John Lydon:
Q Magazine, March, 1992

Transcribed (and additional info) by Karsten Roekens

© 1992 Q Magazine


Q Magazine, March, 1992You'd planned a quiet night in. But who's that at your door? Oh no! It's JOHN LYDON! Formerly Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols and the biggest threat to civilisation as we know it! What happens now? TOM HIBBERT knows, because it's happened to him. Thirty-six lagers later, this is what he wrote …

The man in the ethnic tea-cosy-styled headwear and the unsightly puce satin ski pants lies back on my sofa, swigs lustily from a bottle of strong beer, belches roundly and cackles. His chosen topic of conversation at this moment is sex.

"Two minutes of squelching noises." That's how he described the act of sexual congress fourteen years ago. But he was somebody else back then. He was the spotty mad-eyed boy that drove decent folk to the brink of apoplexy with his uncouth spitting, horrid 'singing' and lack of reverence toward Her Gracious Majesty The Queen. He was the ill-mannered youth that caused tabloid-reading dads to kick in their tellies whenever his sneering impudent face appeared, Teddy Boys to reach for the Stanley knives in defence of tradition. He was a threat to society. The end of civilisation as we knew it. He didn't even know how to brush his teeth properly. He was Johnny Rotten, and he said the most appalling things – like describing sex as "two minutes of squelching noises."

The man who was Johnny Rotten snickers madly through a mouthful of beer. "Two minutes of squelching noises, heeheeheehee," he goes, amber fluid spraying upon the sofa covers. "There was an intellect behind that statement," he insists, carelessly flicking ash from his marlboro in the general direction of an overflowing ashtry. "These were not just glib statements. That squelching thing was based on very grim experiences. I had loves very early in my youth, but they were unrequited I'm afraid, I just had to be a voyeur. I was so insecure, absolutely totally petrified by sex and that kind of commitment. During the Sex Pistols I managed to work sex out. Not with groupies, I hated that, it's so impersonal and tedious and stupid. Masturbation and groupies – they both require an effort, and it's just not worth the end conclusion. I like knowing people. So I didn't have any serious thing until I met Nora, and that's the best and that's forever."

This is deeply touching. The one who was Johnny Rotten is a happily married man now. He has a home in London and another in Venice Beach, Los Angeles, "where even the tramps have suntans," and he goes skiing in St. Moritz for his holidays. A very good class of snow they have in St. Moritz, he assures me.

But while the little woman is stuck at home tonight, her feet up in front of the TV, the man of the house is out on the tiles, i.e. here in my flat, chain smoking and guzzling beer and talking about sex, relating a most abominable story about Chrissie Hynde and another one about Jason Donovan, neither one of which sadly can be repeated here for legal reasons.

"Chrissie Hynde, heeheehee!" he goes at the punch end of his unlikely anecdote. "She's a tough old bird is Chrissie. But she's a bit bitter because I never married her. I met her when I was in the Sex Pistols and she wanted to live in England, so I said I would marry her to get her the correct permit. But on the day I couldn't go through with it, so I didn't turn up. I sent Sid instead. I said 'Sid, I can't go through with this, you'll have to go,' and he said 'Oh awright, but I ain't got nothin' to wear!' So I borrowed him some clothes."

Imagine it: there you are waiting at the church, well, registry office, for your groom to arrive. But he doesn't. And who is this, shuffling and snuffling toward you? Sid Vicious! Nurse, the screens! Let's call the whole thing off! The perpetrator of this caddish behaviour laughs rauciously at the memory ("Poor old Sid-er-ney!") in the drawling guttersnipe tones of London that once so shocked a generation. The fellow has not lost his taste for bad behaviour, it seems. How was it that Neil Young on 'Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)' put it? "The King is gone but he's not forgotten / This is the story of Johnny Rotten …"

For thirteen years now he's been known by his real name, John Lydon, touring and recording with his group of shifting personnel, Public Image Ltd. His first group, the one that made him infamous, notorious, were in existence barely a quarter of that time. But to hear Lydon talk about it, it seems surprising that the Sex Pistols lasted that long.

"There's been so much bullshit talked about the Sex Pistols, like Jon Savage's book [1] and professors on BBC2 talking about how bloody important it all was and making it all intellectual. Here we go: it's the Malcolm bullshit and the Jamie Reid stuff, isn't it, which makes all these people think that the Sex Pistols was a Situationist movement, you know, that this was some highly worked-out, clever artsy-fartsy, er, nonsense. But nonsense was all it was! That is all! It just happened that Bernie Rhodes thought I looked interesting because he saw me wearing my 'I Hate Pink Floyd' T-shirt, so he asked me to go down and rehearse with this band. And Paul and Steve hated me on sight, which intrigued Malcolm because he is a bit of a sick fuck, and it went on from there. They never turned up for the first rehearsal, so I didn't turn up for the second. We never liked each other as a band at all."

'Must We Fling this Filth At Our Pop Kids?!!' was the tabloid headline and question on the lips of all 'right-thinking' persons – i.e. Rick Wakeman and Steve Harley ("I could understand why Rick Wakeman hated us but not Steve Harley, because I always thought he was quite good," says Lydon) and Mary Whitehouse, back then in that wonderful 'Summer Of Hate' 1977.

Sociologists and pointy-headed historians of recent times have tried to tell us that punk rock, invented by Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols, was a movement of mammoth import, the prominent whine of a disaffected working-class youth of England that would have far-reaching effects on a fin-de-siecle society throwing off the shackles of post-War mores blah blah.

In fact is was just a few safety pins and a nasty racket made on tinny guitars down the Roxy by Johnny Moped and Gene October and other small chaps with acne and an attitude problem, wasn't it? John Lydon seems to prefer this analysis.

"What we were doing wasn't important. We didn't know what we were doing. We did not begin this with a political agenda, whatever Malcolm or anyone else might say. But there was some point to it all, which was that all of us were very bored and frustrated with everything in music at that time, because all you had was Yes and bloody Emerson Lake and bloody Palmer. It really did look at that time like the end of rock 'n' roll, if you want to call it that, because rock 'n' roll did become flappy flared trouser stuff and posturing and ridiculousness. There was no honesty to it anymore."

Lydon ("Yes I'm arrogant, but I'm honest!") is writing a book which, he says, will put us all straight on a few things, like the real 'meaning' of punk rock and who this Johnny Rotten upstart really was in the first place.

"I'm writing my book because I'm sick of it. I'm sick of it. I don't need these people reinventing my whole life for me. There's a whole world out there waiting for the reality of the Sex Pistols and everything. I'm just basing my account on honesty. Oooh, honesty, that's such a dirty word! If you are honest and dare to speak your mind like me, well, you are just awkward and difficult and wrong."

Perhaps we will be told in these frank memoirs all about how "we never liked each other as a band." But why wait for publication? Let's just ask him now. Did he like the original soon ousted bass player Glen Matlock? No.

"I never liked Glen, he was very much into cosy armchair nonsense. Give me a bed of nails any day, it's much more fun! Glen went all religious on us and was whimpering 'Oooh, why do you have to write all these nasty fascist words like God Save The Queen?' Fascist? He didn't understand the meaning of the word! Fascist is something I've never been. So I had him removed. And I haven't spoken with him since that day. We wrote good songs together because we were so different, but I never wanted that to be a permanent Lennon/McCartney kind of thing, because that would have been awful. And he was far too McCartney for my liking."

Did he like the drummer Paul Cook or the guitarist Steve Jones? Not much.

"Well, now we're actually mates, but in the Pistols they couldn't stand me. Steve hated me from the moment he heard me sing, he thought my singing was horrible. He wanted a proper singer because he was into The Who and the Small Faces, so every time I left the room Steve and Paul were saying 'What a cunt, he's hopeless!' It was the vacuous things, the rock 'n' roll lifestyle that appealed to Steve and Paul, and they hated me because I thought that was all shit. And things just got worse because Malcolm turned them even more against me. On the American tour they wouldn't even speak to me. Not that it was very easy for them to speak to me, because – through no choice of my own, it was Malcolm's decision! - I stayed in different hotels with the road crew, and while Steve and Paul were being flown all over the place, I was the sod who had to sit in the bus and deal with the redneck nonsense as we got into all these horrible towns. And then they went to Rio and I thought that was just disgusting. It was dreadful. Biggs was a crap train robber and nobody seemed to have given a damn about the train driver who was bludgeoned into a vegetable. Ronnie Biggs replacing Johnny Rotten as the singer of the Sex Pistols – oh ho ho, you're so witty Malcolm!"

We need not ask him his feelings towards Malcolm McLaren. They are quite evident. But he expresses them anyway, with vehemence and at great length, a three bottles of beer timespan at least, concluding with: "It was all very easy for Malcolm to sit behind a desk or behind a phone and pontificate, saying 'We're troublemakers' and 'We're into violence.' I was the sod who had to live the violence on the street, get beaten up. Thank you, Malcolm. Sid hated Malcolm, it was all you could do to stop Sid pummeling him every chance he got."

Poor old Sid-er-ney.

"Sid was the only one I had any affection for. Sid was very cartoonish in his innocence. He wouldn't look into things any deeper than the surface, and the only thing that he really cared about was the idea of New York and Lou Reed and fighting in an old black leather jacket."

So it is fitting perhaps that Sidney should have died there in New York, overdosing on heroin, the drug celebrated by Lou Reed in the Velvet Underground song of the same name, wearing no doubt an old black leather jacket.

"I always had an affection for poor old Sid, because we went to a place together where you go if you're kicked out of school, sort of an approved school, so I'd known Sid for years. But when Sid joined the Pistols I realised that it's not a good idea to work with friends, it's much better to work with strangers. About the only good thing Malcolm ever did was, he tried to keep Nancy away from Sid because she was just a drug fiend. But it didn't work because Sid hated Malcolm so much, it just made him keener on her. And Sid got very jealous of me, with Nancy continually telling him that he was the star. Poor old Sid-er-ney, he got it so wrong: there were no stars. But Sid was the only person in the country that didn't understand that. So I do think of Sid with some affection … but then again, he was a pain in the fucking arse at the time!"

According to John Lydon, Malcolm McLaren had various schemes afoot to have Johnny Rotten ousted from the Sex Pistols from the day in '77 when he went on London's Capital Radio and hosted a programme on which he played his favourite music …

"I went on and played Captain Beefheart and Neil Young because that's good honest music, but Malcolm thought this was awful. I was playing music by all these old Americans that hippies like, and I was pulling the rug from under Malcolm's schemes and revealing them to be nonsense. That was the end of our loving relationship, heeheehee. He thought I was some kind of traitor and he could hardly bring himself to talk to me after that."

Q Magazine, March, 1992The American tour of '78 was a memorable affair and Rotten brought the whole sordid business to close one night on stage, when he cowered and glowered, held the microphone close to his snarling lips and, before an audience unable to decide what to make of it all, posed in the inimitable drawl the immortal question: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?"

The Swindle was over. Jones and Cook went to Rio to frolic on beaches with hopeless old robbers, Vicious went to the Chelsea Hotel to murder and death, Rotten became Lydon and decided to be quite sensible by starting again with a new pop group, Public Image Ltd. He moved to America, and the punk rockers in the 'Sid Is Innocent' T-shirts grumbled "traitor" and "sellout".

"It wasn't a sellout," he protests. "For a start, what did I have to sell out in the first place? Didn't these people understand anything? And have you ever had to walk down the Fulham Road in the morning in your pyjamas?"

Must confess I haven't. John has. It was just like The Rolling Stones all over again for Johnny Rotten in the late '70s. The police were forever dropping around uninvited at his flat in Gunter Grove, Chelsea, looking for drugs (and Mars bar-styled shenanigans, probably).

"They came round one night and turned the place over and they didn't find anything, but they still took me down to the police station. They were awful. And when they finished with me, they said 'All right, you can go now,' and I said 'What, can't I have a car home?' Ha bloody ha! Fat chance! So I was walking down Fulham Road at dawn in nothing but my pyjamas, very nice! The police used to come by so often that I actually got to be friends with one of them, and he told me they were only picking on me for their personal fun. That's why I got out of England. Can you blame me?"

Getting PIL off the ground was no simple artistic task, it seems. With the ignominious end of the Pistols, Lydon was left broke.

"I was destitute, all funds were cut from me. I had no access to what was rightfully mine, which was why I had to take it all to court with Malcolm. So starting PIL was no easy thing. It's amazing that we ever got the first album out at all. But I was desperate to do something different. A couple of the songs, 'Religion' and 'Public Image', I had written while in the Pistols, and the only person who gave any consideration towards them was Sid, but then he'd immediately forget about them because of the drugs. But I did that first album with Keith Levene, and he had a unique rhythmic guitar style which has since been copied by God knows how many bands. The indie scene positively thrives on that, even that Edge in U2 has copied it all from Keith, but he doesn't quite get it right, does he? Heeheehee!"

PIL got off to a funny old start, a bracing hit single with 'Public Image', some avant-garde live performances in which Lydon would refuse to turn his gaze upon the audience, a quite dreadful appearance on 'The Old Grey Whistle Test' which our hostess Annie Nightingale immediately concluded was the best rock thing ever witnessed on our televisions, but which Lydon agrees was quite horrible, adding the excuse: "We were all on something, and none of it was legal."

Over the years Lydon and PIL have recorded some invigorating LPs, like 'Album', a brute stuffed with squawling heavy metal and self-disgust and the drums of Ginger Baker ("I'll never work with him again: too many problems, and he's too old, always going 'Well, in my day...'"), and the new offering 'That What Is Not', which contains a "moving" tribute to Sid. There's only been one really dud record in the last thirteen years: an awful 'Live In Tokyo' album.

"Yes, but I did do interviews at the time, don't you remember? I did say 'Don't buy it!' That record was made because I was promised such-and-such amount of dollars if we'd let them record with their brand-new Mitsubishi digital recording unit. So yes, I took the money because I needed it. And there was another live album of course, with some poxy French title that means 'Paris In The Spring', and that cost us exactly the price of one reel-to-reel tape to record. I just brought my Revox over to Paris and bunged it into the desk and that was it. We got – wonderfully - £30,000 out of Virgin for that, and they were furious! They found out what we'd done and went 'You're just wasting our money!' But then they sent us into a studio and asked us to at least make an attempt at mixing it. Didn't bother. We just sat round all day in the studio playing cards and Space Invaders. Record companies are so stupid!"

Record companies are so stupid – and his record company, Virgin, are particularly so, as thinks Lydon. How else do you account for the fact that PIL have sold so few records over the years? Virgin sign up The Rolling Stones for millions of pounds [2] but won't spend a bean on promoting Lydon, is his argument.

"Public Image are much more dangerous than the Sex Pistols were, and this annoys Virgin very much. They don't try to sell me or promote me, but they won't let me go. It's very much 'This is our box of chocolate and we're not going to share'," he moans.

"Richard Branson doesn't even invite me round his house no more. That's because I usually beg for money, and I hate cricket," he groans.

"It's extremely difficult with what I do to survive financially. It's tough. People presume I am rolling in it, they presume wrongly!" he moans.

"Virgin just cut corners with me. I would call it career sabotage. They only pressed 35,000 copies of 'The Greatest Hits, So Far', and that record could have sold very well. They're supposed to be selling me and my accessories, but they don't. They end up buying the Rolling bloody Stones, and it's exactly the same now as it was when I started with the Pistols. Back to the old safe-as-houses old farts - Phil Collins, how thrilling! And what do they have in 'Q' magazine but Sting and Dire Straits, and it's ordinary, it's boring, and I'm puzzled that you want to talk to me at all! What's the point? I don't sell any records!" he moans.

He thinks it's all some grand conspiracy that keeps him from selling millions, but really it is, part at least, an image problem that hampers him. We, the great public, cannot forget Johnny Rotten and cannot quite come to terms with the substitute version. Lydon cannot live Rotten down. He gloats over past misbehaviour, he wants us to remember that he was once the naughty boy.

"I did a terrible thing to Crosby, Stills & Nash years ago. They were having a celebration get-together in some real posh hotel in New York and they had this big cake on the table, and I was told they were down in the bar and I went down barefooted in my underpants, and I had this long wig and I jumped on the table and trod on the cake and went 'It's the Johnny Rotten hour!' There they all were in their business suits being poncey and discussing the fine wines on the menu. That's not rock 'n' roll. I hate wine, anyway."

But he wants us to take his music seriously and forget the past, all at the same time. You can't have your cake, even if it belongs to Crosby, Stills & Nash, and eat it too.

The same man who is at one moment swigging beer and announcing "All I ever wanted to do was cause a few raised eyebrows. I don't believe what I do is art. Art is to do with galleries and dowdy old paintings," is, with the next breath and bottle, shouting "Why do people have to be so stupid? Can't people just listen to my music without going 'Oh will you please give us a category that we can fit you in?' No I fucking won't! I'm an individual!"

He could make quite a tidy sum of money in a trice, if he so wished, just be reforming the Sex Pistols. He's had ample offers.

But "that would be thoroughly awful and cynical and vile, and I would feel guilty as hell and I'd never be able to look myself in the face. It would be a disaster for me emotionally. I'm not going to play the Johnny Rotten cartoon character for anybody …"

By this time the hour was getting late. He'd arrived in the early afternoon, staggering beneath the weight of carrier bags crammed full of beer. The beer was almost gone, my carpet strewn with the evidence. Most interviews with rock persons are conducted in the confines of record company offices or smart hotels or in the 'comfort' of backstage areas or, worse, tour buses.

This is not the style of the individual who was once Johnny Rotten. No, he'd do his talking at my flat, he said, and he did. And as the hours went by and the alcohol took hold, you begin to think, isn't this sort of surreal? Here I am in my own front parlour, quarrelling with an old punk rocker, the snarling face of the '70s, about which Led Zeppelin LP is the best. It's the first one, I said, because it's all out of tune and it's got 'How Many More Times' on it, but he said that I was stupid because 'Physical Graffiti' was much better.

In unabashed style he had taken over the place, was busy annoying the neighbours with his personal selection of things from my record collection. 'Ballad Of Dwight Fry' by Alice Cooper (he knew all the words and he sang along at some volume), some Captain Beefheart and some Neil Young and some, er, Public Image and some, er, er, Peter Wyngarde.

Over one din came another: the sound of John Lydon's voice raised in order to issue gossip (most of it libellous, some of it merely his personal form of name dropping. Like the time he went to a party at Robert De Niro's place, and "De Niro was vile, and Lou Reed was there and he was even worse. They were all so snobby and they were playing all this boring cocktail jazz, so I put on a reggae cassette which I'd brought, and they turned the volume right down. Lou Reed told me it ws too loud!") and opinions.

Opinions? Johnny's got 'em!

Michael Jackson? "He has no one to talk to except Liz bloody Taylor, and let's face it, her last marriage was all about selling her perfume, because it's hard to sell perfume when you're a fat old spinster."

Mick Hucknall? "There's somebody who's just rehearsed fully somebody else's culture and stolen it. Just like Lisa Stansfield. These people are not singing from the soul."

Guns N' Roses? "Like a roadcrew setting up the instruments before the real band gets there."

Live Aid and similar celebrity charity ventures: "Showbiz chaps all hugging each other with delight and glee and saying what nice persons they all are, as their private bank balances expand. I did one of those charity shows once because it was for Amnesty, but that Adrian Edmondson and his wife and their cronies just snubbed me. They were all so pompous and rude. The only nice person there was that fat one from Scotland, what's his name? Robbie Coltrane. He's all right, but the rest of them … all bloody middle-class with no manners at all …"

And by this time I was regretting the fact that the interview had not been conducted in record company offices or upon some such neutral territory, for my wife had joined the fray and was conducting a heated discussion about the merits of Bob Dylan with the man, and they were singing along to 'Hurricane', which an old friend of mine, who had dropped by for a quiet evening, was loudly denouncing as "shit".

And then, at around 11, the beer - 36 bottles - ran out completely, so at Lydon's suggestion we made off to the nearby late-night supermarket, where Lydon, somewhat to the consternation of staff and customers, pointed at my friend and announced in a very loud voice: "Arrest this man! He is a drug dealer!"

It became that sort of evening, raucous and ending all maudlin, as John Lydon came to an awful conclusion about his musical future.

"When I die, that'll be the only time I'll sell any records," he said. "I'll be like Jim bloody Croce or Freddie bloody Mercury. It'll be 'Anarchy In the U.K.' ringing around the nation like 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. And I won't even get to collect the royalties! How awful! Give us another bloody beer."

[1] Jon Savage: 'England's Dreaming - The Sex Pistols And Punk Rock', published in October 1991.
[2] The Rolling Stones signed with Virgin Records in November 1991 for a reported 30 million dollars.


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