NME, May 27th, 1978

Transcribed (and additional notes) by Karsten Roekens,
with thanks to Tom Berglund

© 1978 NME / Neil Spencer


Neil Spencer meets and hears John Lydon's new combo. Joe Stevens took the pics.


"Here, lend us a fiver Neil." John Lydon's upturned palm pokes toward The Guest Journalist, an expectant eyebrow arching above the famed John Rotten stare. Britain's most famous rock star is tapping me for a hand-out.

Is he joking? Is this another arch put-on, in the grand Johnny Rotten tradition of arch put-ons?

"I'm broke," he says flatly. "Completely penniless. There's no money coming in at all. He has it all..."

The eyes roll in silent reference to well-known and heeled King's Road anarchist and rag trade magnate Malcolm McLaren, ex-New York Dolls manager and currently protagonist of a flurry of lawsuits against Pistols photographer Ray Stevenson and now film maker and ex-Roxy Club DJ, rasta Don Letts.

Presently too, it seems, McLaren and his Glitterbest organisation will be engaged in another legal tussle, this time with his former protégé and Sex Pistols frontman, a situation that under British law precludes all but the vaguest references to and conjectures about relations between the two parties concerned.

Suffice to say that on the Lydon side of the tracks, the wounds inflicted by the Pistols break-up and subsequent events are deep and bloody. The resentments held are bitter and savage. The resolutions for the future though are considered and determined. No matter what happens, you feel – and as much should be clear from past events – John Lydon is not a man to be kept down.

Which is just as well considering not only the current financial embarrassment of both Lydon and the slightly motley musical trio rehearsing with him, but also the immediate prospects for its relief.

"Frankly," says Wobble, the band's bassman, "with John's business affairs the way they are, I reckon it could be six to twelve months before this band is gigging."

In the meantime the quartet of Lydon (vocals), Jah Wobble (bass), Keith Levene (guitar) and Jim Walker (drums) face the usual precarious hand-to-mouth existence that's the lot of any unsigned rock band, and quite a few signed and successful ones, to come to that. Just because we put these guys on the NME cover it doesn't necessarily mean that they can afford the time of day.

They do at least have somewhere to live though. "This," says Lydon with a gesture that takes in the scraggy three-story terraced house that he bought with Pistols proceeds and which overlooks a thundering inner London juggernaut artery, "is all I got out of it... the Pistols. It's very nice, but now I can't afford to pay the bills, the rates, nothing..."

The three other members of the band sit dolefully on the sagging sofa, and Wobble and Levene compare sympathetic notes on the injustices of being struck off the social security as a result of their joining forces with Lydon in this line-up. Jim Walker sits quietly on one side, resisting all attempts by the others to haggle him into going to the off-licence, with the ackers dutifully coughed up by The Visiting Journalist.

On the wall 'Anarchy' posters are relieved only by the occasional photograph of the Kray brothers. On the turntable it's reggae.

It is not what certain members of the rock press touchingly refer to as an 'interview situation' – that comes later once Lydon is conveniently absent. He's never liked committing himself to tape, least of all now he's faced with a minefield of legal complications.

The conversation roams around, centering mostly – and inevitably disparagingly – on the activities of former Sex Pistols and McLaren. Tales and incidents are related, some sinister, some downright laughable. John – he responds to a passing reference to 'Johnny Rotten' with a wry "he's not here" – seems particularly concerned lest the tapes that Paul Cook and Steve Jones apparently made with Great Train Robber Ronald Biggs in Rio de Janeiro are released under the Pistols name.

The former Pistol describes Biggs as "someone to avoid at all costs rather than seek out. People seem to have forgotten that that train driver is still a vegetable." (Actually, he's dead – Ed.) [1]

Lydon also has a small fund of stories to relate about his recent visit to Jamaica and the attempts by Boogie, a former Pistols roadie, to film him there – attempts which went so far as to involve the hapless cameraman hiding in the bushes by the Sheraton Hotel swimming pool.

Mention of the way some people closely involved with the Pistols have changed their 'anarchistic' attitude over recent months spurs me to trot out the old George Orwell adage about 'all power corrupting'. [2]

"Well, that ain't true," says Wobble. "Just look at John, it ain't corrupted him. He used to be far worse than he is now."

"It's true," agrees Lydon with a cackle. "I was far more corrupt when I started than now. These days I'm not corrupt at all..."

Jah Wobble – he acquired the Jamaican prefix as a result of his obsession with reggae – is better placed than most to pass judgement. He's known John Lydon some five years now, first encountering him when they were enrolling at Kingsway College of Further Education together.

"I thought he was a Led Zeppelin fan," he recalls. "I was queueing up behind him and we had a bit of a quarrel about who was going to put their names down first... After that he just started crawling around after me and I let him be my mate. He used to have to buy me drinks though, 'cos no-one liked him then. He used to wind everyone up, everyone. People who say he's a bastard now should have seen him then."

Wobble himself was still something of a skinhead at the time, fresh up from his native Whitechapel and the terraces of West Ham [5], which easily outstripped the current rock scene as a source of inspiration. His heroes at the time, he says, were the West Ham team. "Trevor Brooking definitely. Not just 'cos he's a good footballer, but the way he plays the game... you can relate that to life - style, elegance. Musically I've always been into black music, always. First soul, then reggae, which I followed through from my skinhead days. Bit of a cliché, but it's true."

It's worth mentioning at this point that Wobble has acquired himself a reputation in some quarters as something of a bruiser, and there are comparisons drawn between him and Sid Vicious, whom Lydon also met at the Kingsway College and who of course also went on to play bass alongside Lydon. Furthermore, it was Wobble who played back-up to Vicious in the seedy fracas at a Pistols gig at the 100 Club in summer '76 [3] when NME's Nick Kent, in the words of Malcolm McLaren, "got what was coming to him" and was 'done' by Vicious and his chain.

The Vicious/Wobble comparisons, though, don't really wash. Wobble is not the type to share Vicious' taste either for exotic pharmaceuticals, crazed American ladies of high parentage, or the cranky exhibitions of bloody self-destruction which Vicious has paraded before the world.

Wobble's interest in the rock scene began only with the Pistols' emergence in late '75. Since then he's entertained the notion of playing bass without ever taking up the instrument seriously until a month or so ago.

At the other extreme, Keith Levene started playing guitar at the age of seven and received classical training in both guitar and piano well into his teens [6].

He describes his major point of interest in rock before Pistols as Bowie. "I was a skinhead for four weeks... I was a hippie first, then a skin, 'cos I wanted to be different, but all the skinhead I knew were stupid and would just fight all the time, so I became a hippie again, a hippie in skinhead clothes."

A follower of the fledgling punk scene from its earliest inception, Levene belonged to The Clash in their earliest incarnation, surviving only a matter of weeks before his departure/expulsion for reasons which he says should be "obvious... I wasn't into politics."

A flirtation with drugs was apparently another reason why Levene didn't stay the course with the City Rockers, certainly 'Deny' on The Clash's first album is widely reputed to refer to him at this time, a period when he also met Wobble and Lydon for the first time.

Having flunked his first punk band, Levene weaned himself from his drug habit and concentrated his energies on mixing sound for The Slits, a group whom he describes as currently "about the most original and exciting group around... like the Sex Pistols used to be in a way."

Drummer Jim Walker is ostensibly the odd man out in the group. A clean cut Canadian who at 23 is the oldest member of the outfit, he left his native Vancouver six months ago, inspired by the wave of imports and excitement coming over from the U.K. and disillusioned by the apathetic response meted out to the local combo with whom he was plying his trade, The Furies. His recruitment to the Lydon band came with a rock paper advertisement which had already yielded some twenty sticksmen to the bored ears of the other three before Walker took the kit and was hired, in his own words, "after about five seconds. Really. I just knew it was the best band I'd ever had."

Together they are... well, hell, the foursome boasts no collective moniker at present, or at least not one they'll publicly admit to, beyond a "seven day biodegredable" tag of The Carnivarious Buttockflies.

The band are hardly less reticent about their raison d'être. They've all had a gutful of their projections and rationalisations shot their way by critics and their ilk, OD'd into stupefaction by the popular press ballyhoo about punk.

"Music's just a laugh," says Wobble.

"Yeah, there ain't no big message or anything," says Levene. "We're just trying to be as honest as possible."

Lydon likewise holds few briefs for the new venture. "Things now are worse than when the Pistols started," he says. "Pathetic. Still, I did try."

It's a feeling that seems common to the band as a whole. The aftermath of post-Pistols, post-punk disillusionment, the feeling that inspite of it all nothing has really changed... that it's the 'same old hippie trip', that the business has accommodated, emasculated.

In the light of all this, certain truths are held by the band to be self-evident. Like that there'll be no manager – "It's the obvious thing after what's gone down in the last twelve months. That ain't Catch 22," says Keith. "It's another Catch altogether."

But some things have changed, I insist. The New Wave stars definitely have a different attitude towards their role and towards their fans.

"Yeah, it's a one percent change," says Wobble, "but it's an important one – a crucial one. A lot of it's down to the Pistols and Rotten especially... like that Capital Radio programme he did with Tommy Vance [4] – to me that was more important than the Pistols getting the front page of the Daily Mirror."

One of the things that alienated a lot of people from the Pistols and punk in general was the way that violence became so glorified for a spell. Like if rock culture can't get itself together on that level...

"Well, put this down," says Wobble. "All the violence with the punk thing is very symbolic violence. It's just people posing in a violent way, and if you go down to any pub in Britain on a Friday or Saturday night you're going to see real violence, like glasses hitting people's faces, but people never write about that. There's a murder a day in London that never gets reported."

Yeah, but symbolic or not, there was a period in summer '76 when at every Pistols gig I went to there were scraps. It got very sinister, like the violence was actually being engineered.

"I don't think it was engineered," says Keith. "The violent pose was on though... maybe some managers of punk bands tried to engineer it..."

It seemed like the karma of that time worked its way back to the Pistols when Paul and John got done over in the streets though.

"Yeah, but that was 35-year-old geezers," says Keith. "National Front blokes... they are the ones who are influenced by what they read in The Sun about punk."

"At the time," adds Wobble, "the Pistols gigs were just a good place to go and listen to some raucous out-of-tune music and have a booze-up and fall about on the floor and knock people over and have a general laugh. Get drunk, pass out, wake up with a hangover and go to the next gig. Watch Rotten take the piss out of everyone and people take seriously what he said. It was good..."

We talk about the differences between the rock culture and the reggae culture, which I suggest has a good deal more dignity than most rock bands or acts can muster. Both Levene and Wobble agree.

"Rock is obsolete," says Wobble. "But it's our music, our basic culture. People thought we were gonna play reggae, but we ain't gonna be no GT Moore and The Reggae Guitars or nothing. It's just a natural influence – like I play heavy on the bass..."

And more and more rock seems to be copping reggae's influence, like the way the whole of Elvis Costello's act is based on a dub concept – different levels of instruments, bass, drums and voices.

"Yeah, Costello's probably done it better than anyone. The Stranglers are starting to use it now too. But like a lot of rock bands get it wrong – like that 'Wild Dub' that Gen X did, that was just topside dub, it didn't go down to the roots."

Later Keith Levene tells me that he's interested in using his experience as a sound man on 'rock dub' in the band's repertoire, and later still I get a chance to hear what he's talking about when the band practice their as yet limited set in a workaday rehearsal studio somewhere in South London.

What becomes immediately apparent on seeing and hearing what for want of anything better we'll term the John Lydon Band is that they aren't going to be any surrogate Sex Pistols. In fact, once Keith gets across to the vocal console and starts knob twiddling, what emerges at times sounds more like something from 'Electric Ladyland' than your archetypal three-chord punk powerthrash.

There is a quality of deliberation and thought to their music that was apparent only fleetingly with the Pistols. Of course there is a limit to what a line-up of bass, drums, guitar and vocals can achieve, as Keith readily bears witness after their first number. "What can you do?" he shrugs. "It doesn't sound like heavy metal though, does it. Does it?"

No, it doesn't. Levene's guitar style alone precludes any such comparison. Though built on chord sequences and a minimal amount of solo work, Levene seems to have somehow stripped the sound he culls from his Les Paul Junior to stark streamlined basics.

There's no windmill Townshend power chords, not even Steve Jones blood and thunder attack, just cool precision wielded with unmistakable power.

Wobble is evidently limited as to what he can attempt on his Fender Precision bass, but there's no mistaking that the man has a genuine feel for the rhythms of the instrument and should at his present rate of progress be able to see off a sizeable portion of the opposition before the year is out.

He certainly has a rhythm partner to match. Jim Walker plays a rapid, sharp-shooting kit, full of busy flurries and cymbal breaks.

John Lydon meanwhile alternately slumps beside the microphone in apparent boredom or hulks over the microphone incanting the lyrics to 'Religion' in a painfully deliberate way. His style has also been an unholy combination of reggae DJ and pub carouser. The time I saw him rehearse he seemed intent on projecting anguish as simply and powerfully as possible. His persona remains as inscrutable as it was with the Pistols, a mercurial visage flitting between outrage, glee, anger and mockery. He's got a strange mug alright, at times he can look like nothing less than a deranged Irish literati out of the James Joyce and Flann O'Brien mould. Other times he wears the glazed trance of a movie psychopath. In relity of course he's something else again – actually disarmingly human much (but definitely not all) of the time. His family, incidentally, are real charming folk.

The numbers they play include 'Religion', formerly entitled 'Sod In Heaven' and a scathing attack on Roman Catholicism, such as one might expect from a disillusioned Irish Catholic: "Suck your host... the holy ghost... read how many dead in The Irish Post..."

They also do a song called 'Public Image', are toying with the prospect of featuring 'E.M.I.', and played 'Belsen Was A Gas' – a number that in the past has always been considered to be the work of Sid Vicious. They also seem to be fond of playing 'My Generation', a number which Wobble introduces as "a vision I had last night". One suspects that its inclusion is somewhat sarcastic.

Don Letts also showed up to jam and do some startlingly competent talk-overs. "Can you do a toast of 'Religion', maan?" asks Lydon.

Are they the future of rock and roll? Bollocks. The last word is Wobble's.

"Talking and analysing and going round in a circle is last year's thing. Things are too obvious now. If people don't know what's going on in the music industry now with the big bands etc. then they'll never know. We're not into making statements, we're just into having a laugh. We just got a vibe and people in tune are just gonna pick it up."


[1] Train driver Jack Mills died in 1970 from leukaemia.
[2] actually by Lord Acton: "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely." (1887)
[3] 15 June 1976
[4] "The Punk And His Music", pre-recorded 11 July 1977 and broadcast 16 July 1977 on Capital Radio
[5] This is a strange reference, Wobble is famously a life-long Tottenham Hotspur fan
[6] In later years Levene denied being classically trained


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