Interview: John Lydon

John Lydon

By: Nick Stropko

John Lydon is crass. At this point in his 40ish-year-old career, he’s developed a reputation for being unfriendly to press. And politicians. And, well, a lot of people. He tends to offend wherever he goes. He even made it a point to belch loudly during the middle of my interview (“practicing my jazz chords,” as he described it to me, the host of a jazz radio show, for christsakes).

This off-putting demeanor, however, belies an undeniable intelligence. Controversial positions he has long and ardently held, ranging from his omnivorous taste in music to many of his political and social beliefs, are now commonplace, while Sex Pistols’ sneer and Public Image Ltd.’s post-punk discord have long been held as prescient, influential, or both.

So where does this leave Lydon in today’s music landscape? Per John, “I’m quite happy here on the outskirts, doing what I want, and not getting dragged into cliques or categories anymore…And I think these last two albums we’ve put out are probably the best music in my entire career.” Yes, it’s easy to roll your eyes at any musician pushing 60 who claims to be putting out their best work–or really anything short of an outright cash grab (notable exceptions: Gira, Michael, and Bowie, David). And sure, some of his opinions fit quite comfortably within an irrelevant, crotchety old man archetype (rejection of technology, disinterest in any contemporary music). But given his track record, I’m willing to hear him out. The rigors of age and his smoking habit have seemingly done nothing to extinguish that singular, shrill voice that set the world on fire in ‘76, and he seems as pissed off as ever. Not to mention, the new record really isn’t half bad.

Public Image Ltd. is on tour through November. Dates are here. An excerpt from my interview with John is after the break–if it somehow isn’t long enough for you, click here for the full transcript.

Nick: First thing. I was struck by how strong your voice still is. How have you maintained the power behind your voice for so long?

John: A constant diet of alcohol and food. I don’t train. I don’t know how to train for what it is I do. I don’t sing in a normal register. For me, the best preparation is actual live gigs, and we have the slam them in. We’re on stage now every night, practically, with very few days off. We like it that way. It just makes you stronger and stronger and stronger. And because I believe in what I’m singing, it comes out quite naturally. I don’t know any other way–there are no fake songs in there. They’re not just made up for the rhymes. They’re my life story, and indeed my friends’ life stories. And you can’t go wrong, really when you stick onto that proper path.

N: Touring every night? Do you get burnt out ever?

J: No. No. No such thing. You work in a very short period of time in a year, and you try to do as much as you possibly can. Then you’re dolloping around doing nothing for the rest of the year.

N: Hopefully writing songs?

J: Hopefully for us we make enough money to get back into a recording studio and set up a new album. Because that’s our ambition now. Now that we’re completely independent of what we call “The Shitsdom.” We can do things when we want to do them. The only problem being, of course, fundraising. But, the large labels, I mean, they killed me. They made it impractical for me to work there for nearly 18 years, and that almost mentally destroyed me. So I had to go in to do TV work to raise money. To buy my way out of them deals. They wouldn’t let me go. They wouldn’t let me off the label, but they wouldn’t let me off the debt, either. That was a Catch-22. And the media didn’t really back me or support me, so I was like, out there in the wilderness for quite some time. But that’s alright, because I did really really good, great TV work. A lot of nature programs that ended up, in Britain for instance, on the university curriculums.

So, yeah, it kept me out my music world there for a bit, but still found life interesting. And there’s a poetic beat to nature that I find to be very musical, and it helped me. So when we finally got ourselves all set up again, formed out label now, everything is us. PiL official, that’s us. It’s more rewarding, cause I’ve had a chance to stand back, and actually look at what I’m doing. And I”m doing it better now. The time out is actually reward in itself. If you learn that patience is a virtue. And no matter what obstacles are put my way, I’m a survivor. That’s it. Period. The end.

N: One other TV thing that you did that I actually loved–people talk a lot about that butter commercial. One thing I’m just wondering, to me, it sounds as though there’s an emphasis in cunt in country in this commercial. I wonder if that’s intentional or just me projecting.

J: As in an early Pistol’s song, pretty va-cunt. It’s a pronunciation issue. [Dryly] Open to interpretation. It’s all down to the listener.

N: Do you find yourself really on edge when you leave the stage?

J: It’s hard to taper down. That’s high energy, all that stuff, up there. And I put 150% into it. It’s worth it, it really is. To see the faces, the empathy with the audience is so vital. And fills us with vitality. We love that. It feels like there are proper people in the house, and indeed it was. And a variety of ages, and types, and styles. That is a major achievement. Music has tended, as long as I’ve ever known it, to be kind of like a class separation system. It divides us, it doesn’t unite us. Well, PiL is different.

N: One thing, speaking of, that I’ve always liked about your career is how you’ve worked with phenomenal, and varied, musicians. You’ve worked with Afrika Bambatta-

J: Phenomenal friends, firstly.

N: Of course. Bernie Worrell–where do you meet these musicians? They’re so good.

J: It’s difficult, because the person who put the money up was on a small label, so we couldn’t really make it any bigger as it was. And indeed, as it’s been with everything with PiL, and everything I’ve done since, we’re too far ahead of the curve. So we get pushed to the side until like, five or six imitative bands come along and claim it as their idea. And there’s a great deal of credit hopping on us, but it’s alright, because in the end, good music comes out of that. I mean, I’ve had as many songs stolen off me as I have hair-dos or, or, clothes choices.

N: It is pretty striking how you went right from the Pistols to some pretty cutting-edge.

J: Well the Pistols was cutting edge!

N: Of course, but–

J: Nothing ever sounded like that.

N: The stylistic divergence, I guess would be a better way of putting it.

J: Depending on the subject matter, this will happen instantaneously and instinctively. It’s not pre-planned. It’s the kind of people we are–we get bored with the idea of falling into a familiar vein. That’s alright if you’re the Rolling Stones, that’s their gist. But we’re not. We think differently. Always looking for something new and exciting in sound, and in life. Otherwise you remain static, and that doesn’t solve anybody’s problems.

N: That’s just a cash in, I guess.

J: I’ve never been good at cashing in, have I? [Laughs] Good heavens, the amount of times I’ve been accused of selling out. It’s like, what? At these prices? You must be joking! I always seem to be in debt from it. I figure I’ve funded PiL more than any record company ever did. I’ve always done it that way.

N: So yeah, now you just save up money and book studio time yourself?

J: Yeah. Yeah. And we like it like that. And I think these last two albums we’ve put out are probably the best music in my entire career. So that bodes well for the future. The next year I’ll be sixty years young. Let’s hope I’ve got sixty years of music to make.

N: At least.

J: It’d be a good ambition. No surrender.

N: One thing that’s kind of struck me how you were different from others coming out in the late 70’s was the range of influences that you do like. Especially, it seems like a lot of the punk dudes were very against progressive rock that had happened earlier. But you’ve liked Magma and Van der Graaf Generator.

J: I know! I came into the Pistols as a solid human being. I sorted my problems out from the age of 7 when I had that terrible illness that nearly killed me. Took my memory away for four years. When I finally remembered who I really was, I was also a better person for it. And so well-prepared for the Pistols with a completely open mind about what music is and isn’t. And I gotta tell you, my parents who were very much music lovers helped me in that respect to no end. From a very young age.

N: What kind of stuff did they play?

J: Everything. And the area I grew up in, Arsenal land, I call it, Finnesbury Park, Holloway Road. It was very very mixed. Very culturally mixed. All races, all creeds, all colors. And that helps to no end. I can quite easily tell you that reggae is as much a part of my background as Irish traditional, Turkish, Greek, pop culture, progressive, everything! Open-minded. Never close your eyes or your ears to anything. And so, yeah, of course I’m gonna have problems with the moronic punks, y’know? In the early days, they were all copycats, most of em. They just wanted to be pop stars. And the Pistols opened the door for em, and they all ran in trying to imitate it. But, of course, they didn’t understand tempo or the holding of a rhythm or a beat. They were much more into high energy, fast, fast, fast, which is always the worst kind of cover-up for [growling] talentless.

N: Were there ever any collaborations that didn’t work out or that you wanted to do but didn’t get the opportunity to do?

J: Oh god, yeah! There was a glorious time there with Kate Bush.

N: Really?

J: Yeah, who I love and adore. Really love her. But I wrote a song, I called it “Bird in Hand.” It was about saving parrots from the illegal parrot trade in South America. And she just thought it was ludicrous [laughs]. I didn’t realize at the time, cause she went on and did a record with Peter Gabriel. So I realized that what she wanted was a love duo, kind of thing. Me? I’m oblivious to that. Hello, I’m a married man! I love me missus, and I ain’t gonna flirt with no one on no stage for no money [laughs]. I save the birds, but only the feathered ones.

N: You do anything in Philly today?

J: [Burps] Slept. [Continues burping] There ya go, I’m practicing my jazz chords.

N: Coincidentally my show on the radio is a jazz show.

J: Ahhhh.

N: Not so into the jazz?

J: When I was younger, I’d have animosity about it because of the preconceptions, I suppose. But meeting lots of people like James Blood Ulmer, they all become really goods friends. And I realize what jazz is–it’s the understanding of the rhythm of life. It’s not so much a musical category, it’s a sensibility. In that respect, jazz is ultimately really close to what we do. But so is the concept of folk music, which is ageless.

N: I was actually struck by that when you were onstage. Because, a lot of this folk music originally was the singers had something to say and they had a relatively simple backdrop and they said what they were feeling.

J: And it was very much social issues.

N: Yeah, and that’s exactly what you’re doing.

J: I draw the line with jazz–although the Japanese, they do it absolutely note perfect, but it’s soulless. It’s–

N: It’s really sterile.

J: It’s so strange to listen to! The lot of them. Yet I love everything Japanese. I love the people, I love the culture. They’re very good at imitating things, and packaging them in smaller boxes. But, no no no. I love Japanese traditional music, which Japanese people seem ashamed of for some reason, which is very odd. But to me they’re the most wonderful race on earth. A clear example of this was the last tsunami and the earthquakes. No rioting. No looting. No murders. No destruction. They just all picked each other up and helped each other. THat’s my kind of view of how human beings can be. That’s so wonderful. Love em to death. And the first thing we did, we skedaddled to Japan even though there were radiation warnings and whatever, and we did a fundraiser for them. Because the Japanese are so close to my heart. I really, really love them. I love their designers, I love their view of nature. I love everything about them, really. I’ve been to Japan probably more times than I’ve been anywhere on earth. At least–10 now, yeah. I mean, one time, with the Pistols, we stayed there for 8 weeks. We lived there, and that was thrilling for me.

N: You’ve also been pretty vocal about how much you’ve been enjoying your new American citizenship lately, and how much you love being an American.

J: Yes! Proud as punch about that. I went the regular route. No superstar, easy turns. NO, I took the long, hard, difficult slog. Because I wanted to earn it. It’s how I am in life. I have to earn my way. Otherwise, there’s no sense of achievement in it. It was brilliant! I signed in in Los Angeles with 4.5k other people. ANd it was great! A band came on,a nd we sang songs. It was really, really heartwarming. And I felt, god, this country really does want me! And I’ve had problems wherever I’ve been. I mean, I’ve run three different passports in my life. Irish, English, and now American. Fantastic. And all for being apparently awkward and difficult to work with, you know, I never lie.

N: So what do you like about America?

J: It’s new. It’s fresh. It has great potential. But unfortunately, the youth at the moment are playing this game of why bother, it’s all been done before. I think that might be the poison of the internet creeping in. This laziness. It will pass. There will be future generations that will see that a dropout is not gonna get you anything but second best. You gotta keep struggling in live. I think the future bodes well. [Wryly] And I don’t feel old.

N: I think it’s all cyclical.

J: Yeah! I think so too.

N: They realize when a new technology might not be the best thing or it’s being used incorrectly.

J: It definitely isn’t. Definitely a downgrade in music. I love vinyl. I’m forced into CD’s, begrudgingly, but I won’t go much further than that. And anything I get off the internet, to me, it’s such low quality that I’m just not interested at all.

N: What’s your recording process like?

J: The way we like to record, it’s the setting up of the microphones that takes the most effort. After that, it’s pretty much just live recording, with everything left on. Our version of jamming is really the building of a song. And we’ll go back at the end of the day and listen to what they’ve done and go “ooo, ahh” and then pick things out to work on properly. But generally, even at the laying down of the final track, it’s all done pretty much all together. So that spontaneity is there. I guess you call that monitor mixing. Because I don’t believe in wasting loads of time and money on all manner of digital equipment to cover up inadequacies in the song.

N: When it just adds character, really.

J: Yeah, but overproduction takes character away. And then we’re fast approaching Japanese jazz, which is no good!

N: Yeah, I think it shows that you’re playing together.

J: It shows the respect we have for each other. Very very much. It’s a vital element to what makes PiL so successful. There’s no booby traps in us. We do things to help each other out on stage. And I’ve worked with people in the past that have not had that attitude. And they’ve been very very difficult to put up with. And eventually, you have to get rid of them, because they’re working against you.

N:Right. Do you think it’s more of a pursuit of their own vision as opposed to the collective–

J: Ego, ego. To do this well, there must be no ego involved. And that’s a very very difficult concept to remove from an awful lot of people. With us, I mean, as in the previous album, there’s a song there called The Reggie Song which is about a good close friend of ours. It’s all about getting back into the Garden of Eden, thank you, which is where we feel we belong. And kick out that God and his toy snake. Uh huh? Y’know, and remove us from all religions.

N: So do you see yourself fitting in somewhere in the contemporary music landscape?

J: Well I hope not! What would I want that for? I’m quite happy here on the outskirts, doing what I want, and not getting dragged into cliques or categories anymore. I mean I’ll still hold on to the fact that I’m king of the punks, and no one can do that better. So PiL is a punk band, really. It is the #1 punk band of all time. But it’s ever so much more. And that’s–punk as itself as a category is a demeaning label. We want the world. All of it. And we want it now.

N: What do you see as being punk, exactly?

J: Justin Beiber, of course! [Laughs]. In the truest, snottiest, bratty sense of it.

N: I guess it’s just doing what you want…

J: I feel sorry for him! He reminds me of Sid in many ways. Kinda lost and meandering and coming up with preposterous conclusions in life. And I don’t think there’s anyone there to help him. And so I feel sorry for him. The same way I feel sorry for Britney Spears too. I feel their isolation. So I’m empathetic with them in this respect. I mean they’re not my enemy. They’re their own worst enemy. And they need friends!

N: And people to bounce ideas off of sometimes.

J: And not a clownish entourage, which would be the death of anybody.

N: So who was there with you early on?

J: In what respect?

N: In the sense of, musically, someone to tell you no.

J: Oh god, there’s always been a vast entourage of people telling me to stop it. No, I’ve a good wide range of friends and again I don’t need to listen that. I think that my fellow musicians respect what I do. It’s that grudging annoyance called music journalists that tend to get in the way. And one of the biggest problems with the music press for me was always that they worked hand in toe with the record labels. In fact, the music press really couldn’t function without the advertisements from the large labels. So the large label was giving you difficulty, the journalists translated that into negative reviews. And that was a very bad road to be running there. But I managed to survive it, because no matter how much they put problems or obstacles in me way, I will survive.

N: I’m noticing a recurring theme here. But yeah, It’s all one system to build money, I guess.

J: Yeah, it is! But if you stop putting obstacles in my way you could make the money! There’s nothing wrong with these songs, matey. Except they won’t support the shitsdom.

N: I think that’s how some music is going. People are realizing you can record your own shit. You can put it out. And if it’s good, there’s an audience for it.

J: It’s a struggle to get back to where we once were. I mean, 18 years out, it’s a long time, you know. I shoulda vanished. Many people wanted me to. And at the same time, I had to deal with the nonsense of yeah, oh god, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame fiasco. What? I mean that really is audacity. That is the industry doing it’s most to kill me off, and yet wanting to give me this fobby, fake award that means nothing other than you’ve being something to collect dust in a museum on. I’m not gonna tolerate that, am I? And I dealt with them, I think, rather appropriately. I sent them the most insulting letter, which, they have now put in their museum! [Laughs] This is irony! This is irony in its utmost! And that is, oddly enough, a sense of reward.

N: So, you got some shit for going to Israel, no?

J: Which is ridiculous! My god, these are left-wing students claiming jews and fascists. I mean, come on. Is history’s memory really so short term that you can say something so preposterous. And secondly, and most importantly–this is PiL. This is John here. I play to people. I don’t play to governments. As far as I’m aware, I haven’t supported any government yet in my entire life, and have no intention to at any time soon. So we go to Israel, and we’re playing into a very mixed crowd audience. There’s Arabs and Jews there. And we’re bringing them together. And we’re singing songs that could be challenging to both religions here. And combining them, and no one’s getting killed. That, to me, is how you communicate properly with the world. The song we love most in Israel was “Four Enclosed Walls,” which was a beautiful refrain “Aaaallaahhh.” If you can get Jews to sing Allah, that’s a good move to world peace. And China. Well, China’s banning everybody aren’t there. And quite right! If it’s on grounds of taste [laughs]. To get into the country, you have to send in every lyric you’ve ever written. So we thought, no chance here [laughs]. Oh no, we got double ticks! And it shows, China isn’t quite what it used to be. It’s opening up, and it’s opening up in really clear and beautiful ways to let a real problem band like us in and mess with their citizens. That was quite great. Russia too! Russia’s a great place to play. Well, the suppression, the politics, and the people there is astounding. But they still let us in! So we make trouble, but we make good trouble. Positive. Productive. It’s about getting people to think positively as opposed to smashing things up in a mindless asshole way.

N: And people seem to miss that point until they listen to the records.

J: Until they listen. And they get it. And so there you go, world peace, not all the world in pieces.

N: Seems like as good of a point as any to wrap this up. Thanks so much for speaking with me!

J: Thank you! Good chatting with you, mate. May the road rise, your enemies always be behind you, may they scatter, flatter, batter, and shatter.