Interview: John Lydon on the True Spirit of Punk

With a new book and an eternally Rotten outlook, the legendary Sex Pistols / Pil frontman explains his lifetime of provocation

By Alan Light

John Lydon does not disappoint. Forty years after first teaming up with the Sex Pistols, assuming the name Johnny Rotten, and creating music — and havoc — that would change the world, he still approaches an interview as a chance to inspire and incite.

“I’m the king of punk — don’t tell me fuck all!
I never asked for the title, but I fully earned it.”

Lydon’s new book, Anger is an Energy, is a 500-plus-page journey from his impoverished London youth, through becoming a subject of debate in Parliament, up to his current life in Los Angeles, where he fronts Public Image Ltd (PiL), his band of 30-some years. Lydon also occasionally finds himself hosting nature programs on television. Though there’s plenty of his signature disdain (for Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren, most of his previous bandmates, and the Clash), the book — his second memoir, after 1993’s Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs — is surprisingly warm-hearted: An account of a childhood bout with meningitis, which wiped out his memory and left him unable to speak, is startling and moving.

Lydon’s faith in the power of music remains strong. His priority seems to be challenging the common, one-dimensional perception of punk. The movement’s true spirit, he says, lives on in PiL, which will release a new album called What the World Needs Now on September 4 and tour North America this fall: “That’s the physical and mental embodiment of it, where people respect each other, and respect everybody else, and do exactly what they need and want to do, seek answers to questions.”

Pil in 2012| Photo by Paul Heartfield

As Lydon, 59, settles in at a table in the back of the bar at midtown Manhattan’s London Hotel, he announces that he doesn’t feel like drinking, so he orders a Sea Breeze — then thinks better of that because “I had the shits this morning, so the grapefruit probably isn’t a good idea,” and eventually decides on a beer. In spiked-up hair, a baggy suit, and ridiculous black and red two-toned shoes, he looks more or less like a grown-up Johnny Rotten would, fit and ready for a fight or a laugh, whichever comes first.

“I started out expecting too much out of life,” he says. “But life hasn’t let me down, and I haven’t been sorely disappointed. I’ve just been disappointed by the majority of people in the media, who turn it into something poisonous and twisted. But negativity won’t win in the end. One way or another, my message is there, it’s clear, and the further I continue, the clearer it gets.”

Alan Light: The biggest surprise in the book for me was how much music you said you liked — Todd Rundgren, Duran Duran, the Bee Gees.

John Lydon: Everything! Those are just names that pop up off the top of my head, but basically, I like everything. Very broad, expansive taste. Good lyric writing is what will draw me in the most, because I love books as well.

And hearing you recount pleasant encounters with Paul McCartney and Robert Plant and Pete Townshend — also not what I expected.

It impressed me somewhat, because I’ve met a lot of famous musicians and actors over the years, and quite a few of them have been just nasty or prejudiced, and so I’m always overwhelmed when they’re good and decent and have read some of the bad things I’ve said about them and smiled and can get past that. The thing is to not take it personally, and I think that’s a very good indication of a proper human being.

The image we have is Johnny Rotten in the “I Hate Pink Floyd” shirt, not this kind of enthusiasm for pop records and rock elders.

That was a sense of irony, and I think irony, when you’re sloganeering like that, is essential.

I guess my point is that the history so often gets written as if punk came in and it was an absolute rejection of how bloated and awful music had become — but you clearly didn’t entirely feel that way.

It was rejection of the rules and regulations and the assumptions of what is good or bad music. Which is really personal taste. But I rejected the idea of imitating any of it. There’s more to this than meets the eye, and unfortunately a lot of people jumped on the wrong side of it and thought that punk was a narrowing of your vision when, for me, it was always expanding, to absorb as much information as possible about everything in the world. It’s learning.

What can I tell ya? The media really led the charge there in demolishing the whole thing, and turning it into what ends up as Green Day — a fiasco, childish dribbly nonsense. They’ve adopted the genre and the style of it, but they’re sorely missing on the content. Good on ’em, you know, so what? But, my God, are they furious that anyone can point out their errors.

What would you have hoped to see as the impact of the Sex Pistols?

The demolition of all categories. Divided we fall. That was my message — don’t divide us, don’t split us up, we’re all in this together. And unfortunately, that could wrongly be interpreted as elevator music, or what they now call new age, or world music, which is this blancmange of everything, washed out and stripped bare of personality.

The Sex Pistols, February 1976 | Photo Express / Express / Getty Images

In the book, you write “punk is humanism.” But so many people took it just the opposite, that punk is nihilism.

Ridiculous. And that was a word that was thrown at me very early on in my career. Ludicrous. I was young. I’m not in control of the media. They don’t know who manipulates the media and to what purposes, but there’s definitely an ignorant, opinionated attitude that comes with the press. I grew up in the belief that journalism was a well-respected occupation. Boy, wasn’t I disappointed?

Did Malcolm and the packaging of the Pistols also figure into that misconception?

Oh, no, he was such an innocent bunny rabbit, that fellow. He would go along with that flow and go, “It’s all good. Oh, it’s great. Ha ha ha.” But he missed the point that his stuff could end up being really damaging to us, and everybody else, if allowed to be run wrongly. Malcolm lacked commitment, completely. He never finished anything. But I absolutely do not lack commitment, and I will finish things properly. No matter how long it takes me, I will make it very clear that what punk really is and what it turned into are two very different things.

It was intensely pleasurable for me to be discussed openly in the Houses of Parliament under the Traitors and Treason Act and all this stuff. My God, opinions can be a very, very dangerous thing — delicious. But how far were they going to take that? If they really tried to put out laws that would stifle me having an opinion, that would be the end of democracy, and I knew they couldn’t do that, so just by opening the debate, I had won. Called that bluff and played their game according to their rules and watched them fall apart like fools. And that was my conclusion in that style, and then I could move on and produce the music I really always wanted to.

Other than your collaboration with Afrika Bambaataa on 1984’s Time Zone record, there’s not much mention of hip-hop in the book. Did you ever have hope that it might be a means to carry the punk spirit?

If you ask Bambaataa, he’ll tell you it was punk music, quite proudly, and that’s how we were viewing it at the time, but it became a different genre and category, much to its detriment. Hip-hop, which was the original title, turned into rap, which became promo music for Taco Bell. Very, very over-commercialized and really just a neat way for talentless people to sell sneakers and sportswear, very consumer conscious. And hateful in itself, too much of this in-house fighting between the different celebrities. What is the point if it’s about hating everybody else and killing the competition? As bad as what punk turned into, we didn’t start murdering each other, so that’s like the death knell to the whole thing.

I’m not quite sure I can answer everything all at once. It takes time to do these things. There’s none of this “hope I die before I get old” stuff going on — I think what we do is pop music, but I think we’re much more akin to folk music, where there is no limit. It’s about seeking wisdom, not financial gain as quickly as you can. But I’ve stuck with it, I’ve stuck with what I love, and here I am enjoying life. I go home and stress about where I’m going to raise the money for the next project, but still I’m enjoying it. On my own terms.

There are two interesting statements in the book that seem to define a real struggle in music today. You talk about wanting PiL to be a multi-media project, extending beyond music, but you also say that a songwriter needs to be left alone to write. With the demise of the record industry and musicians having to handle so much more of their business, marketing, all that, how do you resolve that conflict?

It took me a lot of time, to learn how to do TV shows, how to run internet programs, how to make film. When I started PiL, I wanted it all at once, and that imploded on us very badly. We took on too much too quickly, and it broke the band up. But the idea is still there. Now I do these projects slowly, deliberately, studiously, and I don’t let it interfere with the main point and purpose of Public Image, which is musical exploration.

A lot of the TV work I went through was when the record companies had me in such a financial hold that it was impossible for me to function musically. I couldn’t buy my way out of those contracts, I needed to raise the money, and it took me nearly two decades to do that. I could have made rubbish, but instead I chose to do what I think was really good TV work. I worked with things like sharks, gorillas, insects — projects that really absolutely fascinated me. I learned so much about myself and also about the poetic beat of a TV program. And how to avoid a script at all cost, since that’s the passion killer right there. Once you know where it’s going, why do it? It’s done. I love improvisation, and you know that if you’ve ever seen PiL live, anything might happen.

Will you work with a label moving forward?

We’re going small and independent. There are no large labels anymore, there really aren’t. That’s what the Grammys has become, 10 to 15 acts that keep regurgitating. It’s like being trapped on a cruise ship, having to endure the same entertainment night after night — there’s five or six people that win every year, year in and year out. That’s appalling, and there’s no future for anyone in that. It’s like watching some sad old Las Vegas production slowly unravel.

When all that is finally pushed aside, something new might come along. But as for making your own music on the internet, you’re too limited by the technology, and it all ends up sounding like robot stuff anyway. Live performance is where it’s at — put yourself on the line, in front of other human beings, and you show the endeavors of your work. You’re almost begging to be judged, and judged you will be. That’s the excitement of live music, and that’s the reward, right there. And you don’t have to conform to win over an audience, you just have to be an individual. It’s far more interesting.

When you delivered your fantastic exit line at the final Sex Pistols show — “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” — did you mean that was how you felt, or how the audience was feeling?

Both. I don’t make comments like that likely; that’s a considered thought. The actual words that blurted out of my mouth were instantaneous, but all of the anxieties building up to that was there. We were becoming like a Rolling Stones pantomime, what’s the point in continuing this? And the undeniable, sheer bloody-mindedness of the management wasn’t helping, and the way that us band members weren’t talking to each other at all. All of us were cheated and had ceased to function.

Sid Vicious and Johnny Rotten on the Sex Pistols’ final tour, Texas 1978 | Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns

When you’re here in New York, does it inevitability bring up thoughts of Sid Vicious?

I don’t know who did it, but it weren’t me what did it, officer! I’m as puzzled as everybody else. It’s not so much a mystery as an inevitability when you wrap your life around heroin. The clock is running, and it doesn’t matter the absolute finite conclusion, that’s the beginning, middle, and end of that story — the drug itself. It’s a passion killer, it kills integrity, it’s soul destroying. I can always tell who’s on that stuff. They have no soul to me, no aura, no glow. The eyes are dead. It’s astounding. Zombies, the walking dead. The inference behind zombie movies, I always thought.

You write that you get frustrated when you see Never Mind the Bollocks listed as a Top 10 or Top 20 album in the “Best of All Time” lists.

My point of view is that it should be No. 1, or don’t be talking at all about it. Don’t be putting it in there like, “Oh, it’s a very nice piece of music,” following some other dull, bland, middle-of-the-road outfit. I’d rather it wasn’t in any chart at all. But it’s nice when musicians talk about their favorite albums, and it’s in there, and you’d be quite surprised at the people who give it a nod and a wink — and, more exceptionally, PiL.

So what is the relationship between Johnny Rotten and John Lydon these days?

They love each other very much! The reason I couldn’t use John Rotten with PiL at first is that the management was claiming ownership of my very own nickname. Absurd, isn’t it? That’s a work of real hate, to try to claim the singer’s nickname, that’s as jealous as you could possibly ever get to be. Well, I’m here, he ain’t.

With the very early PiL records, they were expecting a Pistols-type sound, so the financial backing wasn’t there, until they finally pulled the plug on me completely. But I braved on through it, and I didn’t care if they pulled the plug, I was going to get out as much different sound as I possibly could. And now the band is so well tuned in with each other musically, and yet we all come from completely different avenues of exploration. It took 35 years to get to this, worth every second of it. It’s the journey that’s just as important as the final achievement.

If there ever is a final achievement.

There is — it’s called death. That one, where you will die completely and utterly alone, no matter how many people are standing around you. So my life’s journey is to come to grips with that. I had it when I was young, I know what being alone is. I also know what being in a loving relationship is. But if there be a maker, we’re all going to have to meet him alone. Well, I hope to go there with some bloody good tunes.

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