Ahead of Public Image Ltd’s upcoming Yorkshire dates, former Sex Pistols singer John Lydon spoke to Duncan Seaman.
“Hello Yorkshire, how’s your teabags?” booms John Lydon good naturedly down the phone from his home in California.
Forty years on from the explosion of punk rock in a flurry of spiky hair, safety pins and bondage trousers the former singer of the Sex Pistols now makes for a witty and articulate interviewee.
He’s currently preparing for the second UK tour in a year by Public Image Ltd, the band who have been an outlet for his more experimental music since he walked out of the Pistols in 1978.
Their present line-up, which features Lu Edmonds on guitar, bouzouki and saz, Scott Firth on bass and Bruce Smith on drums, has now been together for seven years, making it the longest lasting in PiL’s 38-year history.
“Well, seeing as we’re not on any major label we found great stability,” says Lydon, considering their longevity. “Amazing, isn’t it?
“It tells me that what I’ve been saying all along was right; it’s just a shame that them labels wouldn’t let me go so easy.”
PiL’s past turbulence he puts down to “the curse of the Sex Pistols – everyone wants a piece
of me but nobody wants to share it”.
PiL’s latest album, What The World Needs Now..., came about after the collapse of a planned US tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, the Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera in which Lydon was to star alongside Michelle Williams from Destiny’s Child and Brandon Boyd from the rock band Incubus.
I can’t understand people that narrow their listening scope. Why limit yourself? My God, it’s the wonderful world of entertainment, people are doing this stuff to communicate – let them communicate.
“I was very upset with that because I put such an amount of work into it,” he says. “It’s a very difficult thing for me to take orders from a musical director. I had to leave my ego at the door and just grab hold of it and I really wanted to do it. I made great friends in it and we were pipped at the post by financial shenanigans. Terrible, it really upset a lot of people, that did.”
The album’s closing track Shoom is a hilarious, sweary requiem for Lydon’s Irish-born father that raises two fingers to the world. “It’s causing a bit of furore in the family but never mind, that’s what us Lydons are good at,” he chuckles. “It was that seemingly abrasive, working class Irish roots humour. It’s really irony – you’re saying one thing but meaning another.
“I miss that banter with him, it was a camaraderie that we found in later life and so I miss him very much. When he died it was on my mind when we were making the album. It just seemed appropriate and at the same time a bloody good message to the rest of the world.”
In Lydon’s autobiography, Anger Is An Energy, he talks about how as an eight-year-old he was trying to adjust to the world after a serious bout of meningitis left him hospitalised and estranged from his family for months his parents were advised by the NHS not to “mollycoddle or baby” him. Today he says the experience gave him “the power to struggle through without self-pity”. “If it had been allowed to creep in I might have become disaffected and institutionalised, for all I know. ‘Oh woe is me, that’s my sorry lot.’ In many ways I’m so grateful to my Mum and Dad for teaching me independence at such an early age and to fight and struggle through, no matter what, and to never fall back on yourself and feel sorry because it’s stupid. All you do is empower your enemies...and my enemies are powerful enough.”
School taught him that words could be weapons. “I could read and write at four, that was all stolen from me at seven until it came back at about ten or 11 and then I really got into it,” he says. “We had a very excellent English teacher who taught me that love of Shakespeare and things although he hated me and frankly I hated him...but his teaching skills were just amazing because he taught me that love of a word and the inflection and how you can spin a curveball by deadpan delivery and irony and I grasped all them concepts and well, here’s looking at you, kid!”
In his book Lydon also talks about his festival-going teenage years. Seeing the likes of Nico, Can and Alice Cooper taught him that singing was about emotion, rather than perfect pitch. “And fun and variety,” he adds today. “In them days if you went to festivals – and many of the venues – again it’s only one stage but 15 different bands all completely different to each other, so I had no sense of categorisation and open-minded it was, and that was just all more empowerment for me, really, and I’ve carried that on in my life.
“I can’t understand people that narrow their listening scope,” he says. “Why limit yourself? My God, it’s the wonderful world of entertainment, people are doing this stuff to communicate – let them communicate.”
Lydon has described the Sex Pistols as an “amazing coming together of a group of individuals who instantly didn’t like each other but somehow managed to make that work for the best”. The conflict drove them to create angry, outspoken music that shocked the British establishment.
“You’ve got to realise at the time the conflict was everywhere, in all things,” Lydon says. “There were massive strikes, unemployment, riots, dirt everywhere and so there it was and we landed luckily in the middle of that calamity and tried to make some sense out of it – and I thought we did a good job.”
Punk’s 40th anniversary has prompted a steady stream of nostalgia. “I’m glad it’s annoying all the right people,” Lydon says.
“There’s also been a fair amount of ridiculous over-reaction and contempt,” he adds, mentioning reports that Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s son, Joe Corré, has threatened to burn £5m worth of punk memorabilia. “Now I know where the money went – he spent it and now he’s going to burn it. Give the money to charity, you idiot.
“These people have got no right to call themselves anything or connect themselves to this in any way, they’re irrelevant and by behaving like such a big girly boy, it’s appalling, grow up. Your little act of contriteness is going to do what exactly for ISIS?”
Last month it was announced that the Sex Pistols’ former home in Denmark Street, London was to be given listed status. Lydon seems unimpressed. “It’s a pile of bricks, isn’t it? There’s not much left of old England. But, for me, that place was unliveable and it was very nearly unworkable, so what’s there to say – apart from a few scribbles that I did on the wall.”
After three decades living in the US, John Lydon recently became an American citizen. Now given the right to vote, it seems unlikely that he’ll be using it to support Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.
“I agree with all his followers that you can’t trust politicians, I’ve been saying it all my life, but guess what? You can’t trust businessmen either – in fact more so – so this is not a replacement that’s acceptable to me. He’s offering an even more corrupt system and that’s very worrying because he’s flirting with all manner of misogyny and fascism there without clearly defining what his policies are on anything. I don’t think he has any, other than ego. He’s made a few good deals in his life but he’s also made quite a few bad ones.”
The one good thing that Trump has done, he says, is “dismantle the Republic party – so in disguise he’s probably Hillary [Clinton]’s best friend”.
During his years in California Lydon struck up a friendship with fellow British musician Keith Emerson, keyboard player in The Nice and later prog rock stars Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
He admits to feeling “a great sense of guilt” about Emerson’s recent death, apparently by suicide. “I got to really like the man and no matter what was going on I’m just feeling ‘God, if he’s just made a phone call’ of if I’d have know something I would have rung him and persuaded him differently. Every second of your life matters.
“What was he, only 71? It doesn’t make sense to throw away the only thing you’ve ever been given for nothing – life.”
In January Lydon turned 60. He disagrees with the British obsession with age. “You know the concept of act your age? It’s b******s. I can’t act and I don’t believe in ageism,” he says. “I’m proud to say Americans don’t behave that way. They bungee jump out of airplanes here in their late 80s, it’s a totally different approach. Everybody’s outdoors all the time and doing things. That sedentary laziness that’s so British is soul destroying. Really what’s happening is you get manipulated by the extremely lazy. Go listen to Johnny Adventurous, he’s much more fun!”
Public Image Ltd play at Wakefield Warehouse on May 25, O2 Academy Sheffield on June 7 and Holmfirth Picturedrome on June 8. For details visit www.pilofficial.com