That Nasty Ol’ Johnny Rotten

Prince of the punks returns with PiL

Punk’s first public face as frontman for the Sex Pistols, John Joseph Lydon, 62, pulls into Mohawk on Thursday with his post-punk pioneering outfit Public Image Ltd., promoting the band’s impressive new documentary and a career-spanning box set, The Public Image Is Rotten.

In light of the singer’s recent statements both pro and con on the Trump administration and Brexit, the title may seem ironic, but note that Lydon’s traditionally proved an elusive subject, given to seemingly contradictory statements designed to evade being defined one way or another. In his fourth interview with this writer, he came off more relaxed, genuine, and open than typical.

The real John Lydon surely lives somewhere between this and his (ahem) public image.

John Lydon leading PiL at Fun Fun Fun Fest 2012 on Auditorium Shores (Photo by Gary Miller)

John Lydon: ’Allo! Fancy meeting you ’ere!

Austin Chronicle: Good to see you again. Last time we talked was two hours before the producers of that Jesus Christ Superstar revival you’d been cast for announced they'd pulled out.

JL: Wow! Wow! What a spectacular meltdown. A lot of people got hurt, financially, including meself. These stick-in-the-mud/nose-in-the-air diehard types, they all behave like that.

AC: How are you doing now, my friend?

JL: Alive and kicking [laughs]. It’s quite amazing, because so many things have piled on us this year. I may have taken the words “40th anniversary celebration” a little too seriously!

AC: You're entitled. Did you believe that 40 years later, you’d still be fronting Public Image Ltd.?

JL: No! No! That shows that the endeavor is something I truly believe in. I'm consistent with things that I know are right, and will continue to be so. It's the greatest band in the world, right now. It's with real friends, and we stand by each other, which is phenomenal for a band, really. Especially after this length of time. Although they are not all the originals, but I am, and that's all that matters [laughs].

AC: Detouring briefly to your former band, the Sex Pistols, I’m surprised you reformed the band, but were not interested in doing new material.

JL: No, absolutely not. I’d moved on from that period in my life, and as a band, they belonged in memory, not anything new. And I knew that going into it, that this was going to be my attitude. Because it was the same kind of arguments that we had originally! It just felt useless. It was good that we came together again as friends, but that dissipated very quickly. All the animosities from the old times we there, so why waste a good song on that when I have people who can really get to grips with the ideas that I have.

But they’re still mates to me. [Paul Cook] is a very good friend. Now that we’re not working together, we get along really well.

It was important, as Sex Pistols, that we end it properly, our way. And not according to the whims of bad management. We made it clear that we were the independent and true force, and not the shenanigans that were wrapping around us. Unfortunately, some of the managerial moves led to a cottage industry based on lies. That kinda just kept on propagating. It made the whole thing very ugly. I thought we’d removed a lot of the ugliness, but it’s still there – lots of preposterous fake claims to the ownership of this, that, and the other. It's damned ludicrous.

AC: That's the very problem with politics!

“Oh, wow – alright! O’Rourke – yes, I will keep him in mind! They don’t bother mentioning these things on any of the alleged news programs, do they? But they do love to show pictures of Teddy [chuckles].”

JL: Oh, yes! I despise all of them. I can’t find any good in any of them now, more so than ever. Now when we need them to start coming forth with very good ideas, we finally don’t have any. If a bird needs two wings to fly, which it does – the left one and the right one – well, hello, someone's clipped the feathers here. There’s just a fat turkey in the middle [laughs].

AC: Y’know, here in Texas, there’s an ex-punk musician named Beto O’Rourke running against Ted Cruz.

JL: Is he? Wow! Wow!

AC: He’s very much running his campaign as if it were an indie punk van tour. He’s refusing to take money from PACs.

JL: Yep, a better kind of feather!

AC: You should take a look at this guy sometime. It’s really impressive what he’s doing.

JL: Oh, wow – alright! O'Rourke – yes, I will keep him in mind! They don’t bother mentioning these things on any of the alleged news programs, do they? But they do love to show pictures of Teddy [chuckles].

AC: First time I laid eyes on Ted Cruz, I thought, “Oh, my! It’s Mr. Haney from the Green Acres TV series.”

JL: [Laughing hysterically] Now I’m trying to remember that one! I remember it being very annoying. It had one of the Gabors, didn’t it?

AC: Yes, Eva.

JL: [Chuckles] There ya go. Not the mouthier one.

AC: You’ve got this wonderful documentary out, The Public Image Is Rotten. I love how at the beginning, there’s this clip of 21-year-old Johnny Rotten telling an interviewer, “I don’t give a shit wot you fink!” Then it cuts to you now, laughing and talking about what hard work it was playing Johnny Rotten.

JL: [Laughs] In them early days, I was half expected to be rude and blatantly stupid, which are two things I don’t think I am. If I feel like I’m being battered down or badgered, well, then I’ll let rip in any way I feel necessary. I think what I have to say is poignant and important. I won’t have that reduced to the “rantings and ravings,” which is the phrase they use for me. I won’t adhere to that. I have to change that. I have to shape-shift that back to reality.

That’s kinda boring, because after 40 years, I still have to do it. There's still people out there that will just go along with the flow. Unfortunately for me, the flow is coming out of a sewer. I’ve got really good fishing waders, so I won’t get too soiled or weighed down by this constant delving into my past without really understanding what we did then. I did excellent work, I think. That was my first rung on the ladder, the Sex Pistols, so I absolutely wanted it to be done right.

I can write, but I’d never found an outlet for writing. I knew when it combined with Steve [Jones, Sex Pistols guitarist] and everyone else learning, and me learning, it came into that amazing landscape, that tapestry that just hit it right on the head accurately for the time. And you can’t go back and repeat that, because you’d be faking it. That’s why no new songs. It all happened au naturale, originally.

AC: In any artistic endeavor, you have to take whatever you’ve learned and grow with it.

JL: And I’ve done that. I’ve not moved away, but I’ve gone forward. Unfortunately, a lot of the punk movement was incapable of understanding we had to go forward, or all of this would very quickly become a cliche. And horribly so, when I look at Green Day, yes they’re younger people, but what are they representing, really? They’re trying to repeat a previous lifestyle that they don’t belong to. They’re not showing me what it is to be them. Until they do that, I’ll show a negative interest in them.

“In them early days, I was half expected to be rude and blatantly stupid, which are two things I don’t think I am.”

AC: I loved the first Public Image Ltd. single, “Public Image.” I could see you saying, “Let’s take the basic Sex Pistols sound and build on it, then destroy it immediately afterward.”

JL: Nice idea, but no! It happened by accident. I booked the rehearsal studio. We got it cheap. We set things up, and we all glared at each other from different corners, not quite knowing what to do. Everybody was just trying out their loose bits and ideas, and we just kinda fell accidentally into “Public Image.” That was the very first thing we rehearsed. That’s how we began, based on that song. It just fell together wonderfully, and I didn’t have to strive too diligently for a new voice. I found the music gave me that voice, warts and all. We were on a learning curve, but that's where I love it at its best. It doesn't always work, but when it does, by God you know it, because the hairs on the back of your head stand up, and you say, “There’s something dead right! It belongs here! Nature intended this.”

AC: As much as I love a lot of what you’ve done since then, that first single will always be my favorite.

JL: Yeah, it's just a really odd way to approach pop music. But it was our odd, because we didn’t know any better [laughs]. And we didn’t need to. It’s why I say the essence of PiL is pop music, because it’s the most direct. You don’t need to over elaborate on the words. You just keep it short, sharp, succinct, and to-the-point, and there it is. Let the audience unravel it deeper. Which they will or won’t, according to their personal whims. But keep everything almost underplayed, rather than over, and you create far more information. That’s why I love pop music.

AC: You had Jah Wobble with his immense dub reggae bass sound.

JL: He says it’s dub reggae, but if you really listen to it, it isn’t [laughs]. I know he’s gone on about that ever since, but that’s really not where he was at, at all!

AC: Then you had Keith Levine with that huge, ringing guitar sound. Every post-punk guitarist ran with that. The Edge certainly built a career on it.

JL: We knew when we discussed it that we weren't going to have no lead guitar solos in this outfit. It wasn’t going to be like that, so he naturally tried rhythm guitar. Keith had some experience roadying for... I think it was Wishbone Ash. And Yes. He did several of them bands, just a little work here and there, but he did it enough to get the idea that it didn’t have to be a 1,000 thunderous notes and crotch rock.

AC: On those records, you can hear Keith thinking, “No 12 bars, no wanky guitar solos.”

JL: None of that. In fact, it was deliberately the opposite. Then you had a drummer like [Jim] Walker, who had this hard, just slightly out-of-time high-hat thing going one way or the other. It absolutely transfixed me. It was just wonderful, this beautiful bedrock of music between the three of them. Sad that couldn’t continue, but there were problems in the band. Wobble and the drummer were feuding, and I didn’t know about it until too late. The feud continued and it lost us a drummer and eventually a bass player.

“Hank Williams and Johnny Cash are firmly embedded in my musical history. I see those kinda people as absolutely stand-up rebels, and part of the detail that goes into the making of someone like me.”

[Laughs] Can I give you a laugh? When the Pistols reunified for that tour, we played the Isle of Wight. I wanted to do a country and western version of “Pretty Vacant!” [Affects redneck accent], “Don't ask us not a thing, ’cuz we're not all there/ Don’t pretend, ’cuz ah don’t care.” And the fucking band let me down. They wouldn’t go along with that. I wanted to start the set with that! I knew the audience wouldn't go along with that, but hello!

It wouldn’t have been disrespectful at all, but it’s why I can’t write new stuff with the Pistols. It’s important that you understand that they don’t get the bigger issue in anything! Everything is surface level with them, and that bloody annoys me. It would have been a parody of sorts, but it would have been most excellent. Because I always say you can transfer any song into any genre you like, if it's good enough. You'll see it will fit.

AC: Ever hear a band that came out of Nashville in the Eighties called Jason & the Scorchers?

JL: No.

AC: They took your same idea, but in the opposite direction. They played Hank Williams songs as if they were the Sex Pistols!

JL Yes! Fantastic! Why not? Hank Williams and Johnny Cash are firmly embedded in my musical history. I see those kinda people as absolutely stand-up rebels, and part of the detail that goes into the making of someone like me. I listened to their stuff when I was very young. And I’ve got to say, I absolutely melt when I hear Dolly [Parton]. The tones in her voice, oh, my God. I wish she’d sing pure country and not the pop stuff. Wow, wow! There’s heart and soul that tears into the Paddy in me, the Irishness.

AC: She’s got an incredible voice, she knows how to use it, and she’s a great songwriter.

JL: Yeah! So why would I be a fool and not listen to and absorb all of that? This is the trouble with categories. I think it was Caroline Coon who called us punks, and called me “King of the Punks.” I didn't know what that term meant, but it caught on. It shouldn’t have, because it limited the potential in everybody for the future. Too many just wanted to hide under that umbrella and stay there. The world is far more expansive, and I wanted much more of it, in my mind. Not just a narrow little road; I wanted an eight-lane freeway, please.

If I mention “Yee-haw,” that means country and rap – crap! [laughs] That line got Chris Isaak. We were both on a pop show, and he couldn't believe I said it! He almost fell out of the chair laughing. Now we’re friendly when we run into each other. I like him. By the way, he's one of my favorite singers, too – him and Roy Orbison. And Horace Andy, the reggae singer.

Please mention the box set we went to great efforts to release. It’s a very, very stunning and interesting combination of things. There’s three hours of footage on it. I don’t think many people have seen that. There’s also unreleased songs. It's a very interesting slice of PiL.

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