John Lydon, lead singer of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited (PiL), is one of the seminal figures in pop music history. In the 1970s, he and the Pistols stood the moribund music industry of Great Britain on its head and planted the seeds which would influence countless bands at home and around the world.
PiL was formed in 1978 after the Pistols imploded. While the band has gone through line-up changes and experienced a close to 20-year hiatus, both it and Lydon have continued to produce continually challenging and exciting music throughout their history. Mercurial and intelligent Lydon has taken great delight in defying people’s expectations both musically and personally for his entire career. An icon for iconoclasts and nose thumbers everywhere, he continues to be the unpredictable and brilliant figure who burst like a comet on the music scene 40 years ago.
Interviewing someone like Lydon is a difficult proposition. Not because he’s difficult, but because he’s one of those people who you’d really like to converse with without being constrained by a question and answer format. Like his songs, thoughts spill out of his head, and it feels churlish to try and impose any sense of order on him. However, after our few opening exchanges – mistrust of technology and our common problem with inverting numbers – we began with some questions about PiL’s forthcoming release, What The World Needs Now
What The World Needs Now. Was it recorded on PiL’s own label? Why your own label?
Yes, this is the second one we’ve done on our own. We’d all had enough of large record companies, getting the boot to the back of the file and so on. I wasn’t able to do any music for almost two decades because of contractual disputes which was hard. I had to buy my way out of the former label. There were a lot of people there who I loved and admired, but it was just too much. But my childhood illness (spinal meningitis which caused him to lose his memory and be hospitalized for six months) taught me to cope with the cards life deals you. Everything you endure and work through makes you stronger.
The great thing about no label is there’s more lack of control. Nobody breathing down your neck saying you can’t do this and can’t do that and you have to finish this now – can’t have an accounting department telling you what to do. It kills spontaneity and creativity.
We have a work lab – that’s what I call going into the studio, where we can create freely and do the hard work of turning accurate emotions into music and words.
Yeah, I can see that. A few years ago I tried something new for me and did some theatre. I was offered the role of King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar. Years ago I might have sneered at theatre, but now I really respect the way theatre people look out for each other. I made some great pals there, but the show never happened – money pulled plug.
All you can do is laugh at this sort of stuff. Comedy is the best way to deal with the up close and personal issues and the things which can run you down. Clowns who speak truth are a great way of dealing with what the world throws at you. Look at the cover of the new CD. Every culture has one of these clown figures who keeps people honest.
It looks like a Hopi Koshare.
Yeah that’s where some of the inspiration came from, but the tricksters are in almost every culture and it was supposed to reflect that. Of course you can see it’s wearing my shoes. (laughs)
Title of the new album – What The World Needs Now – aside from another fuck off as you say in “Shoom”, what does the world need now?
Everybody has an answer to that, fill out the postcards and send them to the appropriate person. That song is a requiem for my father who died a couple of years before we did the recording. He knew how to annoy people and get them thinking and make them laugh at the same time. I was trying to reflect what that was like. Some of the language in this song might bother some people, but we were working class and this was how we spoke. We used every word in the dictionary, except the Latin ones. (laughs)
I’d like to ask you about some of the other songs on the new album starting with “Double Trouble”. I remember you writing something in Anger Is An Energy (his recently published autobiography) about fixing a toilet which features in the song’s lyrics.
Yeah, that was some of the inspiration for the song. It’s a discussion on domestic issues, how if there’s no humour when you’re dealing with stuff, it can bring resentments further on down the line. Little things can affect you in a much larger way. But it’s a matter of learning self control and stop trying to control. Sometimes an irrational argument is the most powerful tool in a relationship as it allows you to see how ridiculous you’re being.
I am my own worst critic. I want to be right in the world. Get away from the world of snakes – I don’t need to be part of lies. Story of my life – I don’t like lies. Comes from my illness when I lost my memory and had to rely on adults to tell me what the truth was. When my memories returned I could tell who lied and who had told me the truth.
History is my favourite subject and I’ve loved reading about stuff like the American Civil War. But I found out that much of what I’ve read hasn’t been completely honest. The stuff in so many books covers over opinions. I’ve taken to reading letters people wrote to each other during the time period I’m interested in – gives you a much clearer idea of the reality of a situation.
PiL is in the process of not lying to each other which makes for a healthy work lab. Eliminates ego when you know people are going to call you on shit. Nothing to hide and nothing to fear.
“C’est La Vie.” There’s something troubling and sad about this song. Where did it come from?
It’s a song of regret, a sad song. Sometimes I go through those periods in my life and I have to respect them. I don’t want to push them under the carpet. It’s important to be able to see yourself for who you are, to be properly introspective.
“The One”. What’s that about?
Teenage angst, feelings of anxiety, septic spots on the face and all that. It’s me sharing my spotty moments. Musically it reminded me vaguely of glam rock, which makes sense as I came of age during glam rock. Hey did you know T-Rex is British street rhyming slang for sex? Mark Bolan was really smart and funny. All the girls were dancing to the music and I’d try and be cool and come across as a fool. Imagine a rap group now a days doing a song about feeling insecure.
I used to really like rap in the late ’70s – Grand Master Flash and Afrika Bambaataa, but now…
Yeah me too – did a song (“World Destruction” in 1984) with Afrika and became friends with him.
I was really impressed by your enunciation and vocal range on this release.
I’ve always been one to properly emphasize my words. While some might think I exaggerate, I don’t like singers who mumble. I don’t want to listen to mush and if I don’t want to listen, the lyrics become irrelevant. What’s the point of a song if that happens?
In Anger Is An Energy, you describe your songwriting process when you were with the Sex Pistols, free form improvisation/stream of conscience as the music inspired you. Have you changed this in anyway or do you still work in the same way?
I tend not to write down a lot in advance – [I] write most of what I sing in the studio. Panic and stress of the situation bring out the lyrics. Somebody will drop an instrument and it will inspire something; a phrase will inspire a song. Don’t fantasize in songwriting; try to keep it real. When I first started with the Pistols, I was writing about the politics of the time – and since then it’s been whatever else I see disenfranchising people. [END]
And then my 30 minutes were up. I could have kept on talking, mainly listening, to him for hours. I did briefly ask him about Malcolm McLaren, former Sex Pistol manager, right at the end, and all he would say was now Malcolm is dead he won’t say anything about him – “It’s not right to speak ill of the dead” – and regrets having done so previously.
John Lydon is one of those rare figures in public life who isn’t afraid to speak his mind but who is also aware of the consequences of both his words and actions. He dedicated Anger Is An Energy to integrity, and the lasting impression you get coming away from talking to him is how important that is. Whether in his music or in his personal life, Lydon is a man who cares about being as honest as possible no matter how much it hurts, especially with himself. We could use more people like him. What The World Needs Now will be released on September 4, 2015 digitally, on CD, and on vinyl.
[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B010CGPS6C]