The Sex Pistols, in their day, were called sick. Dangerous. Sinister. A glorification of violence, filth, sadism and rebellion. There were cancelled concerts and venue bans. They swore on daytime television, saw their album censored, and were dropped by two record labels before their debut (and, ultimately, only) studio album even hit the shelves.
All in, The Sex Pistols road to the top of the UK charts happened amid one of the greatest outcries over music and morality in living memory. In their homeland, the UK, their record, Never Mind The Bollocks, was sold from behind counters, sometimes in brown bags, while parliament debated how acceptable the word “bollocks” actually was. The band only existed in their initial form for three years, but for them that was just the right amount of controversy.
At the heart of it all was a snarling, quick-witted and punchy frontman, John Lydon. His pseudonym back then was Johnny Rotten, so named because of his green, crumbling teeth. He was seen by some as a revolutionary at the core of what turned out to be a late-70s musical gut-punch that still reverberates today. But Lydon was simply saying what he felt. And then he moved on: his follow up band, Public Image Limited (PiL) is far more long-standing, and perhaps a better representation of who Lydon truly is.
That said, in hindsight perhaps some of his many detractors will admit the singer had some very, very good points. Aside from his social politics, there was informed insight: Lydon spoke out against BBC personality Jimmy Saville, for example, overtly alluding to sexual abuse scandals in a 1978 radio interview. He was ignored, and sadly, proven to be bang on the money after Saville’s death in 2011.
Lydon pulls no punches, and that’s not something that’s ever changed. Besides, in many ways, British society has moved towards the position the Sex Pistols laid out at the very birth of punk. Criticism of monarchy is broadly acceptable now. There’s immense and vocal dissatisfaction with politicians, and loud critiques of Britain’s class structure and brand of capitalism are now rife. For Lydon, though, it was never really about influencing society, but about having a voice.
“I can’t be improving myself by ignoring myself”
“I’m here to try and improve myself,” he told us as he looked back over forty years of Public Image Limited and those earlier, fiery Sex Pistols days. “Hopefully that has a positive effect on others. But I can’t be improving myself by ignoring myself. Songwriting was given to be as a gift. I accidentally walked into the Pistols, and I’ve not treated it with any disrespect ever since. I take it very serious.”
There are definite clashes that still stand out from back in those Pistols days, however. Malcolm McLaren, who died in 2010 and had a huge role in bringing Lydon into the band, is one of the people he truly derides. “I never thought I was under the hammer with Malcolm,” Lydon says. “He was far too ineffectual and weak. It’s just the glory hunters that emulated the McLaren approach, ‘oh it was me, I did it all’. There’s this cottage industry that’s built up around me, all proclaiming that it’s their genius, and that I’m next to nothing to do with it.”
“Where’s the proof of that? Here I am, I’m still at it, and I’m not short of ideas. The ideas are flowing. And then there’s that lot… I suppose that’s the way of the world. In a weird way, it’s a jealousy complex. I take it, oddly enough, as a compliment. Are my ideas so good that you have to fight and squabble about them. Ha!”
The Sex Pistols : playing songs from the heart and soul
“Anger did great things for me, though. It helped me find myself when I was young. I’ve never seen it as a route to violence. I’ve found it route one to intelligent thinking.”
Perhaps, for all the hysteria around the Pistols at the time, things were never quite as messy as they were portrayed to be back in the 70s either. “I don’t suppose it ever was chaos, really,” Lydon remembers. “We were playing songs from the heart and soul, and playing venues where we can see the whites of people’s eyes and communicate on a deeply personal level.”
“It’s a church without religion, a place for celebration and exploration. Some songs are deeply sad, but it’s a celebration. I can see in people’s eyes, they have similar situations in their own existences. A problem shared is a problem solved. That’s the essence of it.”
“Music hall, social clubs, that’s the environment I grew up in and the environment I love.” he recalls, before turning to his own difficult early days. “You cannot ignore the damage that meningitis can do to you. I lost my memory for so many years. Really, looking back on it, it was a vital part of me becoming the person I am today. Mother nature gave me a gift, which didn’t seem like one at the time. It gave me a second chance at life.”
“When the memories did come back, I could look at myself and go, ‘ah, no, I don’t want to be like that anymore’. It told me I relied very much on what people told me was the truth. When I found out they were lying, I gave them a couple of chances after that, but if you’re a consistent liar, you cannot be around me. It’s impossible.”
Lydon traces an intolerance of those who he feels mess him around, try to exploit him, or simply wind him up largely back to those very early days. There was a mental recalibration that came with his memory loss, which lasted from the age of 7 — when he became seriously ill — to 11.
“I’ve earnt the name ‘difficult to work with’,” he laughs. “But I’ve no problem with people who tell it like it is.”
“I worked looking after kids who couldn’t go home, because their parents were still at work, before the Sex Pistols,” Lydon explains. “Problem children. That’s come into the music.”
Always trying to break down class barriers
“‘Bodies’ [the Sex Pistols song] dealt with abortion from both points of view,” Lydon explains as an example. “Not many people understood that at the time. Ultimately, my conclusion is it’s a woman’s choice. Anyone who presumes a woman would make such a choice in a flimsy, half-hearted sort of way is very ignorant about women.”
“It’s so easy to judge in the name of religion and that is really what’s creeping in at the edges again. We’re really on the cusp of a break away from religion and into a modern society where we can fully appreciate the individual, and free thinking. Religion is still trying to drag us back to that medieval monstrosity we knew as underprivileged, disenfranchised slavedom.”
“I can see improvements out there, but it’s a never-ending cause, it really is. You can’t sit back and go, oh look we’ve achieved this. I thought the abortion issue was settled a few years back, and here it is again. Frankly mind your own business is my opinion on it. It’s not like you’re murdering the living. Go visit an orphanage and see how those unwanted kids feel about their lives. I did.”
“On the other side, if my mum had had an abortion than I wouldn’t be here today, and I’d be very upset about that.”
Class is another issue Lydon was big on in the late 70s, though his views boil down to abhorring the concept in general. There’s a cyclical nature to talk of Britain’s class system, and Brexit has flung it back into today’s news, as the vote split heavily along class and educational lines.
“I’m always trying to break down class barriers, and find them repugnant in a modern society,” Lydon tells us. “They’re still there. Unfortunately, the powers that be are doing their best to maintain them. That comes from a world of judgement towards being born on the wrong side of tracks. It doesn’t make you any stupider. You’re just born into the wrong family, like you don’t ask to be a prince, a king or queen. That’s an entrapment of sorts, too. If we stop judging each other so harshly, we’ll realise our differences are what make us, not divide us. A class approach implies dumbness.”
“I’m still rubbish at the business”
Personally, things have moved on, though, in a way that Lydon is very happy with. He’s let go of what he calls ‘the shitsdom’ and now he can move at Public Image Limited’s own pace.
“This lineup of PiL is what happens when you don’t have major record labels,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that since we’ve gone independent and put up our own record label, things have gone a lot more smoothly. We can guarantee wages and that records won’t be held up, or analysed incorrectly. We promote ourselves. We’re outside of the shitsdom. It’s allowed our friendships to blossom. It’s ours.”
“I’m still rubbish at the business,” he admits. “I couldn’t count past ten, but I get to work with friends. Our manager, Rambo, I’ve known him since I was about eleven, and he’s a complete warhorse of a workman. An awful lot of this is really down to him, and I appreciate that. He gave me the stamina, and trust, to believe in myself. Here we are today, because of that.”
It’s not all been serious. There have been moments of lightness, too, not least in Lydon’s appearance on jungle-based game show ‘I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here’.
If you want to improve your life, work at it
“In many weird ways, doing I’m A Celebrity could be considered an out-of-body experience,” he jokes, “but it was the first time I’d ever been camping in my whole life. I thought ‘great, I’ll muck in and enjoy this’. That’s the real me, that’s who I am.”
“I had to get over the fact we were being filmed 24 hours a day, just waiting for us to make a mistake. I didn’t see it as a gamble at all. I viewed it as an affirmation. I’ve never even seen it still. Nobody bothered to think of taping it or showing it to me. I’m not going to look at myself covered in dirt in a camp bed after squabbling with an ostrich.”
Not that appearances like I’m A Celebrity are any indication of slowing down. In fact, it’s incredible to think that having started his journey way back in 1975, Lydon wouldn’t qualify for a UK pension as a 65-year-old for another two years . That said, he’s lived his life as part of pointed punk bands since he was a teenager, and isn’t about to stop.
“We’re recording new Public Image Limited material in the middle of this tour,” he tells us. “We’ve given ourselves a very busy year, but how else do you celebrate forty years of work? You start the next forty. I can imagine a fiftieth-year tour. And a sixtieth. And a seventieth. I’m writing constantly. We all are. There’s three years of pent up energy and anxiety, and that’s a wonderful thing.”
“I’m not one to do that nonsense of act your age,” he continues. “That doesn’t make sense to me, I don’t believe in early retirement or anything like it. I think my dad and my mum instilled in me a very good work ethic. Get on with it. Don’t just sit back and expect others to pick up the slack. If you want to improve your life, work at it. It’s a work in progress. As long as I’m alive, they’ll be a song to mention that.”
That life, perhaps, hasn’t ended up quite where he expected. “LA is la-la land, isn’t it,” Lydon says of his modern day residence, a relocation he made in the early 80s, away from the controversy in Britain. “I live down by the beach so I don’t have to get too involved. It suits me, with all the salt in the air. All those respiratory illnesses that I’m prone to cease to exist while I’m here,” he explains.
“But I look at modern American pop stars and find them underdeveloped, half-hearted, and gimmicky. That’ll never be my way.”