Interview: John Lydon

Andrew Perry

By Andrew Perry

on 05.28.12 in Interviews

This is PiL

Public Image Ltd.

[To celebrate the release of the first PiL record in twenty years, we handed the keys to eMusic's editorial to punk legend and post-punk pioneer John Lydon. Check back daily for his hand-selected Reviews of the Day; follow along with his head-spinning guided tour of his eMusic favorites here; and check out his candid interview below. -Ed]

There are few icons in rock history who’ve been as systematically misunderstood as John Lydon. Ever since his blood-curdling cry of “Des-trooooy!” at the climax of “Anarchy In The UK” by The Sex Pistols, he has been pigeonholed as the orange-haired lunatic who arrived to terminate rock ‘n’ roll, the man once known as Rotten whose musical energy is emphatically negative.

Really, not so. Few realize that he’s actually one of rock’s great enthusiasts, both a listener of staggeringly diverse knowledge and tastes, and a music-maker of fierce creativity and commitment. Indeed, after the Pistols’ first, explosive, game-changing tenure in 1976-78, Lydon reinvented himself in Public Image Ltd., which initially went to a different extreme, of macabre bass-booming improvisation, incorporating reggae, disco and Krautrock.

After 1979′s monolithic Metal Box album, PiL shifted through umpteen incarnations, each different in mood and influence from the last, reflecting not only Lydon’s restlessness as an artist, but also his love of a variety of genres and styles. Some were outraged when 1986′s Album offered up his own twist on FM-rock — was this befitting of punk’s prime mover? His answer, essentially, was: Yes, the whole point of punk was to make up your own rules, and anyway, who wants to make the same record twice?

Over the years, he would also forge one of electro’s formative classics alongside Afrika Bambaataa, and turn his hand to techno/house with Leftfield, but, after ending up in a legal stalemate with his U.K. and U.S. major labels, he drifted away from recording, in favor of step-parenting and a controversial TV career. He remained a peerlessly magnetic live performer, though, both with the Pistols and a new line-up of PiL, convened in 2009.

With the latter, he has finally concocted his first new album in 15 years. Called simply This Is PiL, it’s another departure, spurning the hi-tech sound of late-’80s PiL for a more organic, intuitive and, again, diverse sound. Already it’s being hailed as Lydon’s latest masterpiece. He’s in extra-positive (if ever potentially caustic) mood, as he gives the lowdown on post-millennial PiL, then hand-picks some of his favorite tunes from theeMusic catalog.

Is it good to be back?

Yeah! It’s been a few years there, and people have been assuming that my voice is this, that or the other, but I think I’m multi-textural, multi-purposeful, and I could shape-shift the vocal into anything I wanted to now, without much of an effort — and with no vocal training! Because I’m being really seriously truthful to myself, those are the tones and sounds and attitudes that lend exactly to the emotion I’m trying to express. There’s no pop-star in it. It’s something far better. But [sniggering] I’m still expecting young girls in the front row.

Explain your selection process for this incarnation of PiL…

I’d known Bruce [Smith, drums] from the Pop Group, and Lu [Edmonds, guitar] from the Damned, but that isn’t how we got together. We’ve sat down and tried to remember it all, but it’s impossible — there’s so many juxtapositions of events from back in those days (i.e. post-punk), that we almost accidentally fell into each other’s company. But I’m very loyal to them, and them to me. We’re proper with each other.

They’re two enormously diverse characters, and then you add Scotty [bassist Scott Firth] — he fit into this band from day one, right from his picture on the internet with a terrible hooligan skinhead haircut! Hahaha, it just made me laugh. His resumé was really extensive, and it showed a great sense of fun, that he could go from Stevie Winwood to the Spice Girls’ touring band in a heartbeat. That’s exactly the kind of open mind that we can work with. You’re not bringing judgmental musical snobbery to the table. Because a snob would have a hard time in PiL, they wouldn’t be understanding us at all.

So this is the happiest I’ve ever been, in the alleged career of music. I don’t want to stop this. It’s clearly set on a good foundation — a really honest one, and a very open one — very deep friendships. And it’s going really good places.”

This Is PiL is 64 minutes long, and has a real sense of journey about it, with lots of twists and turns and mood swings. How did you write it all?

PiL now seems to be a live-orientated band, and we all feel that that’s the best way. A lot of these songs were what you would call improvised, spontaneous. I mean, they’re thought about, but we never actually sat down with acoustic guitars and figured any of it out. Obviously, I’m loaded with thoughts running through my head, I never stop writing, but a load of stuff I’d had stockpiled for this got torched in a kitchen fire at my flat inLondon.

So, there we were in the middle of a tour, and we plonked ourselves straight into a barn in the Cotswolds [idyllic rural area in Southwest England] for recording, with nothing prepared — I mean, doomed to go wrong! And then we invited all manner of press down, not knowing if we were gonna get two bangs, a bash and a screech together. It’s kind of frightening to put yourself into that environment, but it just seemed to help, it became almost like a live gig. If any of this was easy, it wouldn’t be worth doing.

What did you end up writing about? There seem to be a lot of thoughts about Britain, which obviously isn’t your main home anymore [Ed. Note: John mostly lives in Los Angeles], but it is where you recorded…

They’ve always been in there. Home is where the heart is. Wherever I am geographically, this is always gonna be the way. But yes, it is aboutBritain, it’s about my life, my childhood here, it’s about our lives — a good look back to the past, to realize where we are at the present, and that will set us up nicely with the future.

I’m still standing up for this place. Maybe that’s what Britain needs to do about itself — do what I’ve done — just go away for a long holiday and come back and look at itself properly. And realize that the fine art of moaning without a constructive conclusion is a rather pointless exercise, as propagated by the Tory government.

Some songs seem very urban, with a world-y, multicultural feel, others are more based in the natural world, with a fluid, ethereal vibe. Most obviously, “Deeper Water” is about seascaping, right?

That’s something I like doing. Me and [my wife] Nora go out to sea in our boat when I really can’t bear the pressures of situations around me. It totally clears my mind. You have to step back or away or aside every now and then. Then the picture becomes much more clear, and you can describe it more accurately. You can get lost in the confusion of it all, and you begin to accept the nonsense that’s being force-fed to you on a daily basis. I’m not very good at accepting.

That song was one-take. It started out as something totally different. I thought, “I’m not very happy with that,” then we went back in and rewrote it on the spot, and what landed on the tape stayed on the tape — there was no need to fiddle with it at all. You don’t want to start trying to contain nature! Nature, being what it is, is always trying to escape from you.

“Lollipop Opera,” on the other hand, sounds much more town-y…

To me, that’s the soundtrack to my youth, the sound of Finsbury Park. It’s that juxtaposition of noise from my part of London, which I think accurately portrays the way I grew up — all those influences, the sounds, the chaos of it all, yet the fun in it. It was multicultural and ultimately good-natured. We don’t always have to be angry. When the powers-that-be leave us alone, and up to our own devices, we have a very peaceful existence amongst each other. I think it’s rules and regulations that destroy all that.

In “Human,” you say, “I think England’s died.” How exactly do you mean?

It’s generally the social aspect. They’ve turned all the pubs into swine bars. Swine bars can be quite nice too, but there’s too much of it, and it’s all so cold and indifferent, and the modern architecture — they’re de-structuring buildings with all that tubing and glass. It’s really ugly to me. I don’t feel that that’s offering me any spirit of generosity. I think it’s been put up in such a cold, indifferent fuck-you way, it makes people feel they’re not part of something in this country any longer. All I’m getting is a reflection of myself in a front door that won’t open for me. You’re looking in mirrored glass, and there you are, out on the street, and that’s where you’re gonna stay. Well, no, no, no, let me in!

In “One Drop,” you sing, “We come from chaos, you cannot change us” — a clear nod to your punk beginnings. But does it get frustrating being judged forever on the basis of The Sex Pistols, which, reunions aside, only lasted for a couple of years when you were barely out of your teens? What do you feel about that band now?

It got me everything. It got me out of the doldrums of self-pity, of growing up working-class and poor. It set me up beautifully to be an independent thinker, and to think outside of the box, as indeed I probably always did. I’m justified for the way I think, and I don’t think badly or wrongly or stupidly — these are not glib throwaway lines I put out there, there’s a lot of thought that goes into it. I want to get it right in life, I want to be accurate about it, and I want life to improve, not only for myself, but for everyone.

That’s what those Pistols songs were about, whatever people may think. They were from the point of view of the disenfranchised. No matter what benefits I’ve collected along the way, it doesn’t alter the perspective — you don’t forget what went wrong in your childhood. You don’t forget the rules and regulations that wrote you off as a misfit, or erroneously judged you.

The aftermath of the Pistols was pretty grim, with heroin overdoses, court cases and much animosity. Do you manage to think about it these days for the great stuff that came out of it?

Well, it obviously did because I’m here. So it hasn’t been negative in any way at all. The fact is, I’m alive. Thank you, world! I’ve got through so far, and I’m planning on a happy 50 from here on in again. Life is worth living.