John Lydon:
Sounds, April, 1980 (Germany)

Transcribed (and additional info) by Karsten Roekens

© 1980 Sounds


Interview by Alfred Hilsberg, cover photo by Harald in Hülsen

Sounds, April, 1980 © Harald in Hülsen''Can we do it together?'' somebody asked full of envy. ''Is your English good enough for it?'' a kind of workmate doubted. ''Just ask him why he makes such rubbish now,'' a punk requested. ''Perhaps it's not too good to show him the newest Sex Pistols compilation!'' Lisa warned me, Virgin's press officer. ''But that's your business.'' It was, I decided to turn a deaf ear to warnings, hopes and good advices and just have a conversation with John Lydon a.k.a. Johnny Rotten.

But preconceptions and expectations existed. Irritations by his first album, then his appearance at the Sci-Fi Festival in Leeds where he did not do much more than turn his back on people. I was annoyed by the audience's attitude, its hero worship beyond reclaim, its consumer attitude. Plus an uneasy feeling because Public Image Ltd. collected £3,000 for the gig. Then 'Metal Box'. A fascinating musical experience, an absolute highlight at the end of the exciting 1970s. John Lydon as personality of the decade, not only in 'Sounds'. Much more: cult figure, mysterious character, figurehead, obstructionist, not fitting into any category. The perfect image for headlines.

Tags of memories speed through my head while the cab driver, who speaks only broken English, takes me to Chelsea. The end of the Pistols, Rotten in Jamaica, his court battle against McLaren, the meaningful name of his new band, the early hot tempered TV appearances, the popular image of a bitter suffering young L. Where to start?

The street has to be somewhere over there, the cab driver says and opens the door. Out into the drizzle, over the crossing, narrowly escaping an armada of approaching lorries, a narrow dingy house. John purchased it from his earnings in Pistols times. Clever. The windows are no real windows. Except for a few windowpanes at the side of the house all windows are covered with adhesive foil from the inside. Nobody can look in. Nobody can look out.

Jeannette Lee - like Dave Crowe she's an equal member of PiL - opens the door. Yes, I'm the German. Yes, I'm being expected. John has not arrived yet, she says. Previously she worked at the ACME boutique on Portobello Road. She takes care of some of PiL's business affairs, arranges interviews, negotiates with promoters. She seems content when I truthfully deny being able to make a living from writing.

Jeannette takes a look at the latest edition of 'Sounds'. And warns me: ''Don't talk to John about Nick Lowe. He hates him, but he will bitch about him for half an hour when he sees the cover.''

Neither Johnny Rotten nor John Lydon ever fascinated me enough to turn me into a Pistols disciple or a Rotten fan. The Pistols had an igniting and progressive role in many ways. But the whole spectacle around them was too easy to see through, the end was foreseeable. Songs like 'Anarchy' or 'God Save The Queen' today belong to the classic pop songs. Steve Jones and Paul Cook still make a living from the scattered bones. But they can't get enough out of it to revive the legend. Sid Vicious said goodbye his way to the puppet existence. Remains John Lydon. From a distance I could imagine how arduous it must have been to separate himself from Johnny Rotten, get rid of the empty shell and to find a new starting point.

John enters the room. Says ''Hello''. Smiles a little. Blows his nose. Walks over to the TV set, switches something on. Teeters towards a crate of beer cans. ''Fancy one?'' No, not before sunset. John grins again with this unutterable broad mouth and these unutterable tight lips. ''First question, please,'' he grins and sits down on his leather couch.

Impossible to create an interview situation in this room. Arranged at the side wall of the main room of the house are all kinds of production/ reproduction equipment. VCR, TV set, tape recorder, reel-to-reel machine, mixing desk, synthesizer. A conversation can only be about trying to comprehend - but is it possible in the space of one hour? What do I want to know, what does the reader want to know?

I don't encounter a withdrawn bitter John Lydon. He's rather open-minded, serious, confident. He laughs a lot. Even if it sometimes sounds cynical-diabolical. Just like the image of 'old' Johnny Rotten. Does John Lydon still suffer from this past?

''No I don't, but it leads to nowhere to bring it up again and again. What's the point?
I don't know why the press now insists on calling me John Lydon. I don't care if I'm called Johnny Rotten or John Lydon. It has nothing to do with what I'm doing.''

Did the anti hero Rotten not participate on this hero system, did he not answer the expectations of the audience? In Leeds you could feel that large parts of the audience wanted to be as near as possible to their symbolic figure, their hero.

''Yes, people go to gigs not to see a band but to watch actors. I don't think PiL answer these expectations at all. Nobody tells me what to do. I don't see myself as a hero and I don't want to be anybody's hero. Heroes are nothing but escapism, an indulgence. There shouldn't be any heroes. That's the reason why I'm fighting against this industry which produces heroes.''

Public Image Ltd. don't give many concerts. John: ''There's no reason to bother with doing a lot of gigs or even tour. I want to lead a good and easy life. When we do a gig we go on stage, play our songs and leave. That's all. We have no big lightshow, no films in the background or any of that crap. We work efficient and fast. It's a waste of effort to work as expensively as many people do.''

Public Image are as organized as scarcely any other band. Their house is their headquarter. John: ''A few of us live here - Keith too. The others drop by every second day. We go into the studio when we feel like it. But we don't like to rehearse, it's a waste of time. We are not like a traditional band. We don't use a producer who tells us how we should sound. We try it ourselves, we develop our own sound.''

John sneezes, blows his nose into a giant handkerchief: ''Fuckin' pneumonia, it's so cold outside… Yes, we even mix the sound ourselves. Everybody should be able to do it! You just need an engineer to show you the ins and outs. It's so simple! Really easy to learn. You wouldn't believe how much money you can save!''

To work independently - one of the most important ideas of the whole punk thing and put into practice by PiL. The meaningful name of the band surely is a selling point. Virgin Records, who John and the others are signed to, didn't believe in the success of 'Metal Box': ''We had to pay for it ourselves. The package of the music was our own idea. Virgin didn't want to know. Now the cassette version is selling. Nevertheless they want to cut our future advances. It's just not funny anymore. I'm so sick of being dictated terms. I'd rather bugger off and have nothing to do with that kind of company anymore. They don't even know what they're talking about!''

Why don't PiL found their own label then? ''In principle it's being run that way already. We produce ourselves, we design the package ourselves, we design our own advertising. What are they doing more than take our product into the shops? But that's the point: you need a big company for distribution. I have to tell you a story. We gave Virgin the complete lyrics to print for an advert. Somewhere between Virgin and the printers something went wrong. They printed the wrong words… it's unbelievable! Downright ridiculous! It changes the meaning of some of the songs. You have to listen to the album and compare to find out what's wrong.''

In my opinion the lyrics of the second album are not as straightforward as on the first album, much more lyrical. John interrupts me resentful: ''Oh, stop it! Bollocks! Not at all! I hate poetry, I don't know anything about it. Music and lyrics are wedded to another, the one without the other would be terrible. Perhaps the lyrics on the first album were too obvious. People in Merry Old England don't like it too much if you're getting straight to the point! Hahaha!'' He sees the differences elsewhere: ''We wanted to pack too much into the first one. There are already synths on it, but you can hardly hear them. The second album is much more simple and direct. It was recorded practically live. We had some raw ideas and recorded them together. But I still love the first album, I really do!''

Public Image work with collective spontaneity: ''The songs came together in many different ways, sometimes we just tried something out and left it that way. This time we used the bass differently, with more variations.'' I liked the last side of 'Metal Box' best, with 'Chant' on it. ''Hahaha!'' John laughs. ''Everybody's entitled to his own opinion, hahaha, and that's a good point! Yes, 'Chant' is great, it's like an old English ditty with a string synthesizer. And then it ends with that 'chant, chant, chant'. I just like to have three separate records. The whole sound has turned out much better. Plus it's like three short albums, you can put on whatever you want.''

Public Image had constant troubles with drummers, reports and rumours about old and new drummers could be found continuously in the music press: '' Martin Atkins is with us now. As a matter of fact we went through eight drummers, would you believe it? There are so many cunts. It is so awful when you have to explain what you want again and again, it's unbelievable. One fancied disco, the other one jazz. The third one didn't want to play live because of his nerves.''

Meanwhile the TV set on the other side of the room is running at half volume. John watches it with one eye. Some rerun of 'Top Of The Pops', then a transmission of some gymnastics championship. John grunts: ''What's that? Gymnastics? Ridiculous! What's that good for?'' I know this situation from reading other interviews: John sits on his couch, watching television all the time. ''I just sit there and watch. No really, it's no fun watching a whole programme. It's just too bad. This 'Top Of The Pops' is just too terrible!'' The following week I read they appeared on the 'Old Grey Whistle Test', another pop programme. They were promptly slated for their performance which allegedly only consisted of going on and walking off again. Audience responsibility? ''Yes, we have a responsibility! We don't make pop songs for the charts and the record companies. We don't beg to be heard. We come, we play, we leave again, quite simple. Take it or leave it! Public Image are no conventional rock band. We don't pose with guitars or leather trousers to sell records. There is absolutely no excuse for that kind of behaviour. I hate it, it's so ridiculous!''

There it is, the bitterness I expected. But it's also awareness for his own strengths, to settle up with his past. ''Everything I've done has been slammed and compared with the Pistols… 'Oh, it's just not like in the past!' The very same people, did they give a toss about the Pistols? I still remember how difficult it was to get £300 for a Pistols gig… What's the use of the past? I refuse to live in the past. May others write or read books about it! The Pistols were the end of rock'n'roll. We really finished it, it was admirable! We turned rock'n'roll into the fiasco it always was.''

''This person's had enough of useless memories / As far as I can see clinging desperately / Imagining, pretending, no personality / Dragging on and on and on'' (from: 'Memories' by Public Image Ltd.)

Jeannette whispered earlier that it's John's birthday today. The other PiL members are out getting presents. I give him the new single by Mittagspause. He'd like to listen to it, but: ''We don't have a record player here in the moment! Don't you think I'm an old man now? I'm 24!'' He doesn't need a (festive) occasion to search for new ways, no new waves, no revivals. It's so easy to go back ten years in time.

It may be true that he still has to fight with the past, still has to draw lines, that he seems to be not just cynical but arrogant. ''If the kids now claim Johnny Rotten has turned into an intellectual, they are obviously stupid. What do the media do to me and to them? What's the use of this everlasting kid of the street image? I just went down the street, wandering up and down… hahaha! Pure romance! It's the same when they claim we turned into intellectuals because we use synthesizers - ahhh, bollocks! They are fantastic! The things are much cheaper than a guitar! But they seem to be kind of banned. No, those kind of kids are plain ignorant, they follow the rules set up by others. They accept the idea of first-rate people over second-rate people.''

A kind of sculpture that John once produced hangs on the wall above the TV set. A mask of Jimmy Carter on a woman's torso. A subjective expression: ''I never acted as a political preacher. I always tried to express common sense. It's absolutely pointless to read the papers, it's all lies apart from the TV guide. Margaret Thatcher - uuuhhh! Wouldn't waste the effort. I just don't want to be dictated by nothing and no one. Now they try to get people into the army… I wonder if they get me too? Oh man, that would be a joke! The day machine guns come out of the cover… hahaha!

Politics, it changes as the wind. The Clash made the mistake to get involved in it. They have no attitude. They sway between mediocrity and freeloading, which means money. Just listen to the last album - fuckin' …''

Public Image not only work in the studio, but on other trivial but necessary affairs:
''I know what I'm talking about. You should have learned from the Pistols that you don't need a manager. We manage ourselves, we are six people - four in the band, the two others do certain necessary things for us. Let me know if there are people who are interested in us, or in gigs. We don't want to operate with big agencies and ten year contracts. Because I'm fed up with being bankrupt. We want to do what we want. And we do it.''

An exceptional attitude, an exceptional situation. John Lydon's view on others is rather pessimistic: ''I'm really not optimistic about the overall musical development. Nobody does anything new, nobody stays individual. They work just like the music industry. They are part of the system. The music industry ruins itself that way. We went through enough experiences, just take what happened with the 'Metal Box'.

Somewhere between Virgin and the manufacturer it happened again. The box is practically useless, you can hardly get the records out. It's just ridiculous! They get the simplest things wrong! But you can't publish all that. It's too boring for the average record buyer. But these are our problems. On the one hand it's unbelievably annoying, on the other hand it's big fun!''

PiL is no band like any other. It's even more than a concept, it's an attitude: ''We don't see ourselves as a band, more as a factory. We are working with various electronic means. It's not only music. How to combine the one with the other I don't know yet. We are making films, in video and Super 8. I think it's very good that many people are able to produce videos by themselves. It will raise the standard in films. There should be clubs everywhere, where everybody can present their films. Sure, most people will only tape and reproduce bad TV stuff. That's nothing new. But it will happen eventually.'' Public Image as a self-determining, self-controlling group.

An attack on the establishment, on rotten values and structures. John announced this attack in no uncertain terms with the song 'Public Image':

''You never listened to a word that I said / You only seen me for the clothes I wear /
Or did the interest go so much deeper / It must have been the colour of my hair /
Public image, you got what you wanted / The public image belongs to me

Public Image is no 'finished' product that a record company can exploit as any other product. Because John's antennae not only work as highly sensitive receivers but he's ready for transmission. Good if some people are being irritated by his kind of transmission (turning his back on them, for instance). Good if he realizes his idea to go on stage with a couch and a microphone with an inbuilt TV screen. So far Public Image is the most remarkable result of, and the most straightforward way out of what has been called punk, and it has left behind everything you could call punk. Sure, PiL's method is not objectively new. The beat and hippie movements branched out into similar approaches to multimedia work. What's the use anyhow? History in books is no replacement for individual experiences.


Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)
Sounds, April, 1980 © Harald in Hülsen
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