John Lydon:
Sounds, July 22nd, 1978

Transcribed (and additional info) by Karsten Roekens

© 1978 Sounds / Caroline Coon


Words and pix by Caroline Coon.

Sounds, July 22nd, 1978John's long black overcoat hangs almost to his ankles, keeping the English summer rain off his bright, hand-painted shirt and tie (presents from fans). His electric blue suede brothel creepers are getting wet. Despite the weather, he is looking his usual, splendid self. An exotic scarecrow, skinny, his hair dyed black (this week) and matted. Still the archdeacon of punk, sartorial style. He isn't feeling so good, though.

"I'm ill," he says matter-of-fact, glancing up miserably at the overcast grey sky. "I've got colitis. It's this cold weather and all the rubbish food I've been eating lately."

We are walking to a Chelsea restaurant – and I'm paying. Just like the old days, really. Two years ago, when Johnny was only a five-months-old Sex Pistol, he and the rest of the band would supplement their diet of Denmark Street greasy spoon fry-ups with steak and veg cadged from better-off journalists.

Today Johnny is an international star (when Neil Young pens a ballad about you, [1] that's really getting somewhere), recognised wherever he goes and theoretically a very wealthy man. But everything worked for these past eighteen months has, er, well, fallen into anarchic disarray. The Sex Pistols don't exist, except as a half-cocked parody of themselves. Johnny is facing a long (read years) legal battle to free himself from his managerial contract with Malcolm. His royalties and his wages have been 'stopped'. He is back to square one. And stony broke.

Johnny is 'rehearsing' his new band. But struggling to make it when you're an unknown is a very different game to picking up the pieces of the most notorious band in a decade and trying to do it all over again. He is under pressure from fans to front a band as dramatic as the Sex Pistols (already a myth) as well as proving to cynical critics (many of whom have already written him off as yesterday, sensational media hype) that he is a talent to reckon with. Few rock stars have ever had so much to live up to. Can he do it?

At the restaurant, between mouthfuls of French onion soup and baked mackerel washed down with lager, Johnny patiently/reluctantly signs autographs. The pressure may be taking physical toll but he fronts me with a remarkably positive mental attitude – determined against the odds.

As yet the band has no name, only joke 'working titles', e.g. The Carnivorous Butterflies, [2] The Future Features, The Corny Various, The Windsor Uplift, The Royal Family, etc.

The line-up: Johnny Rotten (he's learning to play piano and guitar) on vocals, Keith Levene (who played with The Clash for six months) on lead guitar, Jah Wobble (a friend of Johnny's from pre-Sex Pistols days) on bass and Jim Walker (a Canadian only recently come to London) on drums.

How definite is the band?

"We're definite. This year." He laughs. ""We're going to play as soon as possible, but not in England until we've got it as best we can."

Was it difficult to get the band together?

"I went through weeks and weeks of rehearsing with everybody who bothered to reply to my ad in the music press. It said something like 'Lonely musician seeks comfort in fellow trendies'. I didn't use my own name because then people who didn't know how to play would have turned up, and that would have set me back another two years. But the people who did turn up were terrible – denim-clad heavy metal fans. So eventually I thought 'Ah, Wobble! He can play – vaguely!' So I rang him up. And Keith rang up the next night. I'd been looking for him ever since I started to form the new band, but he wasn't on the phone. And then Jim was the only person I liked from the auditions. [3] He's amazing, he sounds like Can's drummer – all double beats. And the way we write songs is so easy – someone will just bash out something and everybody will fall in, and I'll babble over it. Which is great, because, I mean let's face it, there's so much to yell about, more than ever. My number one target has always been hypocrisy."

What are his major problems?

"Finance mostly. Financially I'm nowhere at all. I don't have a single thing. I'm in serious financial trouble, although in a way I've never seen money as a problem cos I've never had much of it, and big deal – it will come or go. But at the moment Virgin are giving me and the band £20 a week. Have you ever tried to live and keep a band together on that? It doesn't last two days. Guitar strings alone can come to that. And then we're having to use this really awful rehearsal studio south of the river. [4] The trouble is, other bands use it as well and we've already caught people taping us. And we've had our equipment stolen. Things like that make it all seem a bit pointless, but I won't give up. Apart from that I feel absolutely enthralled with myself!" A typical leer. "I'm now writing the best words I ever have. I know now how to put things more clearly, how to attack where it hurts most."

Has he spoken to Malcolm McLaren since he came back from America and the Sex Pistols' split?

"No. [5] Malcolm keeps out of my way for obvious reasons. I want what's owed to me. I haven't got it yet. I haven't seen a penny. I've never seen proper accounts, although I might soon. Under a court order Malcolm is going to have to show them to me. He is saying I bust up the band, but that's not true. They left, not me. I never quit. I never quit until the absolute end, I have always got to see things through. So Malcolm won't see me cos he's lied so much. He's just being like a right little bourgeois business man. He won't approach me at all. And legally, I can't do anything until all the legal stuff is sorted out. Ultimately I can only win, it's really only a question of time. Which is what I haven't got! I can't wait a year for all this to get sorted out, so I'm going ahead. I just don't want to see Malcolm getting a penny. That so-called anarchist wants 25 per cent of anything and everything I do, which I think is absolutely insulting. I wouldn't even consider it, I'd rather die!"

Is it true that McLaren is trying to put the Sex Pistols back together again with a new lead singer?"

"I think that's a sham. Sid says he hasn't seen Paul and Steve for two months. They don't want to know him."

Johnny still talks to Sid then?

"Yes, I've spoken to Sid. There's no argument with Sid, there never was. But I wouldn't use him in the new band because in my opinion he can't play. He has his drug problem and I don't like the way that's changed him. I don't recognise him as the Sid I used to know."

Then how come he is working with Keith Levene, who had to leave The Clash because of his drug problem, among other things? [6]

"Well – Keith's cleared, seriously. I've made sure of that. And quite frankly, I can't claim to be innocent. None of us can. But you can only learn by your mistakes. Sid hasn't learned yet. And Keith is an amazing guitarist! He can do it, he comes up with the goods. Sid didn't even bother to turn up to rehearsals half the time."

Has he been changed in any way by the split?

"I suppose it's made me more spiteful. But the more people put me down the higher I'll go. That's always been the case. The saddest thing for me has been Paul and Steve's attitude. They don't mind what Malcolm's doing, they're so dumb they can't be bothered. It's terrible. It's a shame it took me so long to find out that they never really believed or understood what the hell I was doing. It never ever occurred to them in the slightest. They never even knew the words to the songs, and I think that's sick. You see, I knew over the last year that none of the others in the band understood where I was coming from at all, and we had to break up sooner or later. And it was just about perfect! What I can't forgive is that our last gig in England was so awful, that Malcolm made it so disgusting for the fans. That's what I don't want to remember."

Who have been his friends, who are the people who have stuck by him through the split?

"All the people I've always known. John Gray, Dave Crowe, Wobble, Keith – all the friends I knew before I was in the band. [7] They weren't affected by my so-called fame which, I'm afraid, affected a lot of people who looked at me in a different way. And they make me feel really ill. You see, I haven't changed. The only thing that's changed is what's around me. Well, big deal! My friends are the people who haven't tried to take me for a ride, who haven't tried to get money for nothing, all the liggers and all that rubbish!"

What does he think of the current fad for saying 'Punk is dead'?

"It's absolutely hilarious. And then, it's a good way of clearing out the rubbish, all those weak bands who were causing a lot of trouble because they were just copying us without wanting to know what it was really about anyway. They're being washed away because they're going along with the 'Punk is dead' brigade. Punk is there for those who want it. If it's dead, show me the alternative, please. Just show me one! I can't think of any. The only thing that's died is Malcolm McLaren."

What does he believe the term 'punk' means?

"Basically that's an open question, it always was. You can't put it into words, it's a feeling. It's basically a lot of hooligans doing it the way they want and getting what they want. And it definitely carried a loaded bomb behind it, one which will explode sooner or later, which is why they want to put punk down. Suddenly, in the punk movement there are a lot of people talking seriously about things they ignored before, things they weren't meant to get their clutches into. Punk is against hypocrisy, monotony, consistency. It's against the unacceptable face of capitalism, against religion, against any organised establishment movement. Basically they're all evil."

How would he describe his new sound?

"Total pop with deep meanings. But I don't want to be categorised in any other term but punk! That's where I come from and that's where I'm staying."

Is he still going to be known as Johnny Rotten?

"What else can I call myself? Johnny Rotten, that's me! Hell, that can't be denied. You won't get a Johnny Rotten number two, that's for sure. Even though Malcolm McLaren is trying – desperately!"

We walk, in pouring rain, back to Johnny's juggernaut-shaken maisonette. He bought it six months ago for £12,000. [8] The place is a bargain (estate agents say it's on the most undesirable road in London). Jah Wobble and Jim are there. Ear-splitting reggae pumps out the stereo. John Gray arrives, he's offered a bottle of Guiness from the fridge. Don Letts drops in. Keith Levene phones to say he'll be around in half an hour (Soon come, Keith?). Johnny, sinking into a worn sofa, waits.

Ideally he'd like to start gigging in six weeks time. On the evidence of rehearsals I've heard however, that seems somewhat optimistic. With hard work and luck the band could be ready in six months.

Recording is another matter. Of the half dozen new songs Johnny has written, two or three could be shaped up in a studio now. [9] Johnny wants his first single to be 'Public Image' – a biting punk rocker in true Sex Pistols tradition ...

Public Image
You got what you wanted
Public Image
You only seen me for the clothes that I wear
Or did the interest go so much deeper
It must have been the colour of my hair
Public Image
The Public Image belongs to me

Sounds, July 22nd, 1978

[1] "My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue)" by Neil Young and Crazy Horse (from the album "Rust Never Sleeps", eventually released on 22 June 1979)
[2] According to the band's 'NME' interview (27 May 1978) it actually was Buttock-Flies, not Butterflies ...
[3] The audition of Jim Walker actually took place after the Lydon/Wobble/Levene line-up placed an advert in 'Melody Maker' (6 May 1978): "DRUMMER WANTED to play on/off beat for modern band with fashionable outlook and rather well known singer."
[4] Rollerball Rehearsal Studios in Tooley Street, London SE1, owned by Paul Calver.
[5] Lydon and McLaren met in Los Angeles in late February 1978.
[6] Keith Levene had to leave The Clash because he didn't bother to turn up to rehearsals half of the time.
[7] John Lydon didn't know Keith Levene before he joined the Sex Pistols.
[8] First mention of John's house was in the 'NME' (17 December 1977).
[9] By the time this interview was published PIL had just recorded 'Public Image' at Wessex Studios ('NME' 22 July 1978: "Young Lydon, bless 'im, has been in the studio working on a possible single, while Lydon's bassman Jah Wobble has his solo single all set to go, probably on Virgin (or should it be Front Line?).")


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© Caroline Coon
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