John Lydon:
NME, October 10th, 1987

Transcribed by Karsten Roekens

© 1987 NME


Belcher extraordinaire JOHN LYDON defends 'Happy?' and his privacy against JACK BARRON, who's hunting tears for souvenirs. Picture: TIM JARVIS.

Day-glo pink mini-dreads erupt from his scalp like antennae made of candyfloss. Iceberg
blue eyes stare from cigarette ash skin. A smirk. A belch of indignation. And heeeeere'sss

Lydon: "Oh shut up! Look! In this current climate of Wet Wet Wet, the Pet Shop Boys, Living In A Box, how on earth can 'Happy?' be duff? It's a diamond in a mudpack of mediocrity, and it's much better than 'Album', which was fucking thoroughly excellent, thank you very much!"

Barron: "It doesn't seem to have much or variety on it to me."

Lydon: "Oh, you must be joking! The whole gauntlet of human emotions has been catered for herein the most honest way possible, you bastard!"

The singer, far less Guiness barrell rotund than of recent years, gives me his shrivelling iris-to-iris screw, under(eye)lining his point with his refrigerator pupils.

Barron: "Do you think you're honest then, John?"

Lydon: "Yeah I do. I can't afford to be any other way."

Barron: "Or is it all just personal armour?"

Lydon: "Honesty is my armour! Hahuhhahuhhah!"

Hardly a come-lately, you're all I'm sure familiar with Johnny's exploits. At least three of his vinyl collaborations paved the path for others to follow. The Pistols' 'Anarchy in the U.K.', PIL's 'Metal Box' and Timezone's 'World Destruction' all blasted holes in then current musical barriers for punks, post-punk experimentalists, and rap-rock crush collisionists to step through respectively.

Even 'Album's Led-weight guitar textures presaged the recent revival and reassessment of heavy metal aesthetics. Eighteen months on though, 'Happy?' has had a difficult birth. Some, such as our own Doktor Kopf, pronounced Lydon's latest baby as at worst DOA and at best a thematically repetitious of former glories.

For half an hour John, fellow PIL-head Lu Edmonds and I have been arguing about the merits of 'Happy?'. Lydon has laughed, sneered and shrivel-eyed by turns at each accusation of mediocrity and parody lobbed his way, while Lu played umpire.

A few things have been gleaned in the interim. Lydon turned down an invitation to go on Jonathan Ross' 'Last Resort' because the TV show "is too empty." The cancellation of some PIL gigs really was due to an injury sustained by a band member, and not as rumoured to poor ticket sales. And that far from being a millionaire, as maintained by The Mirror's Gill Pringle, John has yet to receive his share of the Glitterbest settlement and is still £100,000 out of pocket in legal fees.

We could go on like this all night, me shooting flack at Lydon, and him deflecting it with a vocal shrug. Ultimately though 'Happy?' isn't worth arguing about, because its dense mesh of funky bass and spiderweb guitars doesn't sound texturally like anything PIL have done before. It may veer close to mainstream rock at times, but that's not a cardinal sin. Indeed it's the album's saving grace.

John's lyricism on the other hand remains rooted in his decade-long obsession with the primacy of the individual. The boy who seared "I wanna be me" ten years ago is now the man who still refuses to "bleat among the flock." Mob mentality, as exemplified by style whores and designer fascists, religion and nationalism, all get the sharp end of his tongue on 'Happy?'.

Barron: "So, the same old song to a different tune?"

Lydon: "Look! I believe the things I have been spouting all these years and I always will. These are not idiot philosophies. Everything I do, breathe, walk and talk has been thought out, and I'm sticking to my guns... all the doors are open and revolving, and I'm saying you can go forward, young boys and girls."

Barron: "How?"

Lydon: "By being an individual. Make your own life. Do not be dictated to by politics, religion, the media or -" [Lydon pauses to belch, another of his underlining techniques]
"music papers... and if that's repetitious, then I mean it to be so."

Contrary to popular myth Lydon is an easy interview, because he can't keep his mouth shut. Ask for his opinion about music, royalty, Rudolf Hess, The Daily Mail and its upmarket colour supplement, The Face, and out from his fangs will pop a gem of Rotten wit. Take, for example, U2.

Lydon: "The most famous pub band in the world!" [laughs John] "I'm sure they mean well. I'm sure they're content with themselves, but mediocrity is their message and that's all they have to offer. They're merely compounding the fact that dullness rules the day. There's no threat to them."

Barron: "Do you think you're a threat then?"

Lydon: "I would hope so. I know damn well I am. So up yours!"

Rent-a-lip-Lydon, the lazy journalist's demolition man. Point him at a subject and watch it go up in flames. Most do.

Lydon: [protests] "That's hardly my fault. When journalists run out of ideas they ask me to fill in the gaps in their inadequacies."

Point John's analytical ability at himself though, and the lip is butoned and his armour comes down like a portcullis.

Lydon: "Of course I cry, but I'm not going to tell you what I cry about. That's my business."

Barron: "You're so impenetrable in interviews, aren't you John?"

Lydon: [smirks] "As we all should be. I could do interviews blindfolded now, and it would be no problem.

Barron: "Don't you think you come across as very shallow that way?"

Lydon: "Yeah, at times that does happen," he admits, tossing another can of Foster's to add to the pile in the Virgin office. "When you say I have a suit of armour, well, it's more like you build up a resilience to protect yourself. I'm sick to death of being abused, right from the start. I find it disgustingly insulting that because I'm working class people assumed I was a cretin. Stuff like that can be very irritating and hurtful."

John looks at his fingernails. They bitten down to the quick.

Lydon: "It's due to nerves. I'm a very nervous person."

We're getting somewhere at last.

Barron: "You never seem nervous. If anything you come across as supremely confident and arrogant, with your ego flattening everything before it, John."

Lydon: "If that's the way you want to see it, then that's fine," he says slightly insulted. "Acute is the word, I'm accurate and acute. A lot of things make me nervous. Work in general makes me nervous. Pre-gig tension is unbearable. Before a concert I can't touch food all day or I'll vomit. My hands and heart shake. Then after I could eat a scampied elephant between two buttered mattresses."

Barron: "When you finally get up on stage, do you play up to your image and persona?"

Lydon: "No. That's my most natural self. Once I get up on stage that's the best I'll ever feel, ever. It's only depressing if it doesn't work and they're all throwing beer cans at you.
Hahuhhahuhhah. But that's to be expected."

Barron: "So let's try again. When was the last time you cried, and what was it about?"

Lydon: "I cry all the time about all sorts of things that upset me – look, Jack, I'm a human being too, remember that."

Barron: "But you're hardly a wilting flower like, say, Suzanne Vega, are you?"

Lydon: "I hope not. I have a huge mistrust about her emotions, I find them very calculated. Maybe that's my personal problem with her. She deals with certain emotions which are well and fine, but not the whole gauntlet. Uhhh, now when I'm doing interviews or whatever, that's quite a different thing from writing songs. If you want to know anything about me, it's on the records. I bleed my heart on them, it's all I feel and think. I care a great deal about that, and I also try to keep it as simple as possible. My emotions run all over the place and I channel all my frustrations into the subject at hand."

I get out my cigarettes. "Yes, I'd love a cancer," says John bumming one off me.

Lydon: "What was I going to say? Oh yes, when I had to deal with my mother's death, which upset the fuck out of me, I did it partly through music. I had to watch her die slowly of cancer for a whole year. I wrote 'Death Disco' about that. I played it to her just before she died and she was very happy. That's the Irish in her, nothing drearily sympathetic or weak. Like her you've got to really get to grips with your emotions and attack them, confront them head on. You won't solve things any other way. It works for me, I can't run away from things. And that's what I mean by honesty. You asked me if I was honest, well, not necessarily with the press if I'm dealing with a dickhead, but I am honest with myself. It bloody hurts too."

Years ago John worked in children's playcentres. He's still "very much in love" with Nora, Ari Up's mum and his longstanding partner. And like all would-be iconoclasts there is a strong moral streak that runs through Lydon.

Lydon: "Look, I love children, they have more fun than adults and are far more open-minded, but I'm not going to bring any into this world, it wouldn't be fair. I'm not one of those rock stars that has kids dotted around the globe, I think that's disgusting. If we had children, if we were faced with that dilemma, I would cancel PIL immediately. Because from thereon in I would dedicate my life to that child. That's how I understand children. It's their life, your life has ceased, you must live for them or it's invalid, and they mustn't be props to your ego either. There's too much of that in this business. It upsets me that pop stars drag their kids round from country to country. It hurts. That's your future generations we're talking about. Do you want any more Ryan O'Neal-type children running around in motorboats and cuting people's heads off? I think not. All the people I know, and that's very few because I know practically nobody in any shape or form in this industry, if they've got famous parents they tend to be really screwed up by it, overshadowed. They can't develop naturally and it's unfortunate and horrible. My heart goes out to them because I think it's very unfair. Ouch!"

Barron: "So getting back to the question again, when was the last time you cried, and what was it about?"

Lydon: "When I was ill. Hahuhhahuhhah! Nooo! Look! I can cry in the studio when things aren't going right, Jack."

Barron: "But that's a tantrum, isn't it?"

Lydon: "No, it's quite the opposite. There's been a lot of bullshit written about me being difficult in the studio. That's not true. I'm difficult with people who don't care as much as I do and want them out immediately. The present band care as much as I do, which is why I love them. Of all things I cry from loneliness, maybe. On tour without my wife it's terrible. I don't want to know about the groupie scene. It disgusts me to be quite frank. Cheap sex always has. Cheap anything, cheap emotions, cheap attitudes towards life all repulse me. I can't be involved in anything unless it's completely committed."

Barron: "So you get a lot of groupies then?"

Lydon: "I get a lot of mad women after my body, yes. And they're not going to get it, it's as simple as that. The answer to them is no. It can be a bit of a nightmare when you just want to sit in your hotel bar and they all come running over wanting to fondle your nipples or whatever. But it can't be because it's dishonest."

Barron: "So have you indulged with groupies in the past?"

Lydon: "Yes, when I was young. Everything I'm telling you is from experience. You learn not to be so stupid with yourself. Some people need cheap sex, instant selfish gratification. Fine. But it makes me more miserable than ever. Is that clear?"

Pushing on past 31, John reckons he won't be making music for very much longer.

Lydon: "Of course I'm not a yuppie, bloody cheek, a yobbie maybe. Maybe another ten years."

That would make him as decrepit as Mick Jagger is now. What a horrible thought.

Lydon: "I don't think I could ever possibly look and act as old as Jagger. There's no fear of that. I'm not burnt out, not by a long way. That man is, and he's still pumping out the same old songs. Any way you look at it, it's the same retarded beat. That's very disappointing from him."

Barron: "I know you paint. Would that offer a graceful way out, an alternative career?

Lydon: "Those paintings are for my friends and me, no more than that. They're not works of art. They wouldn't offer an alternative career for me. I don't think that way. No pension schemes either."

Barron: "So what happens when the music runs out, John?"

Lydon: [grins] "Then I run out. Then you can all say goodbye to me. I can't be Cliff Richard and be here forever. If I'm fucking up and think I'm making rubbish, believe me I'll go away."

Lydon isn't worried about that looming prospect though. "From the slums I came," he camply pronounces, "to the slums I go back to. It's perfectly fine, no threat whatsoever. Look, I'm talented enough to get by, I know this, I'll never run out of ideas."

Barron: "You could be a chatshow host!"

Lydon: [shouts, nearly spilling his beer] "No! Now shut up! I've put up with you slagging me, but don't take the piss! Hahuhhahuhhah. Yeah, I can see it now, instead of Jonathan Ross – 'ladies and gentlemen, heeeeere'sss Dead Loss!'"

Lydon's lyrical vision may be petrifying as he gets older, but his dreams, fed by anger at iniquities that are the result of idiotic conformity, aren't dead yet. He still has a long way to go before he's a boring fart.

Barron: "Happy, John?"

Lydon: "As much as anyone can be in a world this fucked up, thank you very much."

We shake hands. "Peace and love?" smiles John.

"Sure, why not."


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