John Lydon:
Record Mirror, May 18th, 1981

Transcribed by Karsten Roekens,
with thanks to Tom Berglund

© 1981 Record Mirror / John Shearlaw


Something more than 'just a rock band' and something less than the might of ICI, the company that is Public Image Ltd. have at last started to move forward. JOHN SHEARLAW and photographer ANDY ROSEN present the public face of the private sector.

Everything goes off completely normally, and that shouldn't come as any sort of surprise. John Lydon stands his round in the pub (the last) with a roll of bank notes about the size of a baked bean can, signs the boot of an admirer with a weary resignation and wonders aloud with something like true innocence: "Why do you people have such strong bladders?"

An hour of steamy chat about the dying embers of litigation between one J. Rotten (as was) and one Malcolm McLaren (as is and ever more shall be), pints of 'ordinary' lager, and small talk that swings between the merits of the ballet, the delights of entertainment in one's own home and, last but not least, the play acting world of the 'music business' that's brought us - unceremoniously as it turns out - together.

"Oh, The Speakeasy, the place where the rock stars do meet!" he laughs. "The day that place closed down might just have been the happiest day of my life."

John Lydon is fun, funny and affable, ready to question as much as to answer. He might still look like "an anaemic ball of pus" (as he puts it), but he's well on top. A winning combination of naive enthusiasm and withering cynicism. And, in this case, a company man, representing Public Image Ltd. and, most of all, himself.

He doesn't frighten, doesn't threaten and won't (as he's at pains to point out) "play a schoolteacher role". Yet he's strong, individual and hard to cross.

Since last November the 'company' and Virgin have battled over 'Flowers Of Romance', finally released and charting only last month. A stark contrast to the half idiotic, half magnificent mess of 'Metal Box', it's drums, noise, wailing word pictures and Renaissance flute. "Innovative brilliance" or "a blatant con trick", it was an album that Lydon calls "a test case". Virgin deemed it uncommercial, only to eventually allow a limited 20,000 pressing. And after a burst in the charts (and even TOTP) with Adam and the Ants and Bucks Fizz it has now been filed away - Lydon laughs at the word 'file' - as another step for PiL... the public company that are going to do so much more. The bluff has been called.

PiL are now in what Lydon calls "a foot in the door but two flight of stairs to go situation". The company is there in their minds, and reality won't, he assures, be far behind.

"We're not Van Halen," he asserts. "We don't have satin PiL bomber jackets and we don't pursue rock'n'roll ethics. It's very very boring, and if very boring people want to follow that line then good luck to them. Become a rock'n'roll band and you'll stay that way forever and a day, and that's just not good enough." Rock, the word, is spat out.

"As a limited company we have access to other things, like video and electronics and hi-fi and books and paintings, and yes... even the theatre!" He laughs. "Everything except poetry and possibly ballet, and who knows about ballet? It's like I've been going to the theatre recently, and I'd love to put on plays. It's serious..." - he waits for a response - "I do have scripts and things like that, I love those small theatres..."

John Lydon, the great dabbler, freely admits that PiL have "piss-arsed about for far too long. It's more than fucking high time things got serious."

And with a working relationship with the rest of PiL that he regards as "100 per cent trustworthy and 100 per cent productive, now that we've pulled in the slack", PiL are ready to march away from (and here Lydon rolls his eyes) the land of rock'n'roll robots, of charts, of arguments with their record label, of live gigs, of selling 'product'.

"There's no irony about sitting here waffling about the album at all," Lydon says. "I'm proud of it and it's the best we've done and I said that about 'Metal Box' last year! But the rest of the process... heavens to Betsy! No, thank you. It doesn't make me feel superior getting up on stage and screaming down a microphone... maybe I am getting old! But 'Flowers' is done, I'm not going up to do it again. And I don't see why I should rush in and manufacture a bloody follow-up single and compound our 'commerciality'.

It could be six years to six weeks before you hear another thing from us, and I don't care what Virgin think. I don't even see that records will be our main source of income in the future. Oh yes, and that's a fact!"

PiL, we're told, don't thrive on alienation and/or superiority. The next step, Lydon claims, could be the biggest all-time catastrophe they or Virgin have seen. You could maybe never buy another PiL record. Equally easily you could end up a willing partner in PiL's scheme for global 'home entertainment'. "The only place to have it and the only place to want it," he says.

Small wonder the accusations fly. PiL as the next Pink Floyd? Con tricksters? Hippies, even? Lydon takes it with practised, albeit genuine, indifference. A mixture of cynical affability and gleeful cockiness.

"Ha bloody ha," he gives out with indulgent clarity. "I don't have that argumentative streak anymore. Let them laugh... I'm past worrying, and a mention is better than no mention."

And that new public face of his backs him to the hilt. The clothes, the hair, the sneer, they're all vital components still. A sort of badge he'll always have to wear, one that makes him retreat from a music world that he finds "hideous". But away from the markings (and no-one could seriously look and say "who?"), the loud check suits, an awesome collection of hats, - "I love them all and still worry myself sick about going bald," he smirks - the teeth still not right, there's warmth and an intensely likeable wryness about John Lydon these days. The vacant stare - the face that launched a thousand lost causes - is no longer the focal point... just another attribute, like the accents and the snide remarks.

"It's not a game to me at all, I'm deadly serious about what I do," he asserts. "I don't make records as big jokes. I really like" (pause to change voice) "'satisfying my artistic desires'." He laughs. "Oh Christ, these glib statements I'm coming out with... I can't help it! I love it! Then again it's like if I totally got my own way I'd be so bored and pissed off I'd just vegetate. You do need the challenge."

And of challenges there have been plenty. Not least what John calls a necessity to pare down the vital components of PiL to just three people, himself, Keith Levene ("he's a bit of a mad professor and it's a real pleasure to work with him") and Jeannette Lee, who is "involved 10 per cent in what PiL do."

"We eliminated half our workforce because they weren't working," Lydon says with some relish. "You can't carry dead weight for the rest of your life for sentimental reasons... it was mutual big goodbye time. Now any of us can be given the proverbial boot. It has to work like that or else it's like a bunch of hippies, isn't it? Oh, it was well slack before. Total chaos. All kinds of cock-ups. No tax paid. No bills paid. Virgin saying we owed them £ 180,000. We could have closed down completely, but there's always money to be made from somewhere, even if it isn't quite legal. It's not even an issue. I simply don't do things just to make money."

Now that's what PiL won't do, and now that they've come out of hiding after a year of silence ("I got sick of the same boring questions," Lydon says) he positively relishes both praise and attack.

"I can take total and absolute criticism of us, and the gross self-indulgent person who says they like us... it's all very funny to me. At the end of it I'll moan, regardless." He grins at his own self-assurance and admits to only a few doubts about his 'scheme of things', the battle from the armchair which he appears to win with wicked consistency. Those doubts, John?"

"I cringe at very few things," he counters, "and really only at being described as an in-tell-ec-tu-al. I'm fucking not that, no way. Half the time what we do could be called different, some of the time it's pure luck. Half random, half calculated, as it happens. From time to time I'll go and raid the HMV shop and bring back a really oddball collection of stuff I've never heard. It can be really good fun or it can be truly awful, but you've got to find out. There's so little variety around, that's for sure. That's why sales are dropping so dramatically..."

But PiL have kept their 'market share'. Does he worry about blind acceptance, just because he's who he is?

"I'd have to say that if 'Flowers' had made the top I'd seriously have to question why," he pronounces. "That sort of mass acceptance can be an indication of 'Oh my God - the world's caught up with us or we've gone three steps back!'"

It's a fleeting second of uneasiness, the dividing line where 'being different' ends up as being the same. The ghost of rock star John Lydon flits over his face and is immediately rejected. He eases away by taking the piss. Always. After laughing off the suggestion that he's got a superiority complex ("Of couse! Of course!") he returns to PiL. A tight ship now, he asserts, one that will come up with some serious business before very long.

"We ain't rock and roll and we'll never be ICI, but we will do something different, that's for sure." And he adds, just as a helpful afterthought: "I'm also an immaculate hyprocrite... I could change my mind tomorrow and rush out and do a million gigs. And so long as I don't end up doing the cabaret circuit of Scunthorpe and Leeds and Billingsgate, inbetween the hideous bingo and the raffle, I think I might just be able to stay very happy... thank you very much."


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