Few names in pop music inspire the kind of polarizing, passionate responses as John Lydon‘s. He kicked his way into the public consciousness with the Sex Pistols in the ’70s: He was featured in the British tabloids as frequently as members of the royal family, angry protesters hung on his every curse word, his words and presence examined class issues during heady political times. Oh, and there was the music. Lydon’s snarling vocals and abrasive lyrics proved a potent match alongside the Pistols’ instrumental rehashings of American garage rock. It became the epitome of punk rock.
That is until Lydon’s next band came along. Following the Pistols’ flameout, Lydon formed Public Image Ltd. with one-time Clash guitarist Keith Levene and bassist John “Jah Wobble” Wardle. Endlessly creative, PiL became paragons of post-punk. Melding sounds as disparate as reggae and disco with basic elements of rock, PiL was one of the U.K.’s best acts in the late ’70s and early ’80s. By the mid-’80s, Levene and Wardle were no longer affiliated with PiL, leaving Lydon to carry the band with a variety of musicians until it went on hiatus in the early ’90s.
Now, PiL is back and touring the U.S. The group plays at the 9:30 Club tomorrow, Lydon took some time—-speaking from a, um, curious location—-to discuss PiL in the 21st Century.
John Lydon: If you hear strange background noises, it’s because I’m sitting on the toilet. I can’t help it, I’m like the royal family, I do have bodily functions.
Washington City Paper: Alright… let’s get started. Why a PiL reunion now?
JL: Money. At last I’ve managed to procure enough money that I could put PiL back together again. In all these years since we’ve kind of went quiet, there were many difficult reasons involving record company lack of involvement for PiL seeming to have folded. It’s still the same case. There’s still not supporting, or backing, or even communicating with me in any way, shape, or form. And so, I did a butter campaign last year in England for British butter, and the money for that, I’ve put every penny into reforming PiL.
WCP: Was your original intent in doing the butter campaign to reform PiL?
JL: No, no. I loved the complete anarchy of asking me to promote this seemingly, such a politically incorrect food source. But then reality of course crept in, and then I thought, ‘Well, that’s really brilliant. This should be good fun!’
They let me have a free hand with the script, and so, I thought I could turn this into a really amusing little moment, and spark up the dreariness of regular British TV. And did so. And all the time, selling a product that I actually do love and appreciate, because I cannot eat toast without butter. Am I exceptional? No!
WCP: Yeah, you seemed to have a lot of fun doing that ad.
JL: A lot, a lot. They treated me with the utmost respect and likewise in return to them. And I’ve never, in 30 years in the music industry, been approached with such good manners. And such freedom, and such an enjoyment of putting the whole thing together. It was a pleasure from start to finish.
People say, ‘That’s corporate.’ Well, let me tell you, I would prefer to work with people like that any day over the two-faced nonsense that we call the record industry, you know? A business that, quite happily, tries to co-opt me into the Rock ‘N Roll Hall of Fame, yet wouldn’t raise a dollar to help me get out and tour, or promote a record, or even make a record.
WCP: Are you thinking of doing a new PiL record?
JL: Yes, I am. If we achieve any kind of success on this tour, every penny will go into recording.
WCP: Have you started writing any new songs?
JL: I’ve never stopped writing. Because this is a band I think is the best format PiL has ever, ever had, ever, we’ll go into this in the proper way, as a true band. As in all contributions will be appreciated, which is exactly the way I like it to be.
It wouldn’t be just a “Johnny Lydon” solo album, I did one of them, and yet again, my record company, which is Virgin, absolutely did nothing with it. I don’t think anybody even knew it even existed. In fact, they didn’t bother to promote it at all. It would have been more well-known.
WCP: There have been a number of bands that have decided to raise money on the Internet to pay for an album. Would you consider that route?
JL: That’s such a clutterbox. I really just am not Internet-heavy. I don’t like it, I don’t see it as an information highway. I see it as a pile of confusion. There’s so many lies bandied about, and it’s so impossible to keep track of business shenanigans, that you open yourself up to more trouble than it’s worth.
WCP: Have you been spurned by any particular case of online lies?
JL: Yeah, there have been rumors flying around the Internet about everybody. Everybody seems to suffer at some point. You know, I’m not one for censorship, but with the human being, being what it is, it should be a… a bad person should be able to be stopped from spreading lies and innuendos and rumors, and yet, there doesn’t seem to be any force capable of doing that.
I really, really dislike it a lot. It causes an awful lot of damage. Just a classic example is all those endless girls and young kids that are going and committing suicide because of Internet harassment. That’s absolutely, to me, an intolerable situation. And people do not realize this, but gossip is one of the world’s most destructive forces.
WCP: Backtracking a little bit, how did you get Lu [Edmonds], Bruce [Smith] and Scott [Firth] involved in the PiL reformation?
JL: Lu and Bruce I’ve known for so long. I mean, any PiL format, those are the two I’ve worked with the longest, and have the most appreciation for. We had a problem with the bass end of things, I mean, there’s, you know, some really good bass players that have been in PiL, but they wouldn’t be able to cope with the full range.
And Scotty came along into the band through a connection through the road manager we have, Bill Barclay, a rather wonderful chap. Not only has he tour managed American Idol, but he’s also done Iron Maiden. Through a median, he knew Scott.
I pulled up Scott’s thing, actually on the Internet, I went to see Scott’s resume, which ranged from Stevie Winwood to the Spice Girls. I thought that that was absolutely completely had to be the right person. Anyone who’s loud and proud about working both ends of the musical spectrum and not judgmental at all in their approach about it, is absolutely the kind of person I want to work with.
I hate snobbery in music.
WCP: You’ve already started touring a little bit, how has the crowd response been?
JL: I’m well surprised at just how well we’re going over. I thought that this would be a difficult uphill climb. I thought it would be just a large pile of aging old men, but it isn’t at all. It’s all colors, all classes, all ages, and all different types. It’s not one horrible, punky uniform adopted. It’s absolute variety in the audience, and that, to my mind, shows a total respect of what Public Image is.
WCP: Do you think the way the music scene is splintering nowadays has contributed to that diverse audience that you’re playing to?
WCP: A lot of music critics talk about the range of small, obscure music scenes popping up across the country and there’s no one mass culture. Some talk about it with fear, others talk about that with…
JL: I’ve always hated the world of one mass-culture, and as much diversity as possible would make for a much better world, so long as we are complimentary to each other and not thinking one source of music is better than another, because it indeed isn’t. So long as it’s true and genuine and from the heart, it’s all valid. Now, there’s an awful lot of invalid music out there, which is all about mass consumption. Unfortunately, as always, we always know the Top 40 is always full of kak.
WCP: Backtracking a bit more, I read your book, Rotten, and I was surprised by how peripheral PiL is in that book. Is there a reason that you decided…
JL: Yes, it never got up to the PiL years.
There will be a part two.
WCP: Have you been working on that?
JL: You see, with me, I know, you keep saying, ‘Oh the time in between.’ I don’t view life as ‘You have to do it all immediately,’ and I don’t have time limits on anything. It’s with what appears in a spate or condition to let us sit back and go, ‘now I can talk about it, well then that will be the time. But at the moment, it is an ongoing operation, and always has been. Our message is as valid now as ever, and actually timeless. And there’s my achievement. And there’s my other achievement, going down the flusher.
WCP: I’d be kicking myself if I didn’t ask you this, but when you heard the news about Malcolm McLaren, what was your reaction?
JL: Well, I responded immediately, and the press statement that was then flown around the world is exactly what I said the second that I heard it, because I spoke from the heart and not being spiteful or mean-minded, I didn’t want to be that way. Although there was every probability, if it was my death, Malcolm would have been incredibly wicked. I’m not that kind of person.
And, the death of anyone I miss: Council. You know? Never liked him, never got on with him. But, you know, he still had a very valid place in the universe.
WCP: Have you spoken to his family at all since his passing?
JL: No, never have. There’s all kinds of weirdness there, there’s just too much weirdness. I don’t know what Malcolm ever told them about us in the band, but, you know, it was never any unity with any of it. And Malcolm loved to tell one person, one thing, and another another, you know, and I suppose that’s his legacy. He could quite happily write that on his tombstone: ‘Who the fuck was he? Which of this was true.’ Because we all heard different sides.
Alright, ignore that, because I don’t need to talk about that.
WCP: What are you looking forward to most on the tour, aside from playing?
JL: Recording at the end. It’s in my head all the time. It’s a very long set we play now, but it’s incredibly enjoyable because we’re not restricted to the base formats of some of the songs. We can expand them and experiment with them live, or indeed leave them as they are. It’s that capability that is so rewarding, so that every night is a completely different situation.
And that of course always relates to an audience and their response to you. If a crowd is very giving, you are very giving in return.