John Lydon


Johnny Rotten is sitting on a couch in Notting Hill merrily rocking out to Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir.

Entranced, ecstatic, he has his eyes closed, his head back, his arms outstretched. His fingers dance, his head rolls, his body writhes and wriggles to the mellow thunder that is booms around the room. His mouth mimes to Robert Plant’s delicious moaning bliss. It’s a sight you’d never thought you’d see, the living embodiment of a contradiction – a Sex Pistol virtually head-banging to Led Zep. But it’s one that somehow John Lydon manages to make into something not just healthy and admirable but natural, consistent. The point is: he still couldn’t give a fuck.

How he enters: Lydon enters the room wiping the snot from his face, coughing, belching, stumbling. Wearing a moderately vile, red chainstore suit, shiny shoes and PiL ring and with the forest of fossilised knots of orange hair now sprouting matted red spikes – horns amidst thorns – he looks and behaves like some manic Joker, Mad Hatter. All Batman camp and costume, his teeth are rotting brown, the voice a sing-song whine, his skin pasty to the point of being shiny. His wise blue eyes shine with scorn and amusement. The giggle, which you will never quite know about, is a thick, mad chuckle, high snicker. Erratic, hilarious and very bizarre. Very Charles Hawtrey.

He is immediately flip, funny and friendly. Scathing, entertaining and bristling with life, a jubilant Ken Dodd explosion of character, colour, action and sauce. All bright madness and brilliant, batty energy. Unsurprisingly, given the number of cans of Red Stripe he drinks during the interview, at the end he exits with the piss running down his leg. Laughing… all the way to the bog.

Lydon has no trace of American accent or attitude, suntan or shallowness. Full of cool astuteness, slovenly recklessness and sensible contempts, he wanders restlessly between eccentric idiot, spoilt oaf and true prince. He moans like Alf Garnett, chides like Frankie Howerd, is generally wise and sarky in the way of Peter Cook. He goes from mischievous old Oliver Twist to sharp young O’Toole and says, “Oooh, I know” like Sybil Fawlty. Talking about politics he is very David Frost. He pulls his face for the camera in a way that is very Patrick Moore, and the giggle, the giggle which is always there but always bewilderingly barmy, is very Stan Laurel. Very Daffy Duck in fact.

His speech is sprinkled with just the right amount of camp extravagance and high seriousness. He says things like: “I find it a major farce,” and “The music business… it’s all so small time. It’s a pantomime,” and “I dunno, from the NME I expected…mass dreariness.”

Only when he gets bored does he get boring, moaning, “Oi Kee-eith, don’t leave me alone ‘ere” and (to our photographer) “Do I ‘ave to move ?”

Getting his attention away from Led Zeppelin to actually do an interview is a challenge in itself. We do most of it shouting at each other – because he won’t turn it down. Not because he’s being particularly difficult but because he just isn’t particularly helpful. He just likes it as it is.

Eventually he talks about America and England, happiness and violence, Thatcher, Bowie and the Sex Pistols; about meeting Boy George and singing with Kate Bush; about religion, children and fashion; doing things and doing nothing; being taken for a fool and for a God, all with the same clear, calm analysis, cutting derision and fresh honesty. When I mention that his old colleague Jah Wobble is probably the most honest person I’ve met in this business, he’s quick to correct me: “Second most honest.”

Though he never takes the interview fully seriously, he finds a few things about which he is deadly serious:

“The minute you have a kid, its their life that counts. You can’t dedicate yourself to your work, it’s one or the other; it must be the child that counts.”

“It’s a terrible thing to say that, that someone like Thatcher should be assassinated because she’s so evil. That’s not on. She should be assassinated politically. That’s all.”

“I take my work very seriously. What do you know about the agony of working in a studio ?! When I work in the studio it’s twenty-four hours a day. People can’t stand to be near me.”

“The principle in beating Malcolm mattered a hell of a lot to me. He’s made a career out of these lies.”

And he puts the rumour of his returning faith firmly to rest.
“Listen, I am far too wise to let anything as nauseous or nonsensical as religion ever affect my life in any way.”

As he polishes off his fourteenth Red Stripe and shows me a four-figure black designer watch, with diamond and gold link chain, the first I’ve seen that could actually be worth that much, he gets yet another call from The Tube about appearing with Alexei Sayle.
“Look, it’s absurd, juvenile, childish banter… and I won’t fucking well do it.” It’s hard not to like him.

By accident or design, Lydon has arrived back in London – stating the obvious, messing with the impossible – at a time when the filofax punk sociologists are all plying their dull histories and tiresome memories. You might think, given his utter dislike and disinterest for the idea of interviews, that he’d be keeping them to a minimum, particularly as Rise was always going to be a hit. He has them in neat perspective though:

“Well, I want my viewpoint put over. I’m sick of people telling me what I like, dislike, am, am not. Besides… I’ve got nothing else to do.”

Conditioned, as he is, into giving the same tired words to endless eager tape recorders, he brings up the likes of McLaren, Alex Cox, Sid or Strummer without any prompting, or indeed interest, from myself. The prospect of Cox’s Sid & Nancy flick still sparks his indignation.
“Who else would they try to walk over quite so
casually ?! How dare they imagine I would let them. Like I’m supposed to be this working class wally, this fat Californian sitting on a beach strumming a guitar with Neil Young ! I’m actually acting for Malcolm as well, don’t forget – he’s not been consulted either.”

Despite journalists saying things like, “Come on John, we all know people buy your records ‘cos you were in the Sex Pistols,” he’s still prepared to talk about his past, although he hates hindsight. “I find all this looking back repulsive.”

Did you actually enjoy it, the time of the Pistols ?
“No! Not at all! It was very, very hard ! We were so
hated ! It was quite nasty. We were very hard up and having your face all over the Daily Mirror and then scrounging the money to go on the tube to rehearsal and having to deal with all this hatred… Some of the gigs were brilliant, yes, but up North we got a lot of that ‘You cockney bastards, come on, entertain us’ nonsense.”

But wasn’t that the point: the threat and the effect ?
“Oh, I did enjoy the effect, yes, and the absurdity of it all. But I didn’t think the effect should have been quite …against me. I thought it should be all for me, heh-heh-heh. Hardly anyone liked us until we broke up. Like Jim Croce. No-one liked him until he died. Then, the week after he died, in the Top 50 there’s fifteen of his albums !”

What would be your favourite memory of that time ?
“The signing outside Buckingham Palace was a laugh. That was a hoot ! What we used to love to do too, people like Wobble, Sid, Shane, was to go down the Kings Road on a Saturday and laugh at the poseurs, the wimp crowd, who reduced everything to effeminacy…which is fine, but it shouldn’t be the completely dominating force behind fashion… There was so much more wild style then, much more personalised. People like The Slits, image-wise, were stunning. Being individual was truly appreciated; that, for me, was what it was all about, always will be. Like the way I could quite casually become a Teddy Boy. It was just ‘WHOOPEE, what a great outfit !’ There were truly no restrictions. You’d be amazed how wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt with ‘I hate’ scrawled across the top of it could provoke such violent reactions ! Something as stupidly dumb as that! Heh-heh.”

Does it sadden you or just amuse you that it amounted to so little ?
“It made its mark. But time goes on, there has to be a next lot of people to do the same… The Jesus & Mary Chain aren’t it, no, they’re not going to change anybody’s life. Too many bands nowadays get trapped in their own publicity scheme, which is very sad.”

Without being facile, what was it the Pistols had that no-one else has come remotely close to having since ?
“No fear. We had no fear at all. We did EVERYTHING we were told not to. And I continued that philosophy.”

Are the Pistols over-rated now ?
“No, oh no. Not at all. I still feel very good about the album, except Seventeen, but on Compact Disc, it’s absurd. It’s such an unfair thing to do, very low.”

Was the pressure of being The Man Who Changed Everybody’s Lives, that albatross, what made you leave ?
“Probably, probably. I know what you mean, but…you really mustn’t look at it that way… I’ve always said that I will be nobody’s hero. You’ve no right to rely on me to save your life. What I did was to show people to do it themselves. That aggro, ‘Ere, you’re that Sex Pistols thingy. Sid Vicious, innit ?’, that hasn’t happened for years and years, but it did for quite a while.”

You still play up to it, though. In the video, doing photos, you turn on the glare, the sneer.
“I approached that video purely as a commercial gadget to stop me from having to go to Holland… The glare…that’s there anyway. That’s part of my acting. I enjoy all that, hamming it up.”

You’ve always been doing it…
“Of course ! Yes, YES. A lot of it is acting, but then…like all good actors there’s an element of truth in there…heh-heh.”

Are you a good actor then ?
“Not bad. Not bad.”

Forced, after much moaning, to pick out ten records for Janice Long’s Show, he expresses enthusiasm for everything from A-ha, Alison Moyet and Beefheart to Virginia Plain, X-Ray Spex and Frank Zappa. Dolly Parton, Family, Wire, Sylvain, George Clinton, Bolan and Van Halen all get his support. He’s smart enough to know that Metal Box and Hounds of Love, weird and wonderful both, belong together.

“I would love to work with Kate Bush ! That album is highly beautiful, like an opera. It’d be great to sing with her, ‘cos I can hit some great high notes now. Glass breaks and dogs run away, heh-heh.”

Given the New Freeway Music he’s messing with on Album, it could be Bowie who has become his career model:
“I’m not particularly fond of Bowie, but he has managed to make some radical changes in his career and for that I applaud him. He does look a bit desperate lately mind, it might be wearing down on him… Poor old sod, hah-hah-hah.”

Who was the first singer for you ?
“Oh, Alice Cooper, Gary Glitter, Bowie… All these things had fun in them. Alice Cooper could dress up like a complete whore and still be quite butch and I thought that was fun. It has to be fun. I like Boy George ‘cos he’s totally true to himself. He’s not pulling any strokes on ya. He enjoys the image, doesn’t let it dictate to him. I met him in New York, actually. He’s a very honest person. He was being filmed at the time, but he ran across the room and said, ‘Oooh, hello, I think you’re someone I should say hello to.’ I thought, that’s great, there’s no conceit going on in this man’s mind… Superficiality is the worst thing in the world. Someone like Spandau Ballet wouldn’t do that. They’d be too busy trying to show you their cufflinks.”

Did you always want to be a singer ?
“It never occurred to me until Bernie Rhodes asked me. And it was Bernie Rhodes. OF ALL PEOPLE ! Heh-heh-heh… Poor old Joe (sings) ‘Hey Joe…little brother…’ Heh-heh-heh. Now there is a chap that gen-u-inely cared. A very honest chap, Strummer. I never liked them though, anything they did, that GROSSLY offended him. But come on, Joe, if we were plumbers, why the hell should I like the way you fix a U-Bend ?!”

What were you like when you were younger ?
“Well I really had no idea what my direction would be. You can’t really. I was very confused. When I saw what I wanted out of life, around nineteen, I bloody well went for it. Y’see the Pistols was a great time for me. All that energy had nowhere to go. I immediately focused it and from then on it’s all been rather good. I was given my chance and I took it. It was definitely something I could WRAP myself around in, yes, that great power.”

Since his temporary return, Lydon’s found himself widely castigated for living in Mae West’s old LA residence, making supposedly ‘American’ music and, worst of all, for making light work of life generally. I personally could never condemn anyone for wanting to get out of this country, and given the likes of New York, Satellite, Careering, Poptones, Public Image, Holidays or Flowers of Romance, even the reckless madcap power of Rise or Album, such criticism seems rather churlish. Clearly he does all this for the fun, for the fuss and, like all the rest, to make money. Lydon may not have changed the world, but he changed a few lives. No-one has changed more. It’s noticeable that all the dullards criticising him are offering us anyone better.

“They’re confused… I can understand puerile jealousy. It’s not worth the bother.”

He is concerned, though, at his reputation for laziness and for the squandering of talent PiL represent.
“No, no, that’s wrong. I’m very proud of my work, especially Flowers, I adore that ! This music ? It enthrals me, it’s refreshing, honest. It absolutely declares itself. I hate all this coy embarrassment about guitars. I mean, God, the Pistols had brilliant guitar solos. This album, lyrically, is not less bleak, no, I just don’t really feel the need to make the music as dismal as the message. It’s hardly light-hearted, not remotely positive, no. I have worked damned hard on this album… Quite frankly, LOOK at what I’ve done – I’ve changed a lot of people’s minds, gone through several directions… This misunderstanding is quite simple, it’s just bitter, twisted jealousy.”

Are you taking less chances ?
“Hardly ! HARDLY !! Just look at what I’ve done here. I’ve dived into an absolute quagmire. I’ve grabbed heavy metal and I’ve wrung its fucking neck ! How can that not be experimental ?! The song Home was made up on the bloody spot. Of course it is ! Stunningly, obviously, shockingly so ! I’m speechless. Go for the real targets, like George ‘Give me your money’ Michael. This ignorance about Los Angeles… I mean, it’s just Liverpool with palm trees.”

What do you like about America then ?
“I don’t ! Heh-heh… I travel to Australia, Japan, I lived in Germany. My surroundings actually have very little to do with me. To me, not enough happens in any one place in one month to make it worth staying there six months. I get very bored if I have to live in one place for a long period.”

Do you miss anything ? Would you move back ?
“Not really, no. Friends, family. I’d never move back. It’s so hostile here ! Such festering hate. The gap between the classes here is almost as cleverly defined as the gap between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. That WASP-ish mentality of ‘You’re rich because God loves you and you’re poor because he doesn’t’ is so evil. It’s stunning to watch Thatcher on telly, ‘cos she’s such a bad actor ! But the cheaper the presentation, the easier it is for people to accept. But she’s very powerful, and she’s very evil.”

Have you changed ? Are you happier ? You never struck me as being particularly happy…
“I dunno, that’s for you to say. I don’t think I’ve changed. I make my own happiness, I’m not one of those chaps who sit back and moan, ‘why aren’t things better ?’ I’ll go out and make them better for myself. I wouldn’t say I was brilliantly happy anywhere. If things don’t suit you, you should say so, but do something about it. My idea of having a good time, actually, is to do as little as possible. I paint a bit, yeah. Folk Art, simplistic symbolism like American Indian paintings. I find caveman paintings really beautiful ! I read. I loved The Name of The Rose. Churchill’s Diaries were very interesting reading.”

Is boredom your motivation ?
“Oh no, I purely enjoy it ! I find it a sheer joy. I love making these records. I deal in quality not quantity. If that makes me lazy: HELLO !! I’m not bored anyway. I haven’t been bored in years and years and years.”

Do you feel old ?
“No way do I feel thirty ! No !! (He belches to prove it, and later exclaims: “I love a spot ! I used to put butter on ‘em to make ‘em look worse !” in case I’m not convinced).

Do you dread getting older ?
“Not at all. Yes, completely ! Heh-heh-heh. Of course I do ! What a fucking ridiculous question. No-one wants to be fifty.”

Would the younger Lydon hate the older one ? (This really is a ridiculous question.)
“Look ! I’M LYDON ! How ridiculous ! I think I’d really like me. I’ve done everything I wanted to, and more ! I’d love me, I think.”

Lydon, I’d say, is the same: vain, arrogant, lethargic, but so what ?! Challenging, sneering, crafty, excited, he is somewhere between fake-wicked and real-rascal: gobbing, giggling, grouch-grumbling. Still with the same superb disdain and daring in everything he does, he is the last glowing ember of the point of punk, the only exceptional talent and totem of the whole thing left. What does he do ? He does what he wants, that’s what, and why not ?

The Art of the Individual goes on.