Colin McDowell is an impeccable authority on all aspects of…
John Lydon a.k.a Johnny Rotten is best known as the raucous lead singer of the Sex Pistols. There’s no doubt the band have left a cultural legacy that makes them one of the most influential acts in the history of music. Lydon formed post-punk ensemble, Public Image Ltd. in 1978 and has collaborated with an array of artists ranging from Afrika Bambaaataa to Leftfield.
The following interview took place at private members’ club where he was launching his latest book. He wasn’t entirely keen on the club, promoting the book or conducting an interview. For the first ten minutes he refused to sit down. Instead, he paced up and down, circling me in a fit of boredom and exasperation. After admitting that I wouldn’t even be in the building if I wasn’t paid to be there, he decided that we ‘might get on’ and sat down for the following questions.
You just won the NME Best Book of 2010- how did that feel?
On this? You want me to tell you now? Very odd. They invited me to the awards when they did an interview about the book some months back. We got there, we weren’t expecting anything of them, but it was backstage where they bothered to tell me that I’d won the Book of the Year Award. But there was no trophy, there was no out front announcement. The whole thing struck me as kinda ‘Backdoor Johnny’ kinda stylee.
It’s very weird. The NME? You know they wouldn’t be selling papers if it wasn’t for the two greatest bands in the world, that I’ve been a member of, selling papers for them, way back when. ‘Anarchy in the UK’ is a direct inference to the NME, ‘I use the NME, I use anarchy’. And here we go, 30 years later and they’re kinda ignoring all that. They’re so corporate….and they don’t see it. They don’t see that’s what’s killing music. And all those greedy, silly people out front, sitting in their chairs, like little bunny rabbits, waiting for their awards. It’s all very silly.
I take it you don’t feel much pity for the music industry right now….
No. NO. I’m partially responsible for its demise. I’m doing well.
Musically, a younger generation, their first exposure to you would have been via Leftfield and Open Up….
No, no. There will be a section of people for whom it will be the first time, but there will be others, who first heard me through PiL…or those who heard me through the Sex Pistols. They’re all kinda different crowds.
Do they all come to your gigs?
In mixed bunches, yeah. Right from my very first days in bands, the Pistols’ crowd was always varied. Always. It wasn’t just a sea of baked beans.
This book, was it an emotional experience, going through the old stuff?
A very, very moving one…and it’s nice that I’ve given myself an opportunity to kinda set a record straight somewhat. And tell it as it really is, and how I really am, and who I really am, and what it is I’m really doing. Rather than that be interpreted in the NME.
Was there anything you thought twice about before putting in there?
There’s a few photos and when I looked at them, I thought, ‘My God, I’m an ugly fat sod in that one’ but it’s appropriate anyway. It’s all about capturing the humanity and the honesty. It’s a struggle to go through life trying not to lie or cheat people. It’s a constant battle. So, when I see these photos, right from early childhood, I can see that look in my face- and I like the opportunity of sharing that with people. It’s a limited edition book. That’s necessary ‘cause I didn’t want to go through a regular publishing company. I’ve had problems with that operation before.
With ‘No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs- The Autobiography’- they would try and edit out paragraphs and I was constantly at war with this nonsensical approach. There was one incident where they said, ‘Do you have to say you’re from Finsbury Park? If you said Camden Town, wouldn’t that sell more books?’
This is the nonsense you have to deal with. Everything ends up ‘committeed’ and so the logic and the sense and the point and purpose of it is thrown away. This (indicating his new book) is in direct contradiction to that kind of world. Right from the cover onwards, this book is telling you what my life’s about. In it are the x-rays of my skull, during the ’96 Pistols tour, when I had to have some serious surgery on a tooth problem, when it went so rotten and poisonous that it was killing me. The infection was lethal. Those are the x-rays and I think that’s kinda appropriate to what the book is. It’s a look inside my skull.
So you had full creative control?
Yep. It’s basically me and my mates putting it together.
Did you have any legal concerns with the book?
No, no, no. Just arguing with certain photographers out there, who own certain publicity shots that we wanted to use. They were poisonous in their extortionate demands for use of said photos. It strikes me as odd. It’s my face, and I have pay for the privilege of using it? But other journalists and photographers were very, very excellent and friendly. It’s quite surprising what you can learn about people when you put a thing like this together.
What would you say to David Cameron if he invited you to Downing Street?
My comment on the coalition has been well documented- two cunts for the price of one. I’ll tell you this outright- never trust a Tory.
Don’t. And don’t trust Tony Blair either. Look what he did.
And trust no politician. Period. It’s the entire shit-stem that needs to be mind alteringly changed.
There seems to be some spaces on the X-Factor judging panel, is that something you’d consider?
You’re talking about the judges…and the empty spaces in their heads.
So would you consider it?
Not off the top of my head, no! If I could totally change the entire approach to that show…. I did a small little network show in America, where I more or less judged bands and there was a record label deal at the end of it. But, the point of that was that they were writing their own songs and I really appreciated that. The first episode of that series actually, we shot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is the only time ever that the building has been properly used- for live bands to perform brand new material, instead of the mausoleum it really is…
So, I take it you’re not really a fan of the X-Factor… Lydon makes a noise somewhere between a sigh and a raspberry
Oh, how many mime artists can you really put up with in life?
You know, everyone who wins those kind of things, they’re 3rd rate Las Vegas show acts really. There’s not much talent in it. Anyone can sing. But can you write? There’s the talent.
Can you tell me about the show ‘Rotten Loves America’?
It’s a new idea. It might come to fruition, we don’t know. We’re struggling to put it together. It will be exactly what you think it is- me, showing you all the things I genuinely love about America. It’s a fantastic place, as well as a hideous one. There’s a lot in it. The cultures and the subcultures, I don’t think are really shown around the world. America has done itself a real disservice. It’s misrepresented itself quite awfully.
What did you enjoy most about the nature programs you did?
It was most surprising for me, that I seemed to have adapted quite well to nature. I took to it, quite literally, like a duck to water. ‘Cause I’m generally interested in all things that live. I don’t know what that spark of life that maintains any of us….is, but I’m always upset to see a thing die. But I will eat cows.
Julian Assange- hero or villain?
That’s nothing that you can’t really get elsewhere. That’s just regurgitated information. That’s not secret, it’s not secretive. It’s not unheard of. For me, that’s just regular bog standard stuff. I’m not one for propagating conspiracy theories either. I found out in the entire world, that the powers that be, are like corporations, headless chickens. We just gotta start plucking the wings now, and not going on a head hunting campaign, ‘cause that gets you nowhere.
You came in for a lot of criticism after doing the Country Life advert- did any of that bother you?
Certainly not. Certainly not. And in fact, more power to me, ha ha. I got paid to sell a British product and use the money to reform Public Image Limited, a band that the record company had kept in constant debt to the point where I could not get them working again. Thank you, butter. Thank you, Britain.
And anyone who has a negative to say on that, doesn’t quite understand what the situation is- that these all-powerful record companies keep people like me in.
So you’ve got PiL back on the road again, you’ve just announced the tour.
We will be recording too. Definitely. That had to take a nose dive recently because my step-daughter died (Ari Up of The Slits). Can’t be going in recording when that’s going round in your head.
I saw you talking about her in an interview and you got upset…and that made me upset. Over the years, we haven’t seen much of the emotional side to John Lydon….
Oh, goody. Thank-you. That’s very neat of you to notice- and to say so. This scrap book is absolutely full of that. My honest side. I’ve got my run out of the media. I know how to milk them. They don’t give me a fair crack of the whip, that’s for certain. This isn’t just all badass noise. I think my song writing has proved that I can really cut a mean tune and a definite lyric that’s poignant and helpful to society. Not the other way round. Nothing negative in me. I’m a humanist.
That’s why it hit me when you choked up, I wasn’t expecting it.
I cry at an enemy’s funeral. Because I will dearly miss them. The death of any human being upsets me. The death of any living thing, except when it comes to self survival, hence I’ll eat a cow. But not raw.
No, it’s not so good is it?
No. I don’t want my teeth in its backside while it’s kicking.
You always had strong views on the royal family, have they changed at all in light of the forthcoming royal wedding?
The fact is that I had views at all. That’s what startled this country. Up until then, most people thought that was sacrosanct and untouchable. I got the same shock horror attitude when I walked up and down the King’s Road in an ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’ t-shirt. These were viewed as holier-than-thou sacred cows that you weren’t supposed to have any feeling at all towards, other than as cannon fodder, slavishly obeying the situation.
For me, I wanted the royal family to understand what its subjects were having to tolerate out here. So, the next time they raise a Royal Doulton cup, they’ve to be aware of the beer mug we have to put up with…and the poison beer they put in it. If you want me to lay down my blind allegiance to any institution, any country, any nation at all, any flag, any royal family- then show me you love me in return and you’ll get me forever, royal to the hilt.
That’s a good note to end on. Thank you for that, it was lovely to meet you. I was a fan of The Slits…
Well, then you’ll know.
I do know
Good on ya………thanks for making that reasonably painless.
About six hours later, it seemed regrettable that I hadn’t got a photo with Lydon, who is without doubt, one of my musical and cultural heroes. Somehow, asking him to pose for a snap seemed wrong, sad and very un-punk. Outside his dressing room, one of the staff told me that he’d not only loved doing interview, but that he wanted to apologise for being so rude.
This seemed unlikely, but you only live once, so I knocked on the door and joined Jonny Rotten on the balcony for a cigarette. The fact that I’d been a fan of The Slits and was therefore aware his stepdaughter Ari Up had died recently meant a lot to him. He was charm personified, cursed a lot, smoked furiously, happily posed for pictures and hugged me sincerely. Not so rotten after all.
First published: TheHospitalClub.com, February 2011