Interview: John Lydon, Public Image Ltd.

Ever Get the Feeling You've Been Cheated?

You can take the punk out of London, but you can't take London out of the punk! 36 years after he became the voice, face, and half the brain of the punk revolution – and long after he moved to sunny California – John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, ex-Sex Pistol), is still as Cockney as they come. But, right now, his thoughts are on another cluttered and chaotic metropolis.

"I love walking around Tokyo and looking at the high rises and the way they construct them," he tells M2 down the line from his home, where he is preparing for another stint on the road by drinking plenty of beer. "It comes from a corporate bully system but with a samurai helmet stuck on the top. There's other bits in the town that remind me of Lego building blocks. They approach architecture in really interesting ways."

He also has an instinctive grasp for a culture that has its own deep and instinctive grasp of punk music, a genre that continues to be extremely popular, although Lydon's music has long since evolved past that point.

"I completely understand Japanese culture – the original culture! I don't like too much of the Americanisms that many of the young kids are adopting,” he says sounding a curmudgeonly note. “It's the fault of that rap culture. It's a way of co-opting people into the 'Shitstem.' It alleges rebellion, but really it's all about selling product, and I see that all round the world."

The Shitstem – Lydon's phrase for a global economic system that aims for short-term profit by cheapening and dumbing down – has been the bane of his existence as an artiste, but one that he has finally mastered by achieving full artistic independence with his own label largely financed by money he made from advertising butter in the UK – a case of churnery rather than anarchy in the UK!

This trip to Japan marks an important watershed for the 56-year-old singer, because, unlike previous trips with both the reformed Sex Pistols and his own band Public Images Ltd. (PiL), which played here in 2011, this will be the first trip to Japan since 1989 in which he won't be entirely relying on a very backdated back catalogue. With the release last year of This Is PiL the first new PiL studio album in 20 years, the band now has a fresh batch of excellent, edgy music to offer audiences. Yes, this trip represents Lydon as a living artist, rather than as some caricature of his past.

But why did it take so long to reach this point? Answer: the Shitstem and the crooks who drive it. This has been a constant refrain and radicalizing influence throughout Lydon's career, from his time in the Malcolm-McLaren-managed Sex Pistols, which ended with the legendary concert at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, when he taunted the crowd with the question, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" echoing his own sense of being cheated by the band's management.

This was followed by the launch of his own band Public Image and a tortuous relationship with his record company, Virgin Records, which was more interested in exploiting his punk legend than supporting the innovative music that Lydon was interested in creating.

"Record company shenanigans," he sneers. "They kept me in a position of debt, but they wouldn't release me from the contract, so it took two decades to play a waiting game. Finally, I'm free at last! It's been almost nearly three years now of solid touring and so a break is kind of good but I'm in work mode, y'know, and I'm very, very proud and happy with the album we've made."

Although still young by most rock legend standards – Jagger is 69, Bowie 66 – one wonders whether the real story here is a late-period creative rush to add to a legacy that was built up largely in his 20s. Lydon denies this.

"You're only as old as you feel," he counters. "One of the problems in England is when you hit, say, your mid 20s you're supposed to, suddenly, from there on in, for the rest of your life, 'act your age.' You should never act anyway because there's no such thing as a good actor, but 'act your age'?! That is deeply offensive and stupid. That's basically telling you to retire and put your head under a blanket and to give up participating in how the world works. Well, sorry, John don't do that."

Although there is undoubtedly plenty of life in the old dog yet, This Is PiL is an album that seems to return almost cyclically to Lydon's beginnings. The music is infused with a love and nostalgia for London and the rough-and-ready world of his youth, something that adds greatly to its emotional resonance, as on the ska-laced funk rock of Human, where he references "English roses" and "cotton dresses skipping across the lawn."

"It was almost like having to start from scratch, so I wrote things from my early childhood onwards," he explains. "Yes, of course, there was a Sex Pistol part of my life, which I'm very proud of, but it's not the only moment. Neither is early PiL. There's a lot more that goes on into the making up of these songs, and they're very poignant slices of life for me. Early childhood presented many problems to me, and I had to overcome them. Many illnesses. I'm kind of remembering my youth fondly but not romantically."

Finsbury Park, the part of North London where Lydon grew up was a gritty working class area that was struggling with the first big wave of multiculturalism, something that Lydon sees in a positive light and expresses on the dancey dub rock of Lollipop Opera.

"It's about walking down the high road of Seven Sisters, through the working class stalls and markets that they used to have there, and the different musics and cultures that would be very prevalent in my youth. I grew up listening to reggae, Irish folk, Turkish folk, Greek folk, a lot of Arabic, and of course Top of the Pops, and I've found all these things to be really important influences on me now."

This is certainly noticeable on This Is Pil with its rich, eclectic mix of sounds, given edge by Lydon's voice and personality. But this is not a one-man band. Bruce Smith, Scott Firth, and ex-The Damned guitarist Lu Edmonds are all accomplished musicians with interesting pedigrees.

Thoughts of Lydon's past activate a strong sense of class struggle that has always characterized him. Partly this stems from his Irish roots – something he shares with a great many so-called 'English musicians' from Morrissey and Oasis to the Beatles.

"There are a massive amount of contradictions in English society," he expounds. "Because of the class system you get different versions of what Englishness is. From my point of view it's about the people I grew up with and my culture, which is working class culture. Not the spoilt and the privileged or the toffs."

Another bugbear is political correctness. This may seem surprising in a man who is a firm believer in gay marriage, women's rights, and multiculturalism, and who also has grandchildren who are part Jamaican. But for Lydon political correctness is just another linguistic and cultural tool that the middle and upper classes use to oppress the working class.

"It's to stifle our freedom of thought, you see," he complains. "One of the major things I think about my background is that we're able to laugh at ourselves and in ways that the class hierarchy can't understand. They translate our regular dialogue amongst ourselves as animosity or aggression when it actually isn't at all. Uh, I love every word in the English dictionary and that includes 'fuck,' 'cunt,' 'dam,' 'blast,' 'tits,' 'cock,' and even 'yikes.' I can quite happily tell one of my friends in a regular conversation 'shut up, you vagina,' and that be laughed at and be very funny."

He is also dubious about the idea of "racism" that we hear so much about today.

"To my mind, and I've always thought this, Racism is a middle class invention. I don't think it naturally comes from people that don't have nothing. Everyone around us, we all had nothing and we were quiet happy. For me the biggest racist statement is when the Hampstead elite invite a 'person of colour' to a dinner party; that condescending tone that goes with that. That's racism. They don't sit in the pub with all of us lot. They don't know how we are."

But with such trenchant views in favour of his working class roots, the question naturally arises of why he now finds himself in California. Isn't he being something of a hypocrite, and, if he's going to live out there, shouldn't he be brushing up on his Valleyspeak rather than continuing to drop his 'R's in typical Cockney fashion? But according to Lydon, the main reason he lives where he does is connected to the controversy the Sex Pistols kicked up during the Queen's Silver Jubilee Celebrations back in 1977. At that time they released the anti-Royalist anthem God Save The Queen. For several years afterwards, Lydon received special attention from the London constabulary.

"There's an enormous lack of police harassment for me here in California. Although I know that does go on here, it doesn't go on here for me anything like what I had to endure in England. I couldn't sit in the pub without it being raided, and my friends started to get very annoyed with my company because they knew all their freedoms would be eroded. Just by sitting next to me they were making themselves marked men."

This troubled relationship with Her Majesty might lead some to suspect that last years PiL album was timed to coincide with the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, which also, of course, coincided with the Olympics. Lydon denies this.

"I'm one of these kind of people who work to my own schedule and I don't let scenarios like that have any influence at all. It was mainly about availability and discount studio prices."

So, did he enjoy the Olympics, anyway?

"Well, I liked the swimming. What can I tell you? I like water sports!" he cackles. "Every pun intended! But, yes, I was impressed by the opening ceremony. I went to meet Danny Boyle, the man who instigated the ceremony, and had a very good conversation with him before the Olympics. I was really chuffed with the way he was centring it around working class achievements. Things like, everything from Dickens to the National Health Service, so he got my full support because it was about time that England was celebrated from the true Englishman’s point of view."

Nothing like a great show, then! Back in 1978, at the tail end of the Pistols' short, volatile career, when the band was performing abjectly, Lydon posed his famous question, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" Now, with a strong album, a tight band, and a new positive lease on life, there isn't an audience in the world that is going to answer a similar question in the affirmative, especially not a Tokyo audience.

Colin Liddell
29th March, 2013

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  1. What's the fascination with this loud-mouthed Irish drunk?

  2. The man's a prince, with a few understandable flaws.