John Lydon interview - the long versionby Guy Somerset
The grand old man of punk on the new Public Image Limited album, the grimness of New Zealand reggae and why you won't hear Pretty Vacant on American Idol.
It lives. All right ... begin, Sir.
It’s early morning here [6.30am], so apologies if I’m not at my sharpest. I know, they just told me that and I thought, “Oh, you poor sods, I’m not worth the bother …”
Well, I don’t know about that... All my detractors can go rot in hell. For 30 years, I’ve had to deal with people being suspicious of what it is that I do and it doesn’t make any sense to me. I think what I do is true and honest, not only to myself but to my audience. You can look at this new album as a damn fine piece of literature, or a jolly good combination of hit pop records...
You’re writing this for me... I am... or an audio tapestry, there’s one for you.
Having only had a day to listen to the album, one of the things that does strike me is you still have a knack for the nagging pop hook. I love the pop format, but anti-pop format. You know, from God Save the Queen on, I do love a good ditty.
One Drop on the album is a good example of that. That’s because I look at the way the world is and I comment.
It seems so simple when you say it. Well, I don’t have to deal with the conceits of pop stardom. I’m not running for a Grammy, and I’m certainly not going to wear a sequined frock. I once wore a wedding dress after a gig. I thought, “That will get them”, but the only comment I got was, “Oh hello, John, where’s the bar?” That’s how my life is.
It’s a dirty world. It’s a very good world; it’s populated by us human beings, and we have to learn to forgive each other and get on with it. Less judgment - more action.
The rustic charms of the Cotswolds seems an unlikely location for recording a PiL album. It is, isn’t it? It’s actually financially based, I must tell ya. It was the cheapest one we could find. It’s actually a barn owned by Stevie Winwood, in the middle of sheep country… oh hello, New Zealand lamb. And you know it worked out to be perfect because the engineer there - a bloke called Jim, actually - was great. He understood everything I’ve been saying about music for ages, that we’ve all been saying... if you just set the microphones up right and let us get on with it, let us rehearse, jam and record, you’ll get a good record and you don’t need an elaborate, over the top studio for that. Most of the songs are recorded in a live format.
It doesn’t feel like a terribly 2012 record, in that aspect. It hasn’t been done over to infinity. Oh no, I wouldn’t let people like that near me [pauses for dramatic effect], though I have done in the past. Well … you know, Rise is a great song, it shows great producing qualities in it, too, but you have to realise that can’t be the be all and end all of music, you have to deal with every single aspect and area. Free up thyself!
I know you recorded after a long bout of touring. Do you get a chance to prepare or is it all written in the studio? No, I try to write on the road but it doesn’t really work that way. Everybody, all of us are ... we’re intricately involved with each other as people, so there’s a passion being traded, but it’s never a pen-to-paper kind of thing. We knew we didn’t have the time to sit down and rehearse new material, and we all knew that by the time we got into a recording studio it was going to be hard work, but because we get on so well as people it becomes really, really easy, and I can improvise the lyrics on the spot as well as any of them can play anything on the spot. But as you must well know by now, all of us, we know what we’re improvising – there’s a great deal of thought that goes into everything, and a solid six months of touring is getting your brain racked into, “I need to do something new.”
And finding out what that thing might be. Yes, right.
Do you play any instruments yourself? Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. I tend to give it away, though, because I don’t want to be compromised on stage by having to play a musical part, because the biggest musical part I play is the voice.
It’s sounding all right after all these years. I thought it sounded a bit rough on the album. That’s the thing about it, because it was so overworked, we were up to doing gigs for two-and-a-half hours, night after night after night, and so the voice was a little on the raw side, but at the same time it goes where I want it to. Oh, its hard work... the pain. Hard work is great, you know. Listen, I’m not the sort of bloke who can sit there by the piano with a singing instructor going do-re-mi-fa-so-F--- OFF. You know, that ain’t going to work.
It’s also your first album to be released independently. Bloody hell, that’s an uphill struggle, but it’s all right. We’ve managed to procure enough money from doing gigs to survive as a band. Hopefully, we can survive in that mode. I’m very, very happy I’m removed from the shackles and restraints of major record labels, because they got me into such a position two decades ago that I really couldn’t financially afford to go touring or record or do anything at all. It was always, if there was going to be money earned, it was set against an outstanding debt - which is called recoupment. So I’m very, very happy to see the demise of major record labels, because that is soul destroying. When you believe in what you’re doing, you know it’s your true nature, you enjoy what you’re doing, and you have to deal with... well... then you have to deal with a bunch of accountants. I only use one side of my brain, apparently, because I can’t count beyond 10, I can’t remember a phone number, and so when facts and figures are put in front of me it’s like the end of my universe, and I know mathematics is the new language of the universe but I’m just coping with English at the moment.
Talking of language, have you ever considered doing more writing, outside of your autobiography, obviously? When I was young, I wanted to be a writer.
Is it something you’d consider going back to? No, because that’s what I’m doing right now. I also wanted to be a painter... wait, wait, wait… but not of kitchens, though I am very good at that! I’m also a bit of a plumber on the sly. For me, I found a way of combining all of those things, and I love films, I love good films that move and motivate me, and have good emotions, and that’s what I’m trying to do, to paint pictures with words, inside of an audio tapestry. You see, I didn’t choose my words lightly.
I don’t believe you choose many words lightly, from what I’ve seen, which is kind of what I mean. I’ve chosen a bit of a difficult path for myself but I don’t want it any other way. I really, really, really like what I’m doing and more so than ever in my entire life. This PiL band now... right now, is an absolute climax … in a sexual way [laughs all round]. No, it seriously is - what you’ve got to understand is that after 30 years in this business I always seem to have found myself for all the right reasons in the wrong situation. I was always arguing with band members, or they were arguing with me, or they rated me lower than I think I was, or the other way round. It’s only now that I’ve found myself with a bunch of people who really, truly respect each other, and it’s really amazing that it’s taken me, and music, 30 years to get there. For example, with the Sex Pistols, who I started out in, that’s where I really learnt to write songs, but we were always enemies and it really didn’t need to be like that. And they never really understood that the enemies were outside of our universe, and we were too young to really get that, and the management played a game of divide and fall and the band fell apart because of it. And then I started PiL and what I wanted was freeform, do your best. I put all my best friends in, and that fell apart, too, because egos started to creep in and that was really unfortunate because I was the one who was having to raise the money because the record company weren’t helping. Quite frankly, Virgin were horrified at the thought of Public Image Limited when we first started, they could not accept the fact I had a band of complete unknowns … [Although] what the f--- were the Pistols, right? But this is the logic you have to face when dealing with major record labels, that oppressive ignorance, and that affected the band very much because they felt unwanted and it was a real struggle, and there it goes, and 49 members later PiL is still here. But on the good side, Public Image has been a band that really run like a school for music. All of ’em are doing well... well, most of them. They’re doing well musically, they might not be in the Top Ten.
Please let’s not gauge things in those terms. The Top Ten?
Exactly. Thank you. But this is what I was dealing with. They’d come to the studio, they’d hear Flowers of Romance being recorded live and they’d be going, “Um, yeah, that’s interesting, but can you write a hit single?” A month later, it is a hit single! But with no understanding from them, so you understand now why I hate the corporate mentality.
I can still remember in 1978 when Public Image Limited was announced in the NME, Melody Maker, whatever, it was completely bizarre - the concept of a band as a business, limited corporation-type thing. After punk rock, it was like, “What is that all about?” Nowadays, where bands really are like corporations, it seems very normal or even prescient. No, it seems like a very good idea!
It was, and very ahead of its time because now bands these days seem to be full of young businessmen who happen to play an instrument. In Britain, there’s that school that seems to breed vacuous pop stars like a factory. It’s all quite disturbing. Oh come on, let’s leave Coldplay out of it!
You know exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about, don’t you? It’s funny, just between me and you, I watched them last night on, I think it was American Idol, and by God the singer looks shy and embarrassed about what he’s doing.
With good reason. Yeah! I really think Gwyneth Paltrow should have something to say about this. Apparently, that’s who he’s living with. No, it’s absurd, they don’t belong, the songs are lifeless, there’s no meat and bones and solid good vegetable in there. There’s a transparency that is really quite appalling.
It is. We seem to be in an age where the people in bands are the ones who shouldn’t be. I don’t want to hear the popular, well-adjusted kids. I’d rather hear the singleminded ones stuck in their garages or bedrooms with hardly any mates and a burning desire - not treating it as a career option. Exactly, and I don’t know where this ageist thing crept in. How that was allowed to be the dogma of the day - music belongs to the youth. In a song like One Drop, I’m telling you that we are teenagers, that’s it, we are the ageless, that’s a fact. I’m not a happenstance of fashion. It could be a good industry. What you’ve got to remember is that record companies like Virgin and the rest of them, when they first started off they had all the good intentions in the world, they really, really did. Chrysalis - fantastic - all of them labels. And then they turned corporate because the books weren’t balanced; a little bit on the hippy-trippy side and in came the accountants. Accountancy kills. You can account on it… ha ha. Oh my God, I should be a stand-up comedian. I am, I am!
How do you feel when you go back to England now as a person living in the States. Does it feel like a foreign country to you? Does it stir up all sorts of emotions? It’s all about the people to me. I come from good stock, good diversity of life, and it still is there. I like that it’s an island nation and it always has to understand that an island nation will always be an island of immigrants. Whether it’s the Celts or the Saxons, the Romans or the Vikings... or the Indonesians, you’re all welcome, mate. On the album, I’ve got songs like Lollipop Opera: that song to me is a homage to the sounds of my youth when I used to live in [London’s] Finsbury Park, when you could walk down the road and hear all different record stores, and all different cultures of music playing all day long. When we had street stalls and markets and people interacted, and it was a very varied mixed culture there. It was absurd to us, you’d go to Arsenal - the football, we love the football - and you’d see people from Chelsea there going Sieg Heil and espousing Nazi culture. This is Johnny Rotten now telling ya, this is why we wore swastikas - to take that away from them and make it ludicrous. Who lost the war? And what the f--- are you lot still shouting that for? You’ve got a black friend, is that a problem? Der! You know, I grew up really well, in an extremely poor neighbourhood but taught that you’re so mixed race, creed, colour, that you judge a person by their values and no other thing comes into the situation. I don’t hang around with c---s… the end!
After 20 years, it’s quite possible there’s a whole generation who will be introduced to Public Image with this album. Yeah, well we’ll see what the results of that are! But the industry being what it is will do its uppermost to stifle us. There will be no Grammy nominations in this direction! I’m sorry but I don’t have the same star quality as Jay-Z, where I can get away with putting an album together full of samples. Us as a band, we actually put our stuff together ourselves, and it takes from no one, and gives to everyone. I’ll tell you what’s great is how many times I’ve heard PiL backbeats on hip-hop records over the years. This bodes well for me in many ways historically; you can slag me off all you like but hello, I was out there rocking it with [Afrika] Bambaataa in the early days [in Time Zone], and we weren’t thinking about sampling anybody back then. It was all about the playing, and the song, and the word, and the beat, and a proper understanding of what music is all about, a fabulous happenchance, and a bunch of f---ing luxurious coincidences. If you see it any other way, you’re silly to yourself.
You turned down Pretty Vacant for one of those contemporary Opportunity Knocks shows, right? Yes, for American Idol. Some members of the band and their management didn’t agree with me on that. It made for ugly situations. I think they’ve come round. It was the same with the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, but I think they’ve come to see that I’m right - you don’t need to be inducted and incorporated into a nonsense that’s going to turn you into a museum piece while you’re still alive. Museums are for the dead.
It would somewhat piss on the memory. Exactly. No, you don’t you don’t need to be behind a glass cabinet.
What about the relaunch of the Sex Pistols catalogue through Universal [and the campaign to make God Save the Queen No 1 in the UK]. Have you had any part in that? I’ve got something to do with agreeing with them signing the Pistols, which is a good thing, but they’ve started this campaign, which is kind of, like, ludicrous. I mean, good on it, I’d like people to hear the record on vinyl, that’s my main interest. I’d like them to hear it period, if they haven’t. They’ve followed on my coat-tails and decided to release it on the same day as my new PiL stuff, which is wrong. I find myself in competition with myself.
With your former self. Yes. No, it’s the same person, mate. Honest, I can guarantee that.
And you were also approached about playing at the Olympics. I find that idea utterly bizarre. Who knows what will come of that, but we made it very clear to them that if they made any attempt to censor any word out of a Sex Pistols song then they have no right to use it, because if you’re representing everything that is brilliant and beautiful and accurate and honest about Britain in the Olympics DONT LET THE CENSOR DICTATE THE PACE! All right. If that’s what England’s become, then England’s a f---ed-up universe.
Says the man who chooses to live in LA... ahem. Ah no, you’re quite wrong – America’s a very open place. Don’t judge this place by its politics ... or its golf pants or its hilarious idea of food or coffee. You know, it’s way backwards on all those levels but as a race of people it’s a wonderful place. It really is an enormous great groundswelling of blends and cultures that make the place very, very brilliant. America’s a very young country, as we know, as is Australia and New Zealand, and I like that energy of trying to find itself. I find that very thrilling. You know, I come from England, we’ll say Britain - the way the Scots are behaving at the moment it’s a difficult situation to surmise it correctly - we’ll say Great Britain. It’s so embedded in the fossil of feudalism it’s very, very hard to break out of it. The class system is an absolute doctrine that - whether it be a Labour or Conservative government, they still dictate those terms to the masses. I’m Only Dreaming – in a song like that I’m telling you my childhood memories versus this oppressive force of politics. When you’re young, you are oblivious to the politics; it’s a cry in the wilderness - can’t we get back to that? On another song, The Reggie Song, it’s that plea to get back in the Garden of Eden. It’s these f---ers that stole the apple, not us. Me, my friends, my family… we don’t lie to each other, it’s unacceptable. You earn the wings to be in their company and you never let them down - is that not a good social policy? And it’s not fantasy. I exist in that universe and it’s a very fine place to be, and I bitterly oppose any government restrictions telling me that’s wrong. If I want to bung a pound of flour up my nostril, that’s my business, all right! I’ll probably bake a loaf of bread while I’m doing it. Don’t tell me I can’t smoke in a pub... what? Next step will be the alcohol. I do not need dictatorship, what I need is the quality in this world and a sense of, “That’s my place, don’t step into it.” Obviously, there’s a few exceptions to that, like child murderers, paedophiles and the Catholic Church.
Your roots are showing, John. For me, and I’ve been saying this for years but it’s the absolute truth, when I was young I deliberately learnt to un-sing because I was frightened if I got co-opted into the choir that would give the priests direct access to me, and as a young child all of us learnt how to not sing, and that’s had an effect on British culture... have you seen The X Factor?
Yes indeed and oxymoronically titled shows like Britain’s Got Talent - they are busy disproving that fact. They’re all frightened of the priest and the clergy! I don’t know if I sing in tune; I sing according to the sentiments I feel, that’s how I portray it accurately and that’s why I use the words I do. I want the emotion to get across, it’s not about pitching or training or any of that. Grasping the feeling, the moment, the time, the situation, the heart. Getting it right, rather than anything else, because I think the definitions of what music is, or isn’t, are ridiculous.
Do you think that currently we have more good music or just more music? There’s more formats than ever, and sampling, and it’s very hard to track down the illegal and illicit ones, because the industry seems to cover and protect them rather than protect the original idea. It’s very strange. But you know, if that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is - because I don’t have a shortage of ideas, and I don’t have to rely on the past. I have a present and I have a future and, you know ... catch me if you can, but I’m going to be there first.
Do you still actively pursue music, and if so how? Oh, I love it… listen, listen. To me, music has always been there. My mum and dad instilled that in me, not completely, because I never did like the Beatles, can’t help it. I think it was the weakness of Paul McCartney and that bass player that really annoyed me.
For a long while, it was suffocating growing up in England with the legacy of the Beatles. Yeah, it was a money-making machine, and then they brought in all that ridiculous guru nonsense … You can’t let pop stars dictate the culture in that way. Music is what it is, it frees up your heart and soul, but it is not a political mandate. In my life, my friends come from very many varied different backgrounds, and attitudes, and class structures, and creeds and colours and all of that, and we love a good argument but none of it’s taken personal. It’s all about learning, finding out. If you have a flaw in your argument, you have to learn to adjust yourself, and go, “Ooh, they’re right on that one.” In modern politics, that isn’t the game at all. Because I live in America, it’s insane... it doesn’t make sense here at all. The only way you can find any reasonable responsibility in what they are up to is through financial methods, all that. I love Obama, but I don’t know how he’s going to fight that enormous amount of wealth that’s preaching nothing but ignorance to the masses, by the spoilt few that own everything. It’s so twisted that you can’t make people see they are being manipulated. It’s still a racist world down in America, it still has that, not in the younger generation but the older lot, they are too set in their ways to change. And the biggest tragedy is that all the old Jews in Florida are going to go out and vote Republican, and they are the party that hate them the most. Their problem is, don’t let the darkie in. The term they use is schwartzer.
Blackie, right? Yes, in Deutsch. It pays to speak languages. I know all the naughty words in about 10 languages, and menus of course, too, and international travel. I know how to order a sausage in 10 languages. Well, that’s what young kids do. In many ways, I’ve got to tell you, I still feel young, I still feel youthful. I won’t tolerate this actual age business. Who the f--- is telling me that? The last 25 years by reviewers, it’s always been in there: “Why doesn’t he act his age?” Well, I am! I’m 50-plus, 50-plus years YOUNG! It’s taken me this amount of time to learn what I have about the world, and I’m fully prepared to share it with you, but don’t tell me because you think I’m old that it isn’t good enough for you.
I hear there’s been legal ructions from your end with Jah Wobble and Keith Levene. What’s the story there? I’m guessing that means we’ll never see the original PiL line-up together again? Oh yeah, not Keith, I’ll never forgive him.
That’s done, is it? Yeah, it’s done, but I talked to John [Wardle, aka Wobble], but he was just asking for too much money and he wasn’t prepared to learn the newer PiL songs. I don’t care what he’s been saying, he’s my baby, and I love him, right. I gave him a career and I’m really proud of what he’s done with it, but he don’t need to be turning it around on me. Deep down inside, he’s a really good bloke and things can get misinterpreted in the press. I love them people.
Any chance of PiL heading down this way? We’re looking at it.
I think the last time was with the reformed Pistols malarkey? We did but the jetlag almost killed me. That was the trouble, it was booked like that and none of us paid attention to how long we’d be on an airplane. We paid attention when we got there! It can really wreck ya. It’s like a seasickness that won’t go away, like pneumonia. You get up, you think you’re all right again, you run around and suddenly... you’ve run out of oxygen
We’ve run well over time and I should let you get on but I have to say it’s good to have you back on the block. [Cackles.] I’ve always been on the block... not the Tower of London one, though - but they are working on it.
I didn't mean that, but there probably was a time... No, there was, with the Pistols, where the Houses of Parliament launched an investigation. I think the MP was Tim Brooke-Partridge; it was under the Traitors and Treason Act, for Anarchy and God Save The Queen, which the fool didn’t realise carried a death penalty if they found me guilty. Now, you know, they couldn’t kill a singer... or could they? That’s how bizarre it can go, that they don’t even realise their own situation. They are so affronted with whatever it is that I do.
You did shock people back then. I seem to recall my parents weren’t overly charmed. Well, they should learn how to unread newspapers! If I’m ever in New Zealand, please come and say hello. I love to put a face to a voice. Oh, here’s a thing for you, this is on the aside. Why on Air New Zealand do they play all that New Zealand reggae?
Oh, it’s awful, isn’t it? Aaaaaagh, what is that about? It’s so pony copy!
We’ve got a name for it here, which is BBQ reggae, as that is all it's really good for, and it sums up the absence of any militancy or edge. It’s really, really, really grim. They call it dub, it’s not even dub; they call it “Dub Reggae Party from New Zealand’s Finest”! Do you know, I’ve got a name for it - Dobbins. As in Dobbin the Donkey.
THIS IS PIL, Public Image Limited (PiL).
See this week’s print edition of the Listener for a shorter version of this interview plus Jah Wobble on his and fellow ex-PiL member Keith Levene’s Metal Box in Dub concerts.
The debate on bottled-water exports is based on two heartfelt beliefs: free access to clean water and national assets should not be given away.Read more
Music! With SWIDT, Nadia Reid, Yumi Zouma and The Slacks, plus check out our picks for dance and theatre events, and the Vegan Food Fair.Read more