John Lydon:
Sounds, February 8th, 1986

Transcribed (and additional info) by Karsten Roekens

© 1986 NME


JOHN LYDON, fat, lazy, TV addicted slob, is not dead. He's back with a five star album and a golden hangover. In the first of a two part interview, JACK BARRON nursed him through it. PETER ANDERSON got snappy.

Sounds, February 8th, 1986Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Interview

"Faint as a will-o'-the-wisp / Crazy as a loon / Sad as a gypsy / Serenading like a Moon" (Hoagy Carmichael: 'Skylark')

The door of pop history swings open easily on its hinges.

"Awwww, fucking hell, Keith, I'm glad you've arrived! I've been up for an hour and had nothing to look at. I can't get the TV's remote control to work and it's driving me bloody mad! Ha ha ha!"

The voice that gargled on the baptismal phlegm of punk rock is unmistakable. It hovers sowhere between a whine and a globule of pus weeping with malevolent laughter from an unsutured wound.

Inside the kitchen of the London flat is John Lydon, the sarcastic and amusingly cynical mind behind a new record called 'Album', which with typical perversity ties the bullworker guitaring of heavy metal into a purple orchid of the imagination.

He is Puckishly podgy. Oh alright, he's fat, with enough excess calories to feed a few dozen famine victims, not that there are too many of those around Notting Hill Gate today.

We shake hands like vets neutering a cat, clinically and without the grip of competition. There are no holes in John's mitts to indicate that he's either the Christ or the Antichrist of Pop he's so often painted to be in the public print.

I relax a bit, and it occurs to me that many of my favourite idles have died obese: Charlie Parker, Elvis, Billy Bunter, Orson Welles and Jim Morrison, to name but a few of artistic jelly. I decide not to point this out. After all, Oscar Wilde might have said something like "Bad manners make a good journalist" [1] ,but he was stupid like all bad poets, and never had to interview John Lydon.

Crowned by an electrocuted mop of ungelled spiky hair the colour of week-old candy floss, a scum mark around the six-foot line, the face that fronted the Sex Pistols before he decided to become himself for real is much taller than you'd expect.

Keith Bourton, the owner of the flat and also Lydon's PR, jiggles the remote control. Tsssssss! The TV gasps with static.

"Offff ... this will be my favourite position for the day," announces Lydon, flopping onto the couch for cathode ray dialysis. "I've got a weak heart, I can't stand late nights anymore. So come on then, let's begin. What have I done wrong now?"

Lydon is slightly tetchy from a hangover and his stomach is grumbling in anticipation of a noon brunch of four legs of Kentucky Fried Chicken and chips. He relishes pigdom of the flesh and, as it turns out, loves to cook. The two cans of pils, three shredded wheat and four tunes I had for breakfast kill the butterflies.

I shrug and ask him what he thinks he's done wrong.

"Ha ha ha!" Lydon's frequent leery laughter is akin to the swish of a flasher opening his grubby mac. "Well, the general opinion of me in this country seems to be: Why did you sell out and go and live in America, you bastard?"

John is referring to the last series of acrimonious close encounters he had with the british press in late 1983.

I tell him I hope things have moved on since then.

"Yeah sure, but the vendetta's still there. The knives are still being stuck in the back." The singer swivels his eyes at me. It's like being caught naked in copper sulphate blue spotlights.

Well John, I haven't come here to chat about America, I'm not interested in it.

"Good. I don't want to talk about it either."

Lydon stretches his ample frame and yawns. He is wearing a nauseous combination of a saggy white Shetland wool jumper, plaid trousers, lime green socks and black loafers with silver buckles. It's like a collision at C&A. Pausing to belch, he switches channels and grins with a mouthful of saffron teeth at the picture. On the TV a newscaster announces: "At the St Martin's School Of Art, students have been creating designer clothes for toddlers. The clothes have to be bright, breezy, and above all washable."

"Ha ha ha ha!"

John Lydon is very natural and hence immediately likeable. This was my first impression.

2. Now Now, Then

"You're only 29, you've got a lot to learn / But when your business dies, you will not return / We don't care about long hair / I don't wear flares / I don't work, I just speed / That's all I need / I'm a lazy sod" (Sex Pistols: 'Seventeen')

John Lydon is 29 kissing on 30. It's over a decade since the Sex Pistols played their first gig at St Martin's School Of Art and scratched the bearded face of the then established music scene until the blood ran. He no longer speeds, but still admits to being a lazy sod. And flares and long hair, in case you haven't noticed, are back in vogue.

Absurdly, despite the fact that John long ago moved into fresh artistic fields with Public Image Ltd, has taken the odd movie role, raps with Afrika Bambaataa and gallops with The Golden Palominos, the albatross of the Pistols refuses to die. You can still see Johnny's Rotten-era face glaring from the T-shirts of thousands of teenage punks, and read about the Pistols in retrospectives that are currently gracing the news stands. What was once a jolly curse of hate has become a cliché, a yardstick and an obstacle to musical progression. This isn't Lydon's fault.

And the legend continues to be bolstered by seedy scenes such as the ex-Pistols sueing one-time manager Malcolm McLaren for control of assets worth £1,000,000 ... and winning. The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle turned out to be just that.

"I never liked Malcolm. It's nice to see him on the run, he won't be telling quite so many lies now," says Lydon, biting a chicken leg like it was McLaren's neck. "You know, I've read that Malcolm claims he wrote 'Anarchy In The U.K.' and Julien Temple said he wrote 'Anarchy'. You can't take any of that seriously, it's nonsense. If they did then they haven't followed through, have they?"

I point out to John that McLaren has had a fair amount of success in his own right.

The singer smirks in reply. "Yeah, but it isn't exactly his own work, is it? We all know who manufactured those rip-offs. He, like, just put the money into those projects. Executive producer - is that the term? But fairly good results. I don't mind the records, I thought they were quite nice. Except for 'Madam Butterfly', bloody dreary that was!" [2]

'Album', John's first PIL LP in over two years, will be called many things, but dreary isn't one of them. Created with help from odd bods like Bill Laswell and Ginger Baker, Lydon hopes it will force people to reasses the potential of heavy metal.

"It definitely attacks the sensibilities," John tells me towards the end of our chat. "It's going to shock quite a few people with, like, that guitar being heavy metalish. They're going to have to think about it and fight off quite a few prejudices, which is important."

The hallmark of Lydon's music throughout his career is that he has never stood still artistically. You shouldn't let his present physical flab fool you. He may no longer be the feared face of youth rebellion, but in terms of playing with possibilities John remains the will-o'-the-wisp of pop.

Sounds, February 8th, 1986"I wouldn't know if I'm still influential," the singer retorts when I ask him to gauge his cultural importance. "I got so sick of being imitated that I stopped listening to most others, but I think I'm more relevant than Sting. There aren't exactly gangs of kids out there who picked up instruments because of The Po-Leece, I suppose that must mean something. Mostly though I just get on with my own music. I've always made records to suit myself. If they're liked or disliked is pretty irrelevant. The money's not bad though!"

How much money do you make then, John?

"Not a lot, and certainly not enough!" Lydon wears his sarcasm like cheap aftershave.

The aforementioned retrospectives on punk which are spreading through the music press like an unwanted dose of syphilis of the brain are symptomatic of an unhealthy nostalgia. Years with a 6 in them are traditionally pivotal: in 1956 rock and roll was born, in 1966 it turned psychedelic, in 1976 punk screamed back primarily through the Pistols, and now in 1986 we're waiting for a major upheaval.

I wondered if John subscribed to this theory of pop cycles.

"I'd rather say it was finished and fucked." Lydon speaks in compact quote-length sentences, a rare gift. "Because if you say, does that mean something will happen, people will sit back and wait for it to happen and won't do anything about it themselves, and that would be wrong. But the music scene does need a serious kick up the arse from a new generation, most definitely! And it's not for me to be that generation any more. I've done my stuff, and now I'm just getting on with my life."

Nor does John believe it's possible or desirable for a pop artist to transcend generations.

"It's wrong to try," he says. "You should stick to what, like, your age dictates. It's like I find it offensive to see Mick Jagger prancing about trying to pretend he's 21. It looks absurd and it is absurd. I'm not young anymore and I don't want to be. I quite like myself as I am. I will be 30 soon, so I will do things that a 30-year-old does - and that's get fat quickly, if I want to!"

John has an unexpectedly engaging line in self-deprecating humour. He is a big-headed bastard, but honest enough to see himself without distortion or vanity, warts and all.

I mention to him that while looking at old Pistols interviews in 'Sounds' a while back it struck me as hilarious to see them wedged between huge retrospectives on the likes of Jethro Tull and Genesis.

"Ha ha ha, I remember that period very well. ELP and of course Yes. Fucking despicable times!" Lydon rolls his eyes with glee.

But don't you think that current teenagers will view you with the same sort of disgust that you had for ELP and their breed?

"No, because I'm not dominating anything, and those outfits like ELP were at the time. They made it very hard for new bands to get a record contract. The Pistols were kicked off several labels precisely because of the likes of Rick Wakeman and Steve Harley complaining about us being on the same label as them. Now, that's something I don't do, so there's a difference. As far as new bands are concerned I'd just say: don't let the bastards grind you down. The more obstacles they put in your way the more precise and definite you become. And the quicker we get rid of - what are they bloody called? - Sigue Sigue Sputnik, the better!"

Throw the idea of the Mary Chain at Lydon however and he sits up and smiles.

"Aaaa-haaa! They have really nice pop songs, but somehow a chainsaw gets thrown into the music, ha ha ha! They're quite mad, I like them a lot, but they're not the new Sex Pistols, which is what their publicity in America is saying."

I don't think they pretend to be the new Pistols. There won't be a new one, and it's stupid and a waste of time to look out for a substitute.

"Yeah, it wouldn't work. And there's not going to be a revival of the old lot either. That idea was well up Malcolm's street. It was a stupid joke, but that's what you'd expect from the tosser, isn't it?"

Of the ex-Pistols, Lydon sees Steve Jones occasionally in Los Angeles. The latter has been apparently been working with Iggy Pop, although John doesn't think "it will amount to much." Paul Cook he only saw at the recent court case against McLaren, when Lydon and the others walked away with £250,000 each.

"It sounds a lot of money in theory," he admits, "but the taxman will want his cut and he's always a greedy bastard."

As for the notion that John has been corrupted by the pop business, the singer denies it categorically.

"I don't play any of those games. I make a record when I feel like it, much to Virgin's annoyance. They should have read the small print in the contract - I did, ha ha ha! I don't do anything I don't want to, they have no hold over me.
I must admit I do like having money though, it's pretty essential to live. I certainly enjoy spending it! I'm hopeless at saving, I spend it on anything - bigger TVs and bigger hi-fis. I love television and record systems and get through them unbelievably quickly."

John stares back at the TV. The newscaster says: "Police are looking for a box of important drugs used in heart transplants." He flicks channels. We are looking at a drummer.

"Oh my God, it's Carl bloody Palmer from ELP!" sputters Lydon. "Do you think he transcends generations? Ha ha ha!" This is true.

3. A Swift Kick In The Crotch Of History, Maaan, Or Cobblers To That

For the past few years John has commuted between his homes in America and England. He says he can live cheaper and better in the States and, more importantly, he can get fifty stations on his TV in L.A. Ironically, though, his favourite shows 'The Young Ones' and 'The Comic Strip' are British.

"'The Young Ones', as it happens, reminds me of the old days."

And how do you view what you call the old days? I inquire. Was it ultimately a waste of time or were the Pistols just out for the crack and fun?

"It wasn't a waste of time. There was a litle bit more to it than being in the Pistols for the sheer hell of it. I really did want to change things - and did! But it was only a temporary measure, wasn't it? But it's better than nothing at all. Most of what was achieved was fizzled out by insipid weedier versions. We made way for wankers like the Banshees to go and plod their crap."

In 'Fishing' on the new album there's a lyric which runs "these dizzying heights and these bottomless pits" - what have been the heights and pits for you?

"Well, you tell me!" scowls Lydon. It's the first indication that the screen around his private life is virtually impenetrable, although later in our conversation it cracks slightly. "I think that phrase is fairly clear, it's just an observation on life in general. Up and down, up and down, till it cleans and sparkles. You know, what this business gives you with one hand they take away with the other. It's a yo-yo existence, and it has destroyed a lot of people. But it won't destroy me. I plan to live for a very long time."

So do you think you're travelling back to the top of the string on this huge yo-yo?

"No, not at all. I run my own game now. I'm not manipulated by anybody, but I can see quite a few people that are. Joe Strummer, for instance, I think is in a bit of a dilemma at the moment. They worked desperately hard to make the last Clash album sound a bit punk rocky. [3] I think that was the biggest mistake they ever made in their lives, it just sounds really bad and pointless. Those days are gone. I can't stand wallowing in the past."

I open another pils - John is too hungover to join me - and put it to him that the paradox of punk was that although it preached and valued change it soon atrophied and became a victim of its own clichéd style.

"Yeah, so when I changed, which I did and always do, I was hated, ha ha ha! Punk became very regressive, just like the Teddy Boy movement, you know - appaling, negative and stupid. People are lazy, give them one thing and they'll stick to it. In England in particular the attitude is one of: Well, it has always been like that. - But does it work? - No, but it has got history! Ha ha ha - it's cretinous!"

Lydon changes channels. On the TV screen a couple are arguing. "You're being hysterical!" screams the woman to the man. "I'm not being hysterical, you're the one who is hysterical!" the man screams back.

I look at my list of questions. John walks to the window for a breather of a kind.

To Be Continued Next Week [follow this link for Part 2]

[1] "Bad manners make a journalist," actually.
[2] Malcolm McLaren's single 'Madam Butterfly' (taken from the 'Fans' album) was released in August 1984.
[3] 'Cut The Crap', released on 4 November 1985.


Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)
© Peter Anderson 1986
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