THE SELF-TITLED INTERVIEW: John Lydon of the Sex Pistols and PiL

[Lead Photo by Duncan Bryceland]

By Andrew Parks

While it pains us to admit it, we first heard Metal BoxPublic Image Ltd.‘s infamous canister of career-defining 12-inches (a.k.a. Second Edition)–a couple months ago. And not even by choice. The 1979 album simply started playing by chance, a forgotten eMusic purchase salvaged by iTunes’ shuffle function.

To be honest, we thought it was a Swans record at first. After all, the deep, slightly demonic vocals on the album’s 10-minute opener (“Albatross”) sound exactly like Michael Gira–three years before Swans formed, mind you–and Keith Levene’s steel-plated guitar chords, why, they’re post-punk personified, a dovetailing hint of the decades to come. Elsewhere, “Careering” proves that A Certain Ratio wasn’t the only band the Rapture ripped off on their breakthrough record. (Check out the wobbly vocals of “Echoes,” then compare “Do the Du” to “Killing.” Who needs a sampler when you have a decent record collection, right?)

Basically, if you listen to Metal Box all the way through, and pair it with PiL’s other masterpiece, The Flowers of Romance, John Lydon‘s brief, blustery run as the snot-nosed frontman of the Sex Pistols becomes a highly-influential footnote–a statement that needed to be made before he could pursue his true calling. And not just the jittery, profoundly paranoid PiL cuts (“Memories,” “Death Disco”) that’d provide the foundation of disco punk and dance rock more than 20 years later. While Romance‘s bleak, strictly minimal soundscapes sound like early Nine Inch Nails demos, PiL also delivered a stack of subversive pop tunes on their later records, including “This Is Not a Love Song,” “Rise,” “Don’t Ask Me” and “Disappointed.”

With that in mind, and a well-received reunion run–PiL’s first in 17 years–happening between now and two nights at New York’s Terminal 5 (May 18-19), we hunted Lydon down at his hotel room late last week. The name he left at the front desk? Pussy Lindquist III. Yep. Once a punk, always a punk…

While you read this massive interview, may we suggest listening to the two-part radio show below? Captured way back in 1977, it pissed off the Pistols’ ruthless manager (Malcolm McLaren, who passed away earlier this month) because it proved “Johnny Rotten” was indeed John Lydon after all–one of the greatest record nerds of all time.


John Lydon, Capital Radio Show 1977 (Part I)


John Lydon, Capital Radio Show 1977 (Part II)

“Anyone who adheres to that kind of uniform is showing they’ve missed the boat completely. Green Day, for instance…”

self-titled: Well hello Mr. Lindquist.

You must enjoy making writers ask for “Pussy” at your hotel.
No, no. They keep misspelling it. It’s supposed to sound like “Pew-ssy.”

Is that a name you use a lot?
No. I mean, I always use a different moniker when I check into a hotel. It started out years ago, to keep fans from annoying [me] all night long. If you use your regular name, the phone doesn’t stop ringing. And so I figured I’d have fun with it…

Isn’t “Banging the Door” (from Flowers of Romance) about that?
No, it’s actually about people banging the door back when I lived in London. And most of the people banging the door back then were the police.

Never looking for you though, right?
Oh, of course they were. [Cackles]

So how was your show in Portland last night?
Really brilliant. I really enjoyed the audience’s reactions and participation. It’s a wonderful thing.

So are you seeing a mix of young and old fans at these reunion shows?
It’s a very varied bunch, which has always been a major achievement in my mind. I’ve never liked being at concerts and seeing people from the front row to the back all dressed identical. I’ve always managed to avoid that trap.

Except for about a year after the Pistols formed right?
It kinda went there for a bit, because the trash media tried to sell the whole thing off as one uniformed punk kit of, ‘Please adhere to this’, but it was never about that to us.

Do you ever get a kick out of how commodified punk clothing is now, comparatively, what with Hot Topic and all that?
Can you explain what you mean?

One of the points of that store is selling various punk rock uniforms…
Well, there were outfitters like that from all the way back when we started. I don’t have a problem with people selling it. I have a problem with people who think that’s the easy route to being a punk. And indeed it isn’t. Anyone who adheres to that kind of uniform is showing they’ve missed the boat completely. Green Day, for instance…

I actually just saw their Broadway show.
And how was it?

If I had epilepsy, it would have given me a seizure. It was basically an assault on the senses for 90 straight minutes–almost too loud, between the lighting and the music.
[Laughs] Forcing people to sit down and endure it seems absolutely negative to me.

Ah, but a soccer mom next to me pumped her fist throughout it.
Green Day have always been [commercial]. It kinda figures that they’d be misled in that direction. So willingly, too…Pete Townshend could kinda get away with that because Tommy really was a rock opera. People really hated the Who for putting it out at the time, too. They didn’t understand [why the band was doing it], but Green Day…that’s just daft. It shows what a bunch of dull puddings they really are.

Writing the first PiL single, “Public Image,” must have been a major release for you, as it closed the door on the Pistols at the time.
It wasn’t closing the door on the Pistols. It was just opening a new one and showing where I stood in terms of the world. Above all else, it needed to feel honest. It needed to have integrity, which I found sadly lacking in the management (Malcom McLaren) of my first band.

[PiL] was a clearinghouse for me. It’s always meant absolute freedom. And with freedom comes responsibility. That’s why my songwriting is all about the truth, all about trying to find out what emotions really are, and how not to be misled by them.

I love a good pop song, you know. I love the whole verse/chorus format, but to broach some subjects properly–with the respect due–you need to step outside the format. Beyond music, almost. That’s a difficult concept for people to understand. It’s not about me trying to be avant-garde or deliberately ‘jazz-fusionist’. It isn’t that at all. It’s a gut reaction to the subject matter. Like “Death Disco” is a song about the death of my mother. And it’s even more applicable now, as my father died last year. You don’t want to wallow in tragedy, but the loss of a parent is a serious thing. It’s extremely hard to come to grips with. Like I say in the song, there are times in life when “words are useless,” where you can’t possibly channel an emotion without a guttural yell.

You also applied the spaciousness of dub to a new kind of music, what would later be called post-punk…
Well, I never set out to copy anything. I’ve always been really interested in textures–stuff like Can and Kraftwerk. My record collection is extensive. I’ve got three libraries spread over two countries. I’m just a nonstop music buyer. If anyone puts something out, I want to hear it. The only thing I ever really spent money on in my whole life is a really excellent, A-1 transparent sound system. It doesn’t even need to be loud. It just needs to be absolutely clear without adding any amplified distortion to anything.

And your wife doesn’t want you to get rid of any of those records after all these years?
Not at all. That’s my life. I’ve dedicated myself to making music. The only thing that’s ever stopped me is record label shenanigans and a lack of record label support.

Well, that’s been pretty consistent all along…
It has since the beginning. It’s amazing how disjointed it all is. You try to have a career and it’s rather rudely sabotaged by record label involvement or lack thereof. The record companies here didn’t even distribute the first two [PiL] albums. They promoted the next one (1981’s The Flowers of Romance), and then they deliberately withdrew. And over in England, they supported the first two (First Issue, Metal Box), then withdrew [their support] from the rest.

So I had two completely different marketing concepts going on at the same time for the same band. Not the same players, but the same band–it still had the PiL logo on it, you know? That’s one thing, too–people viewing PiL as this fractured production line. It’s not my fault at all. It’s record companies creating odd environments that are negative to my work.

So now, after a really long break and some apologies, people are starting to understand songs like “Albatross,” “Disappointed” or “Rise”–that they all work together, that they’re all part of a bigger story. It’s great to share that with an audience that actually knows their stuff a bit. All ages, all types, from college professors to little teeny bopper girls. It’s great. That’s the reward. It shows that what I’m doing means something.

“We know where the punk movement went. My god, how many bands trudged down the same road at 90 miles an hour?”

Do you remember the reasons record companies gave you for not wanting to release your music in the ’80s?
Yeah. “That’ll never sell.” “That’s too different.” And “you have to go mainstream if you want any radio play.”

Have you spoken to any of those people in retrospect?
Well, as time went by, all of these alleged ‘musical geniuses’ were replaced by even dimmer-witted ‘musical geniuses’.

The record companies are all imploding now, aren’t they? For the past 10 years in particular, especially EMI and Virgin. What they’ve become is accountant led. They’re warehouses for distributing old stock. But they’re very selective about what that old stock is. They don’t mind paying the likes of Janet Jackson $80 million to sign her up, but they wouldn’t spend two shillings on me.

Which has forced you to support your own touring, right?
I’ve had to raise the money independently, but let me tell you something. When the Pistols broke up, I had to pay for PiL with whatever money I could scrape together, too. There was nothing coming from the record label.

So you had to chase them down for whatever money the Pistols were still making?
They just consistently kept me in debt. The old trick, you know? But the more problems they put in front of me, the harder I fight to make sure I succeed. It can be quite difficult, but I’m still here. Just talking to the media takes a lot of planning…

Yeah, you’re forced to talk to us now.
No, I’ve never had a problem with that. This is the wonderful world of communication. I love doing interviews. It’s how I learn. Believe me, I’m picking your brain as much as you’re picking mine. It’s how I get a gauge of how things are going out there.

What’s the gauge on me right now, then?
For you? That’s my business. So long as you don’t editorialize this and add nasty little snippets that didn’t occur while we were conversing, I’m happy.

Well, not to kiss your ass, but the second I heard early PiL stuff, it was like, ‘Oh so this is where many of the bands I’ve liked over the past five years stole their ideas.’
I don’t mind people being influenced, but when they don’t own up to where it came from, that’s really hard for me to take. It’s blatant thievery in many cases. What bands don’t understand is there’s a genuine thought process and emotions behind these songs. It’s not something you can just jump on and say, ‘Oh, that’s a new genre, and I can do it too.’ That’s wrong. The bands I’ve always loved have been true to their inner wisdom and turmoil. If you’re not writing from the heart, you’re just filling up space, and you’re in it for greed.

We know where the punk movement went. My god, how many bands trudged down the same road at 90 miles an hour?

Since he’s originally from the Damned, do you ever talk to [guitarist] Lu [Edmonds] about that?
Not at all. Me and Lu go back a long way, but our musical interests are so diverse and extreme that the punk years don’t matter anymore. Even in the Pistols, when I wrote a song like “God Save the Queen,” there’s no verse/chorus in that. The fact that it became a pop song is quite an achievement. The record company didn’t understand that at all–that I was already experimenting.

A lot of that came from your mother originally, right? She was quite a record collector?
Yeah, my mom and dad. They liked all kinds of music.

Do you remember what first stuck a chord with you?
Oh, mad Irish stuff. And they drove me bonkers with the Beatles. I could never tolerate that.

Not even the experimental stuff?
No, I don’t know what it was. I think it might be because when you’re young and tired at 12 o’clock at night, and your parents are screaming “she loves you/yeah, yeah yeah!”, it kinda really annoys you. [Laughs] It becomes a big, black emotional slur. Probably unfairly, but there it is.

You grew to like the Kinks though, right?
Oh, yeah. Ray Davies’ songwriting is stunning. I really like literature in songs. It was a completely different way to go about songwriting at the time.

I know you don’t like to over-intellectualize stuff, but what have you been reading lately?
Nothing in the last year because I’ve been too busy putting this together. I’ve also stopped listening to other music because I don’t want any distractions.

When I go into a project, it’s always 100-percent. Believe me, it’s an awful lot of work to put this together. With all of us involved, it’s been 24-hour days with very little sleep. And now, the actual live presentation of it is a relief but the 14-hour coach journeys are not. [Laughs] I can guarantee you that the infrastructure of America is collapsing. To travel these highways and byways–all these bumps and pothole-surfing–is appalling. It’s impossible to sleep.

Wait until you get to Philadelphia and New York.
Yeah, I know. The coach driver said, “You ain’t felt nothing yet.” If you want to get political about it, Republicans, how dare you? How dare you bitch and gripe about anything when you let the country collapse?

I’m actually on my way to becoming an American citizen, too. I love this place and its people.

You’ve never gotten tired of L.A., huh?
No. Since there’s no [bad] weather, I don’t have to worry about [my health]. (Editor’s Note: Lydon contracted spinal meningitis when he was 8, a condition that left the singer with a crooked spine and his signature stare.)

So I saw some Coachella clips and the band actually looks pretty tight. You’ve worked with Bruce and Lu before (’86-’90 and ’86-’88, respectively), so does the success of the shows make you want to start work on new material?
The aim is to collect enough money to put ourselves in a recording situation, and in doing so, change labels pronto. Because the lack of involvement from our current crop has to stop. I view them as legally hindering me, and I intend to be removed from that problem by any means necessary. It borders on illegal behavior.

The industry doesn’t have the brains to see that if you don’t invest in the future, there won’t be one. It’s ridiculous. It doesn’t make any sense to me. And I’ve watched it happen all the way down the line. Outfits like Massive Attack and Smashing Pumpkins give a nod and a wink to the PiL way, and yet, their life has been rather easy. Maybe because they’re more comfortable, watered-down versions.

I don’t mean to be bitter like that, but it does kinda upset me. I think I’ve done an awful lot for the world of modern music, and I haven’t seen much of a financial reward for it at all. I know the respect is there from the audience, but there’s been a great deal of problems from the media over the years. They’d much rather point the finger at me than the real problem–the record industry itself. This is why I took great pleasure in telling them where to put it when we were nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Because the very people who voted us into the museum asked us to pay for the privilege of sitting there during that dreary ceremony. For what? A bauble? A bit of iron?

People like Blondie should know a hell of a lot better than running at that event. She caused terrible fractures in her own band, didn’t she? (Blondie was inducted in 2006, when Debbie Harry refused to let bassist Nigel Harrison and guitarist Frank Infante perform with her.) I mean, how ugly is it? That lust for accolades? It’s a terrible, terrible thing.

Well, that’s where your name came from right? A novel about an actress’ ego (Muriel Spark’s The Public Image)?
Yes, it was supposed to escape that.

Egos certainly did a lot of damage to the Pistols…
It did because of management mishandling, and management egotism. Malcolm was a very structured person, and very prone to jealously. Of course I miss him now, because he’s a human being, you know? Nobody’s perfect. There’s some warm moments there; just not many. [Laughs]

I just have to be honest about it. I’m being fair to him. He would loathe what they’ve turned [his death] into in England.

All of the gushing tributes did seem a little odd…
All the bandwagon hoppers have lept on it as a chance to get their names in the paper. It’s quite ugly. It really is.

Well, when anyone dies, people often try to make the death about themselves, not the person who passed away:
That’s it, isn’t it? Flowers and coffins don’t wrap well around a person like Malcolm. He’d be appalled.

“I love my inheritance but I have a much brighter future, oddly enough.”

What about your own writing? Have you had any time to…
I’ve written fairly consistently over the years because I love my inheritance with the Pistols and I love going out with them. I’ve just never made enough money to get PiL back together, which was my original ambition. I’m not trying to be subversive about it. I’ve always made that very clear to the chaps. They’ve wanted me to write new material for them, but I can’t. As soon as I put pen to paper, PiL is where I want it to be. I want it to be uncontaminated.

Any idea where that direction might be next?
When we hit the studio, we will find out.

Seems like it might get a bit dark. After all, you’re having a rough couple years:
No, no, no. There’s always hope.

Is that one misconception of the Sex Pistols–the role anger plays in your songs? Like you say in “Rise” from PiL, “Anger is an energy.” It can be a positive thing, right?
Yes. I’ve never wrapped myself around self-pity. Why would I? I’ve been through some major childhood illnesses and travesties and survived. And I’m quite happy about that. I’m not one for wallowing in misery. The Sex Pistols, to me, was not a negative band or narcissistic. It was positive, and it created deliberate, purposeful, helpful, change. And in the long run, that will be seen.

So you don’t feel angry these days?
No, there are many, many things I’d like to get my teeth into, but I’m always viewing it as a positive way of solving a problem. It goes all the way back to “God Save the Queen,” the part where I say, “No future/No future for you.” That’s meant to be a question. There will be no future if you don’t do something about it; if you don’t stand up and take a side. Have an opinion, you know? Involve yourself in a debate.

Life is a learning process, and all of the fools out there who just close down their brains, well, you’ve made your party choice. You’re basically a Republican. They are the book burners, the ones making claims about Nazis and socialism when that’s what they’re doing themselves. That’s the irony of it. They are so close-minded it’s appalling.

You must have been mad about how the press spun that incident between you and Bloc Party’s singer…
It was all a publicity scam so this silly band can sell their new record. But it’s been that way for me throughout the years. It disgusts me from time to time. That’s why I’ve tried to stay away from the E! Entertainment, Access Hollywood side of things. My pubic image is limited deliberately.

Outside of a couple TV appearances (I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!, a trio of Discovery Channel docs, a commercial for Country Life butter that had Brits crying “sellout” despite Lydon’s real reason for taking the piss–self-funding the PiL tour):
Well, you know, the world is full of dirty-minded people. It’s a hard fucking life when you come across some of these characters. The lengths they’ll go to is utterly surprisingly:How much poison can you put up with?

Kids themselves are pretty poisonous now, though.
Right, with Perez Hilton leading the charge. It’s all rather silly. That’s why I don’t like the Internet much at all. There’s an awful amount of jealous people in this world. A lot of crimes relate directly to that one sin: jealously. We’re constantly battling the seven deadly sins. For me, it’s religion, like I wrote that one song “Religion” (from PiL’s debut album, First Issue) while I was in the Pistols, but there was no way that band would cope with that subject matter. So that limitation with the Pistols is always in my head. It’s a shame.

So it’s safe to say a lot of the early PiL stuff–the lyrics at least–was written while you were in the Pistols.
Yeah, I love my inheritance but I have a much brighter future, oddly enough. [Laughs]

Got one last thought to leave us with? Any life lessons?
[Laughs] Two songs come to mind: Magazine’s “Shot By Both Sides” and Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe the Hype.” Two very good records. There’s a lot of great music out there if you bother looking for it.

Very true. Thanks John.
Thank you. May the road rise with you…