John Lydon: 'Life doesn't terminate at 21, it doesn't come to an end at 60, 80 or even 100'

Perhaps it's the ever so slight time delay on the phone from England to Los Angeles. Maybe it's the suspicion that whenever he opens his mouth, the words end up being twisted or it could simply be just the way he's always been.

Whatever the reason, John Lydon seems in combative mood.

He rants equally as eloquently about what he sees as Tony Blair's betrayal of the working class as he does about a music industry he believes can't see the talent for the pound signs and even innocent questions about his decision to move to America and are met with an impassioned, outpouring involving Scotland Yard and invasion of privacy.

It's more than three decades since the Sex Pistols regularly had producers of live television sweating, but while Lydon is now 56, the years haven't changed him much. He's like a wind up toy that someone forgot to stop.

"Life doesn't terminate at 21, it doesn't come to an end at 60, 80 or even 100," he says. "I remember Pete Townshend once saying, 'I hope I die before I get old'. I thought then, 'Well, I hope it works out for you, but me, I'm more than happy to get old'. Age is a meaningless number. The problem these days is that people want instant satisfaction, there's no patience. But life is a long haul and longevity is a truly most excellent thing."

It would be easy to cast Lydon as a man intent on growing old disgracefully, but that suggests there was once a time when he doffed his cap to convention. The truth is, even as a child growing up on a north London council estate the eldest of three brothers, Lydon was happy to be a square peg.

While academically bright, he never settled at his Catholic secondary school and was expelled, he says for daring to ask questions, before he had the chance to sit his exams. Authority has been a bit of a problem ever since.

"I was an avid reader and I liked studying," he says. "I didn't get on with maths and physics left me stone cold, but English, geography and history I liked.

"Unfortunately, the teachers saw me as a problem. I didn't sit there quietly like a sponge and teachers don't tend to like students who speak their mind. When I was expelled, I felt I'd been cheated of my education, so I paid for myself to go back to college and I'm still very proud I did that."

Lydon, who had written prolifically from childhood, did briefly consider becoming an author, but when he found music listening to his dad's folk records and albums by the Kinks, who remain one of the few bands he rates. He knew instantly it was probably the only thing that would ever make him truly happy.

"Music can describe emotions far more accurately than words ever can," he says. "As soon as I realised that, I knew music was where I wanted to be."

It was a discovery which would also change the history of British music. Spotted by Malcolm McClaren wearing a customised "I Hate Pink Floyd" T-shirt, Lydon was in many ways an unlikely frontman.

He didn't have the brooding good looks of a Jim Morrison or the haunting voice of a John Lennon. In fact, he could barely sing in tune, but McClaren had a hunch Lydon, Sid Vicious and the rest of the Sex Pistols could go a long way. Renamed Johnny Rotten thanks to his lack of dental hygiene, his band and the punk movement they led became the beacon for the country's disaffected youth and a byword for controversy.

There were the rants against the monarchy, religion and politics and their infamous appearance on Thames TV's Today programme confirmed their anarchic reputation. Goaded by Bill Grundy, Lydon happily obliged with the kind of language which then was enough to cause a media furore. "Some people are very easily offended," he says by way of explanation.

Somewhat inevitably, after just three years, the Sex Pistols combusted. As Vicious's heroin addiction deepened, Lydon became increasingly disillusioned. Playing music was no longer fun, the early promises he'd been made turned to nothing and part way through a tour of the US, he left. Even, now all these years on, he can't help feeling he wasn't the only one who was hoodwinked.

"When I was growing up, the '60s promised so much," he says. "People thought they were about to enter some brave new world, but it was all smoke and mirrors.

"All those hippies who talked about free love ultimately had their heads turned by the materialistic world they said they didn't want to be a part of. They got fat climbing the corporate ladder."

Walking away from the wreckage of the Sex Pistols, Lydon decided, as always, to do things his own way. The result was Public Image Ltd and it sounded like nothing anyone had heard before. Commercially it was a risk, but then Lydon has never worried too much about his bank balance. Even now he talks of PiL as being his heart and soul and while the original line-up went their separate ways in the early 1990s, it's Lydon's emotional attachment to the band which has led to a reunion of sorts. There's no Jah Wobble or Clash guitarist Keith Levene, but there's still Lydon and there's still the songs.

"The only place I have ever felt truly comfortable is on stage," he says. "I still get the nerves and the doubts beforehand, but on stage I feel that's my home."

The first reunion gigs last year were greeted with five star reviews. For the music press it was like welcoming back their prodigal son, but the promise of a sell-out tour wasn't enough to persuade a big label to take another chance on Lydon.

"It's a two-hour show, sometimes three and we do it all without record company support. I have no idea why, but the music industry seems intent in keeping me poor. They seem to enjoy investing in mediocrity and getting fat on profits from bands who are disposable.

"I can't allow it to stifle me, I know there are still people out there who want to hear the music I make. What I do is poetry in motion and it's completely original, which is a very rare thing these days. Everyone has had a piece of us from Radiohead to Massive Attack, but in the music business it seems to be a case of first come, least served."

The need to fund Pil was, he says, the main reason why he agreed to appear as a contestant on I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. As he left the jungle, his transformation from anarchist pin-up to national treasure was complete and when he was approached to be the new, and perhaps unlikely, face of Country Life butter, he didn't need to be asked twice

"It costs a lot to go out on tour, there are a lot of wages to pay, so if Country Life want to pay me to be in their adverts I will be there. I don't know what people find so wrong about me selling British products, to me it would seem to be a good thing.

"The one thing I have never done and never will do is sell out."

He might arguably have made a lot more money by spilling forth about what really went on behind the scenes of the Sex Pistols. The first part of his autobiography, No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs came out in 1995 and went from his childhood through to the punk years, but doubtless he could have cashed in more on his enfant terrible status.

"Celebrities, if that's what they are, seem to think an autobiography is a rite of passage even if they have nothing to say. I call them pamphlets because that's what they are and they're filled with throwaway, meaningless words. I'm a little bit different. I don't deal in scandal or gossip. I don't tell tales on other people, I find it loathsome."

Part of the reason he moved to America with his wife Nora Foster 30 years ago was to escape the media circus which had begun to surround him in England. In the sprawl of LA, Lydon found he could go pretty much unnoticed and while he's now talked about in Britain in much more affectionate terms than he ever was, he has no plans to move back.

"Being referred to as a music icon is just a vacuous accolade

and I have too much to do to be concerned about meaningless trivia," he says. "The reality is, America accepted me when the British establishment didn't. Also I can't take the cold winters, it just destroys me physically and wrecks my voice. We don't have weather in

LA, we just have sun."

Lydon may have left Britain behind for good, but when he moved across the Atlantic the one thing he took with him was the values his mother and father instilled in him.

"I think too many people tell me what I think and not enough ask me," he says. "All I've ever done is to try to do the world a bit of good. There's no violence, there's no ugliness, just a working class philosophy to live my life with wisdom."

PiL play Leeds O2 Academy on July 23.