KERRANG! magazine, February 20th 1986
Transcribed by Karsten Roekens
© 1986 KERRANG! / HOWARD JOHNSON
HOWARD JOHNSON in konversation with John Lydon. Pic: FIN COSTELLO.
What were you doing ten years ago, huh? Kicking coke cans in the street? Working in a factory? Going to university? Putting on a blazer and tie before setting off for school, like me? Playing in a band perchance?
Whatever you may have been up to in '76, it won't affect the outcome of my argument – namely, that whatever course you were pursuing in those 'heady' days, you can bet the last piece of muslin cloth on your back that you won't have been thinking the same thoughts you're thinking today.
Ten years is a long time when you're walking around on God's earth, and when you inject such a time span into the music industry, where legend has it that a day seems more like a year, well, we're talking change on a grand scale. And therein lies the rub. It's ten years since punk rock exploded across the tabloids, and while many music papers start to scribble excitedly in analysis and exhortation of said epoch, they forget that they've missed the point of what it was all about.
Punk was always a shorter term for change. Not on any grand scale, music being too inadequate a force to achieve such ends, but undoubtedly on both musical and personal planes. To look back in anger – and anguish – at the 'good old days' is to go against the grain of what punk was about. 'Retrogression' was the word that punk was supposed to banish. Change, progress, development, that's the stuff, the business. And if you don't buy that one from me, then let John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten), erstwhile leader of the Sex Pistols group, lay it smooth 'n' smouldering on the white lines!
If ever a man more embraced the punk rock ethos, then I've yet to encounter him. Unconstricted by any boundaries of 'definition', Rotten has forged his own path through a quagmire of constraint, has followed his own instinct against any restrictions, has produced some exciting, ever-changing music, and has been nobody's puppet! I like Johnny Rotten's style!
I also happen to be overtly enthusiastic about the new Public Image Ltd. album (and single 'Rise'), which of course features Johnny on active duty at the vocal helm. If you ain't interested in the theories of punk, the hows, the whys and the wherefores, then simply slip 'Album' (yes, just 'Album'!) onto the desk, barricade yourself in your room and let the music send you! Simply, 'Album' is the most potent, exciting, raucous excursion within the punk-related vinyl netherworld in quite some time. Wouldn't you say so, Johnny?
"It's about time! I worked for a long time preparing this record and I love it! I am so bored with all this homosexual disco stuff! This is my present stance and I'm enjoying it very much. It's honest to goodness, gut-level rock music."
Which is obviously good news for 'Kerrang!' readers who know their rock, but perhaps not for those who think that music begins and ends with homogenised bullshit. So Johnny's gone HM, hasn't he?
"Well, it's apparently a great evil, isn't it? Well, I'm not having any of that because that's not the fucking case! I've thought for years that there's very little difference between punk and Heavy Metal. Aside from image, it's the same bloody music. It's about the same energy. I like Van Halen, I like them lots, and that drives people up the wall, but it's an honest statement."
'NME' readers everywhere tear their hair out, The Jesus And Mary Chain cover 'Panama' and no, 'Kerrang!' cynics, this wasn't prompted interview blurb. So there, let's redress the balance.
"But I can't stand that silly, over-the-top make-up business and especially not satanism. That's evil and we can all do without that. I never approach music in terms of pigeonholing, that's not what it's about. I buy all music by all kinds of people in every form and every field, I will not have prejudice in music."
And therein lies the rub. The anger is still latent within the little frame. A man can't simply erase an era as influential as the Pistols from his life. The passion of anger still burns behind those steely eyes, though now it's channelled, directed.
"I've been through many musical changes in PIL, and I'm happiest with what I'm doing now. Then again, I've said that about every change in the past, so next year I might be doing something completely different – or I might not."
Oh yes, Johnny has this interview technique well in hand, giving information in accordance with what he wishes to reveal, not as the questions dictate. Got to hand it to him, man, he knows where he's at. So what do you want to tell us about the 'Album', Johnny?
"I had a live band before recording took place and a lot of material together before going into the studio. But the band was totally inexperienced, they would have put the budget up by an incredible amount. So we decided to use session people – and why not get the best available? Steve Vai is obviously up there, so we went to him. I didn't like his stuff with Alcatrazz, it was fairly humdrum, but his stuff with Zappa – he's a boy genius of the guitar! Just like Ginger Baker is a bloody good drummer and always has been, to my mind. It was a wacky combination of musicians, with Bill Laswell on bass who's never worked with rock music before, and Ryuichi Sakamoto's eclectic jazz keyboard angle. But it's all high-energy stuff, cos that's my business!"
Anger is an energy, and 'Album' is one hell of an album. Songs to make the Pope excited beneath his robes. There's 'Fishing', featuring one of the most awesome riffs around, 'Round', 'Bags', 'Home', 'Ease', 'Rise'. Monosyllabic. No fannying around.
"One of the insults hurled at this record is that it sounds American. What do they mean?" he sneers.
And I'm blowed if I can grasp it. Johnny Rotten (his official moniker once again!) singing Americana just cos it's got a loud guitar on it? For those too blind to see, we salute you!
"That comes from people, journalists, who are liars and who talk a lot of bollocks. I live my own life and I do things my way. I make records when and how I like. I run at my own speed. They're all very good, very different, and I'm pleased with myself for that. The critics are the ones indulging in the revivalist nonsense – that good old days of '76! Half of those who say they were there weren't, and the other half who were there gave us hell at the time. They claim they dislike the regimentation of the music industry, yet they follow the 'Daily Mirror' attitude to punk. They set up regimented attitudes that The Clash loved, adored and followed like blind sheep. They're not prepared to adapt to their environment, to change. I feel as sorry for these people today as I did for the Teddy Boys in '76."
Yeah, they're more in tune with a set of clothes than a spirit of change and adventure.
"Clothes are utterly and completely irrelevant! Quiet Riot and their ripped-up punk shirts, the kids in the King's Road – these writers are as bad as them, and by following all that they're doing just what the industry wants. They are conformists, they are the record industry!"
And you have no respect for that, right?
"I have a high disrespect for record companies and it's got worse! They all play tennis, they're more despicable than ever, Sloane Rangers with complete disrespect for the bands, because they see them as a temporary thing and themselves as an ongoing force. It's quite inaccurate. I have to do things myself to get through all that. I've tried it with them in many different forms and it doesn't work, because they always run off with the money!"
Something that Mr. Rotten has done his level best to put into his own pocket (witness his recent court case against Malcolm McLaren for evidence!). Now many less wealthy than the man would deride such pecuniary progress, claiming it goes against the ethics which they hold so high and which they patently have no concrete belief in. Well, Johnny has the answer to that one too.
"I do not release two albums every year without fail, because that has nothing to do with creativity, it's done for the money. I avoided that trap. But not the cash, which seems to be falling in on me! I've done exactly what I said I wanted to do when I was with the Pistols. I always said I wanted to be wealthy, but on my own terms. I've made a pretty bob out of it by being honest. It can be done, you don't need to be corrupt. I am living proof that you can be honest, that you can live the truth. I do not need a plane and a yacht, so wealth is not a detrimental factor to me. I don't drive around in a Porsche, which is a gaudy display of wealth without any substance. Surely I'm a fine example of how things should be!"
"I have no one to thank for anything apart from myself. I will not tell lies to make people think I'm a nice person. In this world the majority of people define 'nice' by how many insidious lying compliments they can give in the first thirty seconds of a conversation."
"He's like a politician. If you ask a direct question you never get a direct answer. In my opinion he's a liar, a cheat and a fraud. The only time I was ever in contact with him over the last few years was when he used to ring me up and say 'Wouldn't it be a good idea if the Sex Pistols were to reform?' No, Malcolm, it would not be a good idea! Because you would still be trying to manage the band and that would not be possible. Now he's gone and it's still not possible."
He hastily covers his ass, shrewdy! Still friends with the other Pistols, though?
"I'm still very good friends with Paul and Steve. I quite liked Chequered Past, but did you know that all their equipment went missing at the same time as Steve did? It could of course be coincidence! There goes a good guitarist, it should not be forgotten!"
Guitars! Mmm, yes, we like guitars, John and I, guitars trading on some new vibes with a basic rock essence. It's good to see the man so heavily into the hard stuff ...
"Well, what did you expect? I can't take all these limp wrists. I enjoy energy. That's what matters and that's what's missing!"
Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)
© FIN COSTELLO