He’s gone from punk firebrand to national treasure. Now John Lydon is performing in Oxford with Public Image Ltd. He talks to Tim Hughes
Eloquent and erudite, John Lydon could not sound less like the snarling punk-rocker of his youth. Smartly dressed and courteous to excess, it’s hard to believe that this is the same wide-eyed rebel who, as Johnny Rotten, sparked moral outrage as frontman of the Sex Pistols. Yet there is still passion there.
“I am still Johnny Rotten,” he says, with pride.
“There was an episode where [late Sex Pistols manager] Malcolm McLaren claimed ownership of my name, though, and I had to go through a court battle to get it back.”
Loyal to his friends but merciless to his enemies, John rightly feels he has been misunderstood. While he embraces his punk past, it is his present – as lead singer of the reformed post-rock band Public Image Ltd – that he considers his greatest contribution.
Releasing their first album for 20 years, PiL are going on tour – starting with a support slot for the Stone Roses in Finsbury Park, and then heading to Oxford’s O2 Academy.
“It’s rapturous which is proper and good,” he says when I ask about the reaction to the new songs. “Nearly two decades have gone by in alleged drunkenness, so it’s nice to be press on with the things I’m good at, which are writing songs and performing live.”
John Lydon is hard at work in his home city of Los Angeles, where he is being filmed at this very moment for a movie on the band. The cameras continue to roll while we talk.
“We’re filming a documentary of PiL,” he says. “People have been following me around for a long while. Do you mind being in it?”
I admit to being flattered, though wonder if the presence of a film crew will inhibit the famously outspoken former SexPistol – a man known for speaking his mind with brutal clarity. I need not have worried...
So how does he like California living? “I’ve lived here on and off for 25 years,” he says. “It was the asthma that drove me out of England, and I like it here.
“The weather is an attraction. I’m prone to all manner of infections, so I live near the beach.”
So does that mean he has embraced the healthy life? “I’ve got that way,” he says. “It’s an outdoors culture here. I’m a slow learner but I always get there in the end.”
He goes on: “I’ve never found it difficult to adapt to America. I’m fond of them as a species as they are friendly and open to inquisitiveness. And they are good for sharing knowledge. There is none of the spite and animosity which is the backbone of London life, where everyone wanted to push me back into the barrel like a crab.
“I think I’ve done well with my life. I’ve got a brain in my head and I use it. But there’s a cottage industry out there which wants to rewrite my life story. But it’s b*****s what it comes out with, and it’s tinged with spiteful jealousy and bitterness.”
Growing up in poverty in Holloway, north London, John, who now has interests in LA property development, is the epitome of the self-made man, despite remaining fiercely anti-establishment. He is certainly unlikely to grace any Conservative Party campaign any time soon.
Suffering spinal meningitis aged seven, he spent a year in hospital, during which time he was subjected to painful treatment which left him with a curved spine and visual difficulties.
Aged 10 he worked as a minicab dispatcher, and by 15 was thrown out of school. He died his hair green as an act of defiance after being ordered to have his long locks cut. He moved into a squat with the chaotic John Simon Ritchie – aka Sid Vicious (who was named after John’s pet hamster) and, after a stint on building sites, went to work at a children’s centre – though was fired after complaints about his green hair.
“I’m not one to say ‘woe is me’ and ‘times were hard’. But times were hard,” he says.
“I have empathy with the disenfranchised because that’s where I came from. I ain’t no communist, by any stretch, but I’d like to see better education. It is the lack of education which is causing such turmoil I can see around the world. The London rioters were the disenfranchised. They were out there stealing TVs and sneakers, but aren’t those the things advertised to them on TV all the time? It’s spiteful.
“After 35 years of hard work I’ll allow myself those little luxuries, though – just to show hard work brings its reward in the long run, and that going out stealing things ain’t proper!”
The Sex Pistols were formed in 1975 by McLaren, who at the time was running a clothes shop called SEX on London’s Kings Road with the designer Vivienne Westwood. They were always intended to shock.
Rotten (so named because of the poor state of his teeth, and who, by then, had died his hair orange) was recruited as frontman, and joined Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock – who was later replaced by Vicious.
They gained notoriety in 1976 after swearing live at presenter Bill Grundy on Thames Television’s Today show. The press stoked public outrage, attacking the band after reports of them vomiting while boarding a plane to Holland. Their fame peaked with the release in 1977 of God Save the Queen, which coincided with the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. When the band then played a boat party outside the Houses of Parliament, the craft was raided by the police and McLaren arrested.
Their landmark album Never Mind the B******s, Here’s the Sex Pistols was released later that year, but cracks began to show. John accused McLaren of sharp practice and failing to pay them properly and left. The band had lasted only two and-a-half years yet their impact was seismic.
For John, who had to wait until the 1980s to win the rights to his, and the band’s name, and money still owed, the memories are not happy. “It was painful and the back-biting that went on was almost unbearable,” he says, saying the music industry executives behaved “no better than children.”
“It lost its focus and showed it was good to move on to better things.”
John went on to form PiL, which ran until 1993, having its biggest hit with This is Not a Love Song in 1983. He also presented nature shows (John Lydon’s Megabugs, John Lydon Goes Ape and Shark Attack) and, in 2004, appeared on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.
Musically he collaborated with hip hop legend Afrika Bambaataa and even joined a revived Sex Pistols, with Glen Matlock on bass to replace Sid, who died over a drug overdose in 1979.
Now he is back, playing with former Damned guitarist Lu Edmonds, ex-Slits drummer Bruce Smith, and bass player Scott Firth – who has played with Elvis Costello and The Spice Girls. John calls him “a genius”. And, best of all, they have no major label breathing down their necks. The album This Is PiL, which came out last week, is entirely self-funded, recorded at Steve Winwood’s Cotswolds studio, and out on the band’s own label.
“I never wanted it to be the Johnny Rotten freak show,” he says. “I’m aware of my own indulgences. And as a band we’re awe-inspiring. We go about it in a very democratic way. There is not one person dictating the pace to the others. I like give and take. It’s a shame that democracy doesn’t work in politics, but then they are a different breed.”
John says he feels liberated – and admits it is down to one thing: butter. Despite accusations of selling out, his tweed-clad appearance in the Country Life butter adverts ensured the band were able to take control of their own destiny.
“I raised the money to do this from the butter people,” he says. “That helped to cover debts, reform PiL and make us independent – which is not easy.”
“It seemed the most anachronistic thing I’d ever heard,” he confesses. “The things it did to my head! But I was intrigued, and they turned out to be the fairest people I had ever worked with. They taught me a lot.
“They gave me a completely free hand. So I went out into the field and improvised.”
So has he settled down? “I am happy and when I’m not on stage I’m quite reserved,” he says. “I don’t like rowdy, arrogant and aggressive behaviour.”
Does he still practise that piercing ‘Lydon stare’? “That’s something I don’t have to practise,” he says. “That’s something I have to do to focus. I had a serious illness when I was young and it affected a lot of me, especially my eyesight. I was seriously blind – and it wasn’t from masturbating. It meant I was wholly dependent on what people were telling me because I’d lost my memory – and it took four years to come back. I had to believe the two people at the end of my bed were telling me the truth when they told me they were my mum and dad.”
The experience affects him to this day. “I can’t tell a lie easily or live with liars,” he says. “And at times people find me difficult to work with. I like things to be direct and clear. I don’t like subterfuge; it can damage.”
What is he most proud of? “Everything,” he says. “But I am most proud of my latest achievement, the album, and to have got back together and risen above what seemed to be insurmountable barriers.”
These have included the deaths of his father and grandfather and his brother being diagnosed with cancer. “I’ve had a great deal of personal pain and tragedy,” he says. “But because of all that butter this has been able to happen. And it’s good stuff – though there’s only so much you can give away before people become deeply ungrateful. I know how Robin Hood felt!”
So how does he feel about his Sex Pistols past, and the legacy of McLaren? “Things are good; he’s dead,” he says. “But he was a fun individual and a beautiful creation of nature. I’m not one to mock the dead, and I was very upset. He made my life a hell, a living purgatory, but at the same time he was hilarious and we had good verbal banter.”
And he disputes any suggestion that McLaren helped invent Johnny Rotten. “I think I came ready loaded into the world,” he laughs. “It was in my DNA.”
“But I don’t believe in anarchy. It is mind games for the middle classes. That song [Anarchy in the UK] was a question not a declaration – the same is true for Pretty Vacant. I’m not pretty and not vacant. It’s irony.”
And does he have any regrets? “I’m my own worst, or best, critic,” he says. “But I don’t have time for regrets. That’d take me into the world of self-pity... somewhere no one in my family would have tolerated.
“I don’t look back in sadness or anger. No one said life was easy, it’s a series of dilemmas. But I don’t want to live mindlessly. I’m not raising a flag – but I am asking people to consider all possibilities.”
And he can’t wait to get to Oxford: “The last time we played there was amazing,” he says, with genuine feeling. “The audience was so damn good. I wandered about and really liked the people and the place. The nightclubs were going on ‘til all hours and the atmosphere was good. It was English... but without the violence.”
Public Image Ltd play the O2 Academy, Oxford
Sunday, doors 7pm
Tickets £26.50 from ticketweb.co.uk