John Lydon:
ME/Sounds (Germany), July 1989

Transcribed (and additional info) by Karsten Roekens

© 1989 ME/Sounds


By a hair's breadth John Lydon fell out with just everybody: clinch with ex-producer Bill Laswell, age-old conflict with Malcolm McLaren, war with band members. And despite a new band, album and sound tricks he even picked a quarrel with ME/Sounds contributor Steve Lake.

Let's start the story in New York inside a greasy Mexican restaurant down Broadway. It's breakfast time, mainly because the bars have finally closed, a few music business people are stranded here like whales run aground, together with a further bunch of human flotsam and jetsam. I wash down a plate of chili plus indefinable side dishes with vast amounts of strong black coffee. Bassist and producer Bill Laswell and Robert Musso, guitarist of Machine Gun, a fantastic new US band, are sitting at the table too.

A blond female relic from the blessed punk days stalks on high-heels to the jukebox and inserts a coin. Strong chords boom from the machine, it's the Sex Pistols with 'Pretty vacant'. 6 a.m. in New York. Coffee and Johnny Rotten nearly wake me up again.

"John Lydon really had it then", Musso says admiringly.

"And now he's lost it", Laswell finishes the subject disgruntled.

Laswell produced 'Album', still Lydon's/Public Image's strongest record, and it was Laswell's idea to bring Lydon and Africa Bambaataa together on Time Zone's 'World Destruction', one of the most amazing singles of the '80s.

Last year the producer was again in a New York studio with the current PIL line-up (guitarist John McGeoch, drummer Bruce Smith, bassist Alan Dias), but the once so stimulating relationship ended up in a terrible row. Laswell turned his back on the project after only four days.

I mention that I'll have to do an interview with John Lydon on my return. Bill says: "Ask him why he delivered a bad disco album." He refers to '9', the PIL album which in the end was produced in London by Eric Thorngren and Steven Hague instead, and which just has been released.

Cut. We're at the Munich Hilton, and John Lydon is in an unperturbedly good mood. He looks like one of those Californian beach dead beats, with impertinent chummy charms, bleached blond hair, a surfing sponger bursting with health. Hardly: he gulps down a bottle of Löwenbräu.

"Ah, Löwenbräu. This stuff alone is worth a visit to Germany... Disco album??? It is no disco album. It is a pop album. PIL pop. Our pop. Good for everyone. Good songs, inspired musicians, excellent lyrics. If I dare say so."

We start to speak about the details of the Laswell-Lydon duel, here's Lydon's version: "Oh, that was really disgusting. I'm embarrassed of Bill Laswell. Hmmm... let me explain how it happened..."

A long complicated story follows. In short: Lydon says Laswell signaled interest in a new collaboration with PIL via Virgin. (Laswell says Lydon literally begged for it after the commercial failure of 'Happy?', the follow-up to 'Album') "I had doubts from the start, but nevertheless I flew to New York with a tape of our songs." According to Lydon the producer didn't even listen to the tape.

When PIL entered the studio "suddenly he said he hates our songs, the band is crap and I better fire them and work with the songs he wrote for me." (Laswell actually wrote the bulk of the material on 'Album' and selected the musicians too) "His idea for me was to make some kind of U2 album." (Laswell: "I think he should make a strong rock album." He's experienced in that, check Iggy Pop's 'Instinct' for instance)

"So we packed our bags", Lydon finishes, "and fucked off. I don't know what's got into Laswell. He seems to have serious ego problems."

This of course has been said of Lydon in the past too. His rows with Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren are legend, and ex-PIL members like guitarist Keith Levene complain bitterly about lack of acknowledgement and (according to Levene) payment for their contributions to the band's sound and concept.

But Lydon is loyal to the current band, which exists for three years now. And contrary to Laswell's alleged reservations you can't deny the musicians' abilities (even if it doesn't show that much on '9'). Bruce Smith, formerly of Rip, Rig & Panic, is probably today's best post-punk drummer.

All PIL members have equal shares in royalties and credits, "so the ego is eliminated now. Finally I have a solid band I'm happy with, and we're working well together. They're all into it, it's all about just doing it and not making money. Shit, money isn't everything."

That it didn't work out with previous PIL line-ups had various reasons. "Earlier with Keith Levene and Jeanette Lee (around the time of 'Flowers Of Romance'), we all lived in the same house, sat in the same kitchen and shared the same living room. It all got on our nerves and in the end we just couldn't bear each other anymore."

Then and now he has been offered lots of money for a Sex Pistols reunion tour. "Right", he mutters, not interested in the subject.

Didn't you ever consider it? "Not for a second. You can't offer me that much money. It's history, the past. And I'm not interested in the past."

Back to present. Lydon has a clear idea of what kind of people listen to PIL today. "It's a mixed bag now. A few thinking people, young girls, rock fans, black and white, just everything. I think it's very healthy. And that's fine with me. There were times when our audiences consisted just of a certain type of people. It was worst around the time of 'Metal Box' when we were categorized as intellectuals, complete nonsense, people were all... exactly that pose! Exactly like you now!"

Pose? I have the hand on my chin, leaned slightly forward, just like Rodin's 'The Thinker'. Unconsciously of course.

"Exactly like that. Those were the worst moments of my life - you walk out and face 3000 people looking just like you now."

He empties another bottle of Löwenbräu and belches loud.


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