John Lydon:
BAM magazine, August 10th 1984

Transcribed (and additional info) by Karsten Roekens

© 1984 BAM / Cary Darling


BAM magazine, August 10th 1984Whether snarling about anarchy as frontman for the Sex Pistols or indulging in the more artsy, droney sound of Public Image Ltd, Johnny Rotten has been a primary force in music for nearly a decade now. An ever-smirking Rotten (a.k.a. John Lydon) is in L.A. this month to promote his new album and audition musicians for a new PIL, now that both Jah Wobble and Keith Levene have left the band. By Cary Darling, photos Ann Summa.

LOS ANGELES - In the late '70s something very different from the sonic conservatism of Boston and Foreigner was lurking in rock's darker corners. Errant sons of The Velvet Underground and MC5 still believed rock was born out of confrontation and should stay that way.

One such group, New York's Ramones, went to England and started a chain reaction that would end in a slowly built explosion, slapping some complacency out of the music business. In the wake of the Ramones' three-chord, primal yet orchestrated stupidity, a hospitable environment for British punk rock began to blossom.

Certainly no group bloomed more than the Sex Pistols, the most notorious of all the punk bands. One of the first articles written about the foursome in the 'Los Angeles Times' appeared not in the entertainment department, but in the front page section, right between Lebanon and the lingerie ads. Written quite hysterically under the headline 'Punk Rock Becomes Latest Outrage To British Public', the article called punk rock "an alleged form of music", proceeding to describe the Sex Pistols: "Their pounding, generally rubbishy performances on the conventional guitars and drums won few plaudits. But the themes of their selections - anti-love, anti-peace, contempt, defiance of everything - galvanised many of their young listeners into violent pandemonium."

The most notable of all the punks was Johnny Rotten, née John Lydon, the teenage boy with the flaming orange hair and torn T-shirts. He and his cohorts (guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook, original bassist Glen Matlock and his replacement Sid Vicious) swore on national British television, had a nasty habit of spitting, and denigrated all who had come before them, specifically the hippies of the '60s.

Still, beneath the headline-grabbing publicity and sometimes standard-issue youthful outrage, a brilliant pop sensibility is evidenced by the band's first three singles, 'Anarchy In The U.K.', 'God Save The Queen' and 'Pretty Vacant'.

Lydon's vocals, which had all the grace of a malfunctioning power saw, and the band's reliance on the garage ethic single-handedly (in Britain at least) stripped rock of its musical excesses and took things back to ground zero. In one fell swoop Fleetwood Mac and ELO meant nothing in England, and a whole host of new stars joined the galaxy: The Clash and The Jam and Sham 69 and The Damned and ...

But America, secure and well-fed, greeted the phenomenon with a gaping yawn. Someone please get up and put on side two of 'Silk Degrees' ...

As punk mutated into new wave, a new openness hit America, and basically the last eight years of pop fashion - from punk to power pop to gloom rock to new romanticism to dance rock - can be traced in a linear fashion directly to John Lydon, who has also moved from the abrasive anger of the Sex Pistols' first album 'Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols' to the agitated trance and dance music of his current project, Public Image Ltd.

PIL released three Warner Bros. albums, then switched to Elektra after a failed plan to go independent.

Lydon formed PIL after the Sex Pistols, even more controversial due to the death of bassist Sid Vicious, collapsed in ruins. The band and former manager/would-be rock star Malcolm McLaren parted gracelessly, each charging the other with selling out.

Since forming PIL, much has changed in Lydon's life. He left England for America (much to the dismay of many of his British fans, specifically writers Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons, whose book 'The Boy Looked At Johnny' viewed the Sex Pistols as mankind's most important development since indoor plumbing) and even starred opposite Harvey Keitel in Roberto Faenza's 'Order Of Death', a film shot in Italy last year.

Dressed in a slightly baggy suit and a shirt with an irregular collar ("The first piece of clothing I've bought in America. Clothes in America are prehistoric!") and a hat which looked like something one might get as an extra from one of those TV pitches that proclaim "But don't order yet - there's more!", Lydon doesn't really look like the man-eating terror portrayed in newscasts. But his icy-blue eyes can still cut quick, and his languid British accent remains, making even the dull comments alive with invective.

Sitting in a publicist's office to promote PIL's first album for Elektra, 'This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get', Lydon discussed a wide range of topics. Lydon's sense of humour is apparent even before the interview gets underway. Spotting a recent 'BAM' with R.E.M. on the cover, he sneers "Now, who are these old hippies?"

CARY DARLING: "You're back to using the name Johnny Rotten. You weren't using it for a while, was that for legal reasons?"

JOHN LYDON: "Yeah it was. Malcolm claimed it was his and I had to go to court, and I won. What a silly thing for him to do, to claim he owns my nickname - what good is it going to do him?"

CARY DARLING: "I'm a bit surprised to see you have a new album out on a major American label after your press conference last year." (where he and then-guitarist Keith Levene said they were going to work around the major companies and form alternative means of distribution) [1]

JOHN LYDON: "We tried to, yeah, but the thing is, it was just talk. It was impossible. The size of the country for one, you can't set these things up, America's too large. Your own distribution is going to amount to one van and a stack of records. You can't do it that way, you need distribution. I don't make records to be hidden in corners and collecting dust." (smiling) "I want as many people as possible to enjoy my talents!"

CARY DARLING: "The new album is divided, the first side is more accessible ..."

JOHN LYDON: "More poppy? It wasn't deliberate. It was just a bunch of songs that had been floating around and we just put them together, and they seem to work best as two different sides. There's the 'What You Want'-side and there's the 'What You Get'-side."

CARY DARLING: "Five of the songs were co-written by Keith Levene, though he's no longer in the band."

JOHN LYDON: "No, we gave him credit for that, but we'd sacked him before the album was even started. You know, it was just on good faith. Many of the songs were written before he quit, but his participation in all honesty was zero. Really, he's lost it, which is sad, he was a friend."

CARY DARLING: "Did he leave the band or did you fire him?"

JOHN LYDON: "He left, in a blind junkie rage."

CARY DARLING: "Was that a big loss to the band?" (Levene's jagged style is often acknowledged as a forerunner to the guitar styles used by U2, Big Country, Psychedelic Furs and other British bands)

JOHN LYDON: "No, absolutely the opposite! Funny - at the time I thought it would make life difficult, and it didn't. It made me more positive. I tend to work very well when I'm backed into a corner and I have to go out and get things organised. Now here I am, doing quite nicely, very nicely."

CARY DARLING: "In fact you are listed as playing six instruments on the album." (fellow member Martin Atkins plays most of the rest) "Had you done anything like that before?"

JOHN LYDON: "Yeah, on 'Flowers Of Romance'. See, Keith wasn't even in the studio on most of that album. I did most of the guitar parts, if the truth be known now. I'm sick of having to back up other people when they keep letting me down. From here on in, sorry, I speak my mind."

CARY DARLING: "Isn't it very intimidating to be the producer and player of six instruments?"

JOHN LYDON: "I've always liked to produce, I've produced everything we've done as PIL. Yeah - the first album was very intimidating, because I knew bugger all about a desk. If you've ever been in a recording studio you know that the engineers will tell you as little as possible because they want to run the show. It didn't take too long to work it out, it's simple, you know: bass, treble, mid, and that's it. That's all you need to know."

CARY DARLING: "So you're not a big fan of the emphasis on technology that has gone on in recent years?"

JOHN LYDON: "Is it technology? I think it's stupidity of the lowest order. You know, how to overcomplicate your life. It's an electric toothbrush mentality, I mean, if you can't do this -" (toothbrush motions) "- you're nowhere!"

CARY DARLING: "It seems with all the dance remixes and emphasis on production, some of the content has drained out of pop music."

JOHN LYDON: "Absolutely. Three words babbled and fed backwards. Some of that though can be quite good, it can be really interesting noises, but that's all it is. That's all music is, anyway. I don't really care what other bands do, it's myself I'm looking out for."

CARY DARLING: "So the band is basically just you and Martin Atkins now?"

JOHN LYDON: "Yeah. We're putting a band together right here. [2] We're using L.A. people, that should be a real hoot!" (laughs) "We've been rehearsing for three days with our new possible bass player. [3] Some of them have been unbelievably bad - that one girl we tried couldn't figure out how to use an amplifier! She was a spoilt brat from Beverly Hills." (mock teenage American voice) "'My daddy says ...' - Oh really, go home, young girl!"

CARY DARLING: "Why are you using American, or more specifically, Los Angeles people?"

JOHN LYDON: "Because I'm based here. I don't want to be based in England, and it's to difficult to try and get a bunch of English people here. I'm not going over there for any excuse at all, I avoid the country. And why not use Americans? They seem to be more enlightened about things generally. The English at the moment are far too into fashion. It's really boring, they all look the same: Duran Duran haircuts, punk leather jackets, Boy George shoes, a real confusion of styles."

CARY DARLING: "But a few years ago you described New York as a giant Dingwalls, a shithole." [4] (Dingwalls is a small London club)

JOHN LYDON: "At that time it was. New York's great, I spent three years there and it has changed constantly. Now it's all short-haired arseholes instead of long-haired ones. New York was really a longhair town. But there's an awful lot of English people there now though and it got boring, so I had to move out. I escaped from England and I didn't need it following me over."

CARY DARLING: "What do you find in America that you can't find in England?"

JOHN LYDON: "It's easy to work in America, things get done. You can rely on phone calls being returned, you don't have to wait six weeks. Maybe L.A.'s a bit slow, mañana, soon come and all that, but it's still a hell of a lot more correct than in England. It's impossible to run a business there. I like operating with Americans, it makes sense."

CARY DARLING: "The last time I saw you live was at the Pasadena Civic two years ago ..." [5]

JOHN LYDON: "Oooh, that was terrible! I apologise, I'm sorry, that was grim, man."

CARY DARLING: "It seems your fans wanted to keep you locked into 1976/77."

JOHN LYDON: "Yeah, yeah, yeah, but it's moved on since then, the Palladium show [6] proved that. They were still yelling for old Sex Pistols songs at that Pasadena thing, and that's a real piss-off, it's really annoying. It makes you not want to bother."

CARY DARLING: "But at the Palladium you played 'Anarchy In The U.K.' to satisfy that demand."

JOHN LYDON: "No. I did it because it was fun and there was no more threat. There was no more demand, so therefore I felt perfectly fine in doing it. It completely shocked an entire crowd, because that was the last thing they came expecting. What was really good was the most of them knew the words to the PIL songs and they'd sing along, and I liked that."

CARY DARLING: "You have an image of being very hostile, like at that Pasadena show ..."

JOHN LYDON: "Only when they're rude. I don't mind people jumping onstage or any of that, as long as they don't interfere with me and let me get on with my business."

CARY DARLING: "At the height of the Sex Pistols' popularity you were savagely attacked in a parking lot in England."

JOHN LYDON: "Oh yeah. That's typical of the English, that, you know. Ripped me to shreds, didn't they?"

CARY DARLING: "Did that frighten you to the point of saying, that's it, I'm getting out of this business?"

BAM magazine, August 10th 1984JOHN LYDON: "No. Not at that time. I didn't have the money to do anything about it, so it was merely carry on, only be slightly more wary. No, I've left England mainly because of the police harassment, not street harassment. The last three months I was in England they raided my house four times: for suspicion of making a bomb, suspicion of hiding runaway juveniles, suspicion of drugs, and suspicion of firearms. It was fantastic. They took me to court, put me on probation for six months because I had a can of mace, which in England is a firearm. I could have gone to jail for that! What did I do? I went to Ireland, and in 45 minutes I was in jail for assaulting a fucking barman, which I never did. So I got right out of Europe, fuck this, America here I come. New York's meant to be a real bad town, but there was no trouble, I bowled around there quite fine."

CARY DARLING: "After the Pistols broke up, did you want to leave music?"

JOHN LYDON: "Yeah, but see, I got this opportunity to go to Jamaica because nobody knew anything about reggae and, well, I've followed the music for years. It's the only kind of music I really do like, and since" (mock ultra-serious tone) "I was the only white man who knew the business there and I knew most of the acts, I went over for Virgin and scouted for them. That got me interested again. When the Pistols fell apart in such a poxy way, it fizzled, not a bang - nothing. It pissed me off."

CARY DARLING: "What bands did you find in Jamaica?"

JOHN LYDON: "It's a shame: they didn't sign any of the acts I told them to, like Black Uhuru, and there's another band called The Congos which had brilliant potential, but they wouldn't go for them. They should've signed Dennis Brown."

CARY DARLING: "You say reggae is your favourite music, but there are no reggae influences on your albums."

JOHN LYDON: "It's not my music, it's theirs, it's Jamaican. But it's brilliant and I love it. You know, there are things in it that influence me but I wouldn't copy it, there's no point. It's done so much better by the originals, it's in their blood. It's their thing, like what I do, I expect to be respected for standing my own ground. This is my stuff, that's theirs. I don't think imitation is flattery at all."

CARY DARLING: "Joe Strummer has said ..."

JOHN LYDON: (boos and hissing noises)

CARY DARLING: "... that he too is giving up ethnic music and going back to punk rock, which he feels is white man's rebel music."

JOHN LYDON: "Oh yawn! Let's face it, Joe's lost, isn't he? Go back, that's always been his thing, you know. All their records reek of going back. Go forward, Joe, there's a whole world out there! There's nothing great about that at all, backward thinking - boo, that's for losers."

CARY DARLING: "Do you see many of the 4th generation punk bands that are around today?"

JOHN LYDON: "In a way it's sad, because they're locked in a space and time that's past. You always have to move on. They're locked into that image or that stance, and that's really bad for them: they've cut off all their options and they can be nothing but small-time in a small-time field."

CARY DARLING: "So you're saying that punk was necessary in 1976 and 1977, but it's not necessary now?"

JOHN LYDON: "Yeah, but my idea has always been to move on. I've done 'Never Mind The Bollocks', I ain't going to keep repeating it forever. Of what possible service could that be to anybody, including me?"

CARY DARLING: "Do you feel responsible for ..."

JOHN LYDON: "Boy George?"

CARY DARLING: "Yes, that whole movement and everything that has gone on ..."

JOHN LYDON: (sarcastically) "Yes: I created him, he's my product. No, of course not. They're up to their own devices, aren't they? They saw an angle and they went for it. We've had the violent period, let's have the poofy period, now, lo and behold: the new Liberace of rock and roll!"

CARY DARLING: "But most of them were inspired by you in that they saw you doing what you wanted to do. Now they're doing what they want to do."

JOHN LYDON: "That's good, if they're honest about that, then that's good. I got my ideas from seeing what others were doing, and doing the opposite because it stunk to high heaven."

CARY DARLING: "Could the Pistols have gone on longer than they did?"

JOHN LYDON: "No!" (laughs) "Absolutely not. It stunk to high hell. I hated the management, the manager was a wanker and a liar, absolutely. Steve and Paul were going to Rio to see Mister Ronnie Biggs, I mean, please do me a favour - a failed bank robber, a man that got caught! If I wanted to shake hands with anyone, it would be the man who got away with the money, not some fucking arsehole in a mud-shack on the beach in Rio, you know?"

CARY DARLING: "So with your change in countries and passage of time you still haven't forgotten Malcolm McLaren for what you say he has done?"

JOHN LYDON: "I don't forgive him but let the past be the past. As you are aware I am a very forward-looking person."

CARY DARLING: "Did what happened to Sid change your views on drugs?"

JOHN LYDON: "No, it hardened my views on drugs. I watch too many people go that way. Sid was so gullible and stoned out of his brains most of the time that he'd believe anything anybody told him. They'd say, get out and get another shot, and he would."

CARY DARLING: "You became increasingly distant from him near the end."

JOHN LYDON: "I didn't understand that need and that dependency at all. I don't appreciate it, it's weak, it's a back-out, and I don't like people who do that. Anything that gets you hooked, stop it, forget it, there's no need. Even though I'm an alcoholic" (laughs as he sips from his glass of beer) "I don't let it destroy me."

CARY DARLING: "How do you do that?"

JOHN LYDON: "Moderation. I like the taste and the effect" (laughs) "and though that might in some people's eyes make me a hypocrite, I don't see that in any way, shape or form the same as heroin. It changes you. I don't like to be relying on anybody or anything. I have very little time for people who are that way, who constantly need someone or something to exist. Without independence you're living in a shadow."

CARY DARLING: "I guess that is also mirrored in your feelings toward Catholicism."

JOHN LYDON: (sneering) "The Catholic religion teaches you well and good how to think for yourself. God, Catholic school is such a tortuous experience, you come out of it saying 'So this is life!' It's real torture, a real cruel religion. But somehow or other there's something in it that makes you smarter, not dumber. It teaches you something, I don't know what. Either that or I'm just an incredibly bright person."

CARY DARLING: "Would you have turned out differently if you hadn't been Catholic?"

JOHN LYDON: "Well, all that hell and damnation stuff from the time you're in the crib upwards is, you know ... you say 'Wow, my God isn't very nice!' I don't know, maybe it teaches independence, maybe there's something there, I don't know what. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone, that's for sure! Now all these poor little punkettes are going to go out and get Catholic."

CARY DARLING: "When you were with the Pistols, did you feel you were riding a horse that was out of control?"

JOHN LYDON: "Was it? I don't know. A lot has been written after the Pistols to make it appear that way. At the time it wasn't that large, the album sold after the band broke up. Just to see that clearly makes things more correct. Fucking hell, the album didn't sell, except maybe in England, but big deal, you could be number one for a year and a half and it wouldn't make any difference to your bank balance."

CARY DARLING: "Did you feel that you were on the cutting edge, that people would be following you?"

JOHN LYDON: "Oh no, I've never done things to be followed, ever. I don't like to start a bandwagon situation. The way I work is, I take the best things out of things and be honest about it and just carry on doing it. Like, say, heavy metal - they all look the same, all their records are the same, there's just a slight change in the 'ooh babies'. Dreary stuff, isn't it? No content. That's what punk has become, isn't it?"

CARY DARLING: "If you saw through Malcolm as you say you did, why didn't you get rid of him?"

JOHN LYDON: "The rest of the band wouldn't have it."

CARY DARLING: "Because he was a media mastermind?"

JOHN LYDON: "No he wasn't, that's Malcolm in hindsight. The press had a field day, they wrote what they wanted, we had no control over it and we didn't care anyway. There was no great plan, it wasn't deliberately masterminded or worked out, even though he'll tell you otherwise. If you went through actual history you'd realise he's lying, you can't plan something that haphazard. And if it was so totally controlled, why was it such a financial disaster, why is it still in the courts? How come no one's made any money out of it? Because he's brilliant?"

CARY DARLING: "Was the philosophy of anarchy really taken seriously in England at that time or was it all just fashion?"

JOHN LYDON: "Anarchy is a monument to the middle-class, I'll always say that and I believe it. I dealt with musical anarchy, absolutely: just wreck this business and start all over again, and that's exactly what has happened. It's just a shame it started in the wrong way, I should have done it properly. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss."

CARY DARLING: "What should you have done differently?"

JOHN LYDON: "Should have shot a few people."

CARY DARLING: "Anyone in particular?"

JOHN LYDON: "The heads of record companies."


[1] PIL held a press conference at Le Dome in Hollywood in early November 1982.
[2] PIL held auditions at Perkins Palace in Pasadena in August 1984, looking for a new guitarist, bassist and keyboard player.
[3] that new possible bass player was Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
[4] Melody Maker (28 October 1978)
[5] actually Pasadena Convention Center (7 November 1982)
[6] Hollywood Palladium (10 June 1983)


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© Ann Summa
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