John Lydon

With Public Image about to go on the road again, John Lydon tells Antonia Charlesworth why only he represents the true spirit of punk

Antonia Charlesworth: You live in LA now. Do you miss England?

John Lydon: No, I’m there often enough… enough to see it deteriorate at an alarming pace. It’s kind of really sad for you. When I first started in music in 1976, England was bad enough but now… between Thatcher, Blair and this Tory b**tard it’s a hellhole. It really upsets me and nobody seems to be standing up and doing anything about it. Am I still the only voice of rebellion you have?

Is the US not in a similar mess?

The divide between wealthy and poor is extreme here now and that’s the case everywhere in the west. It’s a challenging thing. Here we have these poor people in Egypt and other Arab countries passively demanding democracy because they don’t know what a demon democracy is.

With the political and economical parallels between now and the late 1970s do you think we’ll see any musical or cultural movement?

It’s hell out there and Coldplay and Radiohead are partially responsible

You should do. Music has always been the sound and the voice of rebellion and it’s crying out for change. We’ve allowed record companies and really dull bands to co-opt us all into thinking the world is a very nice, bland place and it isn’t – it’s hell out there and Coldplay and Radiohead are partially responsible [laughs].

Bands like that can lull you into a false sense of security because their songs aren’t really about anything at all – they don’t directly challenge your perception. They don’t make you angry, happy, sad. They do nothing and the end result is a population that kind of listens to that backing track and does nothing.

The arts, painting, clothes, music should absolutely aggravate you at all times. Agitation is a very viable commodity to have, it gets the brain cells sparking and fired up and it makes people creative.

Are people going to be as creative today though, given the amount of technology that’s available to us?

My words are my bullets, I don’t need to smash up a McDonalds

The technology has murdered it. It really isn’t a hands-on thing now; it’s all laid out for you so why make the effort?

I don’t know if you should expect a youth rebellion – hell will freeze over first. I am absolutely all for any demonstration against cutting education because without education there will be no future. It’s a message I’ve propagated now for 30 solid years. Maybe it’s about time you all started to open your eyes and pay attention to that declaration. That’s the very thing the shitstem, which we call Tories, would like to take away from you and it’s your best weapon – to know where you stand in the world and the value of every single thing in it.

My words are my bullets, I don’t need to go and smash up a McDonalds store-front window – I don’t think that changes anything at all. I go straight for the jugular, the figureheads. Who is allegedly running this country? What is that royal family representing?

Did you watch the royal wedding?

England is dissipated, divided, fractured and rather stupid

Yes. The best thing in it was the Lancaster Bomber, the Spitfire and the Hurricane. I love that image, just the three planes. That was it – it was worth it. That’s the only time my heart went a-flutter, because it was harking back to the Second World War. They were bitter times but, oddly enough, better times because there was a sense of unity in the population.

England is dissipated, divided, fractured and rather stupid – a place where alcohol binging is the only real energy expended at the weekend. You’ve got a social system there that’s taken all the best drugs off you and they’ve left you with wine coolers. They’re just selling you cack to keep you all drunk and stupid. I mean, I love a good drink, but when I’m ready for it and I don’t want to be advertised into senility.

I won’t wear the shopping mall idea of rap gear. There’s another nonsense – going out and co-opting into uniformity. And basically that’s a music form that doesn’t do anything for you anyway; it doesn’t tell you anything about your immediate environment; it’s a delusion and an aspiration to a far-off place called America where things are not so great.

You can’t hop on another culture’s musical backdrop and think that that will solve your immediate problems. You have to relate immediately to your environment and that’s what I do, that’s what the Sex Pistols is/was/will be and that’s what Public Image most defiantly is.

Is that the overriding ethos of Public Image then?

It’s to tell it like it is. To be honest, above all else. It’s a difficult concept, honesty, yet once you adhere rigidly to it you find it incredibly flexible and very freeing. To not have to wake up every morning and remember the nonsense you talked the day before. Uncomplicate your life. But you also have to face yourself. You have to face up to your mistakes and your character and your personality and this I have managed to do, I’ve managed to do it several times in my life; it’s an important thing, to constantly be able to correct my mistakes.

Has music been the main outlet for you?

Music, writing, TV work, anything. Whatever it is I’m involved with, I see it as learning. That’s why I loved school, because I learnt. I didn’t like the teachers and I didn’t like their teaching, but I learnt and without that backdrop I don’t think I could’ve gone on to write the songs I’ve written, so anyone who turns their nose up at education is a fool – a fool you should be laughing off the planet. They are the people who make it worse for all of us later on down the line – they’re the ones who run around the council estates with big blades late at night, because they don’t know any different.

Do you think that social networking and blogging has become the revolution that punk was trying to be?

Everybody is lying to each other and being very hyper and superficial

It’s a very nice idea but it’s not true, is it? You’re not actually communicating with people. You’re communicating with people deceiving you and making you believe that they’re something more than they are. There’s no one on one, there’s no real meet and greet, so things like being able to judge a character by their eye movement and their facial expressions are all lost.

The most important part of being a human is being able to decipher the body language of another human being and you can be on the internet as long as you like but you’re not going to be able to learn any of those natural instincts. You’re denying yourself that, and that’s a shame. But at the same time, porno on the internet is wonderful. [laughs].

It’s a very useful tool but it’s not the be all and end all and email for me doesn’t replace a handwritten letter, and no amount of robots can ever replace a secretary talking to you.

But do you think it’s providing that platform for youth to communicate their dissatisfaction?

No, I find it to be more problematic than useful. It’s the source of everything bad in terms of gossip, innuendo and personal attacks. Misinformation, spite, anger, rage, not being used efficiently or correctly. It all comes down to girls bickering on Facebook about other girls, and some of those girls are girly boys. Everybody is lying to each other and being very hyper and superficial so I don’t respect it for that.

Talking of gossip there’s rumours of you forming a supergroup for the Olympics with Mick Jagger, Paul McCartney and Ringo Star. Is it true?

Yeah, right, well, that should teach you the value of gossip. How utterly ridiculous.

So you wouldn’t do it?

[Laughs] Who’s in this group? Well, it’s obvious I’d be doing the singing – that’s all I have to say to that. I do quite like Ringo Star’s humour. Mick Jagger – how many harmonicas can he swallow? It doesn’t sound plausible. And by the way I have a supergroup. It’s called PiL.

We have a very special bond with our audience, very special. There’s that sense of freeing up yourself and not feeling ashamed at letting yourself loose and dancing like a three legged donkey I suppose, but it’s all important.

It’s almost a religious experience. It’s very intimate and you’re sharing those experiences with other human beings. It’s a celebration of life and that is the true essence of PiL. We’re celebrating life, we’re not wallowing in morbid death goth rock because that’s not an alternative. I’m sorry but I don’t need to pretend to be a vampire. That’s again being led by the system.

And that uniformity was something you kicked against punk for, wasn’t it?

Yes, because it became very quickly co-opted into this one look of the studded leather jacket. There were many chaps that wore that well and they were original with it but they didn’t deserve for the likes of Green Day to come along, who were merely coathangers and not particularly punk because they’re not doing anything original or telling me anything I need to know. I see no problem-solving in their song writing and therefore they become a problem to me. American Idiot – aptly named. The joke is on them – there’s not really any intellectual depth there.

Is there anyone out there who is representing punk in its essence?

I won’t cheat or lie to anybody. That is the punk ethos

Yeah – me. Absolutely. I stood up loudest, proudest and lived the lifestyle accordingly. I won’t cheat or lie to anybody. That is the punk ethos: to be honest above all else and to be genuine in your care and consideration of other human beings. We do these things because we want the world to be a better place. I’m not one for expecting others to clean up my garbage. That’s punk.

Punk is not negative and never has been and PiL is a progressive exploration of those themes. It’s a place where anything is possible. Where musical formats can be played with or thrown out of the window at will. We don’t have to fit a systematic idea of what punk is. Punk is freeform, it can be anything you like, so long as it’s honest and demands integrity and respect because of that.

You don’t see any new bands doing that?

No – no, not at all. I’m open minded to all music and I don’t expect everything to lecture me all the time. Muse amuse me. I quite like them – I think they’re a really good festival type band but I’m a bit suspicious about whether it’s actually live or not because there’s not much movement. You could call them a near death experience.

Is the material you’re going to be touring with new?

A mixture – because we have no record label or sponsoring we have to tour to earn the money to be able to record. I don’t want to be performing totally brand new songs until I get some kind of copyright control. PiL is a band that’s been copied so often by so many that I don’t want to give them the song before it hits a record. I’m wary of that but it will happen, because it’s just the way we are.

Is it copying or taking influence from?

No, it’s mostly copying. There’re some good things out there that have taken influence but they tend to sound absolutely nothing like us. They’re the ones for me who have understood us the most. Each man, woman and child is an individual and therefore has a completely unique outlook on life and so every band should be uniquely different. That’s the lesson from PiL. When bands sound like us, they’ve obviously misunderstood that and have co-opted us into their manifesto because they’re too lazy to come up with their own ideas. Imitation is not a form of flattery, it’s an expression of thievery.

So once you’ve raised money from the tour you’re going to be going into the studio to record?

No, we’re going to be doing both at the same time. We’ve been rather clever and kept whatever profit ratio we made from the first half of our tour last year, and we’ve put that aside, and now when we re-group in London we’ll be rehearsing and recording and popping out for gigs all around Europe. It’s a very work restrictive regime but we like it like that because we love what we’re doing.

How is touring now different to being on the road when you were younger?

For me it’s always been hard work, if only to get over my own inherent shyness. It’s a rough little road I gave myself there. I had to learn to sing, learn to write songs and learn to perform – I think I did well and I used that knowledge to create PiL.

Public Image is a band that’s had some 49 different members in it over the years but for me that means 49 careers launched through PiL and that can only surely be to the betterment of music, and mankind.

Not much bad has come out of us. Some of the people are bad minded but they’re still capable of good music and even the worst kind of talentless racket that someone can create is still of interest. You can learn from other people’s mistakes as much as their correct moves.

You are the only consistent thing in PiL…

Yes and that’s a lot of wage packets I’ve had to put together. That’s what PiL is. It all comes down to me. I’m the one who has to structure the finances, hence when a British butter campaign comes along I think “Yummy! What a delicious treat butter is” because it gets PiL back out on the road.

It’s been very difficult to keep members because of money. Bands need money in order to live. Sometimes it’s been down to personality clashes but mostly just a lack of money. But the message still is true. I generally speaking find people who are on the fringe and are, in all seriousness, a little bit different. That explains Lou Edmunds, our guitarist, for example, very well. He’s definitely a little bit different.

The butter campaign was done just to fund PiL then?

The butter campaign hurt no one, people were entertained and Public Image were funded

No. It was done because of the sheer anarchy of the idea. I genuinely liked the people that approached me, very much so. They gave me pretty much a free hand so we went at it like we wanted to make entertaining little short movies, so really basically experimental theatre and very, very enjoyable. It hurt no one, people were entertained and Public Image were funded. The only thing I put in my back pocket was a pound of butter.

Do you get it shipped over now?

No, I come back for more. I’ve been in the music industry now for some 30-years and those people treated me with far more respect than any record company ever would. What does that tell you? It tells you everything about what’s rotten in the state of Denmark and it’s not Johnny.

The constantly changing line-up makes PiL very difficult to define…

That would happen regardless because we don’t believe in the limitations of structure. It happens naturally and instinctively because the more you learn the more you unlearn and that’s a good point of focus. It’s better the devil you know but that doesn’t mean you need to become the devil.

After being so fiercely pigeonholed to punk, was it a conscious decision to be undefinable?

I didn’t like the way the media tried to manipulate it into a one tone structure and a lot of alleged punks had a problem with me for thinking in a broader spectrum with much more of a sense of variety, but that’s their problem. These people that can back-chat and bad-mouth me have not done anything like I’ve done. They’ve never stood up, they were not the first man standing and I will be the last man standing in that respect. I will tell it like it really is. I’m not frightened of taking on governments, institutions, monopolies, corporations, the shitstem in general. That butter campaign would not have come about unless they respected my value and they knew that I wouldn’t be propagating a product I had no respect for. You cannot make a good curry without butter [laughs].

Can you tell me what the new material sounds like?

Some of our songs are highly structured and others are completely unmusical

No – no I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell you what any PiL song really sounds like other than it’s trying its hardest to sound exactly like the emotion it’s trying to convey. It’s a magnificent blend of literature and noise. Some of our songs are highly structured and others are completely unmusical and I think that’s an accolade. They all get down into the root core of how your brain functions. They use tone correctly. We go beyond intellectual – we go into a world of emotion and instinct. These are thrilling, thrilling areas to be exploring.

Was there something in your life that sparked that exploration this time?

Yes, because I learn from every conversation I have with anybody. Isn’t that what any human being should do – trade our emotions, our feelings, our views? This is why in my life I find my best friends tend to not agree with me at all. But we agree to disagree and it doesn’t make us enemies. In fact it enriches all of our lives. That’s why violence is never ever a conclusion to anything. History has taught us that.

I’m not saying that there’s not a time when violence won’t be necessary. I would never write it off. If anyone broke into my house and threatened to kill the kids, the wife, the friends, I would have a very different attitude immediately. I’m not illogically passive. There does come a time when there are people who will try to steal your very existence off you and there does come a time where you have to react as positively to that as you possibly can and, generally speaking, have respect for another man’s space and they will respect yours.

Speaking of relationships – Malcolm McLaren died last year. Did you manage to resolve things with him?

He did. It’s very, very sad and on the heels of that my stepdaughter died, my brother is recovering from throat cancer and my father died two years ago. Death is all around and in between there’s been others. The list is endless and I miss every single one of them. We are all people who have argued bitterly with each other and I miss them like mad.

I don’t know about that nonsense of life after death, I only know that there is life and that’s good enough for me. I wouldn’t take another man’s life and I don’t know what took theirs.

Me and Malcom didn’t resolve things. Why should we? [laughs] That’s what kept the pot boiling and that’s what made it entertaining.

Was there an element in showmanship in the feud then?

If you can’t enjoy a good argument then you’re a bit brain dead

Isn’t there always? we’re human beings. If you can’t enjoy a good argument then you’re a bit brain dead. I’ve been married for 30 years. At least we call it marriage, me and Norah. And we row a lot but the making up afterwards is ever so wonderful and absolutely worth the screaming match beforehand. One thing goes with the other and you don’t carry on an animosity. You have to clear the moment,when the moment is there.

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