John Lydon:
BAM Magazine, 16th June 1989

© 1989 Bam

Don't Worry, Be Happy?

Interviewed by Nina Ellerman

Johnny Rotten seems amiable, almost cheerful in the suite of a trendy Hollywood hotel on the day Sid Vicious would have turned 31. His unrotten mood, and the shadow that darkens his face at the mention of the fallen Sex Pistol, suggests he hasn't given the birthday a single thought. "And I won't either" he says tersely. "He's dead. Let him rest in peace. He didn't have much of a happy life anyway." The same could have been said of Rotten himself not too long ago. But the man who today looks completely at ease on a plush hotel sofa appears to have finally come to grips with the world. "Everything out there is awful, but there's no reason why that should destroy our lives," he asserts. "This is all we've got, boys and girls, enjoy it while you can."

Rotten even looks different. Gone are the long, multi-colored dreadlocks he'd been cultivating the past few years. "It became impractical, to tell the truth," he says of his shorn locks. "Fifteen pounds of hair on your head is really awful. And the amount of metal I used to put in my head, too, to keep the damn stuff up. Could never go through any kind of airport security without bleeping. And it's impossible to tell them it's your hair! A full strip-search every time is just not worth it. No fashion statement in the world should cause that amount of difficulty."

The change in Rotten permeates more than appearance and mood. The penetrating blue eyes gleam with what can only be described as optimism. This new outlook is reflected on Public Image Ltd.'s newly released LP titled, appropriately enough, 9. The album, the band's ninth, might have been called Cloud 9, or, as a sequel to 1987's Happy?, Happy - minus the question mark. "Happy? was much more militant in it's approach," Rotten says. "Kind of pissed off at the world. That was the attitude. But this one is much more happy, much more open. I think it sums up the sense of optimism that really has to be there for these very serious times we live in."

It's clear Rotten's prescription for optimism doesn't include a pair of rose-colored glasses (unless they're one of several he got for doing a soon-to-be released LA Eyeworks ad). The songs on 9 are still aimed at what he sees as an imperfect world; he's simply moved his lyrical gunsight closer to home. His latest round of targets include fair-weather friends ("Disappointed"), pomposity ("Armada"), sexism ("Just Like A Woman"), and oppression ("Warrior"). "I was watching, I think it was Burt Lancaster, playing an Apache," Rotten says of the inspiration for "Warrior," which is included on the soundtrack for Slaves Of New York. "That's precisely how I see myself, fighting off, instead of the U.S. Cavalry, boredom and oppression."

Do the songs have a common theme? "There is a theme running through them, but I'm not going to tell you what it is," Rotten states with playful malice.

Aw, come on.

"It's not to take life so seriously, actually," he admits without further prodding. "And not to expect too much from anyone, which will at least give them a chance. And that is optimism."

The decision to improve the musical mood was deliberate, says Rotten, who describes PiL as "a real band of wafflers. We sit down and debate what we're going to be doing before we actually do anything. It's important to us to have that worked out."

That goes for the music as well as the philosophy behind it. "The songs really were written much, much more for live than record," Rotten explains. "They were completely and totally rehearsed before they went anywhere near the studio. So the actual recording process was very, very quick."

The songwriting process, on the other hand, was anything but quick. "Took us a year to write," says Rotten, "and very well worthwhile. Bear in mind that Happy? was the first album that we as a band had done. So we were sort of being very cagey with each other in the writing. Nobody really let rip. This time we all did."

PiL's music is a product of the interplay between it's member's - Rotten, guitarist John McGeoch, drummer Bruce Smith, and bassist Allan Dias. The songs for 9 were written with the assistance of PiL guitarist Lu Edmonds, but performed in studio by Ted Chau, a multi-instrumental from Hong Kong. "Poor old Lu Edmonds has gone and gone deaf," Rotten explains. "The doctors warned him that if he continues in any way at all that the damage might be permanent. And it might even be at the moment. But he's got to take at least a year off. And if he's fine next year, there's always a place for him."

In the meantime, PiL will be augmented by Chau, who Rotten describes as "a very talented chap. What he can't play isn't worth mentioning." Chau, who has never played in a band before, was recruited through a newspaper ad. "How else?" Rotten wants to know. "Go to trendy parties and meet wankers?"

Although PiL' music is composed collectively, Rotten alone writes the lyrics - more by default than by choice. "There's very little out there that I would like to do versions of," he says. "And there's no one in our band at the moment who wants to go anywhere near lyric writing. So, I guess I got elected. It's something I think I do very well, too. I can compound more than a few truths per song."

Is there anything out there he'd consider covering? "'Feelings,'" he says without hesitation, adding that the song helps him battle boredom on the road. "Whenever there's a piano player in the hotel bar, I always have them do a version of 'Feelings' and I tape it. I've got about 200 and it's fantastic. When they're really, really bad, that's when it's brilliant. I can quite easily sit down and listen to six hours of 'Feelings' done badly. Amazing, isn't it? The stupidity that gets you through the day."

Rotten will have an opportunity to expand his collection this summer when PiL, joined by New Order and the Sugarcubes, embarks on a major U.S. tour. Rotten describes the tour as "a marriage of convenience" instigated by Ian Copeland, agent for PiL and New Order. "New Order was setting up their tour and we were setting up ours," he explains. "And he's (Copeland) so bloody lazy that he couldn't be bothered to do the two separately. So he suggested that we do it all together into one. But it seems the right thing to do. I love the idea of the diversity between us. We're all so incredibly opposite."

The fact that New Order has top billing for the tour doesn't seem to bother Rotten. In fact, he commends the band for doing the tour at all. "I'm very, very pleased with New Order... because they could play, quite easily, the pompous rock stars, which I don't think they are. Whether I like their music or not isn't the point."

The point, in Rotten's view, is to embrace change, and that's one thing he and PiL have done consistently. "I like change," he says. "The easy life is not for me. I don't think it should be for anybody. It implies mediocrity. The fact that I don't fit neatly into place I suppose does annoy a few people. But that's just too bad, isn't it?"


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