John Lydon:
Sounds, February 15th, 1986

Transcribed (and additional info) by Karsten Roekens

© 1986 NME


The Slits' Ari Up calls him Daddy. He calls Robert De Niro a fat pig. The pot calling the kettle? JOHN LYDON chews the hind leg off a chicken and JACK BARRON thinks about PILs. PETER ANDERSON takes the grain for Rotten Part Two.

Sounds, February 15th, 19861. This Is What You Want This Is What You Get: Bad Life

"You gotta have a swine to show you where the truffles are." (Edward Albee: 'Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?')

John Lydon looks out of the window at the drizzle spattering the North London streets and farts. With a sly grin he flops back on the couch and stares at the TV. The scene on the screen is a vet's surgery. A woman moans: "Do you know what those swines do in their free time? I'll tell you, they murder koala bears!"

In his guise as Johnny Rotten, when the Sex Pistols were the nemesis of noise and outrage a decade ago, one of the few things Lydon wasn't accused of was topping koala bears. And today, as his new 'Single' rises up the charts chased by 'Album', the singer has a worse reputation than ever before.

But this time his detractors aren't frightened adults but his peers. For many, John's transition from punk brat Rotten to experimental Lydon has been the bitterest PIL to swallow. And the aftertaste is one of hypocrisy ...

The Sex Pistols finally exploded in 1978 when John walked out in disgust at manager Malcolm McLaren's plan for the band to record with Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs in Rio. And while Sid Vicious kept an appointment with heroin and eventually suicide, and Steve Jones and Paul Cook went back to nowhere, Lydon formed Public Image Ltd. with guitarist Keith Levene.

PIL, he boasted at the time, was not simply a band but a multimedia corporation that wouldn't tour. Each concert was to be an event, and there would be no middlemen or managers involved. It didn't work out like that.

"I think I talked too much and stuck myself in a hole, but at least I'm honest enough to admit I made a mistake," he says now of the concept. "I found out I didn't really enjoy the video world, and computers, I'm afraid, bore me to death. I'm not part of that generation, I missed it. That's for the next generation." Or, as photographer Peter Anderson terms it, John is BC - Before Computer.

Despite not fulfilling their promises, in their various incarnations PIL have been responsible for a series of stylistically unique albums. And from the nascent 'First Issue' through the desperately dark 'Metal Box/Second Edition' and the distraught psychodelirious 'Flowers Of Romance', Lydon and his compatriots exorcised the musical ghost of the Pistols.

The legend remained though. Fans still wanted to hear 'Anarchy In The U.K.', and in 1981 PIL shifted operations to New York, a move partly spurred by the fact that Lydon's London home was getting regularly raided by the police.

Bassist Jah Wobble had already been fired for using PIL backing tracks in his own solo work. "He nicked some tapes, but in retrospect I think it was good for him to leave us. It helped broaden his music. There's no animosity between us."

Wobble's departure, however, was a thunderstorm in a crisp bag as PIL swiftly began to disintegrate under pressure of personal conflicts. Lydon's move into film acting served to aggravate the rift, and come November 1983 when John toured the UK only drummer Martin Atkins was left of the 'Flowers Of Romance'-era PIL. On the eve of the tour, jilted guitarist Keith Levene mauled Lydon in print, claiming that PIL's music was written, arranged and produced by himself. [1]

To add insult to injury Lydon's new band were Holiday Inn-type musos with a neat line in funk. There was also a manager in the wings, Larry White. John had, it seemed, reneged on all of PIL's ideas. And to cap it all, the film 'Order Of Death' in which Lydon had starred was a critical and commercial turkey. The press had an open season on the singer.

The resulting LP of this period, 'This Is What You Want This Is What You Get', ducuments Lydon's attitudes at the time, as indeed do all of his records. The track 'Bad Life' spells it out, while 'This Is Not A Love Song', the single which flew high in the UK charts, states the aim: to make money.

To this day John hasn't refuted Levene's attacks in the English music press. Indeed, more recently the picture of Lydon as a nasty, callous, evil, manipulative bastard was fuelled by Deborah Spungen's book on Nancy (and Sid) called 'And I Don't Want To Live This Life'. I mention Mrs Spungen's account to the singer.

"It's really horrible, really bloody terrible," he maintains with annoyance. "That book was all fantasy, spiteful and vicious. And I came out as, like, the instigator of Sid's downfall, which was really stupid of her. I should have sued her."

So why didn't you?

"Because then I'd be overpublicising something I wouldn't want read in the first place. It'd be like hanging myself. It's ludicrous, because if I started that sort of thing I would be in court forever and a day with all the rubbish that has been written about me. Where would I begin? The list is endless."

You're not saying you're totally innocent of anything?

"Well, what? What am I guilty of? Come on, tell me!" Lydon glowers at me. He's getting a bit peeved.

OK, don't you think it's a bit strange that all the people you've worked with have either disappeared or been told by you to fuck off?

"Yeah, so what? Isn't that the same thing that has happened to the staff of 'Sounds' over the years? That's just the way things are, isn't it?"

Possibly, I admit. But it's a little weird that you are always the one painted as the ogre.

"Sometimes I have been, yeah. But it was for a very good reason. I had to get rid of quite a few people. Levene was one of them because of his drug habit. No matter how much effort you put into, like, stopping such people, it doesn't work. I tried with Sid and failed. There's no way, once they make that decision, that slow suicide, to change them. It's best just to walk away from it all, otherwise you'll end up accused of all kind of things and it's not worth it."

Let's talk about Keith Levene then. He said when he left PIL that he was responsible for the music and ...

"He's changed his mind since, ha ha ha," interrupts Lydon giggling. "That was all fantasy, wasn't it? He has done fuck all since, he's not capable. What he said was all bollocks, all talk, you see. You've just got to get on with it, it's the end result that counts, not all the waffle."

Keith said at the time you were out of touch with your feelings, and that you needed psychiatric help. [1]

He creases up with laughter. "That's really nice, that's the pot calling the kettle, isn't it? Keith and his Don Johnson outfits now, ha ha ha!"

Have you ever had psychiatric help, John?

"Nah, of course not! I don't believe in that, that's for Americans, isn't it? It's funny, but I don't know a single Yank that doesn't have an analyst. It's bloody ludicrous, it's such a con - that and Pet bloody Rocks, ha ha ha!"

Lydon has an acute sense of how to wind people up and he does it with a great deal of mischievous humour. For example, everybody got the hump when PIL last visited Britain with the Holiday Inn band, or "penguins" as he calls them.

"There was no pressure on us, so I did 'Anarchy' because nobody expected it. I thought our cabaret version was jolly fine too. They were fine musicians and very pliable. I couldn't give a damn what they looked like."

We gaze at the TV for a minute. The newscaster says: "Two climbers from the Thames area escaped with minor injuries when they were swept down Britain's highest mountain."

2. Rolling The Rushes And Fingering The Lashes

Since well before the days of Presley, singers have leapt onto the slippery slope of movie acting once they've reached the pinnacle of their trade. And like Elvis most fall down and break their necks by accepting dumb roles in even dumber films. Lydon's only proper part to date was a homosexual copkiller in Robert Hilburn's 'Order Of Death'. [2]

"To be honest, the offers I've had since then stink, you know," he explains as he casts aside a chicken leg, and burps. "I'm not prepared to do rubbish. I've got rather a high opinion of myself and I won't play a punk rock singer in some sleazy film. Why bother? The real pits though is the TV stuff, it's totally appalling, shows like 'The A-Team' and so on. I'll leave that sort of thing to Boy George. He's going to be on 'The A-Team' soon, I was offered the part and he took it, ha ha ha. [3] It was a fucking pop star role again, just nonsense. You see, I don't see any need to do crap, I can live quite comfortably under my own steam, I don't need to condescend to that. And let's face it, no matter how brilliantly I acted in such a thing, it would be a joke, wouldn't it? You would be judged forever and a day as that wanker who was in 'The A-Team', ha ha ha!"

Is it right that you once called Robert De Niro "a fat pig and a boring actor", or something like that?

Lydon looks at his noon brunch of four legs of Kentucky Fried Chicken and chips and smiles. "Yeah, that's about the gist of it. I found him appalling. I didn't like him at all. I went round to see De Niro in Rome. He was sitting on what amounted to a throne, with copies of 'Playboy' stacked up twenty foot high around him, and there were, like, all these slave chicks at his feet. It was really awful, so corny, you know? I thought only Jamaicans did that sort of thing. Robert and his bloody gold medallions, it shows a huge insecurity on his part, ha ha ha!"

The singer snickers as he flips TV channels. "American Express told us they don't discriminate against woman, but they wouldn't discuss specific cases," says a talking head on the television, as I begin to wonder what Lydon's own insecurity is.

3. The Private Man Behind The Public Image, A Glimpse

Born nearly 30 years ago to Irish immigrants, John is the eldest of four sons and spent most of his youth in a council flat in London's Finsbury Park. He has claimed that as a child he was a 'runner' for the Kray Twins, the notorious mobsters. What is certain though is he was expelled from his Catholic school at 14 and went to a college of further education where he gained six O-levels and a couple of A-levels.

This part of his personal history was completely rewritten for his role of Johnny Rotten in the Sex Pistols. More in keeping with that part was his tale that after schooldays he was a rat killer on a sewage farm near Guildford, Surrey.

For many years he has lived with Nora, mother of Ari Up of Slits fame and daughter of a rich German publisher. At the moment they have no plans for children of their own.

"No chance," he smiles. "Arianne is enough. She's really sickening, she still calls me Daddy. It makes me really angry, ha ha ha! I couldn't have kids, I'm too irresponsible, it wouldn't be fair. You have to change your lifestyle completely, otherwise you're just being cruel. And I like having fun far too much."

A while ago John is reported to have said he might believe in God, which would appear to jar with the anti religion stance he maintained back in the days of the Pistols.

"It doesn't really," he says, staring out of the window into the street. "Something must be responsible for all this. If God is an atom then I believe in that, I'm still open, you know."

You did art A-level, I believe, but you failed because of a bizarre depiction of an idea called enveloping forms.

"Yes, that's completely right! I painted an envelope and the examiners weren't amused. But that's exactly what an enveloping form is: a bloody envelope! But on top of that the picture started with a mother and child, and I carried it through to something really gross and vile, the mother eating her child, in vivid bright colours. They refused to pass me."

He still dabbles in oils but has grown out of what he describes as his Hieronymus Bosch period.

Sounds, February 15th, 1986"I'm not into trees or nature reserves or anything like that. I like car parks and cities."

I ask what his current paintings consist of.

"I'm not going to tell you," he replies flatly.

Why not?

"Because they are very private," he maintains. "If you ever come to my house then you'll see them."

Do you have any vices, John?

"Laziness, that's the one. When I look back on what I've done it seems a lot, but there are huge lumps of time in between each bit. And quite rightly so. Quality not quantity, that's my motto."

In a centre spread in a national newspaper several years ago you were talking about fucking and claimed that since the Pistols you'd improved the "two and a half minutes of squelching", as you called it. Apparently you'd got up to five minutes of squelching through a new technique?

"Oh my God, yeah, I remember! That was a bad joke, wasn't it? But it seems to be the one that nobody forgets, ha ha ha. So when, like, I'm dead and my book of Oscar Wilde-type quotes comes out, is that going to be one of the killers? Ha ha ha! Really, old chap, I'm a very straight nice normal little lad, you know?"

That quote reminded me that you seem to use heavy sarcasm to guard your private life.

"I won't talk about my private life, that's probably true. That's my own and nobody else's. I won't have anybody interfere with it, quite rightly so and all. That's the worst thing about being in the public eye, they want to strip you bare, and I don't agree with that. It's very wrong because it's taking away your dignity and self-respect. You just become another obstacle, and I won't have it."

John gives me a withering glance and requests a cigarete. While I rummage I ask him if he smokes dope at all.

"No, I don't like it. It gives me headaches. I mean I did it in Jamaica. How could you not, it was in the fucking air!"

Do you indulge in drugs at all then?

"No!" John grimaces at me.

That's apart from food, which can be an addiction?

"Food I indulge in, that's completely true. I've got to be really careful I don't turn into a fatty gourmet. But I do love French food, right. I've bought myself all these cookbooks and I've learned how to come up with well bizarre things in the kitchen like really complicated soups, and bouillabaisse, I love it because it's so fattening. It's like every mouthful is mmmmm ... delicious! You can just feel the pounds going on, and your backside rising up off your chair, ha ha ha. I do like it, but I don't want to end up looking like Orson Welles. That's the sad bit about it."

Have you ever thought about writing?

"Yeah, but I think it would come over as being a bit pushy. I don't think I'm qualified to write properly in the way I'd like to. I don't believe that just anyone can write, it takes practice and skill, like painting or singing. I still don't know how to sing, ha ha ha!"

I'm not sure about that, John.

"Well, I can't sing in a Sam Cooke or Teddy Pendergrass way, can I?"

Yeah, but that isn't the point, is it?

"No it isn't the point, I suppose, but that's my own insecurity. When I hear voices like Sam Cooke's I just think 'Oh my God', you know, they can humble you. It's very good to be humbled from time to time."

Some of the most influential singers in rock have had a chronic inability to hit the right or conventional notes, Dylan and Lou Reed being two examples.

"Yeah, I suppose it was the message that was important in both their cases."

Is there a message on your new album?

"Yes of course there is! It's have fun and be malicious about it!" He chortles and zaps the TV with the remote control.

4. The Album

Not even the most perceptive of critics would have predicted that Lydon would reenter the world of recording with a heavy metalish LP full of hurricane force guitars. It takes some getting used to, but the single 'Rise' is fabulous.

Steve Vai, formerly of Alcatrazz and now with David Lee Roth's band, is the musician responsible for the six-string squiggles. And while the inclusion of Bill Laswell on bass and Ryuichi Sakamoto on keyboards isn't surprising, the resurrection of Cream's ancient drummer Ginger Baker is.

Isn't it going to open you up to the accusation that you're a spent force relying on a bunch of clapped-out musos?

"Yeah, so what? It's the end result that counts, and I like the end result. That's all that matters to me. The slander is typical, I'm used to that."

Was it a calculated move to go into heavy metal because it sells in America, John?

"No no, just the opposite, heavy metal is something I don't generally like at all. But I've never worked with it, so I quite fancied having a go. If anything it's almost suicidal for me to go into those fields. And that's precisely more reason for me to do it. I enjoy the challenge."

There's a song on 'Album' called 'Bags'. It has lyrics which run "Drawn by the beauty of my own terror / Close to the edge swallow the void", and then it goes on about a "bloated body like a TV dinner".

"Yeah, that's about my fear of height," he smiles.

Yeah? I was wondering if you were talking about yourself having a bloated body like a TV dinner?

"Ha ha ha! No, that's the end result when somebody falls off a cliff or building, and the black rubber bag is what they take you away in. What did you think it was? Some sort of pro-Leninist" (Lennonist?) "stance, maaaan?"

With songs like "farewell my fairweather friend" and instructions to crawl back into the dustbin, it seems like a fairly bitter album to me?

"No, not at all. I thought it was all about fun. Of course it's all tongue-in-cheek. I have a very specialized form of humour, but I never really thought about it being bitter. I thought about it being relentless, it attacks the ears and doesn't let up for a second. It's not mellow and it's not disco either."

Finally, John, there's a line, a perversion of Barbra Streisand [4] I think, where you sing "people who need people are the stupidest of people". Are you totally selfish?

"Probably. It's hard to be humble when you know you don't mean it, et cetera. I'm referring to people who have to be in crowds, who can't stand up for themselves and who have no point of view. I don't like that kind of person. I think they're lazy and destructive. I don't like mass opinion. Full stop."

Myself and Peter Anderson pack our gear and settle down to watch TV.

"OK, that's it, I want to get some sleep. Now fuck off and make me famous by writing a large feature," commands John. "I need the money!"

The door of pop history closes easily on us. Outside it's dismal but I laugh anywaay. John Lydon, the old swine, has got his snout in the truffles again.

[Read part 1 of the interview here...]

[1] Keith Levene interview New Musical Express (12 November 1983).
[2] Music journalist Robert Hilburn had nothing to do with the film. Barron obviously means director Roberto Faenza.
[3] The A-Team episode "Cowboy George" was aired on 11 February 1986 on NBC.
[4] The song "People" ("People who need people are the luckiest people in the world"), released on Barbra Streisand's "People" album in September 1964.


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