John Lydon:
NME, August 24th, 1991

Transcribed (and additional info) by Karsten Roekens

© 1991 NME


NME, August 24th, 1991Forget anarchy – 13 years into PIL's occasional career, JOHN LYDON has implausibly locked into the West Coast way of life. In this rare interview he tells JANE GARCIA of his love for surfing and his role as concerned grandfather! ... Plus loads of leftover vitriol for Happy Mondays, Greenpeace and pretty much everything else.

It's hard to believe that Public Image Ltd. has existed for thirteen years. That's longer than the Beatles. Perhaps even more mind-boggling is the thought that Johnny Rotten, he of the green teeth and sallow skin, may have become a beach bum (although far from a bronzed one). Lydon spends up to six months a year in the US, most of it living with his wife Nora in the Los Angeles seaside community of Marina del Rey. But his chief talent was always his ability to surprise people, and he continues refining it to this day.

"California represents everything that I'm supposed to dislike, which is a good reason why I came here," he explains, pacing the room. "I got to like it for that. How dare people tell me I'm not supposed to enjoy my life! I love the beach. I love surfing."


"I love it! It's just about the only sport I actually love to watch as well. It's very skillful, but it's a shame that most surfers are brain-dead. I fall off all the time, but that's part of it. I find the perfect wave boring."

Yeah, right. Later I come across an old interview in which he proclaims he wouldn't be caught dead "hanging on to a piece of plywood, waiting out there like sharkbait." [1]

The truth is that John Lydon likes to idle his time away in Los Angeles because it removes him from Britain, where memories are long and certain bad belligerent behaviour is expected from him.

"No, not expected – they demand and insist upon it!" he says indignantly. "If you don't follow through on their idiotic preconceptions, they can get really quite nasty." (imitating a lout) "Go on, John, swear for me! Huhuhuh!"

John of course will do his part to perpetuate the myth. Remember that live interview from L.A. on 'The Word', when, goaded by Terry Christian pretending to be Bill Grundy, Lydon uttered a choice expletive on national television? [2] One for old times' sake, perhaps?

"London people and media people don't like to communicate. They hear that I'm in America, and it's like 'he must have sold out'. The conclusion's already arrived at. There's no asking, no conversation. It's just presumed. You know what the British are like, look at them abroad: they hate the French, they hate Italians, they hate everything. They go to Spain, of course only because it sells fish and chips and Watney's Red Barrel."

My suggestion that the young whippersnapper who was once Johnny Rotten might have been a bit like that himself is emphatically denied.

"Not at all! I thought there must be more to life than this petty mediocrity. I don't understand people being cosy and happy about being British. The phone not working: 'Oh, isn't it all so nice, hee hee hee.' For God's sake! In America, when things don't work people are prepared to go and do something about it instantly. They will not tolerate bad service, and that's the very essence of British life. Things run late or break down, and they can't cope with the weather – any kind. The summers are always too hot and the winters are far too cold. Everybody's got the flu, everybody whinges."

It can't be a coincidence that so many of punk's founding forefathers have left the country to potter about on the West Coast these days, spongeing a living off the faded glories and snotty attitudes of old. Yesterday's pop heroes, traditionally discarded after their 15 minutes of fame by fickle British fans, get a second shot at a career by transplanting themselves to the US and foisting themselves upon the gullible American public.

Lydon may use his L.A. residence to escape from the low expectations that dog him in Britain, but most are here to make a buck, pure and simple. Well-known Los Angelenos-cum-con artists include that professional village idiot Lord Idol of Chislehurst, Paul Simonon, Lydon's nemesis Malcolm McLaren, and former Sex Pistols cohort Steve Jones, who spends his time ligging in trendy clubs and poncing around with Mickey Rourke's faux motorcycle gang.

"I was with Steve this morning, so we are poncing around together," Lydon chuckles. "Musically what he gets up to is dreadful beyond belief. His lifestyle is something I don't like. I like Steve, though, he's a mate. The only time any of us really got on with one another was the day the band fell apart, because the pressure was off. Steve has always seen himself as a guitar player and he's always been heavily orientated by guitar music, so heavy metal is quite a natural thing for him to go into. He couldn't give a toss about my rantings and ravings. 'Anarchy In The U.K.' and 'God Save The Queen'? To him that was just an excuse to play some guitar, period. And he's always been very honest about that."

Lydon's approach to ecology, as hinted at in the 'Don't Ask Me' 45, seems to be from the dyed-in-the-wool realist's point of view, so don't expect to see him at the next Greenpeace rally.

"I've never been able to join any kind of clique or grouping of people, which is why I suppose I'm against Greenpeace, because I think the idea of just banding yourselves together into this organisation is eventually going to be just as bad as what you're trying to replace. And Greenpeace is very much to do with Fair Isle sweaters and tambourines and acoustic guitars, music around campfires. A village lifestyle where we all ride bicycles and cars are banned and there's no nuclear power plants. I'm sorry, but nuclear power is essential for the modern world, you can't live without it. I like big cities, I like action, I like neon signs. I don't like candles."

We won't be seeing PIL at the Glastonbury Festival either, if there's ever another one?

"It's a mudpile, isn't it?" Lydon asks rhetorically. "The stage is just a pyramid with plastic bags over it, well, how environmentally conscious is all that plastic wrapping? These questions need to be answered."

Lydon has more options than Julie Burchill, who with her then-boy Tony Parsons took a look at Johnny back in 1978, [3] reporting that he claimed to have piles "which dangled down his inside legs and required frequent pruning with a razor blade." Charming. But La Burchill is one of the few retired punks he admires.

"Some of her articles are just hysterical. 'Angst from Tring'. At least she's showed some sort of progress."

Put a metaphorical coin in the slot, press a button, and he's off.

Happy Mondays?

"Some vague disco backbeat, some wishy-washy vocal mumbling away and scratchy guitar stolen from punk."

The Charlatans?

"They're supposed to be real charlatans. I hope so, that appeals to me."

Virgin labelmate Paula Abdul?

"You talk to anyone in this industry, and they'll tell you a bad story about her. She's apparently impossible to deal with, totally spoilt, petulant."

Sound like anyone you know?

"I don't think I've ever been petulant, unless expressing your own mind is petulant. I'm still as confused as I was, maybe a little more clear-headed, and I go about it slightly differently. I don't think just yelling and screaming and ranting and raving gets you very far."

When did he discover that?

"Oh, about two weeks after the Sex Pistols started."

Lydon contradicts himself constantly, but it's all part of the fun. I was half dreading meeting him, anticipating the sneering, snotty, rude Johnny Rotten of years ago, but he couldn't have been more charming, more friendly or more articulate. All this comes with age, I suppose. He's in his mid-thirties now and a step-grandfather (Nora's daughter Ari Up, herself a former pineapple head and ex-lead singer of The Slits, has moved to Jamaica and had twins). And he has grandfatherly concerns.

"Ari hates me because I want her to send her kids to school, which she refuses to do. She thinks she's teaching them herself, and I know she isn't. It's not right to deny kids the right to grow up. So if there are any authorities who are going to read this ..." he leans into the tape recorder, " ... HUNT HER DOWN!"

Whatever you say, granddad. Far from shying away from what others might see as his long-gone glory days, Lydon is more than willing to talk about his history. He's passed through the eye of the hurricane, and with the benefit of immaculate hindsight he's happy to put his position into perspective.

"I refuse the punk logo, I always have done. I'm an individual and I express my individual thoughts. I don't like people slavishly following what I say without questioning it. I find that grotesque, but that's what was happening. That's why I stopped it. And for this I was accused of selling out, which still to this day annoys the hell out of me. There was no great masterplan in the Sex Pistols other than we were too lazy to argue with the press. And this ridiculous image came out of that. I don't care, though. The only thing really that I suppose is sort of true is that I am a bit of a rebellious sod."

Now, who could argue with that?

[1] 'Interview' magazine (January 1991)
[2] 'The Word', Channel 5 (14 December 1990)
[3] Julie Burchill and Tony Parsons: "The Boy Looked At Johnny" (published in 1978)


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