John Lydon: To the Core

This is an excerpt from the first volume of Music in a Word: Fifty Years on a Rock and Roll Soapbox, an anthology and memoir by Ira Robbins.

I met John Lydon in a New York hotel room on a promotional tour for his first (of, so far, three) memoir. Although it was a fruitful interview, he ate sushi while we spoke and displayed an overt display of scorn (for an American? A journalist? A fan?) that could have been better saved for someone with a lot less admiration and respect for him and his music. Whatever shred he allowed to slip through that led me to generously refer to him as “charmingly insufferable” I can’t recall.

Rotten Is as Rotten Does
Newsday, 1 May 1994

John Lydon, the erstwhile Johnny Rotten, is not a nice man. And he’s the first to admit it. As the keening lead singer of England’s notorious Sex Pistols in the late ‘70s, he spewed venomous lines like “I am an anti-Christ … I wanna destroy the passer-by!” from a point unnervingly between irony and conviction. Three pages into his recently published autobiography, Rotten: No Irish –No Blacks — No Dogs, Lydon calls himself “a spiteful bastard…if I can make trouble, then that’s perfect for me.” And holding forth in a pricey suite at Manhattan’s Parker Meridien hotel, the charmingly insufferable Lydon waxes theatrically splenetic for the amusement of a wary journalist.

“Hopefully [the book] will annoy a lot of people, because people do need to be annoyed from time to time,” says Lydon, looking up from a unilateral lunch of sushi. “It’s the only way you can wake them out of their slumber.

“For 17 years, people have fiddled about with my history and rewrote my life story for me. I decided enough is enough: Here’s the truth. I wanted to smack you in the face with it. I’m fed up with people fantasizing: The reality is far more interesting.”

The reality Lydon has put together (with the help of Keith and Kent Zimmerman, who did all the interviews, other than with Lydon, that make up this oral history) is at once irritating and entertaining, a do-it-yourself indulgence full of historical amplifications and bizarre assertions (“I thought it would have been silly to go play New York. It was pointless. They had already decided that they hated us…”). Who knew the future Johnny Rotten was once a day-care teacher? Or that Lydon saw a role model in Laurence Olivier’s film portrayal of Richard III? “I thought it was the most splendidly vile thing I’d ever seen. I couldn’t present myself as a nice little pop star, because I knew ultimately I was pig-dog ugly and I had to find a way around that.” But Lydon splits hairs on the significance of his efforts. The book mentions seeing the film “a long time before I conceived Rotten.” In person, he counters a question on that remark with, “I didn’t conceive of Rotten as a character, that’s just the way I decided to present myself.”

“I would never have used the name punk,” he scowls. “It’s dis-gus-ting.”

Lydon, whose gift for condescension and haughty crankiness belies his poor, working-class London roots, just might be Oscar Wilde reincarnated as Gore Vidal. Quick, acerbic intelligence adds a razor edge to his contempt, which caroms between principled opposition to “ignorance and prejudice, class systems, lousy attitudes and establishment figures” and vendettas against old punk-rock nemeses like the Clash. “I know from an insider’s view what that band are all about,” says Lydon. “They’re [bullshit] and they’re out for money.”

Actually, the whole notion of punk rankles the man most music fans would be quick to identify as the genre’s figurehead. “I would never have used the name punk,” he scowls. “It’s dis-gus-ting.”

For all their shattering impact on the rock world, the Sex Pistols had a brief, chaotic existence, from late 1975, when the quartet was unveiled, to November 1976, when its first single was released, to January 1978, when Lydon uttered his famous valediction (“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”) from San Francisco’s Winterland — the final stage in the Pistols’ inexorable implosion.

“We ended when we had to. From there on in it really would have been repetition. We had no hope in God’s hell of making album number two. It just wouldn’t work.” As Lydon notes in his book, “Anti-fashion became a fashion unto itself. Then it was time to move on.” In terms of the future, “I don’t like reunions. I will never ever repeat my past. I will not go on the stage and perform those songs with the Pistols ever again.” [He did precisely that two summers later.]

During their brief lifetime, the Sex Pistols made a handful of phenomenal singles (“Anarchy in the UK,” “God Save the Queen,” “Holidays in the Sun”), one album (Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols), a U.S. tour documentary (Lech Kowalski’s D.O.A.) and no small measure of history; in its wake came an eight-year court case between Lydon and manager Malcolm McLaren, a film (The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle), a bunch of inferior post-Rotten recordings, an endless parade of imitators, the overdose death of bassist Sid Vicious and a plethora of albums, including a compilation snidely titled Flogging a Dead Horse.

The Pistols staked out a position of unflinching antagonism (“blatant attacks on anything and everything that got in my way,” is how Lydon characterizes his lyrics), playing hard-edged, charged-up rock and roll of enveloping intensity topped off by the acid sneer of Rotten’s sideways melodicism. “You can’t be dealing with conventionalism,” he says of his inimitable singing style. “You just gotta do what you do and [fuck] everybody else, [fuck] the rules and regulations.

“I was left literally penniless when the Pistols expunged me. I managed to pull through. I don’t think money, or lack of it, is where problems are. If you have ideas, you’ll find the cash.” And, he adds, “I’ve never been short on ideas.”

The idea Lydon had after the Pistols was Public Image Ltd., a group whose determined rejection of pop music convention has resulted in some of the most challenging sounds ever issued by a major record company. In recent years, shifting lineups of musicians have helped Lydon produce some truly wonderful records that absorb relatively normal melodicism and give it back wrapped in barbed wire. Right now, Public Image is on a year’s hiatus, while Lydon makes a solo album, promotes his book and assembles a Pistols documentary from 600-plus hours of previously unscreened live and interview footage. “If you want to know what the Pistols were like, then watch that. But don’t ask us now, approaching our 40-mid-crisis years, to go back on the stage and pretend we’re 18 again, ’cause we’re not.” ◆

Here’s the first portion of the transcribed Q&A, which appears in its entirety in the book. The questions are paraphrases. And I have no idea why I started where I did.

I have to say, reading this for the first time in 25 years, it’s a perfectly good — and seriously entertaining — interview. I don’t know why he pissed me off so much at the time. I suspect (a dirty little secret of my profession) I would have liked him to respect me for my knowledge and enthusiasm, to admit me to an outer ring of the inner circle of people who were around and aware in 1977. I was disappointed when he treated me like some ignorant jackal come to poke the bear and hear it growl.

12 April 1994

The death of [Dr. Feelgood singer] Lee Brilleaux?

Is he dead? I obviously don’t think very much at all. they seem to be snuffing it like flies. it’s just another funeral i won’t be attending.

The McLaren bio and Glen Matlock book

I don’t know about the Malcolm bio at all. i just put my little piece together because for 17 years people have fiddled about with my history and rewrote my life story for me. i decided enough is enough: here’s the truth. i wanted to smack you in the face with it. it’s myth-breaking, that’s all. i’m fed up with people fantasizing: the reality is far more interesting.

For 17 years, no matter what i do, people refer to other people’s points of view on my life. and i’ve had enough. i just want to clear it all out once and for all. this is the final full stop, i would hope. i know there’ll be more lesser pieces of work coming out, but they really won’t matter anymore.

Will Paul Cook write a book?

I don’t think he’s capable.

Conceiving of Rotten as Richard III

I didn’t conceive of Rotten as a character, that’s just the way I decided to present myself. I loved Olivier’s Richard III, i thought it was the most splendidly vile thing i’d ever seen. i couldn’t present myself as a nice little pop star because i knew ultimately i was pig-dog ugly and i had to find a way around that. that was my conclusion. i might have got it wrong but it somehow worked. it’s no big deal, it’s just what people do.

Your book suggests you contrived this presence to affect…

It’s not a contrivance, it’s just the way things are. that’s why influenced me the most; lo and behold the end results did its bit.

How did you keep a lid on the intellectualism and musical awareness the book now acknowledges?

You can’t really be wasting your time with other people’s idiocies and pontifications because you’ll never achieve anything if you indulge in that, at least not at that specific time. you can read it later when it doesn’t matter, and it’s lost its bite. you’ve just got to move forward all the time.

Wouldn’t it have been shocking if the NME had reported you as a former daycare instructor?

Not to me! But that’s the kind of stuff they would not bother to print. this is the mythologizing and the nonsenses that go on. i’ve always been absolutely, specifically honest. i had major rows with mclaren at the time about things… capital radio is a classic example. i was asked to go on and play some records. Malcolm thought that would all be Iggy Pop and the Stooges or the New York Dolls, which I had very little interest in. I have very varied tastes. Big, big row. Breaking the myth. But i think the truth is far more interesting and you will achieve a lot more by being honest.

Punk acknowledged reggae as a serious influence…

Did punk? That all came after me, that followed. And then reggae suddenly became a fashion accessory and that was the end of that.

People saw punk groups as tough, rootless and angry at the world…

I’m still fighting the same battles as I was then: ignorance and prejudice, class systems, lousy attitudes, establishment figures…

Has adult success taken any of that ground away from you?

I don’t know if I’ve had any success. You’re here. I’m not living in a squat — is that a sign of success? That’s something you do when you’re young, but you move on.

Not everyone gets to. Look around the streets of New York.

Yes, well not everyone’s got a brain and knows how to use it.

I’m not denying your entitlement.

Many people do

I’m not one of them.


How does one maintain an anti-establishment stance when has one has ….

This isn’t a stance, that’s the point. I don’t like being told what I can and cannot do. As long as i don’t hurt anyone, i cannot see where the problem is. i won’t make mediocre music. i’m not interested in going with the flow or even being remotely competitive with anyone. i’m not interested at all. as fine as that is left out of my life then everything’s all right. but of course record companies will try to dictate. Even your own audience will try to dictate. and it’s just too bad.

How shocked was Virgin when you delivered the first PiL record?

They were very unhappy.

You must have been delighted…

Yes, I was…No, I wasn’t now I look back on it because they withheld its release date and it was available in bootleg form three months before it was officially release, which did not make me very happy. I’ve been plagued by bootlegging and the likes. it just shows you can’t really trust your own record companies, cause that’s the only place the tapes could have come from.

PiL’s accomplishments: a new beachhead of objectionability. You could have just gone on and done the Pistols indefinitely.

There wouldn’t be any sense of achievement or purpose to that. you can’t just parradiddle on the same note forever and a day; there’s no joy. nothing to be achieved. fuck the money. fuck art. just do what you believe in.

How did PiL come about? You and [Jah] Wobble?

No, it was my band. It wasn’t Wobble’s. I put it together and invited them in one by one. lo and behold we just lumbered our way through rehearsals and somehow or other songs came out of that. Public Image works because it’s different people, completely different attitudes and backgrounds, clashing vigorously. there’s no one brainstorm going on. there’s no dictatorship in anything I do, it always has to be a sharing thing.

But you get your way

I formed it. i’m the axle.

producer Stephen Hague / commercialism

I’ve got problems with the Hague productions. i like the lunacy and the ridiculousness of being so structured, but it’s just a little wimpy. still jolly good, and I like the lyrics I was putting together around that period, too. one thing I can’t share, I can’t have people writing songs for me. I have to be the mouthpiece and i have to thoroughly believe in what I’m doing to do that properly.

The song “Seattle”

Hysterical, hunh? we were stuck in Seattle for a week and a half with nothing to do in midtour ‘cause gigs were cancelled — or whatever the reason, i can’t remember now, it seems so long ago — so we just worked. we rented a room in the hotel and rehearsed, and that song came out and lo and behold the Seattle scene followed it. I hope the two are not connected.

The song “Public Image” and the sound of U2.

I’ve said this for years. and how bass, from Wobble’s end, suddenly became a dominant force in rock music, which it certainly wasn’t beforehand. it was just this boomy noise in the background, just another people to balance the stage.

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