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Q&A: John Lydon Feels 'Fantastic' About Icon Award

Sex Pistols won't reunite again, he says: 'My engine doesn't do reverse'

John Lydon performs in Austin, Texas.
Gary Miller/FilmMagic
October 15, 2013 11:30 AM ET

John Lydon, the former Sex Pistol now reunited with his post-punk band Public Image Ltd, will pick up the Icon Award from BMI at its awards ceremony tonight in London. It's a rare industry honor for Lydon, who famously snubbed the Sex Pistols' Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2006.

Where Do the Sex Pistols Rank on Our List of the 100 Greatest Artists?

The award comes in the middle of Public Image Ltd's current U.K. tour, which concludes October 21st at London's O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire. A film crew has been following the band for a documentary that will be released in 2014. As they buzzed around in a central London private members club, Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) held court with Rolling Stone on subjects ranging from the end of the Sex Pistols to Miley Cyrus.

How do you feel about being hailed as an icon?
Fantastic. When you're offered these things, you have to be sensible and see them as somewhat of a challenge. I've always got the thing in mind of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – that was something that I bitterly detested and rejected. This is slightly more serious, and it's very interesting that it's the British music industry saying, "Well done, John." I think I've done a lot for this country, so it's quite nice for that to be noted.

Do you not feel you get enough respect from the industry?
It's not that I want that – I couldn't care less, really. But when an offer comes along like this, it's done genuine[ly]. We bothered to look into it and these people actually care. That's nice. There's something of a cottage industry thriving off me. Maybe some of the cash can come back to me now. It's really appropriate that it's come at this time. It is a reward, because of the hard work it took for us to get Public Image back together. The record company situation was hideous. We had to buy our way out of those deals. I had to put money on the table. They wouldn't let me go. They kept that stifling debt on me for nearly 20 years. It nearly drove me out of the one thing I'm actually good at: writing songs and performing live. But I'm not bitter. I'm not, believe me! It'll come in a song . . . that might be bitter! A bitter PiL to swallow. [Laughs] But I don't look back on any of these negatives in my life in a self-pitying way. In a truer way, they've actually helped me. The time off was a good chance to refresh my batteries and look at what I really needed from this industry.

And are you finding that now, with PiL?
Yes. The last album [2012's This Is PiL] is proof positive that I'm a serious fella about what I do. The Public Image audience is loyal. It's always been there, but there's a younger crowd coming in. The variety in the audience is, to me, the greatest reward. The very early days of the Pistols wasn't so rewarding, because it was Johnny Rotten lookalikes for 30 rows. That's unimpressive to me. If I've got any message at all to the human race it's "Be yourself." There can only be one Johnny Rotten. This is the thrill of being a human being – there are many of us, and many more to come, but every single one of us is different. We are a wonderful species.

Since relaunching PiL, you've played all over the world, including China.
Yes. China welcomed us, even after analyzing the lyrical content. That's quite impressive. Don't knock the Chinese government – they actually appreciated my open heart.

They didn't tell you not to say certain things?
Uh-huh. I wouldn't be there if that was the case. Rules are for fools. Beijing [is] gas-mask city, [an] industrial wasteland, but the people are so amazing. But then, wherever I am in the world, I love the people. We went to Israel [in 2010] and were very glad at the opportunity to play in Israel to Israelis. But there was all these demonstrators turning up at gigs, Bristol in particular, saying "Don't support the fascist regime of the Israeli government," waving these banners. The ignorance of them politically and the ignorance of what it is I've done and stood for, and still do stand for, really offended me. I'm John Rotten – I support no government anywhere, ever, never. No institution, no religion – these are things that all of us as human beings do not need. When I go to a place like Israel, it's not to support anti-Arab sentiment or pro-Israeli government, it's to play to the people. One of the most amazing things about that gig [at the Tel-Aviv Heineken Music Festival], there's a very old PiL song called "Four Enclosed Walls" that contains the refrain "Allah." When you can get 6,000 Jews and 4,000 Arabs singing "Allah" together and they're not killing each other, you are doing a hell of a lot more for the world than any idiot on the street corner of Bristol going, "No, John, no, John, no."

You also played at Glastonbury Festival, home of the hippies, for the very first time.
"Never trust a hippie" was not my statement. That was some other tomfooleries that I worked with at the time. To play to the setting sun was great, it felt good – particularly after seeing the Rolling Stones the night before. I wanted more from them, I wanted them to prove that they were the band worthy of the attention, and they fucked up. They were too showbiz-y. I don't know what drug Mick's on, but I don't want it.

Your old U.K. label Virgin Records is currently celebrating its 40th anniversary.
I made Virgin a hell of a lot of money and you see very little return for that, and very little sense of loyalty or obligation to the amount of effort I was putting into them. I helped that company in so many ways. I brought so many different bands into their agenda and I helped form Front Line, the reggae label. And all of these things were just cast aside. It got to the point where I had to work outside of making music to make the money to buy my way out of the contract that was causing the problem. All the people that I knew when I first started there had all moved on, and I was more or less cast off into what they call the accounting department. They let me down so much over the years, murdered so many things that, with just a little bit of support, might have made my journey a bit easier. It was shocking to me – there I was trying to squeeze a penny out of them and what was it they bunged to Janet Jackson? Eighty million?

But your London gig is part of the anniversary celebrations?
They've hooked in on us and that's all right – they're more than welcome to see a proper PiL gig. It's a polite chastisement on my behalf. They do need their bottoms spanked, but we're going to do it ever so gently with a proper gig and make it clear that [they're] not my enemies.

You're an independent artist now. Would you ever sign to a label again?
Anything is possible. You never say no. The record labels have kind of murdered themselves. They didn't see the Internet dilemma coming. They didn't grasp its potential, and they didn't understand how to develop the artists they had already.

So will there be a follow-up album to This Is PiL?
Yeah. When we finish this tour, we'll tot up what the monies are and, if there's enough, we'll get back into a studio. We're raring to go.

Have you written any new songs yet?
No, there's not enough time just yet. It's work, work, work. But the way we are as a band on the tour bus, the ideas we have and the conversations we share, they're the formulations of new songs. First comes the emotional "therapy" and then working it into a song, but it has to be a genuine idea. Otherwise it's pointless.

Are you ever going to do anything with the Sex Pistols again?
No. Finished. I had a very good conversation with Paul [Cook], and I'm in full agreement with him. What are we doing that for? It broke us up as friends.

The reunion, you mean?
Yeah, it was supposed to bring us closer again, but it didn't. Maybe it's because it went on too long, but for me – and this is not a selfish thing at all, it's an open-hearted thing – I want their friendship more than I want that band. They mean more to me as human beings than the rest of that stuff. The Pistols did important work but let's stop it there, because I'm doing more important work right now. And I realized many years ago, I can't write a new song for the Pistols. The second that I'm into that frame of songwriting, I'm thinking Public Image Ltd. I just can't shift the gears backwards. My engine doesn't do reverse.

What did you fall out about?
The tediousness of it, the petulance, the jealousies. It's the worst kind of marriage you can have – there's three brides for each and every fella, and that's not great. It gets too close, too personal, too bitchy, too hateful. We were way too young to be thrown in the way we were. There was no real adult support for what we had to deal with and, as we know, some died because of that. Sad, sad times. The ones that have survived, I want them to go on and survive it. I think it might just kill a couple of them if we ever got back, because there's no point to that. I'd rather Steve Jones died of steak and kidney puddings than inadequacy. Even though he's a vegetarian.

Are you still talking to each other?
Now, yes. Now that the strain, the pressure, the tension is off, it's a much more wonderful thing to realize each other as human beings again, because there were some great moments there. Those songs didn't come from people hating each other, though we've run it that way in the press for a laugh from time to time. There will always be rereleases, and quite frankly there has to be. I will always want there to be people out there in the position of being capable of listening to both Public Image Ltd and the Pistols. I'm very proud of the work I've done. I don't want it to be junked.

Have you been following the Miley Cyrus debate?
Well, the babe learned a lot from Disney, didn't she? I don't see no harm in that, no big deal, but can you please string a couple of sentences that are poignant and relevant to the rest of us? It's a bit sad watching the Sinead O'Connor situation with her. I understand Sinead being angry with her name being used as a reference point for Miley to prop that up.

Do you see anything "punk" about her attitude, though?
No. How on earth's that? Punk's a different agenda. I had to go through a serious gauntlet of physical violence, police harassment and governmental abuse. How is flashing your little butthole anything, really, compared to being discussed in the Houses of Parliament under the Treason Act, that at that time carried a death penalty?

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