NME, 23rd December, 1978
© 1978 NME
Putting The Nation On The PiL
John Lydon lives in the upper marionette of the end terrace of a row of sturdily built Victorian houses on the Fulham / Chelsea border. He picked it up very cheaply indeed shortly before the beginning of the current property boom. It was, he says, one of the sharpest things he ever did and was all he came out of The Sex Pistols with.
This Saturday afternoon I call round, the pre- Christmas cold snap has turned the open plan (ie. doorless) living room into a rheumatic's vision of hell. Though Satan the cat doesn't appear to object too much, JL pronounces the room to be 'as a cold as the grave'; he huddles down on the couch close to one of the two night storage heaters and watches 'Bruce's Big Night' with the sound turned down as Bob Marley's 'Natty Dread' booms out of the stereo speakers. Photographer Dennis Morris and Grace, his lady, and Jo, John's girlfriend get as close as possible to the other heater but it's still so cold that were all shaking.
Meanwhile Lydon - obviously a conceptualist - has thematically linked the various rooms of his household by cleverly placed empty and near-empty pints cans of lager. The living room is full of cans (very handy for cigarette ends - 'I bought a load of ashtrays but they all got nicked'), the kitchen is full of cans, the bathroom is full of cans, and, on the previous visit to Lydon's home during the summer, the writer recalls having stepped out upon the flat roof and noticed that even the roof of the house next door was covered with cans. . .
For the present, though, it seems unlikely that John was going to be investing in any more expensive objects d'art than these. The Public Image Ltd singer (John insists that the group is a group and that he is only one fourth of it - hence the egalitarian songwriting credits on the eight tracks on the LP) has after all just been served with tax bill for £58,000 from his days with The Sex Pistols. Tough the niceties of the British legal system prevent his in commenting in much detail on the current state his wranglings with former manager Malcolm McLaren, John Lydon does at least say that
'The man owes me money which he won't give me. In fact, he denies there is any money. So how come I've just been given a tax bill like that for money which I am supposed to have earnt and, in fact, have never seen. However', he shrugs, shifting the onus of guilt around to what becomes one of the central themes of our conversation, 'you can't put the blame too much on Malcolm because the music business permits and encourages him to behave like that.'
Of his attempts through British judiciary to prevent McLaren from utilizing the Sex Pistols name, and thereby abort anymore atrocities like the Ronnie Biggs epic, John Lydon comments simply that 'what I want is that the Sex Pistols name not to be bastardised. Half the people who bought that Biggs thing didn't even realize the group was any different.'
One notes that pinned to one wall, in addition to an 'Anarchy' tour poster, is another reading 'Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they won't get you' . . .
As Saturday evening gets under way, John and I, along with Dennis and Grace, disappear up to his slightly warmer bedroom in the quest for an Interview Situation. There, conceding defeat to the elements, John climbs fully clothed back into bed in an attempt to keep warm - 'I'm going to stay here for the rest of the night. What luxury.'
Adjustments to the ceiling spot lights to better facilitate photographer Dennis, who - along with Grace - only stay for that the first quarter of an hour or so of the interview, seem to come close to blinding John. He asks Dennis to angle them away from his eyes.
'What's the matter, man?' laughs the lensman, 'make you feel like you being set up?'
John offers a half-grunt by way of reply.
'Ah, I wouldn't set you up,' chuckles Dennis.
'Oh, I dunno,' smiles John ruefully, 'I've done it often enough to myself.'
And as far as John Lydon goes, everyone has a theory.
John Lydon - the total innocent, bashed and buffeted by Babylon's shortcomings yet, aided only by his inner purity and light, skipping merrily on through these anachronistic horrors;
John Lydon - as Mephistopheles, a persona possibility suggested largely by the 'I am an anti-Christ' line in 'Anarchy In The UK' and JL's penchant for blessing photographers with near-camp diabolic poses straight out of 'The Omen' or 'The Exorcist';
John Lydon - the closet queen, a viewpoint largely leapt upon when, at the peak of the Pistolian paranoia, the apparently rockhard iconoclast was seen to occasionally display a vulnerability and sensitivity that was, in fact, obviously the yin to his determination's yang;
John Lydon - the total manipulator, an image fostered largely by writers who've falling prey to his treating shits as shits and also - a trait common to many New Wavers (sic) - his near-spontaneous inclination to wind up and test any new professional acquaintances. ('It's their own insecurities and fears operating if people think that', he comments, incidentally).
In the end, however, it appears to be almost antithetical to the very nature of Lydon (why did his stop calling himself Rotten? 'I didn't. That was the press's idea.') to even attempt to compartmentalize him so crassly.
Peel away all the assorted personae - and the manner, which can only be defined as charisma, in which he can become all things to all men - and they can be seen as mere shields. Shed the shields and you'll see why all this discussion is just so much flatulence. Amend that line - as far as John Lydon goes, everyone who relies on their intellects has a theory.
Lydon's determined anti-intellectualism is no mere pose. Whether he's thought it out or not - on the odds that he hasn't, too much reason would, after all, be relying on the intellect, would it not? - he's certainly aware that a hyper-belief in the intellect, and a consequent divorcing of the conscious reasoning faculties from the unconscious, is certainly one of the main causes - if not the main cause - for the atrophied spirits within Western society.
After all, yer average English Pistols fan - the kind of punk mutant of whom Lydon himself despairs for their never having sussed just how much they themselves were media products - was never too concerned with Johnny Rotten theories. All they knew was that when they saw John Rotten onstage there was as much a release within themselves as when the elder brothers or sisters - or even maybe their parents, come to that - had first experienced Elvis Presley or The Beatles. Something had been liberated within themselves and, as long as they concentrated all their primal responses - be these knicker-wetting or screaming or pogoing - on this magnetic icon, they felt like whole human beings.
So in the Sex Pistols, John Rotten was capable of erecting a causeway from the nation's - we're not dealing with simple fandom here, of course; the Pistols did cause rather a rumpus - conscious to its unconscious, wasn't he?
Well, who am I to answer that? All that I and you know is that for whatever reasons The Sex Pistols, who were Johnny Rotten who was The Sex Pistols, managed not only to make a lot of people feel very good indeed but also managed to make a much larger number of people feel far more uncomfortable than they'd perhaps ever felt in their lives. For whatever reasons the Pistols managed to shake up an awful lot of guilt, to stab hard into a lot of open nerves. John Lydon's only too aware of the effect that a simple rock band created.
'Funny that,' he says, grinning a grin that suggests that perhaps all the ramifications of being the national scapegoat have yet to come clear, 'Nobody's ever come that close to what we did. . . being either really liked or really hated - but nobody ignored it.'
'What a joke. And the other members - Steve and Paul - were not even aware of it. Not even vaguely. Didn't want to know. Always struck me as funny, that.'
One of the things John Lydon certainly believes in is the ability of human beings to drag themselves up out of the mire and transcend their limitations. And, of course, it's a belief in which you constantly let down.
'I sense,' I say, 'that you believe in certain qualities of excellence and elevation.'
'Yeah,' he replies, after a very lengthy pause with more than a touch of sadness in his voice, 'It's a shame I never seem able to find it.'
'Does that piss you off?' I ask .
'No-o-o-o-o,' a shrug of the shoulders, 'I should be used to by now. Good God,' he sighs.
Ask John Lydon if he ever considered himself a punk and he becomes almost even more depressed.
'No! I refute that term. It was ridiculous. I hate that name. I think it's loathsome. And I particularly hated the people who took upon themselves to go around calling themselves punks. They didn't have the mentality to suss out that that was pure media walking all over them. People always get it wrong.'
Although he will concede to having once been fond of the Pink Fairies - 'They were berserk. A laugh,' - Lydon is equally contemptuous of the claims made by his former colleagues Steve Jones and Paul Cook that he used to deal acid at Sunday afternoon Roundhouse gigs.
'How would they know?' he demands almost querulously, 'You see, on one hand you have Vivien Goldman writing in Sounds about how I was a totally innocent child whilst on the other you got them saying I was selling acid. Let them all carry on - I don't care. Apparently I was also meant to have been a roadie for Hawkwind and a public school chappie and various other bits and pieces. It all makes no sense and good sense.'
Lydon further denies allegations that he was once a great-coated hippie by suggesting. . .'it's just that when you're in your own area, you just have the style as everyone else in that area has. And that was the style - long hair. With skinhead gear. Used to look ridiculous.'
Did he ever actually become a skinhead?
'No,' almost hurt, 'I'd never have shaved off my hair. Think of it in winter.'
Until the Pistols and John came together he was, then, just A N Other punter at London's rock venues, 'doing nothing that anyone else wouldn't do. Except that my hair was red and hacked all over the place and my clothes were torn to shit . . but that was the only difference. And I didn't see that as any fantastic beginnings of an anarchist movement. In fact,' he laughs, 'I was only doing it to be spiteful. It was almost like,' he bears his teeth and tosses his head from side to side, 'GRRRRHHHH. I'M SICK OF BEING BORING!!!' He splutters with laughter.
'But,' the smile is replaced with a look of almost sorrowful frustration at the misguided misinterpretations of others who should, but just couldn't have known better, 'Malcolm and the chappies thought it was pretty outrageous.'
It seems pretty obvious that, though previously the basic emotions had bubbled up in their primal, unformed state, it wasn't until The Pistols Experience that the majority of John's beliefs were counterpoised against sufficient frictions and tensions for them to click into place with any illuminating clarity. Indeed, the anarchic (sic) mass-marketing of the group - 'They wanted me as some kind of cardboard cut-out they could wheel out and put on display' - must have appeared so antithetical to the true feelings that The Experience itself was drawing out of him that it's surprising he didn't actually flip right out. Although it's possible that John did come closer to cracking up than he'll admit. Both in Jamaica immediately following the Pistols' split and once when I saw him last summer at the height of the acrimonious wrangling with McLaren, there were moments when the strong facade would almost imperceptibly crack.
'I'm only 22,' I recall him telling me, 'and I feel I've seen everything. It makes it very difficult sometimes.'
In fact, though I believe he's now emerged from it far stronger, I'm sure the first six months of the year were for obvious reasons, not a nice time to be J Lydon.
As with most of us really, John Lydon's life has frequently had a rather souring edge put on it by other people trying to lay their false realities on him. That's certainly true of the college John went to in Hackney in an attempt to pick up 'O' levels. Obviously there was a heavy bass-playing vibe about the place for it was there where he met with Sid Vicious and Public Image bassist Jah Wobble:
'What a fuckin' combination that was. Look at the three of us; that's what further education did for us.'
'Did you get any 'O' levels?' asks Dennis.
'No-o-o-o!' laughs John, 'None has got anything. Just blind drunk . . on bored beyond belief. Those places are so nauseating . But,' he becomes more serious. 'Don't you think it's bad? All that further education we had and none of us have been able to use it anyway at all. Completely pointless it is.
Had he ever expected to get anything?
'UHH, let's face it - everybody when they do exams thinks "Yes. I'll pass all my exams and go on to be the managing director of ICI or something." (long pause) - doesn't work like that, though. You end up sweeping floors.'
For whatever reasons, the all-nighters put on at the Kings Cross cinema in '71/'72 hold vivid memories for John Lydon.
'I saw Iggy Pop at Kings Cross - so there. Before he was trendy. . . and he was awful. Embarrassing. Then that sort of thing became acceptable. . . Outrageous. God, all those people who were on and no one ever bothered to look at them twice. And now you can't get near them. Lou Reed. Yeah, I remember that. Complete lack of interest from the audience,' - affects Harper's art critic voice - 'of course, he was only a minor figure then. Most people had vague ideas of what the Velvet Underground were, but had never heard of them. Except for a few trendies. It was Bowie who made him acceptable, wasn't it?'
Were you into Bowie?
'No. . . 'Hunk Dory' I didn't mind. Actually, I think he's the best thing he's done is 'Diamond Dogs'. I really liked it.'
Did you get off the whole glam-rock thing?
'Roxy, I liked Roxy Music. They were good. Loony. Ferry singing his songs in the dinner jacket was completely berserk. And then he took his image seriously. Funny that. They all crack up over that. End up believing in their publicity themselves. Completely out of it. The same with Bowie doing his Ziggy bit and then changing and thinking "Oh, I am like that. A person of many roles".'
Somewhere in the back of my brain are some unclear memories of a most drunken evening in which John Lydon, among others, was present. Vague recollections of discussions about Russian writers, including Dostoevsky, linger on. For whatever reasons, I'd assumed John had taken part in that conversation, too. He denies this and claims that he's never read anything whatsoever by Dostoevsky.
'I don't think I could. Like I couldn't go and see Jaws. Too popular. Anything that popular has to be a crock of shit. Funny, but true. I mean, what is that James Joyce book? Ulysses? The one that goes on and on and on about nothing. Everyone says that's brilliant.
He adopts a cloistered, academic accent. 'Oh genius! The man's a genius! It's the worst thing I've ever read in my life. What a shit he must have been. Alcoholic idiot.'
And from a fellow Irishman, too. Does John recall having any sense of traditional Irish rebellion instilled into him?
'Not that I'm aware of,' he shakes his head, 'I'm just Me being Me. And I'm not sure I like of all the time, either.' he grins.
As The Doors' 'Waiting For The Sun' album wafted up from the stairs from the living-room, John Lydon details how it wasn't Malcolm McLaren but Bernie Rhodes, McLaren's assistant and subsequently (though no more) the manager of the Clash, who spotted this sharp kid from Finsbury Park down in the 'Sex' shop miming to Alice Cooper on the jukebox. McLaren, he says, 'was alright then. But later he went completely up the wall. Tried to cut out my social life out.'
He describes how, on the Pistol's' Swedish tour, he and Dennis Morris had incurred managerial wrath for staying up in his hotel room and listening to reggae when 'Malcolm thought we should be down smashing things up and living up to our image.' Equally, after John had chosen, amongst others, the likes of Captain Beefheart, Dr Alimantado and Tim Buckley to play on the hour-long Capital Radio show he put together in the summer of '77 with DJ Tommy Vance, McLaren was equally furious.
'That was pathetic,' groans John, 'it seemed to mean that if I liked records that I couldn't be half as ignorant, moronic, violent, destructive, etcetera, etcetera as as they wanted to promote me as. . . .but Malcolm's like that. He sees something in someone who thinks 'Oh, if only, if only. . .' believes his own fuckin' lies.'
The antagonism between Lydon and his manager began, says the singer, 'after leaving EMI. Because Malcolm was just bullshitting from there on in. All that nonsense about not being able to get gigs was to some weird managerial scheme. He thought he'd bury us in some kind of mystique and that it would help will record sales. He'd seen too many films,' John laughs, 'it was all his ridiculous, romantic image of himself. God, what a fiasco.'
There are those, of course, with this image of McLaren as some sort of diabolic voyeur, setting up all these bizarre situation so that he can get off on them by viewing them from a safe distance.
'Oh no,' John disagrees, 'I think he did all those things to the to the best of his abilities. He didn't start out for that wrong reasons. It's just that money interfered. He gets things wrong and tries to manipulate people's lives like a game of chess. It was quite absurd because my whole attitude towards the Pistols was 'This is going to be an honest band'. But he was working against it. It started out as a laugh, right? Being asked to sing in a band!?! I just thought 'Whoopee. Ha Ha. What fun. A bumpkin like me who can hardly be bothered to talk'. And then I took myself a little serious. And I found I wasn't scared shitless of yelling in a microphone and it was really good fun. And 'cos they couldn't write words I did all that - all the literature. It suited me fine. All the things I've wanted to moan about all my measly life and I got into songs. Whoopeeee. . . . '
But after a while you didn't enjoy playing live any more, did you?
'No,' hesitantly, 'it got to be a joke, didn't it? It just got stagnant. That year when we didn't do anything. . We never did any new songs. . . nothing. No-one could be bothered. There was no point. That's what messed it up. I've got nothing against playing live. I just don't want to do it night after night.'
In fact, the Pistols probably never played to more than about 20,000 people altogether. . .
'Probably a lot less than that.'
How many actual dates did you? Do you know?
'Oh, about 50. Certainly no more than that. Couldn't be. And that Brunel gig - that last London date - that was the worst ever gig ever. The PA didn't work. There was no bar. And they lost the key to the front door so the audience couldn't get in.'
What about the last English date - the Christmas Day Huddersfield gig?
'That was brilliant.'
It was a benefit for the striking fireman, wasn't it?
'And orphans and things like that . Malcolm hated it. Malcolm didn't want to know. Because we lost a lot of money. Dear me. How tragic. Funny that. That gig was never mentioned in the press, was it? Yet at the time they were following us around the country 'Pistols banned here. Cause trouble there'.'
Was that the gig where you dived into the Christmas cake?
'I was pushed into it. By a load of horrible six year old girls. Savage beasts. That was great, that was. So good. Sid was pinching sweets from everyone; he couldn't cope at all with having kids as an audience. Just couldn't handle it. He couldn't do all that nonsense with his face and with his shirt off. It didn't wash at all. They just though he was a buffoon. And he knew they knew. And he was.'
When the you stop being friendly with Sid?
'His attitude changed completely when he met Nancy. One hundred per cent. He was banging up all day and night. He became a total bore and just didn't recognize any more anyone any more. It was pathetic. He can't play bass. He never really could. It was horrible the noise he used to get out of it,' he laughs, 'about the most offensive racket ever. The reputation he got for himself as a bass player. . Johnny Thunders - now we know what he's like. He's out of his box - refused to let Sid jam with him because he thinks Sid's so appalling and it's not worth talking about. I thought that was so funny - one junkie been discerning about another.'
But it's true that you got him into the Pistols?
But you knew he couldn't play then, presumably?
'Uhuh (pause) No, but he was alright then. He was learning and learning fast. And then he just got really fucked up. You've seen him go from bad to worse. I've seen him go from good too bad to worse.'
Presumably that must have been quite depressing . . .
'Just morbid. It fitted in with everything else. Everything else was falling apart so I didn't see why that shouldn't.'
In a way, though, it seems as though Sid Vicious as he is right now, is the ultimate creation which McLaren was aiming for?
'Yes, but I don't think he likes it now that he's seen the reality.'
I think it might have got a little bit out of hand.
'I wonder what all the repercussions of that are going to be. Heavy, no doubt. I mean, how will it infiltrate into others. Know what I mean? The way the papers did it was really like 'Filthy, foul-mouthed Sex Pistol Sid Vicious guilty of murder. The trial will be next March.' I thought that was sick.'
I get the impression that you were very upset by the whole business . . .
'Who? Me? (long pause) There's nothing I can do about it. Malcolm has got his hooks well in there.'
Anyway, I always got the impression that Sid was just like that because he's nervous, and that the whole thing was a ludicrous over-compensation that went horrifically wrong . . . 'It definitely is. Yeah, he's always been a born worrier.'
Was there a time before the Pistols' split when you thought the end was nigh?
'Yeah. But I didn't want to give up. I hate giving up. I can't stand it. If you're going to do something carry it through to the end. But it was just ridiculous. What irritating situation that was.'
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