Johnny’s not so rotten when it comes down to it. Duncan Seaman talks to the anarchic king of punk, now best known as John Lydon.
“FOR me, the idea of a book is a good one,” says John Lydon.
“I know you’ve got modern electronica, multi-media, but I don’t think they have the longevity in them the way a book has. I love holding them, I love opening them, the complete process. Two years ago we put out a personal scrapbook of my life, detailing it, in a limited number of 700. Each book was handmade – that’s how I view life. I love first editions, I don’t own any – have you seen the price? – but I love the idea.”
Thirty-seven years ago when John Lydon exploded into the national consciousness as part of spiky-haired, bondage-clad punk rock group the Sex Pistols, the thought of the singer – then known as Johnny Rotten – waxing lyrical about the seductive appeal of reading would, to his many detractors in the British establishment, have seemed anathema.
Yet the John Lydon of today is an articulate, witty and insightful interviewee, as forthright as ever in his opinions but mindful to give people their due.
At one point the 57-year-old recalls an encounter with Paul McCartney. It was the late 1970s, the Pistols were at their height and Lydon and his partner – now wife – Nora Forster were being driven in a taxi through Knightsbridge. As they passed Harrods McCartney came out of the store and, apparently eager to meet Lydon, the former Beatle chased the cab down the road while its startled occupant locked the door.
“He was being friendly and I was being silly,” Lydon reflects with hindsight.
“I couldn’t cope with it at the time. The Beatles running across the street, yelling at me, it was a bit much. I’m a shy bunny on my days off. I couldn’t handle that.”
The pair have subsequently met and got on.
“I like him – he’s a really friendly bloke,” Lydon says. “I just can’t stand his music.
“That’s a good thing. You can separate the person from the work. My work is a little more personal, it’s not crafting songs in a pretty format. Mine need to be the real deal – and that’s hard to get along with.”
Perhaps equally surprisingly, he remembers playing host to 70s pop heart-throbs the Bay City Rollers.
“I liked them, they were good fellas,” he says. “The singer [Les McKeown] came round with John Barry, the composer. [I thought] ‘No, this is not right! No-one told me it would be like this!’
“But it was a great opening of minds. The intelligent side of the music industry, it comes from different places – as, I suppose, in life if you have an open mind.”
This month Lydon is back with Public Image Ltd, the band he has fronted since quitting the Sex Pistols on stage in California in 1978 with the parting words “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
For the first time in his career he’s without a record contract and clearly enjoying “the opportunity to do what I want, free of restrictions – the obvious one being financial, but there are ways round that”. Since he reactivated PiL in 2009 after a 15-year hiatus during which he appeared in the TV show I’m a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here! and made a series of wildlife programmes and commercials for Country Life butter, the music industry he strove for so long to separate himself from has been keen to garland him with awards.
He remains wary, accepting very few. “Every now and again something special comes along, when someone notices I’ve been around for a long time and done some important work – I’m fine with that,” he says.
Now working for himself, he jokes: “I like the way I talk down to myself – that’s fantastic. I’m a very bad boss to me.”
More seriously, he adds: “There’s a great sense of fun and achievement you get, knowing you are responsible for yourself. You tend not to make daft mistakes and moves; you’re more considered and cultivated in your operations. You have less enemies to make. When your career is subject to the whims of people who don’t know much about you that can be a problem – particularly someone like me who won’t have restraints put on him.”
Not that the industry doesn’t still intrude from time to time. Last year, having moved the rights to the Pistols catalogue from EMI to Universal, Lydon says he and his former bandmates “fell out quite seriously with the label” when a campaign was launched to try to get the 1977 song God Save the Queen to Number One in the British charts to coincide with the Diamond Jubilee.
“It was doomed to fail,” he says. “God knows who came up with that campaign.
“Everybody wants to be a Sex Pistol,” he adds. “Too few people understand what that means.
“[When God Save the Queen was originally released] it was discussed under the Traitors Act in the Houses of Parliament – that carried a death sentence at the time. I don’t want to see that fuddled up in a record-selling farce. You have to understand the commitment I was making at the time.”
Lydon has even less time for the plethora of punk nostalgia on our television screens these days. It misses the point, he says. “I never considered myself part of a movement; I was part of a band,” he explains. “I don’t think a lot of bands that attach themselves to that category [punk] understand the commitment.
“I was looking for answers to serious questions. ‘This is what I believe in – what do you believe in?’ Most adopted the clothes horse approach.”
“I don’t expect everyone to be like me. If you’re going there you’ve got that wrong.”
Public Image Ltd and The Selecter play at the O2 Academy Leeds on October 17. Doors 7.30pm, tickets £26. www.ticketweb.co.uk
Lydon in his own words
On former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren: “I don’t want to be speaking ill of the dead. I remember the good bits, though they were few and far between. But I’m sure if I had a cup of tea with Satan I could have a good word to say about him – that’s my way.”
“It’s the only thing I am any good at is writing and performing. Record labels put a squash on that for a while. Let’s call it the sojourn. But it was as good a way as any to recharge my batteries. I came back fresher than ever.”
“I have a child-like perspective. I believe in innocence.“