John Lydon & Keith Levene:
Trouser Press magazine, June, 1980

Transcribed (and additional info) by Karsten Roekens

© 1980 Trouser Press


Public Image Ltd.'s new career in the same old towns, by Scott Isler

Trouser Press magazine, June, 1980

Don McLean had it all wrong. The music didn't die when Buddy Holly plummeted, but on January 14, 1978. That night in San Fransisco the Sex Pistols dismantled their only American tour (all of seven dates), their career as a functioning unit, and – according to John Lydon (Johnny Rotten back then) – the entire rickety structure of rock music as well. But rock 'n' roll never forgets – unfortunately.

Two years and two months later Lydon is back in the little city by the Bay, and to the local yobbos it's like the Pistols never left. The occasion is a press conference [1] heralding the domestic release of Public Image Ltd.'s 'Second Edition' LP. Lydon's post-Pistols band (referred to more handily as PIL) has existed for over a year and a half. Scheduling foul-ups, however, prevented their self-titled debut album from coming out here. Now, with a sense of cooperation unthinkable a few years ago, singer Lydon and guitarist Keith Levene have flown over for interviews and publicity. Could they possibly want to (choke) sell their record?

The City is a disco with mirrored walls, columns and revolving balls suspended from the ceiling. Twenty years ago this sleazy North Beach area of San Francisco was Mecca for beatniks. There don't seem to be any milling around before PIL's conference gets under way, but beards and long hair in casual attire are uncomfortable reminders that this town also gave birth to the hippies, which the Sex Pistols and/or abrasive mouthpiece Rotten/Lydon so detested. There are studiedly new wave types too, from black-garbed punks in various flavours of hair to the latest porkpie chic. The cross-cultural chaos is impressive, but all will seem irrelevant when the anti-stars arrive.

Lydon and Levene show up looking positively etiolated. Lydon, 24, who selects his wardrobe from second-hand shops ("I never wear jeans"), is decked out in a bulky, dark-checked jacket, rumpled shirt and loosely-knotted tie. The jacket and baggy pants almost make him look stocky, accentuating his stumpy proportions (he is definitely not a hunchback though, as once rumoured). His red hair is greased back casually, the beady stare – only a sliver of dark blue iris extends beyond large pupils – could melt glass.

By contrast, Levene, 22, looks almost dapper, although similarly attired. Just as intent as Lydon, the blond tousled guitarist lacks his partner's manic charisma but makes up for it in more conventional good looks. Both clutch Heineken's (Lydon is barely without one for the next eight hours) and seem a bit unsure behind glacial facades about the whole setup.

Their fears are borne out after they ascend the podium. An intelligent rock press conference is an impossibility in the best of circumstances, and Lydon's former notoriety has brought out thrill-seekers. A much needed moderator is unable to attend, members of a local band bait the subjects mercilessly, and a video crew [2] blinds them with third-degre lights. Under the circumstances, Lydon and Levene are models of restraint. Or maybe it's resignation.

Lydon's weary monotone (he does almost all the talking) is so low that the microphone can barely pick up his dry, acerbic comments. "This is definitely not my doing," he says by way of introduction, swigging the Heineken. A portion of the audience, the sympathetic ones, cackle uproariously at his every statement. They've come to see Johnny Rotten, and Lydon doesn't want to know.

"The Pistols finished rock 'n' roll, that was the last rock 'n' roll band. It's all over now. Rock 'n' roll is shit. It's dismal. Grandad danced to it. I'm not interested in it. I think music has reached an all-time low. Except The Raincoats!"

And, he forgot to add, Public Image Ltd. Lydon and Levene obviously consider their band of vital importance, which is the only reason they're putting up with this circus.

"This is a joke, I think, personally," Lydon injects at one point, "but we'll go on with it." Soon after, while anonymous catcallers repeatedly ask if he's a punk and where he bought his green glitter socks, he adds "I feel like a fool."

"It is essential that everyone is aware that this band exists," Lydon enunciates slowly. "There's no competition. No one is forced to buy our records. We just want people to know they exist."

PIL is "not rock 'n' roll , not disco, it defies any category. It's P.I.L. We do it, you either like it or you don't, it's simple. There's no intellectual ideology behind it. Call us what you like, it doesn't matter. I've been called lots of things. I'm a pretty good target for people's particular bickerings and hate and their ridiculous egos. I'm used to it."

After what seems like infinity, the conference ends. The crowd strip 'Second Edition' cover slicks from the walls for souvenirs, and Lydon and Levene repair to a nearby hotel for one mano a mano interview. They've already done lots of these in New York and Los Angeles, the San Francisco sideshow was to avoid more.

When their interviewer leaves after an hour and a half, Levene comments: "He acted intently interested."

"He didn't act intently interested, he acted intently dull," Lydon shoots back.

'Dull' and 'boring' are Lydon's favourite expressions of contempt. Not that he leads a swashbuckler's life himself, Lydon says he divides his time between recording, playing with video equipment (the latest PIL toy), writing songs, practicing piano and synthesizer, and watching television.

Trouser Press magazine, June, 1980"I can't be bothered to socialize. I'm not a social person."

Yet PIL in many ways is an exciting enough project. The 'Limited' is not just for effect. "It's a company," Lydon explains, "we're all shareholders." [3]

Besides Lydon and Levene, PIL currently includes bassist Wobble (John Wardle), and Jeannette Lee and Dave Crowe for "visual assistance."

"We don't see ourselves as a group, no way at all. We see ourselves as a company. Music is only one of the things we have in mind." Another is the construction of a video studio.

The Clash sing about complete control, but PIL actually seem to have achieved it. The band produces itself and has no manager, much to the chagrin of Warner Brothers, who released 'Second Edition' through their subsidiary Island label.

"They just don't understand," Lydon complains. "They want us to get a manager. They seriously doubt whether they can deal with us as people unless we have some business cunt. They like to have very little personal contact with the bands themselves. Very cruel and savage decisions can be effected with the greatest ease that way, rather than have me screaming."

He is already annoyed about the American label's pressing only 50,000 copies of 'Second Edition': "I don't understand their reluctance on us at all! I'm sick and tired of listening to these business people going on about how they need something new and exciting. Well, we're new, and we're not dull, so what's happening, baby?"

As part of their assumed responsibilities, Lydon and Levene have used this American jaunt to set up PIL's debut US tour. En route to the San Francisco Airport for the return hop to Los Angeles, their contemporary base, they negotiate terms with a local promoter.

Levene now takes over, going over every detail, from ticket prices ("Ten dollars is too much, you'll only attract our ardent fans!") to the venue's capacity (PIL is anti seating) with hawklike vigilance. Expenses are pared to the bone: the band doesn't want fresh-roses-in-the-dressing-room star treatment, they'll even supply their own lighting (a few white spots).

"Everything we earn goes immediately into building the studio and video equipment," Lydon says later. While Levene is on the offensive, Lydon questions the promoter's every statement, frequently contradicting him. Later the two will joke about the Californian's height.

Lydon and Levene's long-standing friendship is the kind that doesn't require verbal communication. On the evening flight back to L.A. they huddle together conspirationally, their blanched faces almost luminescent in the surrounding darkness.

Wobble is another member of this select club. "He'll steal your socks and underwear, he's a good mate," Lydon admits in a rare moment of praise. It's not his style to speak well of anyone – sometimes not even excluding himself. Lydon's impenetrable armour consists of simply denying everything and refusing all commitment, cornering quicksilver is an easier task. Only the death of his mother last year is said to have brought a conventional response.

He amuses himself by singing 'Don't Cry For Me Argentina' in a mock-operatic American accent. Compliment him on his dialect and he replies "I think it's poxy."

One can't imagine him asleep, and indeed he says he hasn't been for the last few days. He apparently lives on a diet of beer and cigarettes, although he doesn't drink so much as open a bottle, let it go flat after a couple of sips, and open another one.

Back in the Continental Hyatt on Sunset Boulevard, Lydon reflexively turns on the TV ("I was brought up surrounded by noise"), peruses a fan note and collapses on the sofa. One learns not to push him into conversation, confronted with silence he'll take the initiative. His speech assumes numerous dramatic inflections, and he'll occasionally flash a grin, exuding playful malice, for emphasis. Nearby tables are covered with Japanese toys (robots, model cars) he is bringing back to England.

He says he is "blind, paralytic drunk," has a headache and is nauseous from the airplane flights. Calmly, in the deliberate drawl that set off still reverberating waves four years ago, he runs down the benefits of jet-age travel: "Me guts keep grumbling, I can't fart and I can't burp. I can't bear food. I can't sleep because of the fucking heating and air conditioning. All of my skin is flaking off, I wash my face and come out in a red rash. I'm falling to bits! It doesn't seem to bother anyone else, just me. I've got more problems than the rest put together!"

For all his kvetching and nay-saying, Lydon is in deadly earnest about PIL (which he never calls 'pill', he also pronounces his own name 'Lie-din'). He can't conceive of doing anything else: "There is no alternative right now. Anyone who has an idea, it's used. We enjoy it and" (tongue in cheek?) "it's very relevant to society today as we know it."

It's hard to think of another so-called rock band that's provoked as much an extreme reaction as Public Image Ltd. People tend either to fall head over heels for them or dismiss them as unmitigated poseurs. The band's musical orbit has steadily removed them from anything normally thought of as commercial pop music.

The Sex Pistols (with Johnny Rotten) were still a fresh memory when the 'Public Image' 45 debuted. It was conventional enough for Lydon to claim that the Pretenders ("whom Keith has been giving a few lessons to") swiped its guitar lick.

Their first album though struck many as a prolonged exercise in self-indulgence, from Lydon's caterwauling on the first cut ("I wish I could die", a pretty good set-up line) to the intentionally obnoxious falsetto chanting ("We only wanted to be loved") on the last.

The album cover and inner sleves are parodies of different magazine covers. Lydon incredulously and contemptibly notes that some reviewers didn't even get the point: "I just thought it was a real fun pisstake. The public image – I mean, we looked as ridiculous as you could possibly hope. There's no fun left," he complains. "People condemn without seeing."

One of the album's numbers, 'Religion', appeared to be an exoriating attack on organized worship. On an album whose vocals are buried under bass, guitar and echo, 'Religion' is remarkable for being preceded by an unaccompanied recital of the lyrics ("This is bibles full of libel / this is sin in eternal hymn" etc.).

In view of Lydon's Catholic school upbringing, one might conclude that he was holding a grudge. "It wasn't serious," he states gravely, "it was totally over the top, for the sheer fun of it." Earlier in the evening he had expressed annoyed disbelief over Los Angeles radio stations' late night religious broadcasting.

About a year elapsed before Public Image Ltd. released another album. In the meantime they issued one 45, 'Disco Disco', which, Lydon notes amusingly, made number 8 in a British list of the year's best disco singles. They were not particularly visible.

"We don't like gigging – not continously," Lydon says, and estimates the band has only played live fifteen to twenty times [4] prior to their nine-city US tour. Their most recent pre-America date – in Paris, where they've performed three times before – was "brilliant, we never even rehearsed for it!"

The band had been recording bits and pieces here and there, according to "how much studio time we could get for half-price." Lydon estimates about twenty studios scattered throughout England were used.

The results comprised 'Metal Box', three 12 inch 45s wedged firmly inside what looks like a film can embossed with the PIL logo. Virgin, PIL's British label after the Sex Pistols defaulted, was resistant to the custom packaging. "They made us pay for it! They thought we were, like, pissing about." There was "no intellectual reason" behind the design, "it just looked good." (At the press conference Lydon hinted it was to make it hard getting the records in and out.)

His voice rises in undisguised anger when discussing 'Metal Box's stiff price tag (about $25) in this country: "I'm getting sick of being blamed for imports. That's fuck all to do with us!" He says the package sells for the price of a regular LP (about $11) in England – actually it goes for more like $20.

Once 'Metal Box' sold out its limited supply, PIL's 60 minute opus was transferred to a 2LP-set titled 'Second Edition': this is the album Warners has issued in America after refusing to produce a 'Metal Box' of their own. There's a minor change in song sequencing, but for once Lydon is resigned.

"That's the only way we could get the fucker out here. The quality's still quite superb, but on the 12 inch 45s it's absolute excellent! That's where all the effort that we put into it shows. There's so much scope on the 12 incher, you can go to an all-time low on bass, and incredibly high. I loved that, I'm definitely into hi-fi."

One advantage 'Second Edition' has over 'Metal Box' is the printed lyrics on the back cover. A lyric sheet was left out of 'Metal Box' when Virgin informed the band it would drive up the price another $2. Although indecipherable on record, Lydon considers his stream-of-consciousness phrases more than sound effects: "I wouldn't waste my time writing 'em down if it wasn't important. Each song deals with a separate story. They all deal with people. I'm not one to moan about fucking wildlife, or fucking buildings or airplanes, or anything abstract."

'The Suit' for example is about social climbers, "people of low origins trying to be posh." Lydon had specific individuals in mind, "as in everything I do."

'Poptones' had its origin in a newspaper account of a rape. Mass media often inspire him: "I'll read a newspaper article, tap my foot to it and get a tune. Those songs definitely create illusions, patterns, nightmares."

Lydon admits PIL was "going in all ways at once" on their first album, a charge that cannot be leveled at 'Second Edition'. Its monomania no doubt encourages violent reactions. Wobble's overwhelming bass is derived from reggae (Lydon, a reggae fan, won't acknowledge any musical influences), but Levene's ethereal guitar and Lydon's variety of vocal timbres ("I'm adapting brilliantly to each situation," he smirks, trilling the last syllable) unite in a disturbing challenge to all preconceptions of 'pop' music.

"We don't make music, it's noise, sound. We avoid the term 'music' because of all those assholes who like to call themselves 'musicians' or 'artists', it's just so phony. We don't give a shit about inner attitude, just as long as it sounds good. We're not some intellectual bunch of freaks! I think we're a very very valid act. For once in a lifetime a band actually has its own way, its own terms, that would really make extreme music. We just want to make sure you have a choice. I mean, we can only be hated on a large scale, I'd much rather be hated by millions than thousands. That's why I'm here, I want people to know that we exist, and let them make the decision for themselves."

Lydon knows what he likes though, and isn't afraid to say so: "Maybe it's very egocentric of me, but I do think it's a fucking good album! We spent a lot of time, we always do, on our stuff. I think our ideas are better than anything available, most definitely! It's a jolly good record. It's danceable, it has strengths, it exists on many levels. It's a serious effort by so-called incompentent assholes, actually proving any cunt can use a studio and get what they want. Of course we revel in our own fucking genius, why the hell not? Self-indulgence is what we're full of, and we're proud of it. Self-indulgent means totally involved with what you're doing. We consider no-one's viewpoint until we're finished. I'm quite aware of the fact that we can make good records and bad records. There's no garantuee, just give us a chance. I think we deserve a listen!"

One would think from the above that Lydon might have appreciated the 'New York Times' rave review of 'Metal Box', Robert Palmer wrote that the album "sounds suspiciously like a genuine masterpiece."

But PIL are equally suspicious of enthusiastic outsiders: "I suppose it would be boring if people just permanently thought 'Oh man, everything you do is so great!' I find that more irritating, frankly, cos that's patronization. I find it vile. We're not brilliant, we make mistakes just like everyone else."

For example?

"I'm not telling you. I'm not here to condemn myself. I don't like that 'masterpiece' shit, that's a real put-off. The normal person just reading that thinks 'fuck you, cunts!' It's bad news when people do that, going over the top. It's only music, so? Music isn't the be-all and end-all of the universe."

What is?

"Nothing. Well actually, politics is."

In contrast to Lydon and Levene's deadly seriously demeanour, PIL maintains a loose approach to music-, sorry, sound-making. Lydon says a lot of PIL's songs are made up on the spot, "literally live recordings."

'Albatross', 'Metal Box/Second Edition's longest cut (ten and a half minutes) was done in one take: "I had about four ideas running around my brain. I knew I could do it, and I just went off and did it. Had some good fun, was jolly pleased. We almost threw that away!"

The same casual attitude is evident in the band's internal organization. There are four drummers on 'Second Edition'. Wobble ("we call him that to get him really annoyed") is currently cutting a solo album (Lydon claims that by using tape loops it will take longer to listen to it than it did to record).

Levene however is meticulous about his share in the group: "Guitar playing is sometimes an effort, a real effort, when I don't bother to walk out. Sometimes it flows when I'm on form, and that's good cos I'm only on form when I'm inventing by the second. It's hard to do. I've always got synthesizers to turn to."

A standing joke in the band concerns Levene's classical music training, mentioned by Palmer and others. [5]

Lydon: "Bullshit, that was just to annoy someone. It works a treat." He turns to the guitarist. "Remember all that 'classically trained' crap?"

"Yeah, three people said to me 'I can see how well you fit in since you had seventeen years of classical piano.' They're all taken in, big lie."

"The only way these crummy English journalists would consider him a guitar player was by waffling shit to them. And they swallowed it."

One impressive, and factual, credential in Levene's past is his founding membership in The Clash, although he didn't stick it out long enough to record with them. Typically, Lydon finds them detestable, at the press conference he called Joe Strummer his favourite comedian.

Lydon, as well as Levene, "messes about" with synthesizers, particularly string synth (vide 'Second Edition's 'Chant'): "That's my favourite instrument," he almost gushes. "I just love murdering it, you get such glorious tormented violins."

He's not obsessed with technology though: "Machines aren't props, they're there for you to use. Use them properly, don't fucking use them as gimmicks or fronts to your lack of personality."

Humanistic, no? Yet Lydon's views on interpersonal relations remain fiercely scabrous: "I've grown very far away from human beings, I like being detached. I don't even like shaking hands, I don't like sweat. I think everyone is ugly. Faces disgust me and feet really make me reek. I think the human body's about one of the most ugly things ever created. It's abysmal. Everyone has lumps and distorted bits and pieces."

He laughs mirthlessly. So what does John Lydon find attractive? "Machines. Lots of buttons on record players. Knobs and gadgets, electrical equipment of any kind. They're man-made creations, that's what's so good. They're here to make life better. The flaws come in when people let machines dictate. A vacuum cleaner's a machine, my god, I'm not gonna let that run my life, should I? People shouldn't be frightened by things like that."

For the first time this grueling day he seems relaxed, maybe it's just fatigue. He leans his head on the sofa arm, flicks cigarette ashes on the carpet, belches.

"Do you know," Lydon confides, "when I was in the Pistols, Malcolm and the rest of the boys thought it was a 'bad idea' me mixing with Sid, Wobble and Keith. Definitely leading me astray with those people."

Lydon usually refuses to discuss his past, but he seems in a relatively expansive mood. He says he didn't find the death of his close friend Vicious upsetting.

"Between Malcolm and Sid's old dear, they fucking just about killed him. He didn't know what the fuck was going on. Malcolm was getting him to sign contracts left, right and centre. During all that business, in and out of jail, they were getting him to record songs, while Sid's mum and Malcolm shared the money half-and-half. Sidney, even if he'd remained alive, would never get a penny of it. It's just sick what was happening, really fucking sick. Then they went and got him the worst lawyer in the world. He doesn't win anything, he just makes a big showcase out of it. Well, that was definitely not for Sid's benefit. So I set about trying to get Sid another lawyer and had no way of contacting him, except through Sid's mum who wouldn't speak to me. So they definitely had him sewn up. I don't like what happened then. Someone's got to pay their dues for that." He sounds ominous. "I don't think Sid's life was made very easy by those bastards. Not that he was a very wonderful person, anyway."

Well, enough nostalgic strolling down Memory Lane. Lydon (and PIL) is here and now, and expects everyone to be similarly progressive.

"I'm quite disgusted the past is still here. That's boring, now I'm doing something else. Why can't I be appreciated for just that? It took the Pistols four years, and then they had to break up before people knew of their presence. The only reason we ended up in America is we wanted to see the country, we were tourists. In Frisco there was, like, this hate – seething hate. Now in San Francisco the Pistols are god's gift to the universe."

He laughs again. "The Ayatollah could be a folk hero here soon, it's the way America runs. They need to absorb everything into their system. I'd like to make it very clear that we want no assholes turning up expecting rock 'n' roll or third-rate punk riffs, cos they won't get it. We don't want people who are only interested in what we are, we also don't want trendies. We don't care a tub of shit what we look like or are part of, or any of that. Life is fun, and people should stop squabbling over silliness," he sneers.

"After all that fucking shit today it makes you fucking wonder whether it's really worth the bother. Of course it is! That fiasco in San Francisco, if that's how press conferences are run, they're really inefficient. We're here to get publicity, which is important. I'll never get through that ever again. [6] I should have known better. It appears to me that I have to tolerate more bullshit than just about anyone in this entire business, I don't understand it."

Like a Beckettian hero, Lydon seems to exist apart from the world, yet must remain in contact with it. He can't go on. He'll go on.

"I don't want to be no superstar. We just want to make enough money to continue doing what we're doing. We do nothing but improve. We've been slagged off because we firstly make music for ourselves. We do not sit down and think what will people like. That would be very wrong, and I don't like bands who do that. We do what we enjoy. I think we guarantee we come up with the goods."

Or as Lydon stated at the press conference: "I just do what I want. As long as I can get away with it, I'm smiling."

Trouser Press magazine, June, 1980


[1] The press conference took place on Monday, 3 March 1980.
[2] The press conference was filmed by Target Video from San Francisco. A few clips later showed up on 'Target Video 82' VHS cassette.
[3] Public Image Limited was officially registered as a private limited company on 7 July 1978.
[4] PIL had played only nine gigs before the 1980 US tour.
[5] First mentioned by Neil Spencer's PIL feature in NME (27 May 1978).
[6] On 4 November 1982 PIL held another press conference in San Francisco, this time at the 181 Club.


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