PiL interview:
Sounds, September 17th 1988

© 1988 Sounds

PiL in Russia:
Holidays in Estonia

Once the punk figurehead of decadent capitalism and threatening enough to be banned from playing the Hammersmith Odeon, John Lydon can still lead PiL onto a stage in front of 130,000 Eastern Bloc fans. Mat Snow joins the group in Estonia where the barricades between East and West finally crumble. Brian Aris waves the flag

John on the way to Estonia, Sounds, August 1988 © Brian ArisI LOVE moaning. That's what I live for! cackles John Lydon as he surveys a pickled herring with an even fishier eye. "I'm going to have a great holiday. . ."

No holiday in the sun, this, for John Lydon and Public Image Limited.

A stiff salty breeze is blowing rain and the unsummery spray of the Baltic Sea over the prow of the SS Georg Ots as we head away from the Free West towards the Enchained East - or so they used to have us believe.

Behind us lies Helsinki, capital of Finland, and ahead, not yet visible on the horizon, is an obscure northern shore of what Ronald Reagan once described as the " eviI empire" - the Soviet Union.

Yes, John Lydon, the man who is still banned from playing London's Hammersmith Odeon, will this weekend "rock Russia", as The Sun would have it.'

But we're not going to Russia - we're going to the Soviet Socialist Republic Of Estonia and, more particularly, its capital Tallinn, a coastal city of 500,OOO people, half of-whom will spend at least some time at the three-day festival taking place in the gigantic amphitheatre at the edge of town.

Tallinn is the USSR's Window on the West. It receives Finnish radio and TV, and the people themselves are close cousins to the Finns. But although Estonia is among the most privileged of Soviet Republics (in addition to having access to images of the West, it also has the Soviet Union's highest meat consumption), it still struggles for more.

Briefly an independent republic, Estonia was annexed by the USSR in 1940 and World War II was 'Russified' to dilute nationalist feeling. 'Russification' means that Russians loyal to Moscow took over the best jobs and flats in Estonia but this has bred resentment.

The Estonians don't want independence, but they want more say in running their own affairs, both political and economic.

Two years ago they were once more legally allowed to display their black--white-and-blue national flag, a vital symbol for the Estonians of Moscow's new policy of glasnost (an end to secrecy and repression of dissenting opinion) linked to perestroika (political, social and economic reconstruction).

John in Estonia, Sounds, August 1988 © Brian ArisBeing the most Western-influenced of Soviet Republics, what happens in Estonia today may well happen in the rest of the USSR tomorrow. Estonia is the Soviet Union's test-bed for new freedoms, new ideas.

And that the man officially declared -for years by Pravda to be a "fascist" ' and arch-symptom of decadent capitalism will be stepping out onstage in front of at least 130,000 rapturous Estonians is a genuine capital E Event -and an Event not just in the epochal rock career of the erstwhile Johnny Rotten, nor even for the expectant Estonians in their vast diversity and multitude, but perhaps for all of the Soviet Union, and therefore for all the world. .

Not surprisingly, amid all the jollity that successful rock bands on tour generate, there is a fraught mixture of apprehension, disbelief and sheer sense of occasion that maybe, just maybe, they're on the cutting edge of something truly momentous.

As it turns out, very Shortly John Lydon does have something to moan about,
In the words of PiL's song 'Fat Chance Hotel', "The dinner gave me the splattery botty". Nor was he alone; everybody got Stalin's revenge, guitarist John McGeoch in particular "pissing through his arse" for days on end.

Rotten (as the others all refer to him behind his back) cackles at the hotel floor assistant's bemusement when he complained that there were only 16 sheets of prison-issue bog paper in his hotel bathroom.

"'But that's all you're allowed!'… So I used the towels! Honestly, Estonia gives you the runs, big time!"

John's patented snottiness aside, the PiL party are a couth and well-dressed crowd. Even John - a self-confessed "style-pig" - has a new outfit for every part of the day, favouring orange Adidas track-suits as leisurewear: The sporting theme is continued in John McGeoch's scarlet Soviet ice-hockey strip and bassist Allan Dias' skin-tight baseball knickerbockers. Only guitarist Lu Edmonds, the band's linguist, dons the Englishman-abroad linen suit; he bears a resemblance to the young George Orwell.

Let it not be said that PiL are the greatcoat band; they played their show in shorts to a man, Lydon's in particular being a fetching pastel polka-dot, His candy-coloured locks, incidentally, are all his own.

"WHAT REALLY impressed me about the audience when I went onstage was how
colourful their clothes were. But if you go to Donington, for instance, it's just denim for miles in every direction.

"They have a much better sense of freedom in that way. They really reject uniforms - I don't care why. It's what you would have liked Hyde Park to have been for The Rolling Stones. They're more involved, if you like, with their own individuality without it being an ego trip."

He recalls Pil's early days, when he first met the band's current ace drummer Bruce Smith, then doing the business for Bristol's Pop Group (led by Mark Stewart).

"With all of this, we'd never put a title to what we were doing. We never called it punk rock, or jazz rock, or disco, or anything at that time. And that's what made it work," he drones his voice sliding from a theatrical Fagan to a classic Ken Livingstone nasal whine.

"It was stupid bitches like Caroline Coon that decided that I was the King Of Punk! Which was a ridiculous thing to say! What the f***'s a punk? I spent weeks quizzing that term. It wasn't in the Oxford English Dictionary. It's slang for a male prostitute in American prisons. Wonderful! I'm the king of male slags? I'm a whore? I fail to think so!

Despite the mohawk hardcore who still crowd the first few rows of a PiL gig in the West, Lydon's decade-long quest to de-punk both himself and his audience reached its symbolic end this bright Sunday afternoon behind the Iron Curtain. .

As the Estonian MC gave PiL an incomprehensible but undoubtedly huge build-up, you. Could feel the massive crowd thicken like an animal with anticipation. It was actually going to happen Johnny Rotten was going to bounce onto the stage in a matter of seconds!!! And to storm-warning bass riff of 'Public Image' he did.

PiL in Estonia, Sounds, August 1988 © Brian Aris The show is a blinder. Every single band member, including John Lydon, reckon it was their finest hour. PiL's glittering aerial metal-funk suits a sunny day, and they reach climax after climax, including the bulk of the 'Happy?' album.

With a firm hand at the helm, John Lydon sets sail with all the good tunes, and the band he has toured and written with since 1986. Bassist Allan Dias and drummer Bruce Smith have welded together a intricate framework of sprightly rhythms and brooding post-gothic rifferama that glides past with all the poise and menace of a battleship slicing through choppy seas.

John McGeoch (the band's- diplomat) establishes solidarity with the crowd as soon as he walks on stage waving an Estonian national flag wild applause, but the unity between the performers and the audience ran deeper than token gestures.

Yet who would have thought that such disparate thong would prove to be PiL's greatest audience?

A few punks had made the difficult journey from Leningrad a couple of hundred miles east, but mostly the kids here were tribally non-aligned.

You realise how many British youth cults would simply cease to exist without the availability of hair-gel. You saw uniformed soldiers on leave, sturdy folks in their 60s, young children. In a day pregnant with symbols, the most touching was the little girl who could have been no more than eight- years-old sitting on her father's shoulders and waving her arms in the air to the strains of 'Rise'.

And from the stage, the first 60 yards of audience was a sea of arms, home-made PiL flags (the local bands make their own instruments, imports being prohibitively expensive) and banners reading 'Johnny Rotten Is Good' (the Estonians are not prone to verbal hyperbole) and 'PiL Is Good Idiotism'. As Lydon sang in 'Holidays In The Sun', the set's only Pistols number, "I'm looking over the wall/And they're looking at me…"

Both sides liked what they saw.

After the gig, John is trying to find something to say to match the significance of the event we've all just gone through. The themes he's been harping on about ever since the Pistols collapsed and he started PiL a decade ago seem more pertinent than ever, but no better defined - freedom, individuality, anti-authoritarianism, personal choices, honesty. Perhaps they're best kept vague - more like banners than bye-laws.

"THE MINUTE I hit the stage I lost my voice because I was so enthused and trying so damn hard for the first two numbers," grins Rotten afterwards. "I completely destroyed myself, and I've never had that before in my entire life. I'm quite nonchalant once I've got onstage.

"Those people just loved us to death for just being there - that was so completely obvious. And quite frightening; I'm used to being booed. The Sex Pistols never played to anyone without booing. That was my introduction to music - Boo! Get Off! Rubbish!

"This is the major achievement so far," he continues. "The official bureaucracy had declared me a fascist for ten years, but the general public knew different. But they'd never seen me live, never had the opportunity to speak to me. All they knew is what they'd seen on Finnish TV, the few videos we d done.

"I tell you, I now see videos in a completely different light. I thought they were boring and pedestrian because I thought everybody had access to records; it isn't the case. They saw 'Rise' on TV - they were singing along word for damn word. Impressive stuff. "But here we are in Estonia because everybody else seems just to have turned it down as a non-event!"

This is true. From Britain, only Steve Hackett (Genesis are massively popular in the Soviet Union) and Big Country played; and from Sweden, The leather Nun appeared. Otherwise, this international festival boasted just Finnish and Soviet acts. No American acts at all.

This was partly a result of the organisers' policy to invite the acts from abroad as late in the day as possible. To do otherwise might have drawn too much international attention to the festival and thereby risk Moscow pulling the plug on what might be seen as an Estonian nationalist rally being embarrassingly splashed all over Western newspapers and TV screens.

As it turned out, any official presence - never mind interference - was low key to the point of invisibility.

"I found the whole covert nature of society surprising and funny in a way," observes Bruce. "Everything is so underhand, like constantly making a drugs deal. Even buying a f***ing loaf of bread! And it breeds an atmosphere of caution."

"But that coupled with people who desperately want to impress you," adds John McGeoch. "And the way they apologise at the state of the supermarket - it's so sad."

"We confirmed their idea of decadent Westerners," sighs Bruce. "It's bizarre - all Our sensibilities were attacked," ponders John Lydon, "I'll have to sit down and calculate this. It'll take me weeks to understand what I've experienced. I might appear to be flippant, but I'm really not. It'll take a long time for me to swallow."

WE'RE ON our way home, caught in a limbo between two realities, that of Estonia and that of The Sun condensing the event in the headline "Rotten Luck, Russia!"

"I think I've been butchered and bastardised more than most people," observes Lydon truthfully, if not for the first time in his life. But by force of repetition, he hopes that the correct picture will some day prevail.

Mildly embarrassed at such a high-culture reference, he cites 'The March Of The Capulets', a remorseless passage from Prokoviev's Romeo And Juliet, as symbolic of his personal struggle.

"I find stuff like that real inspiring: it goes on and on and on. That's the way you must be. You mustn't let the bastards grind you down."

PiL in Estonia, Sounds, August 1988 © Brian Aris


The Sun, August 25th 1988

Rotten Luck, Russia!

PiL in Estonia, Sounds, August 1988 © Brian Aris FORMER-Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten is taking punk to Russia in a new bid to boost Glasnost.

Kremlin chiefs told him his latest band Public Image could play at a three-day festival starting there tomorrow.

Half a million Russian rock fans are expected to turn up to see Rotten, 32, and other British acts like Big Country and ex-Genesis star Steve Hackett.

Future Film producer Jay Rifkin, who is help-ing to organise the Glasnost Rock 88 festival, said: "This signals the start of a very positive future for rock in Russia."

Rotten - now calling himself John Lydon recently turned down a £2million offer by U.S. businessmen to reform the Sex Pistols.


Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)
John on the way to Estonia, Sounds, August 1988 © Brian Aris
John in Estonia, Sounds, August 1988 © Brian Aris
PiL live in Estonia, Sounds, August 1988 © Brian Aris
PiL live in Estonia, Sounds, August 1988 © Brian Aris
PiL live in Estonia, Sounds, August 1988 © Brian Aris
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