Public Image Ltd.'s John Lydon talks punk, politics the Sex Pistols and more
Here’s the former Johnny Rotten on the state of rock 'n’ roll: “We all know now that modern rock music is as pretentious as it can ever get. I really can’t bear the thought of the Foo Fighters any longer. I don’t understand why that’s so popular. It’s such a combination of cliches. It breaks no new ground for me.”
Or on Madonna’s showbiz longevity: “It certainly can’t be because of the quality of the music. It’s the financial clout.”
Or on Clint Eastwood’s empty-chair routine at the Republican National Convention: “Astounding. Is that the Republicans’ best move? I’m very, very worried with that lot, because they will destroy the world.”
This is John Lydon's raison d'etre. Though he started as a punk — heck, for many, the Sex Pistols started the idea of punk — Lydon has spent much of the past 35 years living as a professional personality, a quotable’s quotable, a talking head who’s occasionally had more ornery opinions than listeners to absorb them.
Through it all, he’s managed to sustain his other band, Public Image Ltd., an arty post-punk project of modest success (though never as much as the Sex Pistols), acclaim (though never as much as the Sex Pistols) and influence (though never as much as the Sex Pistols). Whereas the Pistols released but one studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, Public Image Ltd. — or “PiL,” pronounced “pill” —have nine since 1978, including this year’s This Is PiL, their first new material in 20 years.
On Saturday , a rare North American tour will bring PiL to the Cuban Club in Ybor City. Tickets are $22-$25. Click here for details.
We chatted with Lydon by phone about punk, politics, the Sex Pistols and more. It was a wide-ranging chat, and we couldn't help letting it run long here in this space. Here are excerpts.
When I put in the request for this interview, the London Olympics were still going on. And I couldn’t help but wonder what you thought of the whole thing — the opening ceremony, the closing ceremony, the Englishness of it all. Did you watch much of it?
No, because we were on tour in Europe. But the man who put it all together — I can’t remember his name now — he rang us up and asked to meet him. So we did. I got on very well with him, and I liked his ideas of (including the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen in) the opening ceremony, so I agreed with it.
Now, what I didn’t agree with was that America would remove that part of the live broadcast. It was a very, very curious state of affairs. Because really, here we are representing the Olympics, people competing in a friendly way around the world, and wherever it’s hosted is of course going to represent the local culture — and America has the audacity to edit that? I mean, it’s a hard enough thing playing anything by the Sex Pistols in front of the entire royal family. But if the British can manage to put that together, I think America should have shown some respect.
This is the PiL’s first full-fledged American tour behind new music since ’92. As I understand it, you financed the 2009 reunion from the money you got from a Country Life butter commercial.
Yeah. And I’m now trying to take that and spread it around America, hopefully raise some interest in what is genuinely good, honest, decent music. Are you ready for that? Or are you still waiting for Britney Spears? (laughs) Although, god bless her, she’s a bit of a retard, so I think we should be kind.
Has the group been mostly self-sustaining since then?
Yeah, we have to be. Because we’re working outside the wonderful world of the corporate record industry. We have to keep ourselves alive. And live performances is the way we do that.
You seem to have a pretty good head on your shoulders about the relationship between art and commerce — what you have to do in order to sustain a career in rock 'n’ roll.
Well, you can sell your soul and make rubbish and make a fortune, or you can do it our way. I mean, for two decades there, I was stifled by corporate thinking, where they wouldn’t let me function. They kept me in such debt I had to wait out the contract, and I still have to pay back on that. Public Image can be an expensive thing, but it is worth it, and the people that are now in the band, they’re my greatest friends.
With a group like PiL, where you’ve had so many rotating members over the years, are there rules you tend to lay down when a new member joins the band?
Yeah: Don’t lie.
That’s about it, really.
Has that been a problem for you with members in the past?
Well, out of 49 people, you would think a couple of them were terrible liars — and you’d be dead right. (laughs) And that’s how that goes. When you get a hidden agendas, it sets in a rot and a poison, and things just dissipate, and you realize that you’re not all in this together. And that wouldn’t be very healthy at all, because of the things we want to be setting as an example to the world. We’re here to earn our keep. That’s our approach. We’re not trying go pull wool over your eyes or sell you pap or sugar-coat anything at all. But when I use the term “folk music,” which I know has annoyed a lot of “folk” people, it’s basically really the truth of it.
Why do you use the term “folk music?”
Because I’m one of the folk singing songs for the folk, about how the folk live.
Is “folk music” as malleable a label as “punk”?
No, it’s not at all, and it should be. It’s very rigid, and it’s become connected with dreadful women in hippie dresses and banjos. And I don’t think that that’s right at all. That’s people imitating the last century. They should call themselves mimics. I’m one of the school that believes that when Bob Dylan went electric, that was a good move.
We improvise live — you could throw “jazz” at us. We’d throw “jazz” out the window. What we do, we think, is slightly better than that. Jazz is so pretentious, too. All of those things that have unfortunately become cliches were once up on a time actually kind of open-minded about themselves.
What cliches do you think are overused in rock music now?
It’s not only rock; it’s all of it. Punk became a cliche in itself. Everybody wants to stick rigidly to something that happened a long time ago and never progress outside of that bubble. I keep hearing the same sounds, the same regurgitated patterns, formats, dances. Very frustrating for me, because there’s no future in that kind of thinking. You shouldn’t adopt a uniform. If that’s what you want, join the army. They make the best uniforms.
At the same time, when you see a band like Franz Ferdinand or LCD Soundsystem that was influenced by PiL, do you take that as a compliment?
Yes, I do. They tried to move it to other areas. They’re interesting. They don’t copy us outright, and why would they need to? They offer something different, and that to me always intrigues and interests me.
Over the past 30 years, what do you think PiL’s legacy is?
Well, from a purely egotistical point of view, I’d say, you can’t make any two albums sound similar by comparison. And why should they? Everything is an experiment in understanding how the human mind works, and to explore all range of emotions. Songs like Death Disco — that’s a song that we perform live sometimes to this day, but it’s constantly evolving. At the moment, it’s still (about) the death of my father, which is still recent in my mind, and almost the death of my brother, who was suffering what looked like a serious case of finalized cancer. But luckily he’s in remission. When I’m up there singing about pain, I mean it.
Because you’ve had such a powerful presence in pop culture over the past 40 years, people probably don’t see you first and foremost as a songwriter.
No. Well, you know, we have to deal with the magazine culture that’s wrapped itself firmly around music, and unfortunately only loves to present people as cliches. It should be clear by now that I’m not a cliche.
Are there any parts of you that are?
Probably my toenails. I don’t cut them often enough. And from time to time, they do collect toe cheese in the corner.
Let’s back up a bit. When you first started playing people — friends, family, people in the industry — Public Image Ltd. songs in 1977-78, what was the general reaction?
“Ahh! Help! Get that out of here!” (laughs) But then it was like that when I started with my first band. And it’s been like that ever since. It’s probably easily explained, because the press lead the charge, and they’re constantly ill-advising people as to what they should and shouldn’t be listening to. Generally speaking, the press has always been a good three or four years after us, and they wait until bands come out with watered-down versions of what it is we do before they can accept that kind of new sound or new approach to rhythm or melody or song structure. It’s unfortunate that it’s like that.
But at the moment, with this new album, the British press are a different bunch of journalists now, and the music papers are really on the ropes, in terms of sales. They don’t rely on corporate sponsorship from the large record labels any longer. And therefore the manipulation isn’t there. In many ways they’re freer.
So you’re having a better relationship with the press these days?
Yes. It’s beginning to talk from the heart rather than the corporate sponsorship point of view, which, 30 years ago was extremely poisonous. These large record companies, really, they wrecked their own industry and manipulated the media.
How do you think they did that? Do you think record industries told the press, “Don’t give a positive review to Public Image Ltd.?”
Why do you think that?
Why do I think that? It’s bloody obvious! How on earth would Madonna still be around? It certainly can’t be because of the quality of the music. It’s the financial clout. And if her albums are getting absolutely negative reviews — not so much recently, but in the past — they’d pull sponsorship. I’ve seen examples of it. But I’ve also seen a lot of our labels not backing us, and allowing that to go on and on and on. And really, we’re not allowed to address the balance there in any feasible way. Doing interviews used to be just a battle of wills, having to deal with nasty, poisonous people not wanting to give you any faith or trust at all.
Like what — like people who only want to talk about the Sex Pistols instead of Public Image Ltd.?
Well, that doesn’t help. But coming in from a negative point of view immediately. At the moment, I suppose, the negative I’m having to deal with is, “Why don’t I play guitar onstage?” Well, I don’t. And that’s it. That shouldn’t be actually a question, because if you listen to the way I perform and what it is that I do, I think it’s unique and challenge enough that I really don’t want to dissipate my vocal energy with the distraction of an instrument. Let the band do that.
You mentioned that Public Image Ltd.’s live sets can change.
Yes, but not to the point where, “And now John’s going to have a solo moment on the grand piano...” That would be against the spirit of us as a band. It really isn’t about that kind of grandstanding.
Obviously PiL is a band, and you have very strong members. But you’re the central figure in it. Do you view it as a democracy?
Well, somebody has to raise the money. I started PiL because I got extremely fed up with the Pistols situation. I really did mean it: “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” Of course, we reformed some years later, but that was as human beings wanting to come to grips with how it all fell apart and how we let outside influences and internal influences destroy us so easily. We were too young. Just too young for that. And I really didn’t understand how nasty adults can be. So I began PiL, and here it is. Believe me, it’s been an uphill battle, a constant battle, but I think we’ve earned our place in the history and scheme of things.
What’s been the biggest challenge to making PiL succeed in America?
Well, it’s the same as here. It’s been trying to get an independent label, and use them just merely as distribution, to keep the power in our own hands. To remain independent.
That is so hard, though, for any band.
It’s extremely hard. It’s hard going through the motions of this. It’s so mentally and physically draining to keep on top of things in this way. But it is more rewarding. Because you can wake up in the morning and say, “I’m really happy with the work we’ve done in the studio,” and mean it. And know that there hasn’t been some A-hole there telling you they want this, that or the other, or else they’ll pull the financial plug on you.
So you feel beholden to no one now?
Yeah. Well, except our audiences, who I would never treat unfairly, or rip off, or try to sell crap to.
How does a fan get on John Lydon’s good side?
You say hello, and that’d be good enough. But you don’t follow me. (laughs) You understand that I’m a human being too, and I need my space as much as you need yours. It’s nice to acknowledge one another, and a friendly smile won’t hurt, but don’t make a nuisance of yourself.
The thing that annoys me most: It’s a small clique of people, but it tends to be the most uninformed, who are usually the ones that read the snobbier newspapers, who presume that because it’s me, they feel the need to automatically be rude, because that’s the image that’s been portrayed by the rags that they read.
And they think that’s the way to win your heart?
Foul-mouthed yob — that’d be the association. They think, “Oh, slumming it, what fun!” That’s appalling, and it tends to come from the alleged intelligencia. It’s a novel thing to watch take place whenever I’m out socially. There’s usually one of them kinds lurking about.
Whenever you meet a fan, or take a meeting, or agree to an interview, I imagine — and tell me if I’m wrong — that while while you want to talk PiL, everyone else wants to talk Sex Pistols. Is that the case?
No, it’s not always the case. Quite the opposite. There’s a whole bunch of folk out there that are totally and utterly intrigued and involved with PiL, in a very, very serious way. But look, I mean, I made a bloody big noise when I began, and I don’t expect that noise to die off anytime soon. I’m very proud of that. But that’s where I learned to write songs. And here’s the fruit of that tree. PiL.
Did any of the songs you were writing over the past 20 years ever take shape conceptually as possible Sex Pistols songs?
No. No, no. I can’t write for that band, as I’ve said, because I think that time is over. You have to leave it and move on.
I completely respect that. I just wonder how much interest you have now in curating that stuff. Like, I know there’s a new box set for Never Mind the Bollocks...
Oh, no, listen — I’m very much involved with making sure that any aspect of my life’s work isn’t misrepresented. Because I’m physically and mentally not there with the first band, it doesn’t mean that I’m going to let some bumhole come along and repackage it in a cheeky, ignorant way. Quite the opposite. I have to keep very serious tracking on things like that. And as you can imagine, that’s draining in itself.
Yeah, it’s probably something you don’t want to have to do all the time.
Here I am, I’m working on PiL, it’s taken us a long time to fight the system and become independent, and put our own record together, raise our own money to do that. And Universal, of course, who signed up the Pistols, have put themselves almost in direct competition to us. And so I find myself competing with myself, with both PiL and Pistols at the same time.
The most dangerous foe of all.
It’s hilarious! (laughs)
Most bands that tour, they want to sell more records, they want to get to the top of the charts. What is your goal right now with Public Image Ltd.?
Oh, there’s no chart positions. No no, listen — right from Day 1, I’ve never done anything for a chart position, not ever, not ever, never, ever. Ever. And so when I see nonsense like that propagated, I put an end to it and declare that that’s not genuine. That’s never been our motto.
So what are your goals with this tour and with PiL in general?
To do as well as we can, and that’s good enough.
Just complete self-satisfaction? That si what you want to accomplish?
Well, of course, I’d like the largest audiences available. But respect for what it is we do. Because it is valid. And it does pave the way for future generations. And it connects music in a way that this industry, at the moment, isn’t managing to do. It’s tearing huge chunks out of us in connection to our histories and our cultures.
You’re playing clubs on this tour.
Yeah. Love them.
That gets you pretty close to the audience.
No problem with that at all. For years, the festivals would worry me — would I be able to cope with such a huge crowd so seemingly far away, and would I be able to make that heartfelt connection? But now I’ve grasped it.
What is your tactic for making a connection with the audience?
Eye contact. And lay off the booze.
You’ve learned that lesson the hard way over the years?
Yeah, you do. None of us are saints, but none of us want to be professional sinners, either.
Are you following the American presidential election?
Yeah. I have to. It affects me and the world.
So what do you think?
Well, I didn’t see it, but everyone in England is having a real laugh at this — because they broadcast it on TV — Clint Eastwood talking to an empty chair.
That happened in Tampa.
Astounding. Is that the Republicans’ best move? I’m very, very worried with that lot, because they will destroy the world. They’re famous for it. And Obama, of course, he hasn’t done much in four years, but it takes a lot longer to repair the damage done in eight by the clown that was in before. And lest we forget, that’s what the Republicans are really about: George Bush. It’s basically the same approach, and it’s a very dangerous one, and it’s condescending and it’s preachy, and it will absolutely erode every human being’s civil rights, all under the guise of family values and religious morals, which hardly anyone in that party has any belief or faith in.
You can vote for hypocrisy, hypocrites, corruption or naivete. I think I’d rather have Obama’s naivete — in that he would like to think that the world could be a better place. Well, it can. But it takes a long time. I have a connection with him, mentally. I think I understand him and his wife. I understand their approach, and I think it’s much more reasonable and valid. But America being what it is, and politics all around the world, everybody wants an instant answer. They want their pizza in 20 minutes, and that’s it. But that ain’t how problems get solved.
Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. I really appreciate you making the time.
I like doing interviews. I learn more than I give out.
It’s interesting — when I put in this request, I was talking to some of my colleagues, and I thought, “Well, what’s the worst that can happen — John Lydon can tell me to f--- off and hang up on me?”
Why would I do that?
I don’t know. I have no idea.
Exactly. My god, you’re believing your own peers! Don’t do that!
Are people afraid to talk to you?
No. And if they are? Lovely! Good! That’s some kind of success. (laughs) But I’m not a hermit, and I don’t live in a cave. I do this because the business I’m in is one of communication. Why would I cut my nose off to spite my face? I’ve been a fairly brave chap with songwriting over the years, but no song I’ve ever written has been hateful to the human race. Merely the institutions that confine us.
What is your guiding principle to life?
Give everyone a chance. And give them two. And after the third failure, I think it’s time to move on.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photo: Paul Heartfield.