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John Lydon Looks Back on 40 Years of Public Image Ltd.

With a new PiL documentary and anniversary tour, the former Johnny Rotten talks changing course after the Sex Pistols and recalls “the nicest riot I’ve ever been in”

John Lydon

A new documentary details John Lydon's post–Sex Pistols life, including a section depicting the "nicest riot I've ever been in."

Ray Stevenson/REX/Shutterstock

“I’m not a sad sack,” says John Lydon. “The more problems you give me, the better I look.”

The Public Image Ltd. frontman and former “Mr. Johnny Rotten” has been reflecting lately on the last four decades of his career, the time in which he separated himself from the Sex Pistols and became a post-punk pioneer, exploring arty indulgences and mantra-like rock. Over the past eight years, he’s reviewed his life story while participating in interviews for a new documentary, The Public Image Is Rotten. The film offers a cursory look at the Pistols and then offers a blow-by-blow deep dive on all the difficulties he’s had to overcome since he set out on his own — from kleptomaniac and drug-addicted bandmates to spiteful record labels and police harassment. It features commentary from several musicians who played with him over the years, as well as a battery of admirers, including the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, the Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, among others. (See here for screening info.)

Lydon, who is sporting a bleach-blond Mohawk and a plaid yellow shirt draped over a pink button-up, is sitting in the conference room of the Manhattan high-rise where the film’s publicist is headquartered. It’s a few days before the New York premiere of the film and about a month before PiL, as he calls the band, embarks on a 40th-anniversary North American tour, beginning in New Orleans on October 9th. There are several empty and half-empty Coronas on the table in front of him, and he’s in a big, boisterous mood despite feeling overtired. “Want one of them?” he says, the smell of beer coming out of his mouth as he offers a bottle, but then pushes it to the side because it’s warm.

When he thinks about the hardship he’s had to endure just to make music and tour, he figuratively bats it away as nonsense. “It’s the way it is,” he says, opening his eyes widely to underscore his point. “I don’t suppose it’s any easier for anybody else out there, so there’s no self-pity in that. I smile in the face of adversity.”

He began work on the documentary, helmed by director Tabbert Fiiller, in 2010. Originally the idea was to capture the reformation of PiL, but he decided, “what’s the point in just mentioning the last two albums without the history that led into them” and refocused the project on the group’s whole story, from 1978 to their 1992 breakup and eventual reformation. Ultimately, he’s happy with the way Fiiller told his story. “None of [my career] has been easy,” he says. “But we’ve ended up with a documentary which is lighthearted and fun, and that’s the proper approach.”

When you finally saw the finished film, what struck you about your life?
I realized it was greatly difficult trying to maintain and secure the rights to my own career. There have been so many chiselers out there putting up obstacle courses. They want to over-promote the first step on the ladder I ever took, which is the Pistols, but deny us the rights to any of the footage. It was a real, real serious problem. It’s unbelievable the cottage industry that has formed around the Pistols and PiL. There were record labels who wouldn’t support us in any financial way at all.

PiL were so different musically from the Pistols. What was your idea for the group?
I never thought it’d be that different. It just ended up that way, because of the emotions. A word can trigger a sound, a sound can trigger a word. With PiL, I put a whole bunch of my friends in the studio who were incompatible with each other and me. The first thing we ever did was “Public Image,” the theme tune. It was an incoherent, kind of incomprehensible confusion of ideas that form the most beautiful pattern — accidentally.

You wrote some of your early PiL lyrics while on tour with the Pistols. So how does that writing process work?
I hear lyrics in the discordancy of the music or tonality or the sonorous sound. My solo album proves that if you throw an accordion down the stairs, I’ll find a tune. But it’s not so much a tune as a set of words that have obviously been floating in my mind for an awful long time that suddenly came to make sense.

I think that’s nature. I can’t force a song. I can’t go, “This’ll do.” It’s gotta be some substance, and it’s usually something else backing me up.

The film contains footage of PiL’s first London concert, which was on Christmas Day 1978. What do you remember about it?
At the time, there was serious energy. We broke every law that was ever written over the years, just in England alone. “You’re not allowed, really, to do anything on Christmas Day.” Says who? And what the hell is Christmas anyway? Please define.

Well, challenging the status quo was nothing new for you, going back to your previous band.
Yes. I was brought up in the Houses of Parliament under the “traitors and treasons act.” That was another bad one for “Anarchy” and “God Save the Queen.” It was probably the worst, because that discussion alone carried a death penalty if voted against, and much to my un-amusement, I found out that little detail when they didn’t take it to a vote; they realized it would not be acceptable.

They would have made you a martyr.
I don’t want to be no one’s “rotten” martyr, all right? Too risky by far, and authorities, as stupid as they are, they do realize how far they can go before they have to stop it. I don’t know anyone else, really, in modern pop music who has been charged in such an overly dramatic way, and for what? I haven’t hurt anyone. I haven’t shot anyone. I haven’t killed anyone. I haven’t beaten anybody up. I just use words.

What do you remember about your first-ever concert?
It was at Saint Martin’s art college that Glen Matlock went to. It was 15 minutes of the same song played forwards, backwards and starting in the middle.

What song would that have been?
Probably a [Small Faces] song. [Sings] “Want you to know that I love you,” yeah. There you go. It was called “What’cha Gonna Do About It.” That was a hard gig because we had no monitors. I’d never heard my voice, really, until about eight gigs in — not even in rehearsal or anything. I was just imagining how wonderful I sounded and the first gig ever to have monitors was at the 100 Club in London, supporting Eddie and the Hot Rods. I was so freaked out when I heard myself. To me, I sounded like a donkey. Then I put a microphone through [the monitor]. I was so angry, and then they were angry at me. They had every right, but, oh, my gosh. It’s such a surprise to hear yourself for the first time. We played in rehearsal for so long and nobody told me just how bad it was. They put up with a lot, them fellas. Poor things.

In the film, you said you never considered yourself a singer, that you were more of a writer. When did you first consider yourself a singer?
I never considered singing because of the Catholic Church. There’s no way I ever wanted a priest to have access to me, so I avoided the choir and anything to do with “Tra-la-la,” and then there I am running around King’s Road wearing an “I Hate Pink Floyd” T-shirt and I’m asked to sing in a band. I mean, is that luck? What is that? It’s hilarious is what it is.

It’s ironic.
Irony, yes. Good word. Not often understood in America.

So how long was it after you heard yourself that you considered yourself a singer?
I quickly found the voice. I had to. What on earth do I think I’m doing here? I know I like the words I’m writing. I’ve better find the honesty inside myself to make them sound like I mean them, and I think that’s the clue to it. That’s a hard step. I’ll tell you, fella, fucking hard, ’cause you’re teetering on the edge there going, “Oh, no. They’re going to get rid of me. I can’t have this. This is the best opportunity I’ve ever had to express myself properly.”

You expressed yourself well on PiL’s Flowers of Romance album. In the film, you described how you wrote music to Martin Atkins’ drum beats, adding vocals and cello. How do you feel that album has aged?
Well, no album’s my favorite, but I had just gotten out of jail in Ireland, so I’m very “pro” this album. I was very annoyed that most of my band wouldn’t turn up. Martin only had a couple of days before he went off on a solo tour, so he laid his basic, primitive beats and I looped parts of it and turned it into all manner of strange things. I had to learn very quickly how to use a guitar inappropriately. Pianos, I found the best way of approaching them was to put aluminum ashtrays on the strings. It created that harpsichord sound. At the time, the manor [we were recording in] was being built so it was completely unfinished. It was basic primitive stonework with deep wells, so the sound resonated like a haunted church. It was a fantastic, wonderful place to experiment straight out of jail.

How were you received in jail?
[Belches] How do you think? I was treated a bit disrespectfully by the garda, which is what they call the wardens there in Ireland, but that made life very, very easy on me, ’cause the prisoners looked and went, “Oh, he ain’t getting’ no privileges.” Things like that help.

PiL broke up in the early Nineties. How do you feel about that time now?
I never felt good about losing any single member ever, right through the Pistols onwards. I miss everybody. But situations, particularly when large record labels are involved, will envelop all manner of problems and create egotistical agendas beyond perception. It’s very, very difficult. Egos get stroked. Everybody thinks they’re better than everybody else, because they’re being fed things not only by their girlfriend’s friends but by record company executives. It’s so disruptive. I don’t know a way out of it but you have to go through those periods in life. You find out you can’t trust everybody you thought you could, and that’s hurtful, but it’s also good song material. [Sings] “Disappointed a few people.” It’s what it is. Nature’s not such a wonderful thing, but it’s all we have.

Your guitarist, Lu Edmonds, said in the film that things felt different and better in the reunited group. Do you feel that way?
Our friendship became much tighter. We’d been away for so long. We came back together almost completely different people experiencing enormously interesting, different things. We’re always gonna be close, but we’re always going to argue. I guarantee it.

What do you argue about?
Anything and everything, because it leads to good songs. It leads to truth. If you wrote two lines of rubbish that aren’t true, you need the band to go, “No, that’s not it.” If I know of a guitar line that’s just a bit of pox stolen from someone, I’m not going to tolerate it because it won’t be true to the emotion we’re trying to portray.

Speaking of guitar, Steve Vai played on your Album LP. How did you get him to stop playing crazy solos?
He did a little too much of the twiddly-twiddly. It was very difficult for him to understand rhythm until we went out and got drunk. And then, bang. You see straight there, because you stop over-considering [the music]. Here’s the biggest problem most people will ever have in life: over-intellectualizing what should be a simplicity. We all have this. We know this. That’s why I like fitted sheets [laughs]. I don’t have that problem anymore.

Let’s talk about your upcoming PiL gigs.
Why? They’re going to be great.

How did you pick the set list for the 40th-anniversary tour?
Happenstance, really. At the rehearsal, we were thinking of recording new material, and it just rolled into the songs. Those are the ones we rehearsed one after the other, so we didn’t even bother choosing the set-list bit. It’s what we enjoy doing. That’s it.

You don’t worry about songs you have to play?
No. How on earth in anywhere in my life has there been an example of pandering?

Well, people like “Rise,” for instance.
Well, good luck to them. I do too. Isn’t that a coincidence? [Laughs] I think the songs arrive more intuitively or instinctively at the right moment in the set. You couldn’t begin a set with “Rise.” I wouldn’t even think of beginning a rehearsal with it. It’s a theme and ideology that flows very nicely after a couple of other precedents of being a human being. It needs to be set up so one emotion leads into another.

With “Rise,” I suppose it deals with the fact that we’re in opposition to jealousy. That’s one of the seven deadly sins. That’s what we deal with emotionally in all our songs, though, isn’t it?

It’s interesting you talk about sinning, since that’s a religious word, and you’ve made it very clear where you stand on religion.
Who sins? Haven’t you noticed how many anti-judgment songs we have? ‘Cause we could all do without judgment — except if you’re gonna molest our youth.

Religious people have had to face up to that a lot lately.
Oh, isn’t that lovely? Well, I’ve been talking about [priests molesting children] for an awful long time. It’s about time now the world starts to pay attention.

Do you look at your songs as themes?
Some of them are. Some of them are actually called “Theme.” It’s trying to get to the cusp of what it is that is such a problem for the rest of us in general, and the corruption and monopolies of politics and religion. It is just inexcusable that we’re in a world now where everybody’s anti-Muslim, but hello, what are they doing that’s so different from the evangelistic preachers of 70 years ago, them Bible pushers that basically destroyed Africa? It really is that short term. So go forth. Understand it. They’re running around like religious … whatever it is, but that’s a hell of a lot less than the damage Christianity created. There are less terrorists in the Muslims than there were in the Christians. There’s a statement. And I think it’s true.

You can’t condemn a whole people based on the acts of a few.
That’s right.

Let’s close by talking about one gig in particular. Shortly after Flowers of Romance, you had an infamous gig at New York’s Ritz, where your fans ripped apart the movie screen onstage because you wouldn’t come out from behind it. It’s in the movie, but there’s not much commentary from you. What do you remember about it?
I flew in from London that afternoon. The Ritz had bought all these new cameras and technology, but they didn’t know how to use it, so they asked us if we would run a show that night just using cameras. We agreed and we were there all day long setting up all this stuff. We’re not aware it’s being promoted on the radio as a live PiL gig. So an audience showed up and watched us tomfoolery-ing around with cameras. What do you think’s going to happen when the record skips?

It was the nicest riot I’ve ever been in, but it was unnecessary. Though I don’t think anyone was a victim of it, because all these years later everyone is still laughing. I think it was the most chaotic, brilliant evening. We need more of that then, don’t we?

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