Tim Hughes talks to punk pioneer John Lydon of Sex Pistols and PiL - about humour, tweed and pushing the boundaries
THERE are few more charming people in rock & roll than former Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten.
For all the sneering and snarling of his punk past, the man correctly known as John Lydon is erudite, intelligent and gracious.
"I don't take myself too seriously," he says slowly and deliberately.
"One of the lessons I've learned is good humour. To appreciate the world, you have to be able to laugh at yourself and at others. It was humour that got me out of memory loss and illness as a child; the wit and wisdom of Steptoe and Son. To my ears they were astounding. Their comedy inspires me."
The last time I met John, he was dressed in a dapper Tweed suit, and chatting to fans outside an Oxford pub.
The former scourge of the British establishment, had earlier been addressing an audience in the august surroundings of the Sheldonian Theatre, and was causing a stir outside the White Horse, opposite.
That was at the end of 2014, on a speaking tour to accompany the launch of his autobiography, Anger Is An Energy – a no-holds-barred account of his rise from poverty in North London, wild youth, even wilder career as a Sex Pistols and subsequent reinvention at the helm of the avant-garde Public Image Limited.
He had been holed up in Steve Winwood's Wincraft Music Studios in the Cotswolds, working on the band's self-funded Top 30 album What The World Needs Now…
Now he is coming back – this time playing songs from the LP – the band's tenth – at the O2 Academy Oxford with PiL.
The show comes at the end of a 22-date European tour which began in Valencia, Spain at the start of last month and calling in at Germany, Slovakia, Poland and Ukraine – before hitting intimate venues in such unlikely spots as Wakefield, Wrexham, Sunderland and Lincoln.
"I always like coming to Oxford," he says. "
"We always get good gigs with thrilling audiences who are up for us."
"Of course, that's got nothing to do with that Oxford institution, the university of stupidity – which, like so much else, is fatuous and pointless."
John has always been a live wire. Despite his disadvantaged background, he was a child prodigy, running rings around his teachers.
He suffered spinal meningitis aged seven and spent a year in hospital, subject to painful treatment which left him with a curved spine and visual difficulties.
He also lost his memory. It took him four years to get it back, during which time he had to re-learn everything. He was left with that distinctive Lydon stare.
He worked from the age of 10 – as a minicab dispatcher – and at 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, and moved into a squat with the chaotic John Simon Ritchie – aka Sid Vicious (who was named after John’s pet hamster). He went on to work at a children’s centre but was fired after complaints about his hair.
The Sex Pistols were formed in 1975 by Malcolm McLaren, who ran a clothes shop called SEX on London’s Kings Road with the designer Vivienne Westwood. John describes the poor quality of the clothes, which needed holding together with safety pins – the universal symbol of punk rock.
He acquired the name ‘Rotten’ because of the poor state of his teeth, and was recruited as frontman to replace singer Wally Nightingale, alongside Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock – who was, himself, 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 – again attacking the band after rumours surfaced 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 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 failing to pay them properly.
The band only lasted two and- a-half years.
After the Sex Pistols broke up, John formed PiL. The band ran until 1993, having its biggest hit with This is Not a Love Song in 1983.
During the band's 17-year hiatus, he turned TV presenter with John Lydon’s
Megabugs, John Lydon Goes Ape, Shark Attack and, in 2004, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.
Musically he collaborated with Leftfield and hip hop legend Afrika Bambaataa and even joined a revived Sex Pistols, with Glen Matlock on bass to replace Sid, who died of a drug overdose in 1979.
Then we saw him in his Tweeds selling Country Life Butter – a gig which paid off the band’s debts and helped PiL reform as an independent entity.
Over the course of their career they have scored five UK Top 20 singles and the same number of Top 20 albums.
"You can't pigeonhole me," he says. "I've never liked categories. My personality takes me all across the board, from drama to comedy. And as long as human beings are on the planet I'll never run out of material."
John lives in Los Angeles, principally, he says, because the climate is good for his health.
"It's never too cold to be unbearable, and I don't get all those respiratory problems that wrecked my health and sharpened my brain – and left me, throughout my childhood, trying to find out who I am.
"The weather is great, but the trade off is the water shortages, typhoons, earthquakes, mud slides and horrendous fires – so it's not easy."
He dismissed widely-repeated reports that he also runs a successful property business. "That started as a joke," he says. "But people took it seriously and I played along with it."
Monday's show sees the now-regular line up of John, former Damned guitarist Lu Edmonds, The Slits and The Pop Group drummer Bruce Smith, and bassist Scott Firth (who has played alongside the likes of Steve Winwood, John Martyn and Elvis Costello).
He is close to his band and loyal to friends and family. "It's good to be kept real," he says. "You've got to have people in your life – family and friends – who will tell you off when you are doing something wrong. And I'm a frequent flyer."
So will we get to hear any treats from his Sex Pistol days? "The treats are the songs from the new album," he says.
"The PiL crowd are open-minded people, and PiL itself is an ever-expanding universe. It's a close, warm feeling – and I'm expecting it to be as excited as last time.
"There is no sense of self importance and it's a negativity-free zone."
He goes on: "We make albums so we can get on stage and play - and we like small gigs like these as we get eye ball contact."
Is that where that intimidating Lydon stare comes from?
"You have to bear in mind I have really bad eyesight, so it takes a lot to focus," he says.
"There is no threat intended; quite the opposite. When I am on stage my heart and soul are wide open and my eyes the same.
"It's a proper church – without religion."
He admits to still being a rebel too. "I can happily say absolutely yes. With all the disenfranchisement of people, I have to have something to say.
So will he be back in those Tweeds? "It's too hot to be doing a gig in those," he says. "You'd melt, I'd rather wear a rubber bondage suit!"
- *PiL play the O2 Academy Oxford on Monday. Go to ticketweb.co.uk