a lot of people dying and getting ill. But it’s how we come to grips with that. I hold no hatred or animosity for anyone, ever. I’m not interested in making enemies, though there are many people out there who would dearly, dearly love to be my enemy. They can’t. [laughs] I genuinely love them. And I miss people dearly when they die. When Malcolm [McLaren] died, I told it as it was. We were never friends. Argued all the time! But I miss his space on planet earth. He was a vital and vibrant force and I’m not one to gloat over that. I’ve never come to grips with death, you see, even though I’ve stared it in the face many times myself.
You were almost on the Lockerbie bombing flight. That must’ve changed your perspective, if even just with airport security.
Yeah. There are a lot of fucking bad bastards in the world and I don’t want to be on a plane load of ‘em. I see good reason in [airport security] and I’m relieved they do search you so thoroughly. Of course, when they pick me out especially for the anal probe treatment, I know that’s just an act of spite. But that’s fine. I’ll just have Brussels sprouts before I get on the plane. I don’t want to see people blown to smithereens for no cause whatsoever. If you feel by murdering someone you justify your cause, I’ve got news for you: you have no cause at all. You’re just a murderer. Nothing is worth killing another human being for. Nothing. That’s my world view. Of course, there are situations where you have to defend. I’m not going to stand by and see my family slaughtered by maniacs.
Has death inspired a lot of PiL?
You can’t help but grow through it. My songs are flooded with it but they’re never miserable. I don’t believe in depression being an art form. You have to attack it. You have to be honest with it. Misery is not a clever step. Self-pity, I will never have. I’ve no time for it.
How do you attack it, though?
You honestly look into yourself and wonder why you feel the way you do. It’s a difficult process. But it’s ultimately enjoyable to understand why you miss your parents. They’re gone and it leaves you feeling somewhat like an orphan. But you have to get over that. I always donate to orphanages. It’s something my dad taught me. He would run an open house for orphans, so I’ve always had a deep love for kids who never had parents. It’s a terrible thing to be brought up institutionalised. No matter what pain I think I’m suffering, there’s always someone suffering more.
What do you think inspired your dad to do that?
Just a love of people. He was a very difficult fella to get on with… He told me himself he wanted me to achieve better and not just lay back and think life was an easy ride, so he made us all strive harder and harder. He’d a wonderful philosophy of “get out of the house at 15!” It helped me no end to grow up. That didn’t mean he didn’t love me. It was my time to become a man… and I did. I don’t remember those days bitterly, like “you mean bastard!” I look back and think, “you did the right thing, Dad. Though it didn’t feel like it at the time.” That’s what I mean when I say coming to grips with reality. It’s too easy to wallow in self-pity but very many people do and it gets none of us anywhere.
You have to know when to laugh at life even when it’s cruel.
My gosh, isn’t that the Irish way? We cry at weddings and laugh at funerals.
How much did you read, growing up?
I’ve always read, ever since I was young. James Joyce’s Ulysses was the most brilliant, fascinating piece of literature. A complete puzzlement to a lot of people but I liked it. I understood the random, fast-speed thoughts in it because it’s very like how I think. And I found a musical tone in it. The same with Shakespeare. I love the poetic balance; it all seems to fit a harmony, a melody. It’s the basic pulse of nature, poetry. I was kicked out of school at an early age but I still insisted on taking the A-level exams. Quite pleased I passed them all too, but I was very pleased I got English literature. I just love the written word. Studying Keats really was the most fantastic fun. Finding my own little universe in what he was writing was rewarding beyond belief. There was a film a few years back about the life of Keats. It’s quite different from how I envisioned Keats – it’s all about some bloke who’s terminally ill all the time! [laughs] You know, I’m physically dilapidated too but I missed that. Maybe I just naturally ignored that side of it. I presumed everyone was always ill. I’ll never be 100 per cent physically fit but for what it is I do, I’m quite amazed at myself the amount of energy required to put in to a live performance.
Do you ever have dry spells or writer’s block?
Yes, of course. Many a time. You learn not to force it. Writing and being honest and telling things they way they are – that comes and goes in spurts. To force that or oblige yourself to a routine is the most ridiculous thing you could do. Doesn’t work like that. At all. Sometimes your batteries just collapse and need recharging. You’ve got to learn to deal with that. That, of course, is a situation that arose when dealing with the old record labels and corporations. It was very hard for them to understand because to them it’s all accounting and schedules. Real life isn’t like that. In real life we don’t talk like lawyers either, yet that’s the way they behave with us.
You got behind Record Store Day this year…
Very much so. It’s been brilliant. I’ve been talking to so many people about vinyl. It’s a great universe – the same kind, in a weird way, as train spotters. It’s so obsessive in all its offshoots: what kind of turntables you use, whether it should be electronic or valve amplifiers. It’s a great topic and it’s a shame the record labels killed vinyl off, or at least tried to. I love the personal nature of an album cover. A CD or an mp3 won’t cut it for me. Sorry. You can iPod yourself to hell in a hand-basket. It ain’t my way. I like texture and it’s something people are now being denied. If they were in any way smart they’d ask granddad to open the cupboards, give records a listen and understand what real bass is.
Formats aside, what do you think led to record shops’ decline?
Closing them down! [laughs] They out-priced themselves. Greed. Album covers became less considerate, less artistic. Slowly but surely that led to disinterest. And there was a media charge – which I’ve been appalled by for years – in music papers who have the audacity to print statements like, “It’s all been done before”. That is such a liberty! And yet easily presumed. It’s the very mantle that the powers of destruction hid under. They created apathy in an industry that’s supposed to be all about excitement, the thrill of what a human being can come up with. Such a pity.
I remember saving up to buy albums based on a single or two and then feeling cheated when I heard all the filler.
Yeah, there you go. Many, many bands went that way. But not me. The only filler you’ll get on me is between the cracks of me face.
Some people have criticised Record Store Day for being a marketing ploy.
Well of course it’s marketing! We’re trying to sell something! [laughs] But guess what: it’s actually good. No one’s twisting your arm. That’s what I mean about negativity. “Why bother?” Well, fuck ya. Can’t help you. Bring out your dead! “Why bother?” [laughs] Oh, the human being. Such a lazy creature.
Before reissues and downloads existed, did you have any idea your work would endure?
No. How can you? It’s still a kind of vagueness, really. Even if I was the most lonely, hated person on God’s earth, I would still be working, finding an outlet for my thought processes. I paint pictures with music and words. I want them to be an insight into my life and hopefully into others. By my very existence, I suppose it’s a worship of nature. I’m the Richard Attenborough of punk! [laughs] But I’m pleased there is that longevity and respect out there and a fan-base that appreciates what it is I’m up to. I particularly enjoy the condition that PiL is in at the moment. It’s an absolute powerhouse – a pleasure to rehearse and go on stage. There’ve been many times where that wasn’t the case, where you knew it would have to be an uphill battle.
Why did your lawyers threaten legal action over Wobble and Levene’s Play Metal Box in Dub tour?
Because it’s profiteering!
You think they shouldn’t be allowed to do it?
No, he [Wobble] should fuck off and die! He should get the hell out of my hair. I offered him a sensible job with equal pay and that wasn’t good enough for him and his ego. And I don’t need him now trying to make a mockery of something that was really good. He keeps saying all kinds of absurd things and contradicting himself. I think it’s really shallow of the fella. My view of Wobble and Keith and everyone who’s worked in PiL – these are my babies. I gave them a career. They were nothing. I took them from nothing and gave them something. Now they’re trying to steal even that off me. That’s very unfortunate. But I love them still because they are my babies. They’re my friends and I love them to pieces no matter what I do. And, sooner or later, we’ll be friends again.