Muziekkrant Oor magazine, 19th November, 1983
Transcribed and translated by Karsten Roekens
© 1983 Muziekkrant Oor / Tjerk Lammers
JOHNNY ROTTEN – SHOWMAN
by Tjerk Lammers I've got the flu. Sniff! And yet I have to travel to grey London to interview Johnny Rotten. He has released a record under the PIL moniker again, 'Live in Tokyo', and will soon go on tour in Europe. I just hope I don't sneeze right into his face during our conversation, because you can hear from everybody that Rotten is a stubborn fellow who gives interviewers a hard time for the smallest reason. But it seems I shouldn't have worried. At the Royal Garden Hotel in London the girl from the record company explains to me that not only she's got the flu too, but that Johnny is even worse. Later the living legend comes in, caughing. The doctor forbid him to drink any alcohol, because it's incompatible with the medication prescribed. So the singer immediately dives into the mini bar and gets himself a nice whisky. Piercing blue eyes above a well-filled glass. Bright orange hair, a green glitter sweater and a tie in all colours of the rainbow. Coughing, groaning and snivelling we start the interview, in which we will discuss cheating family members, seedy managers, superfluous live albums, film careers, commercial communists and gun-tooting Jamaicans. Atchoo!
"I refuse to take it seriously! It's useless! 'Rock 'n' Roll is dead', could be the heading of all the interviews with me. I think I have made this very clear over the last five or six years. It's not even me who brings up the issue, it's the journalists who keep pushing it. Cunts! It's useless. You can't change the world by making records. It's entertainment, it's escapism, it has nothing to do with stone cold reality whatsoever. Rock 'n' roll is a death cult. You're supposed to feel ashamed to be older than 21, because by that time you're supposed to be worn out by sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. And all the while the lyrics go on about love and all that romantic crap. I like to go into more unusual emotions, like suicide, that's more fun. Everybody who thinks about taking his own life is an incredible asshole. Life's so short, you should not put a goddamn end to it yourself."
"Just look at rock 'n' rollers like Keith Richards. I can't imagine that man still has a reason for living. It all seems to me like one slow suicide. He has to go to Switzerland every half year to get his bood changed. The cost of it all! Absurd!"
"Many of my friends went under. They couldn't cope with it, they believed their own publicity. Just look what happened with Sid. He was determined to become the world's meanest villain. And the funny thing was, you couldn't imagine a boy more soft, weak, frail and harmless. He was just completely un-Vicious. But he believed all the stories that were written about him, all this nonsense about being in a band, and always going by the rules and making a big dick out of himself. The name Sid Vicious came from Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd. It was a joke, just a bit of fun! Sid couldn't fight even if his life would depend of it."
"I really liked him. The terrible thing is, there are people who made a lot of money out of his premature death. Besides, I haven't seen one single penny from the Sex Pistols period. Not even a fucking paperclip! And now Malcolm McLaren tries to claim the honour for himself. I'm very angry about this. Now he says he wrote all the Sex Pistols songs himself. If this is so, how come the songs are not credited to his name? During the time he never claimed to be a writer, now he suddenly sees himself as the man who put it all together. But he was a spoilt child, a dead loss who had hardly anything to do with the band. Bernie Rhodes brought the whole damn band together. I don't understand why journalists even give him room in their papers. I did an interview a few weeks ago in New York. I became quite angry when the journalist said to me: 'Did you really write "Anarchy in the U.K."? Can I write that? Will I be dragged before court?' And I said: 'Pardon, you're not sure if I wrote it, but you don't question Malcolm's claims? Go check the copyright, boy!' Malcolm needs the Sex Pistols to promote himself."
"Malcolm stood by the side and watched Bernie put it all together. Bernie worked for Malcolm at that time. He designed many of the t-shirts that were sold in Malcolm's boutique. And because Malcolm was the man with the money he finally became our manager, but things change, because in the moment Bernie is Malcolm's manager, ha ha!"
"Bernie put The Clash together, too. I really like him, he's an eccentric, very political. I remember years and years ago he gave a book by Karl Marx to Joe Strummer as a present. Bernie had underlined certain things in it and said: 'Joe, read this chapter and go write a song with this or that as the title.' And so the first Clash songs came into being. It's all very funny. The Clash take themselves much too seriously. For one appearance at the American US Festival they get $800,000. They acted ridiculous over there. They always pretend they're a working class band, but only Paul, the bassist, is really working class. The fact that The Clash pretended they couldn't accept the money went completely against working class philosophy. I come from it, and I can assure you the aim is to improve your own miserable situation. When somebody puts such a bunch of money under your nose, you grab it with both hands. This is just what gives other bands inspiration: 'You, we can win our way, we can take over the whole fucking thing.' But no, The Clash will counter that with their nonsense. Caught in their own semi-communist ideas. Ridiculous!"
A knock on the door and Martin Lydon enters. A shy little guy who doesn't look you in the eye when he shakes your hand. According to tradition an adolescent comes over as more manly without being skittish or noisy. Accordingly he takes his time to inspect the content of the mini bar before retreating into the farthest corner of the room.
"And so I'm reducing my recording costs now. I just let Martin do all the guitar works. As a matter of fact, you're just looking at one of The Bollock Brothers," Johnny states jokingly. Martin growls fiercely against that: "No, no, I'm not a member! Well, I hung around with them, but it was only to get drunk for free. That's how they started. Just play somewhere and spend the fee on booze. But currently they made themselves a bit rare."
Under the name The Bollock Brothers some vague forces, led by brother Jimmy Lydon, released some extremely dubious records. Recently 'Never Mind The Bollocks 1983' saw the light of day, a complete remake of the legendary Sex Pistols album 'Never Mind The Bollocks...' Synthesizer pop, a bad joke.
"Actually I don't think it's worth talking about. Do you want a beer, mate?" Johnny changes the subject. When I ask for a Double Diamond, the expert in him comes to the fore: "That's piss." Sitting with my little bottle of piss I still get Rotten to speak about those Bollock Brothers.
"I haven't listened to the piece of crap yet. My old man did this to me, my own family did fucking cheat me. From what I've heard, Jimmy sort of stole the original backing tapes (that's untrue – T.L.). It's sad that people have to imitate and make a career on the back of someone else. Jimmy set up his first band, the 4" Be 2"s, purely to make some money. I even gave him a hand, because he needed the cash to buy a house so that he could marry. It was a trick, a business scam, ha ha. I totally understand that. Now he wants to screw me with The Bollock Brothers, but I don't let that divide us. I'm not a man of family feuds. You mustn't attach any value to the pop business, because it's all a big joke anyway. And this is precisely what he does. He approaches it as one big joke."
"I'm still fond of the original 'Bollocks' LP, it's a timeless record. Totally undervalued. Back then I said it was the last rock 'n' roll album to be made, and I still mean it. It's the cap on the bottle. The end of rock 'n' roll."
"Pat Benetar rules the waves currently. People will soon be fed with that sort of crap. You wait for it."
When I ask Johnny if there's anybody nowadays who makes good music, he
simply says: "Me." And yet Johnny a.k.a. PIL recently released the completely superfluous double album 'Live In Tokyo'. It's already the second live offering from PIL after 'Paris Au Printemps', from an oevre that up till now consists of five records. Fortunately, it appears that Johnny himself doesn't think too much of his latest product: "I desperately wanted to visit Japan. With or without a band. I just wanted to get busy with music again. When Keith (Levene, guitarist of PIL from the beginning - TL) did a runner, I had to come up with a new band within two weeks. I pulled it off, and the tour was a big success. Originally we had no intention to release the album here. We did it for the Japanese market only. But our record company Virgin was already on the jump. I couldn't get rid of them before, and they didn't get anything from me for a long time. If I had taken the trouble to tell them what I was intending, they only would have rejected my plans. But now they're complaining. I don't care if the records is in the shops over here or not. If people want to buy it it's their decision. I don't force it on anybody."
"On the single 'This Is Not A Love Song' it seems as if I glorify the commercial record business. It's my best, if you like, but it's cynicism, it's a big joke. By the way, the album was quite difficult to make. We recorded the whole thing with a Mitsubishi 32 track recorder, the best of the best presently. But we only had 30 hours to mix the album, and that's a bit scant for a whole album. We really couldn't get more time from the Japanese. Business is business, everything is done very fast there. They don't appreciate art. But it was a real improvement compared to the first live album 'Paris Au Printemps'. We had to record that with a little Revox recorder. A little messy, it didn't turn out to be such a great album."
"The critics now complain bitterly about the fact that there's only three new songs on 'Live In Tokyo'. What nonsense. You can't put only new material on a live album, that's just a waste. The new studio album will come soon, probably towards the end of December. This will be a very important record!"
"I will work with more pop themes in my music again, but I won't be doing cheap imitation reggae, or something. I was born as a white man and I intend to stay that way for the rest of my life. My bass comes from reggae, although it should be mentioned that bass has always had a prominent role in traditional Irish music too. That's one of my biggest influences, although the critics refuse to believe me. But just listen to 'The Flowers Of Romance'. The record reviews accused me of using Arabic and Turkish influences. Bollocks! If you just know a little bit about about Irish music you'll notice that it's based on that."
It seems that the band PIL just consists of Johnny Rotten. Drummer Martin Atkins already played in a previous PIL line-up, but the rest of the band that's on tour with Johnny now is all new faces. Does PIL actually still exist, Mister Rotten? Or is it Lydon?
"You can call me as you like, I just don't care. It wasn't my decision to return to my real name. Malcolm thought he had the rights to the name Johnny Rotten. He wanted to use it to promote God knows what old shit. I had to step back for a while and take him to court, and I just didn't have the rights to use the name for a while, until the judge decided I could have it back. I never read something about this quarrel in any newspaper, I'm still pretty angry about it. Besides, I've been teased about the name Lydon half my life. Lie-down, ha ha ha!"
"Concerning PIL, I've never worked with the same people on more than one occasion. The line-up of PIL has always been constantly changing. It's not important. Even the use of the name PIL isn't that important. Maybe I'll change it."
"In the moment three people are working at the PIL headquarters in Los Angeles. I am living in New York, but I'd like to have homes just everywhere. I went to America because working in England was made practically impossible for me. We got more and more police raids, it was really absurd. It got on my nerves. I have no associations with England anymore. I'm only missing the pubs. But people here are just dead. They are wandering around totally apathetic. The just like to run back to their homes, close the door and peer outside through a crack in the curtains. Just half an hour in Covent Garden last night, and I felt sick all over again. But that's not my problem anymore. God helps those who help themselves."
"There are few musicians I like. Just take this whole Black Flag thing. They're all trying to play as badly as possible. They're just a joke. They're taking themselves far too serious. There's a band, Flipper, that really made me laugh. They had a single, and the chorus was just 'hohoho, hihihi, hahahaha'. Absolutely mental!"
"There are some reggae artists that I really like. Wayne Jobson's new album is fantastic. He has a total dislike of rasta. He wants to have nothing to do with it. There's quite a large number of people now in Jamaica who think the same, who are going sick when they even see a dreadlock. You don't have to be a dreadlocked idiot to make reggae. Besides, they have always been shooting at each other over there. They're sticking to their guns and their Clint Eastwood films and take it all too seriously. In the cinemas they project the films on concrete walls because of the constant gunfire. If you ever intend to go to the movies over there, I can only tell you to duck deep into your seat. 'Watch out Clint!' Bang bang! The bullets go around your head and the concrete splashes from the walls into the hall."
"Gregory Isaacs is always being described as a nice, sweet boy, but he didn't earn his bread just by making records. In Jamaica everybody makes records. Everybody! That's part of it. Just as in England people sit in the pub, in Jamaica people make records. I spent a few months in Jamaica with Richard Branson from Virgin, right after the Sex Pistols split up on the American tour. Branson wanted to take me with him because he needed an advisor to take artists under contract. As soon as I arrived he totally ignored me, he didn't once ask for my opinion, ha ha. But I had quite an extended holiday there."
In the moment Johnny moves into visuals too. There's a video from the Japanese tour, and he played a role in the movie 'Order Of Death' along with Harvey Keitel. "With the video it didn't went as with the album. We did not intend the thing for sale at all, we did the video just for ourselves. We put up the money for it ourselves, and suddenly Virgin seemed to be very interested in it. So it probably will be in the shops soon."
"I decided to take the role in 'Order Of Death' because I was fed up with music at the time. I enjoyed the book very much and liked the script too, so I thought it would be great fun to do it. It's a thriller that plays in New York, although the actual filming took place in Italy. I told the producers that I'm the the most fantastic human being that ever walked the earth. They believed me. And then I had to prove it in front of the cameras, together with a deadly serious actor like Harvey Keitel. I found acting not that difficult. I'm a showman and I just totally went for it. I took it all with a grain of salt, but as soon as the cameras started and I realized that Harvey was serious about his acting, it all went by itself. Harvey taught me a hell of a lot without letting the teacher hang out. It happened that he would tell me absolutely nothing at all, which in these moments made everything clear to me. He treated me totally as an equal. He's a great guy."
"I will never take acting lessons because I don't need to. You cannot rehearse pretending to be sad. You are or you are not. When you're accepting an acting part you have to understand the figure you're playing, even if you can't find anything of yourself in it. Not that 'oooh, I'm soooo sad', you know, like actors do. The David Bowie way, yeuch, puke! He was absolutely unbelievably terrible in 'Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence'. I didn't think it would have been possible to make an even worse film than 'Just A Gigolo', but 'Mr. Lawrence' beats it at length. Terrible. And the only thing that I liked in 'The Hunger' was the opening scene with Bauhaus. Very impressive, the action in the cage. But the videos by Bauhaus have always been good. The band seems to have a good sense of visuals. Shame that their music was always so bad."
"I quite like acting, but the long waits between shootings are horrible. You have to get up at 6 a.m., it's a twelve hour working day, and it's all for two minutes of film. You're getting bored out of your brains, it drives you absolutely crazy! But I survived. I wanted to know how films are being made, and this was the best way to find out. I spent most of the time with making notes about what was just going on. And I talked much to the author and the scriptwriter. I found it interesting to see how such a script is being made."
"I don't know if I should take another part in a film. I'm in no hurry. The funny thing is, I get sent much less offers now than before. When I was still living in England I got sent one script after the other for years. The were all worthless. They always wanted me to literally play Johnny Rotten. It's useless, and a film never worked that way anyway."
Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)