Q&A: John Lydon

John Lydon still wants to save the Queen

Many of England's once-countercultural rock acts are lending their talents to an album that will benefit the late Lady Diana's favorite charities, but John Lydon's attitude toward the royal family hasn't changed in the two decades since he first sang "God Save the Queen." "[Lady Diana] was a flaky, stupid, self-indulgent cow," he says, hastening to add that he wouldn't wish death on anyone. "It was rather marvelous that [the royal family] is so rigid and stuck up their own asses that they responded completely negatively to her death." If it sounds like Lydon hasn't changed at all since his days as a Sex Pistol, it should be noted that he's making his comments from his room in New York's posh Rhiga Royal Hotel.

But before any talk of sell-out begins, it should also be noted that the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten spits at least twice during the course of our phone interview. It's also worth mentioning that while "I've certainly not mellowed in my years," as Lydon jokingly puts it, his new album, "Psycho's Path," represents a departure from his work with both the Pistols and Public Image Limited. Although Lydon has experimented with danceable rhythms since PiL's second record, his latest release finds him moving in an even more electronic direction -- and offering his songs to such remixers as LeftField, Moby and the Chemical Brothers. Lydon's current problem -- besides a hotel housekeeper hell-bent on cleaning the room he's still in -- is that fewer people are paying attention, at least partly, he says, because Virgin Records hasn't put enough effort into promoting his new album.

This is your first-ever solo album after over 20 years in the music business. Why now?

Three years ago I had a deal with Atlantic, and it wasn't a huge amount of money. That turned my arm, really. I was using rehearsal studios and demo studios and I just thought, 'Well, this is a huge waste of money.' So I built my own studio. And as the equipment started coming in -- this was all going to be for PiL -- I started writing the songs and it went on from there. It wasn't a deliberate move. It just happened that way.

You wrote in the bio that comes with "Psycho's Path" that you're a bad musician. Have you thought of getting any formal training in the years since you were with the Pistols?

I think I was just being coy ... I think most "musos" just follow certain forms and categories that they learned by heart. And they seem to lack inspiration because of that. Inspiration's the one thing I'm not lacking. Technique, yes. But I don't want to get too much into the technique, because I know that can bugger me up.

You started work on this album before last year's Sex Pistols reunion tour. Did your time with them end up affecting the way this album came out?

What it did affect it was that I could finish it. I'd kind of run out of money and the Pistols cash definitely helped me finish it on time.

For the first time ever, the Pistols paid me on time. It's been endless court cases up to that tour.

Did you feel vindicated that the tour got a pretty good response from fans? The Sex Pistols had a reputation as a disappointing live act.

Which is absolute rubbish. All my life I've been accused of things like that. And in a way it goes back to that bad musician thing. You're gonna be accused of it anyway, so just wallow in it. [Spits] Even though it's not the truth, it sometimes seems easier to not deny things and just let them drift on. It's unfortunate, but that's the way the world seems to run. People would rather believe a lie than believe the truth.

Were the other band members also happy with how the reunion went?

I suppose so. Haven't spoken to them since ... I haven't made any attempts [at communication], neither have they and that's about it. It's kind of like the old days: They got their money and they ran. We left off exactly where we left off the first time: in a cloud of animosity.

Do you think you'll ever perform together again?

No, I've put it all up for sale, all my percentages. So there can be no chance of it ever happening. I'm not connected to it now in any shape or form.

I suppose [the publishing] will be a nice earner over the years to come. It's a pension scheme.

Do you think punk is dead?

Look, it happened then. Why would you want to imitate something that happened then. You've got to live in your own time now. That's why my music constantly changes, because I have to relate directly to my surroundings. Otherwise you're living in other people's shadows and ... giving up your own personality, and I find all that to be rather stupid.

As the guy who sang "God Save the Queen," what do you think of the reaction to Princess Di's death?

You know my views on the royal family are quite clear, but I think it's sad that someone died like that. I thought their pompous way of trying to ignore it was offensive -- and, actually, exactly the way I wanted them to behave, because they pissed off the entire British nation. Maybe it's about time they rolled over and died.

You mentioned you were arguing with your record company. What were you arguing about?

Well, I need a new record company.

[There's been a] lack of promotion ... just a lack of everything. Lack of communication, failure to respond to phone calls, general all-around inefficiency. And after, you know, practically helping to found this damn company, I don't take kindly to that ... I think the Pistols definitely bolstered [Virgin]. Before that it was just another hippie outlet with ponderous acts like Mike Oldfield. [laughs] Tubular smells.