John Lydon:
Smash Hits, April 3rd 1980

Transcribed by Karsten Roekens

© 1980 Smash Hits / KEVIN FITZGERALD


KEVIN FITZGERALD visits Public Image.

Smash Hits, April 3rd 1980The Sex Pistols were the band that changed my life. No other band would have motivated me to sprint out to the shops every Thursday to buy the music papers to see what they were doing this week. It was like having a bunch of mates with a Wilkinson sword verbal style attracting all the publicity.

It never occured to me, while hopelessly devoted to Johnny, that their constant appearance in the press would constitute any kind of overkill, but after a while the vultures got bored sitting around sharpening their beaks. The Sex Pustols had had their run for their money and it was about time things got back to predictable normality.

When it finally happened in January 1978, John Lydon seemed to disappear off the face of the earth. He made no attempt to have his name or his face plastered over the covers. He showed a total disregard for the conventional methods of getting a new band going. He knew they'd be battering his door down in a matter of weeks.

When Public Image Ltd. finally stepped out from behind the safety curtain, the papers had never heard anything like it and there were panic stations. To anyone with a pair of mobile feet and an eye for sharp non-Seditionaries clothes it sounded like dance music, but since that excludes all rock writers the scene was set for an intellectual dissertation on Johnny Groundbreaker and His Rule-Breaking Funsters.

Throughout 1979 there was far too much going on to worry about PIL after all. They didn't constantly tour the country, and they still made that awful racket. 'Death Disco' was reviewed as though the idea of using a disco rhythm was the equivalent of belching in front of your family while watching the Queen on Christmas Day. What would it all lead to?

There were those who were convinced it was all just a big joke and that Lydon would get down to it, shoulder to the grindstone, and they sat around waiting to be proved wrong. So either PIL were being ignored due to their lack of work, or they were featured as a vague backdrop, an excuse for interviewing John Lydon.

With the release in December of the tin can 12 inch 'Metal Box' set, it all changed. John's crew had earned their crust, but not because the critics could dance to the music, but because they now reckoned they'd got it all sufficiently sussed out. The threat was at an end.

On realising this of course, John was supposed to welcome them with open arms and apologise for being so awkward. But he didn't.

The PIL 'team' consists of six people, all of whom have known each other since the pre-punk days. What they had was what it took to make their attitude into their fortune – the ability to see that a large proportion of the public like to live dangerously, using someone else to do it all for them.

Not that the PIL 'board' are like that of course. There's the actual members of the band, featuring new drummer Martin Atkins, and there's Jeannette Lee, who arranges dealings with the record company, Virgin, and with all would-be interviewers. One reason she does this is that if she didn't do it, John, Keith and Wobble would never see the light of day, they're that lazy.

There's also Dave Crowe, an old friend of John's who's not averse to shutting the famous Lydon lips with a rasped insult. And they all live together in a big house in Chelsea, isn't that nice?

When I was there, the day was divided into two halves – the more active half is called 'John's up', and the other, more low-key half is known as 'he's in bed'. John's definitely the one who wears the check trousers, and who's been eating my porridge? The phone never stops ringing, and there are various methods silencing it, the best one of which is a deft hoof that knocks the receiver up and down in a split second.

I'd originally intended to interview all the members of the band together, but seeing as how we never arranged it properly I had to spend most of the time with John. At first I was dumbly awed by him, you know, meeting the hero and all that. As a result I clammed up, but the deafening records and numerous cans of grog nudged my feeble bottle level into first gear. The first thing that came to mind:

KEVIN FITZGERALD: "What was the first record you ever bought? Mine was Showaddywaddy, in 1974."

JOHN LYDON: "I`ve no idea, although it was probably something like that. D'you remember when I said on the radio at that time that I liked T. Rex and Gary Glitter, and then it became really hip to say how much you'd liked them? That was a real joke, God!"

With one pearl of a question under my belt, further topics to be raised consisted mainly of stuff about the Pistols, although when the 'Bollocks' album was mentioned, he said:

JOHN LYDON: "Me and Sid did a brilliant version of that album."

KEVIN FITZGERALD: "Loads of guitars and overdubs, was it?"

JOHN LYDON: "You bet your life it wasn't!"

So, had John and Sid been allowed to put a grubby paw on the 'Bollocks' tapes, an educated guess would suggest that the result would have been an early forerunner of the bass-heavy megastomp of PIL. But then it would have changed everything considerably.

I asked John what had made him knock around with Wobble and Sid when they were at technical college, taking the straight and narrow to paradise by clocking up O-levels?

JOHN LYDON: "Simply the fact that they were the only two worth talking to. Everyone else was sodding about in the queues, flitting about saying 'Oooh, what O-level can I do now? Oooh yes, geography is a nice one!' We were all in the boozer, having a bevvy."

Following the release of 'Metal Box', many of the band's early critics had now decided to like it. The album review was actually the cover story on one of them, for God's sake! What did John think of the reviews?

JOHN LYDON: "Ha ha! At first I thought it was a searing piss-take and I thought 'Good'. But it's not, they actually seem to like it. Big deal, I'm still not interested in talking to any of them."

John detests the way the press has such an unchallenged power to pronounce on music, as though crystallising public opinion for evermore, and he finds it offensive the way the philosophers move in like heavyweights and mask dance music in grave, serious overtones.

JOHN LYDON: "They don't dance to music, they like to scurry around their nice offices with their new Bob Dylan albums. They're all in their late twenties, they're clinging onto their lovely rock music because they know they'll go down when it goes down. And because they can't understand our music, they either slag it as a joke or try to analyse it. They've got no idea!"

It also makes things a lot less easy to analyse if there aren't the usual cluster of live gigs to review. PIL's unwillingness to play strings of dates for no other reason to promote recent product is quite simple.

JOHN LYDON: "A gig is something you're meant to enjoy, and that includes the band. You should get some kind of entertainment. We've got no intention of going round the country playing for no reason. But when I do a gig I'm up for days, which is another reason we won't tour – it just kills you. I can't just go 'Oh, that's that. Time for bed now.' You work up too much adrenaline."

The band have started to use synthesisers, and tracks like 'Bad Baby' and 'Careering' are two examples of the way synthesised noise can be included without it ending up like a Rick Wakeman symphony. Just recently, The Whispers' 'And The Beat Goes On' shows how restrained use of a Moog (it's a noise machine to me) can add blocks of sound to a basic rhythm track without completely obliterating the heart of it.

PIL have been doing the same for nearly a year, but the fact that John is an ex-wall-of-sound ex-Pistol, plus the ridiculous stigma (call it ignorance) that says that rock groups, i.e. white musicians, can't make dance music that's not a headbanger's heaven, means that they're shunned because they threaten the controlled wildness of the music scene.

Every other rock act you care to mention is just a zoo creature, totally dependent on its keeper – reactionary know-alls left over from the '60s. Public Image Ltd. are different. As John said:

JOHN LYDON: "All the idiots only learnt the first lesson of punk. First Lesson – Do it yourself. Second Lesson – Do it properly!"


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