Banjo speaks to John Lydon about Manchester, advertising butter and his plans for the future.
John Lydon is justly famous for being the person who gave punk its face, voice and direction.
In fact, we could go further and say that it is because of him that punk as we know it exists at all – without Lydon’s look, his lyrics and his instinctive rejection of societal norms, who knows how the Sex Pistols would have turned out. Very possibly they would have fit Malcolm McLaren’s brief of them being ‘the next Bay City Rollers’.
But Lydon is also responsible for doing the same for post punk, this time with Public Image Ltd. He again gave it form and direction and encouraged it to disregard convention. What do you do for an encore when you have already irreversibly altered the course of music for ever? If you’re John Lydon, the answer is simple – you do it again.
PiL‘s debut album, First Issue, set the scene, with opening track Theme sounding otherworldly and immediately at odds with almost everything around it. Huge slabs of dissonant, jarring guitar and Lydon wailing about wishing to die made this a far from easy listening, even (especially?) for Pistols’ fans. Once again, Lydon had come up with a music that polarised people.
Second album Metal Box took things even further out and set them on course for new, unmapped territories. Listening to the album when it first came out in 1979 felt like being on a boat heading out into unmapped waters. Beyond here be dragons!
The people who were influenced by Lydon’s first call to arms with Sex Pistols had a post punk role model to encourage them to create any kind of music they felt they had in them. And they did, from the angular stylings of The Pop Group to the dub infused debut album from The Slits to The Raincoats’ intricate, scratchy rhythms – following Metal Box, it seemed anything was possible.
Since then, Lydon has captained an almost constantly changing band, with frequent line-up changes and shifts in musical direction. The current version of PiL has the longest lasting line up in the bands’ near 40 year career. So is Lydon now feeling content with the band?
Getintothis called Lydon at his home, in LA, ahead of his return to the UK for a tour in support of PiL’s 40th anniversary tour.
After a few rings, Lydon picks up the phone, immediately in character. ‘Allo’ he shouts, instantly recognisable. My first reaction is to realise that his voice itself is iconic, having been heard so often on countless interviews over the years. His interviews have soundtracked my life as much as his music.
Lydon seems relaxed, talkative and in no hurry to end our conversation. He is personable, charming and witty, adjectives a lot of people would not immediately think of when they hear his name. He has seen the story of punk and post punk unfold from a unique perspective and seems to be permanently ready to talk about his life and his views.
So how will our interview with the wise man of punk start? ‘You’ll have to hold on’ he tells us, ‘I’m just putting some Duvel in the fridge.’ Lagers safely stashed away, we are free to talk.
How are things with PiL?
John Lydon ‘Things are great. We now have a band who can bear to be in each other’s company. And not just that, but when we’re together, there’s such a lot of respect in the room. We’re all very different people in almost every conceivable way, but we respect each other and there’s no egos getting in the way.
And since we don’t have a record company anymore, we don’t have that to deal with, people trying to form their own little cliques and trying to create tension. As soon as we decided to go it alone, then suddenly there was no more tension. It is difficult though, you need to be an accountant to get through everything.
Once you have to deal with a record company, you’re nothing but a pawn to manipulate, your creativity gets watered down. You have to be something that they can sell, and PiL have never been easy to market.
But we manage. And thank god for British Butter [laughs]’
Was the money from the butter ad really that important?
John Lydon ‘‘Yes, completely. And the money from I’m a Celebrity, although I did give a lot of that to charity. I felt I had to for some reason, after the way it was earned. I would very much liked to have put that in my back pocket, but I used it to fund PiL. Because until you’re free of the record companies, you don’t realise how many people there are out there who would be only too happy to see you fail, and to see you bankrupt. So I financed it myself and we now take control of things ourselves.’
When you first started PiL, did you ever, in your wildest dreams, think you’d still be doing this 40 years later?
John Lydon ‘‘No, you don’t. I never thought I’d get to form PiL, I never thought I’d get to join the Pistols. You don’t think about it, it all goes too fast. But I feel I’ve got another 40 years left in me yet. I have enough ideas to last another 40 years. Life provides you with an endless supply of things to write about. All its issues and its problems, they all go into my songs’
Did you think Sex Pistols would last longer than they did?
John Lydon ‘‘The Sex Pistols was a whirlwind. It was so much pressure. And I was quite a shy kid, but what better way to get rid of your shyness than standing onstage in front of 500 people who hate you? [laughs] And it gave me a reason for all the scribblings I was doing, when you added a guitar to that, played by someone who was learning his craft, the same way I was learning my craft, well then it all started to make something.’
The early days of PiL didn’t seem to be a particularly happy place to be. I watched an early PiL interview recently and nobody seemed happy.
John Lydon ‘‘Well that’s because Keith [Levine] and I hated each other.’
John Lydon ‘‘Yesss, although by that time drugs had started to come in. Some people like that rock n roll excess thing and really, no good will ever come of it. That’s the thing about PiL nowadays, we don’t do that stuff no more [laughs]. We can turn up and get on with things.’
‘But I have love for everyone I’ve ever played with. I’m glad I had the chance to play with all of them and learn from them. Be positive, the pint is half full, never half empty.’
And there’s always another pint.
John Lydon ‘‘Yeah, but I can think of a few ex members who ain’t buying a round [laughs]. But that’s it, I put a lot of money into PiL, sometimes out of my own wallet. We make records so that we can tour and we tour so that we can make records. We’re on the carousel now, but it’s a damn good carousel to be on. It beats shovelling shit for a living! [laughs]’
Do you think there is such a thing as a generation gap these days? And if not, is it your fault?
John Lydon ‘‘No, I don’t think there ever has been. When I do a gig, if I look out at the first twenty rows and see loads of people who look like me, I think I’ve failed. If there’s one thing I am all about, it’s individuality. My audience are great, I get every age, every race, every type of people.’
You do seem to have come a long way since your days as public enemy number 1.
John Lydon ‘‘Well that was an eye-opener. When it came to people talking about me, and bearing in mind that they were talking about charging me with treason and that still carried the death penalty in those days, well that was when I really knew I’d got under their skin [laughs]. That’s when you think ‘is this really a democracy?’
And all the ‘the filth and the fury’ stuff. That’s when you realise just how much some people hate you telling the truth. And that’s all I’ve ever really concerned myself with – tell the truth, no lies.’
I spoke to Paul Cook recently, and he said that he was not particularly comfortable with people telling him that he changed their lives, and that he preferred people saying that he had influenced them. How do you feel about that?
John Lydon ‘‘Well I think he was just playing with words really, it all means the same thing. I’m surprised you got that many words out of him [laughs]. Paul was the quiet one. I do get on with Paul though, he comes to see us when we play. I think we just realised that for us to be friends we can’t be in the same band [laughs].’
He also said that if someone was to ask him for an interview just to talk about the Pistols, he would probably give it a miss. Do you feel the same?
John Lydon ‘‘Yeah, it’s all been said really hasn’t it? There are much more interesting things happening in my life.’
Can you cook?
John Lydon ‘‘Yes. I can cook the things that I like and thankfully Nora seems to like the things that I like so we’re ok there. But not when it comes to following a recipe and weighing everything out. I just open the fridge, see what’s inside and think ‘what can I make out of that lot’.
And that’s pretty much how I make my music, I look around me, see what’s to hand and make something out of it. If I look around and see a harmonica, then maybe that’s what will end up in the next Irish stew [laughs].’
What plans do you have for PiL’s 40th anniversary?
John Lydon ‘‘Well we have a box set coming out soon. We’re trying to keep the price as low as possible and there will be six hours of video on there, telling the story of Public Image to the present day. There should be something on there for anyone who’s liked PiL.
The name Public Image came from a novel by Muriel Sparks. It’s about an actress who has to maintain an image for her public, and that is how she is judged by everyone. She becomes obsessed with what people say about her and, eventually, it all slips away. But we’re still here’
Favourite PiL album?
John Lydon ‘‘I haven’t made it yet. I haven’t. I’m looking to get into the studio again. We’re going to be recording while we’re on tour.’
Do you prefer vinyl, CD, MP3 or Streaming?
John Lydon ‘‘Vinyl, always. I can cope with CDs, if they sound the way the record’s meant to. But I despise music on the Internet. Music is meant to be listened to in a way that’s best for the song, not when it’s all squashed down and all the space and that parts of the song that are meant to be there are taken away. I don’t like Campbell’s condensed soup, I like proper soup. People can say you should add water to it, but that doesn’t make it a proper soup. [laughs]’
Are you something of a luddite?
‘Yes, and proud of it! Now there’s a phrase you can play with!’
I remember you saying when Metal Box came out that the reason you insisted it was on 3 12 inch singles was purely for sound quality, not for any gimmick or promotional device.
John Lydon ‘‘Yeah, everyone knew that a 12” had better sound quality than a 7”. And we paid for that ourselves, we paid for the tin it came in, so we had to use studios in the night time, when no-one else was using them. And there was so much bass on those records, we gave up some of the vocals for the bass, and you need to be able to hear that properly when the record is played.’
Do you really still get nervous before you go on stage?
‘John Lydon ‘Yes, I always have, but only until I start singing. I use that energy, it fuels my performance. It can be a good thing, it gives you something to use.’
Your gig at the Free Trade Hall back in the day has been proved to be such an important gig for the city. Were you aware of any of that at the time?
John Lydon ‘‘No, you’re playing to about 50 people and there’s always someone there who hates you [laughs]. It’s like the 100 Club, if all the people who claim to have been there were we could have filled Wembley! But all the people at the Manchester gig formed bands. And that’s a good thing’
You’ve had more than your fair share of critical knives thrown at you.
John Lydon ‘You learn very quickly that there is always someone who is going to be offended by what you say or do, but you also learn that it is just one person’s opinion. And some of the more savage reviews I’ve had have led to some of the best music I’ve been involved in.
But after a while they get used to you. Like recently they tried to get me in The Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, but we weren’t having that [laughs].’
I can’t imagine you and The Rock N Roll Hall of Fame being an easy fit.
John Lydon ‘‘Never! As far as I’m concerned, they should give that award to everyone who’s ever stood on a stage in front of people. Because that takes guts you know. It takes guts to stand up in front of an audience and be you. Everyone who’s ever done that deserves an award’
As our conversation finishes, Lydon signs off by wishing us ‘Peace’.
That’s a bit hippyish isn’t it John?
John Lydon ‘‘Well it’s my kind of peace. That’s me, Ghandi with a gun! [laughs]’
And with an image of a tooled up Ghandi running through our minds, we leave John Lydon to carry on stocking (or emptying) the fridge in the LA home he’s lived in since 1981.
Perhaps too spiky, even now, for National Treasure status, he is nonetheless one of the most important figures in UK culture. That he is still going strong and creating work that is still acclaimed and original in 2018 is incredible.
Older, wiser, but still as irascible as ever he was. And proud of it.