John Lydon – Nick Churchill’s Interviews

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Nick Churchill Interviews

Nick Churchill has kindly given exclusive permission to to revisit some of his classic interviews from the past few years or so, also his reviews and selected articles from his own archive. We hope that you enjoy these as much as we do and feel free to share them accordingly! First up, none other than John Lydon.

As the first new music from Public Image Ltd in 20 years is released, John Lydon is donning his showman’s hat and talking it up, a one-man army of startling soundbites. The album, This Is PiL, is out on May 28 and is Lydon’s attempt to assimilate all that’s happened to him in his 56-year journey from cradle to stage. Self-funded and released on the band’s own label, PiL Official, John’s still doing it for himself.

It’s the only way he knows how. Savaged by the self-appointed arbiters of cool for participating in I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here and starring in a TV advert for Country Life butter, John couldn’t give a hoot. He wanted to get Public Image Ltd back on the road and in the studio… and there’s only so many Sex Pistols reunions the world can take.

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Ah, the Sex Pistols… still gobbing after all these years – though spitting was never actually young Johnny Rotten’s thing. Winding up the public was though, which is why he’s given the green light to re-issue God Save the Queen in time for the Jubilee bank holiday weekend. The fact that PiL’s album comes out the same weekend is, of course, a complete coincidence.

John still loves the Pistols, but accepts the band is a dead end. He is absolutely consumed by the endless horizon of PiL though. It’s his creation, everything he wants it to be – and more. Passionate, pluralist, cantankerous, quirky, awkward, PiL is John Lydon at his unmediated finest and there are few things finer.

As the good folk of Bournemouth will be able to see when PiL play the O2 Academy on July 31 – a mere 36 years after the Council banned the Sex Pistols’ Anarchy in the UK tour from the Village Bowl.

“’Ello. ’Ello. ’Ello.” The voice on the phone is unmistakable as it unintentionally intones the  stark opening to Public Image, PiL’s 1978 debut single. What follows is a 40-minute private audience with one of modern music’s most iconic figures… and he doesn’t disappoint.

’Ello John, pleasure to speak to. You’ve taken your time getting to Bournemouth so what are you bringing to share?

I come bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. It has been a while and it’s been an uphill battle financially. They’ve had a stranglehold on me for years for nearly two decades, but I won’t take no for an answer. It might take me a very long time to get a yes but here we go – yes yes and yes!

Public Image is, I mean I put everything I have, my heart and soul into it, that’s just the way it is. Although I’ve been attached to some very large labels from time to time they weren’t really helping it to run along.

It’s very upsetting to think of all the bands that those labels have signed which are just pale imitations of PiL. It’s a bizarre world we live in, but, you know, you’ve got to have resilience. It’s what made Britain great.

I get the sense you don’t care for the music business too much?

It’s a bit like the blitzkrieg really, or the Blitz of London, without being too amateur dramatic about it, but record company shenanigans are a little bit like it – the nightly raid into your psyche, the endless intrusions by these creatures – why can’t you write a hit? But I have, there are many of them. It’s really about the demise of the record industry, which they brought about themselves. They deserve it.

In the same way I’ve had few things to say about the Royal family, but as individual people I don’t mind most of them. The trouble is record companies become institutions very quickly and that’s when it goes wrong.

There are new labels, a few little ones, and we’re working with one or two of them so the hope is they don’t go that route. As soon as you stop being able to phone up your record company and speak to a human being you know it’s over. Once you hear that automated voice telling which box to dial into, you know it’s the end of the line. Virgin was a lovely company, back when they had that place in Vernon Yard… God, that was a long time ago.

It was, John. I wonder if you’d go on holiday to Jamaica with Richard Branson now as you did after the Pistols split in 1978. What was that all about?

Yes, well he was the only one at the label I was still vaguely attached to who knew anything about reggae, who was warm to the ideas. It was very good because emotionally it helped me no end. It was a very difficult period after deciding to break up the Pistols and he helped me right through it. It warmed me up to the idea of starting a new band so I did.

I learned how to write songs in the Pistols and then I learned how to deconstruct with PiL. For me, I have to know what the rulebook is, then set fire to it. It’s a bit like reading the Bible, you read out the lines that you need and lose the drab. I’m no evangelist, no fundamentalist! The music really is an amalgamation of all the influences from birth until that current point isn’t it? But it isn’t copied you have to be true to your environment because once you stray outside of that you end up with art nouveau jazz and that don’t do anyone no favours.

Punk’s angry tide washed away an old guard and sent the bloated prog rockers running for cover. Now that the punk generation is as old, than those it deposed do you listen for what your contemporaries are doing?

No, because it interferes with what you’re doing so I don’t listen out for it, but every now and again I hear something and I’m either disappointed or pleased and leave it at that. There isn’t a huge wall of judgement going on, not now. There used to be – I loved taking the mickey out of The Clash, but they gave me all I needed on a platter, it was so easy. They definitely helped.

But I tell you who’s come out of it well – Paul Simonon. What he’s doing in Barcelona, his artwork is stunning, absolutely stunning. Creativity doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with music and he’s at the point where he’s making something wonderful. Shame it’s all Spanish themes but he does live out there and you do have to be true to your environment.

Where do you get your energy from John? You’re 56, what keeps you going?

It’s compulsive in a very weird way. It’s not an obsession but it is obsessive, the need to be creative and to be challenged by the effrontery of the powers that be, of their lies. That peeves me. And there’s the fuel for the engine, while there’s pain in the world I won’t be short of a song or two. It really annoys me at how those freedoms that have been so hard fought for have been allowed to let slip by the way. It is such a controlled state that we live in. Back when the band was starting it was done with a brutal police force, now it is done with a camera on the street corner. It’s all removed from reality, from the humanity. We’re all part of the machine now and do not have a separate agenda. But they’re not interested in the crime, or stopping the crime, they’re interested in the fine. They’ve finally managed to turn crime into a money making machine which is horribly impressive in its own way.

Got all your own teeth?

Actually I’ve not got all my own teeth. Just lately I’ve had four implants in the front of my mouth because the infections were overwhelming. I only hope it doesn’t affect my singing voice. Mind you I can feel the weight of all this titanium, I’m magnetised – very useful for picking up safety pins.

That would’ve been handy once upon a time…

Still is actually, safety pins are always useful.

Is it hard work to be John Lydon, PiL singer, agent provocateur, polemicist and commentator? When can you just be John from Finsbury Park?

There’s a lot of love in what I do, I’m all about love. When I was in the Jungle that was entirely me, that’s how I am. I want a cup of tea I’ll go and get the wood. I want a shower and I’ll use the bloody great pond that was there. That was me. It’s pointless to be anything other than yourself when there’s that many cameras pointed at you – far more than CCTV anyway. What I can’t be doing with is people moaning about what they can’t have or can’t do. Just do it – half the fun of everything is doing it for yourself. I won’t be molly-coddled into acceptance and programmes like Mock the Week make it easier for politicians to get away with it, they’re not helping. They make fun of politicians and we have a snigger and suddenly all’s well with the world. Well, I’m sorry, but all is not well with the world. It’s the British way though, too politically correct. We’ve got to get back to shock tactics, that’s where human beings thrive isn’t it? Go and talk to the old folks in the neighbourhood, the old boys and girls, they have tremendous things to say, great stories, learn a bit. It’s worthy to be in their company, be honoured, get used to the old lot, they’re not to be ignored and spurned, that’s how they end up alone and defenceless. Get over it.

Are there people you look up to, people who’s advice you heed?

It’s easy for me to say this at 50-plus, but I’ve always been that way, I’ve always listened to the adults around me, always have. I listened to Pete Townshend – ‘I hope I die before I get old’, what were you thinking of there, Pete? Ridiculous. Something I never fail to point out to him when I see him. But I’ll tell you this about Pete Townshend, he is a good fella though. Always helpful, he’s not a selfish bleeder, he looks out for young bands, he does. He gives them studio time and hints and let’s you in on a few tricks of the trade, there’s not many in this industry that do that.

Talent needs to be nurtured and encouraged…

You need to feel you’re part of something. When we started with the Pistols it was just a wall of hate like we had no right exist – is that how that load of old codgers is behaving? They need to understand. I would welcome hearing what they had to say but I think they took too literally that Never Trust a Hippy thing because I think deep down they all knew that’s what they were. They’d got their safety, their positions and their careers all lined up for them and they didn’t want change. But change is wonderful – you change your underpants, change your music!

Your passion for music seems undaunted by the passing of time?

You should learn from music, not imitate, but expand on it. I don’t like that world dance stuff because I find what happens is it’s all concocted from these wonderful flavours of different cultures and concocted into elevator music where the beats become very monotone. It’s painting by numbers and that would be the antithesis of me. Finding the real stuff happens quite naturally if you get yourself out and about. And again, you must listen to the old fellas, they’ll tell you a thing or two. You realise the more you travel, people are generally the same the world over – good-natured, deep down inside if you give them a chance.

How was America? There’s a lot of anti-American feeling in this country because we think the American people are like their politicians.

It’s just a veiled jealousy, it really is. Those fellas, they really do believe in get up and go, you know. They don’t sit back and moan, it’s not the American way and I love them for that. That’s not our way though, but the colonies are doing well!

You’re back in London now so was it time for a change, or is it work?

My family’s here – business too sometimes. It was police harassment that drove me out, it became monotonous it was so regular – constantly visited on a Friday night. Don’t know what they expected to find. It got that I got to know one or two of them, I’d see them in the pub in the week and they’d apologise to me for last Friday’s raid – ‘Sorry about that’ – and we’d laugh. That’s a very British response. It’s how things really are, not the way they’re supposed to be. We forget that each individual policeman is just like us, they’re part of a community, with families and things like the rest of us, they’ve got to get along, they’re not their job. It’s not really a Them and Us in anything, not really. It’s all Us.

You must have noticed some changes though.

We’ve got this current thing with Red Ken and Boris, has that made it yet to the rest of the country?

It’s like a Punch & Judy show…

It’s become a real Punch & Judy show, yes, thank you, we’re on the same wavelength. It makes people look away from the real issues. That’s how Labour got away with what they did last time. They spent more time advertising themselves than they did on doing anything. What a mockery they made of us, the damage is done the Labour Party threw it all away and for what? They became, well I don’t know, just a corrupt organisation above a bookies on the high street. I’ve got to begrudgingly say I used to like the Iron Lady – hated her politics, hated what she was doing, but at least she meant what she said. The lady’s not for turning, up until the point she turned, there goes the let down yet again. Even though you might not like them or disagree bitterly with them, you do like the sense of at least they mean what they say. Power corrupts. They get used to no-one saying no, that’s it…

A bit like rock stars then?

Oh yes, absolutely. This vision of pop stars meeting back stage at the festivals and getting on with each other, whoa, no way! Kin’ hell it’s the seven deadly sins re-enacted. It can be highly entertaining, but when you’re nervous and you want to get on and do your bit it can be very, very annoying to have to put up with them. I tend to shy away from it, but then again that seemed to earn me the reputation of being slightly aloof.

Do you cultivate your separateness?

Yeh, I find that what a lot of people are trying to do is steal your thunder, to keep you unoccupied on the job in hand. Particularly if they’ve just come off they don’t want you to go on and be better, whatever that means. In music, the principal of competitive behaviour shouldn’t exist.

But they try to turn music into a competition, look at the glut of so-called talent shows.

American Idol is currently unwatchable. It’s not really interested in music, it’s searching for characterisation of things that people know – territories and avenues of music explored 30 years ago and they now just want a theme park version of that. It’s always here’s the rock singer and no doubt they’re wearing a fringed jacket with long hair, the country singer. It’s misrepresentation and breaking down of things into departmentalised boxes and remove the genuine hostility. American Idol couple of years back approached us, they wanted to use Pretty Vacant for a singer they had on called Bo Bice. He was the rock ’n’ roller and he was the bloke I was referring to earlier in the fringed leather jacket and long hair. There was no way on Earth I was gong to give permission for this, never ever. With all the hardcore elements of the song removed.

Incredible, a total lack of understanding…

Well, that explains Simon Cowell… but then the Pussycat Dolls wanted to do a version of Pretty Vacant too. I’ll tell you, it’s a constant battle to try and preserve the sanctity. I’m not being overly precious and many bands do do cover versions, but it’s when these kind of institutions try to co-opt you, you have to say no, you really do. That’s why we turned down the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame because they were trying to co-opt us into a dead institution that never gave us any help in the first place.

There’s still a massive demand for the Pistols’ music though and you’re re-releasing God Save the Queen for the Jubilee.

We’re re-releasing them in chronological order and if you want them on vinyl that’s all well and good, there it is. No harm done and it’s not being rammed down your neck. And for me, it’s an unfortunate coincidence because it comes out at exactly the same time as we’re releasing this new PiL record, it’s almost like Universal what are you doing to me? It’s intriguing though to compare the two.

As it was when the first PiL album came out just around the time the last few Sex Pistols singles appeared – the ones without you. What can we expect from the new PiL?

Prepare to be stunned! I hope it’s everything that has happened to me in that record, otherwise what the hell am I doing this for? Of course it is, the longer you live, the more you learn, the better you will be at portraying the truth and the more accurate I hope I’ve become in my songwriting. I don’t mind exploring my faults in a song, in fact they’re full of them because that’s all part and parcel of learning to grow up, the honesty. But when I put myself on a stage I know that I’m begging for an open wound! There’s no protection at that point, I’m not hiding behind an image and I sink or swim by the thrill of the moment. I enjoy that, but I panic like fuck before I’m on. But for me, the most honest I am in my whole life is those moments on stage.

The current PiL line up is a mix of old and new faces. Guitarist Lu Edmonds and drummer Bruce Smith worked with you in the 80s, while bassist Scott Firth is new to the band – a tough gig being as previous PiL bassists like Jah Wobble and Jonas Hellborg have left big shoes to fill.

It’s very hard to pull it off because we like to play for two and a half hours. Lu and Bruce are very tuned into one another and I’ve known them for years and the new bass player is phenomenal.

That’s quite a difficult thing to do for a young man to come in and not be an imitation of something that’s gone before. We like our bass in PiL but it’s not a regime, it has to find its place. I loved Scott the moment he turned up with his resume – the Spice Girls and Steve Winwood – I said: ‘Genius! This is exactly what we need.’

PiL has had something like 49 different members! We joke about that, but in a weird way Public Image is kind of university of music, it’s a music school. We’ve launched so many different careers. It’s a shame some of them aren’t grateful, but they got their diplomas, what more can they ask for? They’re my babies and I love them, every single one of them. There’s no resentments or anything in me like that and everybody who knows me knows that.

People do take exception sometimes though, don’t they?

Yes, isn’t that great? That’s how us as a species are. We all know when we see mistakes what makes you so angry is that you’re aware you have those mistakes in yourself, you’re really hating yourself and it’s kind of a learning lesson for a few of them out here. I went through that very early and learned that running around badmouthing doesn’t get you anywhere… unless it’s the Sex Pistols. We just love to do that with each other. There’s a camaraderie in it that we never understood.

Do you still have fun with those chaps?

Yes, yeh, I really do. The Sex Pistols is a finite part of history and mustn’t of course be forgotten, but I don’t know if we’ll do more because I can’t write a song for them. As soon as I get pen to paper I want to put it into PiL and I can’t help that – I just love PiL so much.

Public Image Ltd  – This is PiL
Out May 28 on PiL Official through Cargo UK Distribution

This Is PiL
One Drop – “It is about my early youth in Finsbury Park. Fantastic! Hello, we’re all teenagers don’t you forget it! At any age, stay young.”
Deeper Water
Terra-Gate Human
I Must Be Dreaming – “Well, you know, I must be to put up with these governments.”
It Said That
The Room I Ate In – “That’s about drugs and council flats. And there’s a tragedy that still continues.”
Lollipop Opera – “It’s basically a beautiful bunch of background noise and music to sum up Britain and all its wonderful ambidextrousness.”
Reggie Song
Out of the Woods

Nick Churchill

Nick Churchill has written professionally for more than 25 years. Currently a busy Journalist undertaking a wealth of celebrity interviews and human interest features to writing speeches, generating web and media content and production scripts. His first book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Beatles & Bournemouth - got great reviews. He has also worked on projects for Duncan Bannatyne, Harry Hill, James Caan, Scott Mills and Peter Dickson, the voice of The X Factor. His obvious passion for words and natural genuine integrity is most refreshing.

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