By the time John Lydon was 22, he had twice shoved British rock into some revolutionary new directions, first as Johnny Rotten in the Sex Pistols and later with the pioneering post-punk act Public Image Ltd. The confrontational singer’s second act mixed dub beats with brooding anti-pop and was hugely influential on the likes of U2, Massive Attack and Nine Inch Nails, but PiL went on indefinite hiatus just as the Nineties were beginning.
Over the years, Lydon occasionally reunited with the Pistols, published a 1993 autobiography, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, and began a television career as he helped raise the children of his step-daughter, Ari Up of the Slits. Then in 2009, Lydon unexpectedly reconvened PiL with drummer Bruce Smith, guitarist Lu Edmonds and multi-instrumentalist Scott Firth. The band has just released their first album in two decades, This Is PiL, on their own indie label.
Now 56, Lydon relaxed poolside recently at a hotel in Marina del Rey, California, as he drank tall glasses of Corona and talked to Rolling Stone about the PiL past and present. A European tour was still ahead of him, with U.S. dates coming later in the year.
What was the original idea behind Public Image Ltd.?
Not to run into the scandal side of journalism. To keep the public image very limited from that, to make the music and the message therein more important than the press scandalization, which [Sex Pistols manager] Malcolm McLaren loved. He was very drawn to scandal, but from a safe distance. He didn’t have to go through the pain and suffering that that kind of press attention can bring to you. When I started PiL, I wanted my band protected from that.
You famously appeared on American Bandstand early in PiL’s career. The show’s host Dick Clark died recently. Do you remember meeting him?
Poor old sod. I remember him quite well. I remember the wigs. He didn’t have to let us on and he didn’t have to be so kind to us and give us that opportunity. I really appreciated that. He could have been Godzilla to us. And PiL is an odd act to allow on a show like that anyway. It showed a great sense of rebellion in him.
There are many mentions of London on the new record, but you live in Los Angeles now.
I’ve been away for two decades. I had to clarify where it is I’m coming from, and what I’m offering and where this is going: “This is my culture, I am no vulture/I am from London.”
Do you spend a lot of time in England?
I travel happily between the two. But it doesn’t feel like home to me the same way that L.A. does now. I view myself as Californian.
Have you worked in Steve Winwood’s studio there?
It’s not really a studio. It’s a barn in the Cotswolds [in England], surrounded by nothing but sheep farming. So for inspiration outside of PiL, there was ba-a-a-a-a! Which, if you think about it, might have helped me in my singing. “Deee-e-e-e-per waa-a-a-a-ter …’
I can hear a little of that.
[Laughs] No, you can’t!
What were those sessions like?
It was fantastic. Warm, balmy summer afternoons, in a barn. You leave the doors wide open, the breeze would blow through and you would be recording live. Stunning, brilliant atmosphere we created. And you’re just praying the place is haunted for that added bonus late at night. Stevie Winwood we would see occasionally, like this [holds finger to crook an ear]. Pretending he wasn’t interested.
When the last PiL record came out in 1992, it was at the end of a very prolific period for you.
The Eighties was mental, because there was no money. [Laughs] You work with the tools that are available, and these are the tools that are available for the moment. We’re quite happy about that. As the band, it’s the first situation I’ve ever been in in 30 years of music where I really get on well with the members, and them with me. There’s no personal gripes or inherent jealousies.
During one conflict in the past, you even appeared on a TV court show to battle a former band member.
Oh, Judge Judy! Isn’t she lovely? I’ve just come back from England, and they have her on in England all day long. The English can’t get enough: “Is that really how American courts are run?” Yes.
Had you been thinking about putting PiL back together a long time?
It was always there. Sorry it took so long. But a lot went on in those years. Maybe I’m a bit selfish thinking people will remember what I did, but you know what? Most of you do. Arianna [Ari Up], God rest her soul, she died recently, but her kids came to live with me some 15, 20 years back now. I had to get involved in parent-teacher association meetings and all of that. I’m the kind of bloke where, if I’m going to play the daddy role, I do it.
Did you like that?
No. God, they were horrible to deal with! I love them very much, but they were so bad, and in many ways reminded me of me when I was at that age.
During all the years since the last record, were you writing during that time?
No, I ended up almost accidentally doing TV work and nature programs. You would think that would be insane and an impossible juxtaposition, but I found nature likes me, and I work quite well with wild beasties. I got my diving license and swam with Great Whites in South Africa – fantastic! – gorillas in Uganda, all kinds of mad insect life.
Since 1996, you have reunited occasionally with the Sex Pistols.
That was to clear up some old animosities, the very reason we fell apart originally. We just wanted to learn to appreciate each other in a different light. Unfortunately, the tour went on too long, and it crept back in to all the old problems. It became very staid and tired for me and it felt like it was a job. I couldn’t write new songs in a Sex Pistols context. I love singing them old songs, because they’re very poignant and a very pertinent part of history belongs to the Sex Pistols. If I write new songs, it’s PiL and that’s it. Occasionally, a reenactment is a fine thing. I love Civil War reenactments.
In recent years, you’ve also appeared on Fox News.
Red Eye the TV show! You wouldn’t believe the amount of people who said, “You can’t go on that! People will think you’re a Republican!” You have to break down these barriers. Just because people think politically different to you doesn’t mean they’re inhuman. There is something called humanity in the middle. Enjoy that. And they treat you just brilliantly [at Fox]. And they kept us as far away from Bill O’Reilly as possible.
Do you follow American politics closely?
For years and years. I’ve had great pleasure meeting the likes of Newt Gingrich and having a chat with the fellow on a staircase. I found him completely dishonest and totally likeable, because he doesn’t care! He knows what a politician is, and he’s a perfect embodiment of one. Obama’s another kind of thing. I hope he means what he says, but I know they all don’t ultimately. But he’s your best bet. He’s been given four years to repair eight years of damage. That doesn’t seem fair. [Laughs]
On the new album is a song called “Human,” which gets very personal about England and your memories there.
Bad politics is in there, too, or people that would mislead you into believing it’s us vs. them. That mentality has to stop. We’ve got to start respecting each other as individuals and love each other for thinking completely differently. We all feel let down by politicians, and the stupid uselessness of confrontation that they get us involved with.
And there is that childhood memory, of very nice English summer days with a nice beer in the sun, cotton dresses skipping across the lawn. When we were young, we used to play on the bomb sites [left over from World War II]. That’s what we used as an adventure playground. These days young kids don’t have any place to form an epic adventure. It’s more often in front of the TV screen or a laptop. That’s very hard on them. They’re being taught daily unsocial skills. Facebook is an unsocial skill. It’s so sad.
You seem to identify with youth on “One Drop.”
“We are teenagers, we are the ageless” – because my heart and soul is with them young kiddies. I know how that feels. I know some of the things I had turned out to be luxuries, like a fucking bomb site. They’ve got not even that. And you wonder why they are the way they are. You’ve got to love them, not turn against them.