Sunday Times, Culture Magazine, 2nd October, 2005
© The Sunday Times / Times Newspapers Ltd 2005
Best of british
This man rearranged the face of rock, but the Sex Pistols are only half the story, says Mark Edwards
There must be other song openings that can match the visceral excitement, anger and urgency of the first few bars of Anarchy in the UK, but when you listen to the Sex Pistols' kinetic calling card, it's hard to imagine what they might be. You can hear Johnny Rotten's snarling introduction to the world — "Right! ... Now!" — once more as it kicks off a new compilation of work by his alter ego, John Lydon, the first to encompass both his bands, the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd, and his solo career.
Few people get to be in a band that changes the face of music. Lydon has been in two of them. And the new compilation, The Best of British £1 Notes, offers the perfect chance to examine that extraordinary achievement. The effect of the Pistols was instantaneous: redrawing the map of rock, consigning one set of bands to history, opening the doors for a new generation. The influence of PiL took longer to emerge, but is glaringly obvious in the spiky post-punk sound of dozens of contemporary bands, from Franz Ferdinand to the Dead 60s.
And lyrically? Take Anarchy in the UK, with its references to terrorists, the contemptuous put-down "Your future dream is a shopping scheme", its portrait of a nation spiralling out of control, then add the first single from Public Image, with its attack on the shallowness of celebrity culture, and with just two of Lydon's works you've pretty much defined the modern world — or, at least, the modern world as fed back to us by much of today's media.
"Not been wrong about it, 'ave I?" Lydon says, smiling, as we sit and talk in a Mayfair hotel. "And that's just from a bod off the street." The man who once sang "anger is an energy" is remarkably good-humoured.
The Best of British £1 Notes began with a record-company suggestion for a new Sex Pistols compilation, but Rotten argued for a more complete set. "I wanted the bigger picture," he says. "I want to make it clear that it's all interrelated. There really isn't that much difference between PiL and Pistols in terms of the way I write. Over the years, the two have been seen as entirely separate.
I've found that very difficult. In America, PiL is the band — 'Oh, you were in the Sex Pistols too?'" The short-lived Pistols disbanded almost before America realised they existed. "They're still bogged down with this idea that punk was Patti Smith or the Ramones — which I could clearly not have come from AT ALL," says Lydon, with the exasperation of a man fed up with other people telling him where he got his ideas from. Most famously, the American critic Greil Marcus has linked punk back through the French Situationist International group to the 1920s surrealist movement. Lydon is having none of it. "What on earth is that man going on about? I'm music-hall. That's what I am. The bleedin' George Robey pub, for God's sake. You're brought up with it, and you're carrying on a tradition."
The unlikely quartet that made up the original Pistols was completed when Lydon was spotted wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt that he had customised to read "I hate Pink Floyd". It hardly sounds the stuff of revolution, but back in 1976, that sentence marked out the dividing line between generations. Lydon, it transpires, was having us on. "I never hated Pink Floyd. I was having a laugh. How could you hate Pink Floyd? That's like saying, 'Kill the fluffy bunnies.' If you're going to make me a monster, at least give me something really worth rebelling against. I've run into David Gilmour several times over the years, and he thinks it's hilarious. He's a great bloke."
Lydon still rails against the idea that the Pistols' manager, Malcolm McLaren, carefully manufactured the band. "Malcolm would like to claim that he created us as a work of art, but he missed the basic fact that we were human beings, and a lot of people got hurt as a result. It happened on instinct. We were four different individuals with different outlooks, and it just happened that it gelled perfectly."
Lydon's dislike of other people interpreting his motives stems, he says, from the childhood bout of spinal meningitis that also left him with a curved spine and the poor eyesight that leads to his famous stare. "My memory went. I had to find my own way back into who I was. When you've been really seriously confused about who you are, you want to stay with what is correct. I don't like lies."
Lydon describes his audition for the Pistols as a "sink-or-swim moment". He had never sung in his life, had no ambition to join a band, but thought: "I've got something in me that can make this work. My form of singing went through murderous put-downs over the years, but it's an accepted style now. Look at Oasis."
Lydon has always been dismissive of bassist Glen Matlock's pop sensibility and guitarist Steve Jones's more conventional rock-star dreams, but he reveals a genuine admiration for the Pistols' drummer, Paul Cook. "Paul was the absolute solid kingpin," he says. "To my mind, the best drummer in the world. You could build a church on that man and it wouldn't fall down. Not respected enough — but he is by me. Listen to the first few seconds of Anarchy in the UK and you've got it. You know that this howling banshee here couldn't survive without that solid force behind me. We hardly ever talked, though. Bizarre."
Lydon's second band, PiL, was longer-lasting, and went through several different and distinct periods, from the bass-heavy sonics and sharp guitar stabs of the early work, through the heavier rock of the album that was just called Album (or Compact Disc or Cassette, depending on which format you acquired), to the poppier/ dancier later work typified by the 1990 single Don't Ask Me. It's the earliest incarnation that has emerged as the most influential, helping to shape one of the characteristic sounds of modern rock.
"It's good to be reminded that some people like it when people keep on telling you you're shit and you're rubbish," says Lydon. I'm genuinely shocked. Isn't this man an icon, a national treasure? Who tells him that? "Well, my dad, for one," says Lydon. "He never stops. 'Why don't you write a hit record, Johnny?' If I hear that one more time..." Lydon has, of course, had one of the UK's most notorious hit records, the Pistols' God Save the Queen, which conspiracy theorists believe was artificially kept back at No 2 in the charts during the week of the Queen's jubilee celebrations in 1977 to save embarrassing the royal family, who in those days hadn't yet mastered the art of embarrassing themselves.
The one-time scourge of the Establishment is now clearly very patriotic. He has just finished recording a five-part series for Belgian television called What Makes Britain Great. And what does make Britain great? "It's the people — plain and bloody well simple," says Lydon. For one segment of the series, he was filmed at Stirling Castle singing Anarchy in the UK, backed by bagpipers. "I couldn't hear a word I was singing," says Lydon. "Just like the first Sex Pistols gig."
It's all a long way from having your records banned from the radio, I suggest. "And what was wrong with us? We were just people who had no money, and mixed and matched, and did the best we could," says Lydon, suddenly sounding eerily like an Alan Bennett-scripted Patricia Routledge. But if Lydon can sound surprisingly traditional, the one new track on Best of British, The Rabbit Song, sounds pretty modern for a man approaching 50. Chugging bass, cut-and-pasted synth lines and scatter-shot vocals reveal that Lydon clearly has more to offer. It's a taster of an album in progress; he has already completed 10 songs.
Lydon has been far from prolific recently. Partly, this is a result of his burgeoning television career, from I'm a Celebrity ... ("Taught them a lesson about life: be yourself. Is that so hard?") to wildlife series about insects and sharks. It's also because he has always found dealing with record companies a struggle.
"I've fought them tooth and nail," he says. "I can honestly hold my hand up and say no record company has ever liked what I've done when I did it. Virgin wanted PiL to sound like the Sex Pistols. 'Nope, because when I was in the Pistols, you didn't like that either.' It can be disheartening if you feel you're not being properly understood. That's the story of my life, from childhood onwards. But guess what? I'm not alone in that. Nothing special about me there. We're all bloody lonely. Bloody well get on with it."
And, fortunately for us, Lydon bloody well has, and bloody well continues to do so.
Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)