John Lydon:
Volume 3 CD, 1992

© 1992 Volume 3

Fodderstompf: This John Lydon interview first appeared in the 1992 'Volume 3' compilation CD/Book (V3CD). The book included the following interview and the CD featured the Dave Jerden remix of 'Criminal'.

Public image limited

interview by Mr Spencer

The scene: a north London rehearsal studio. Public Image Limited have just released their latest album That What Is Not the eleventh in a 14 year history. It's a history that's seen them go from being the first great post-punk rock revisionists, to a weird, experimental trio, to a virtual circus act, to a thunderously fine pop group, to a sporadically brilliant sub-metal outfit, to a pop group again and finally... er, John?

"If you want to describe it as anything, then loosely under the generic title 'rock' - whatever that's supposed to be."

That What Is Not is indeed a 'rock' LP - but only in the sense that it's got loads of loud guitars on it, courtesy of PIL's six string slasher for the last half decade, ex-Magazine and Banshees guitarist John McGeoch. The current PIL still take risks, as tracks like the endearingly sour 'Acid Drops' (complete with "No Future" Pistols sample), the harmonica haunted 'Covered' and the hot-wired 'Love Hope' prove only too well. The material is far from conventional but, countless major atmospheric variations aside, it fits unexpectedly neatly alongside the band's last two heavily guitar based albums, 1987's Happy? and 1989's 9. Founder member John Lydon, 36, has discovered a style that he likes and, for now at least, he's happy working within its agreeably fluid framework.

"Every record we approach things differently, to use as many formats as possible, and to not be frightened by it. But not like the tightness of the rock thing, I like well structured songs. I Like working within that framework. It's amazing how it can give you so much freedom, those four little walls of a rhythm, what you can do with them - rather than like 'Metal Box', which was just a great sprawl in many different directions at the same time. It led to a lot of confusion."

PUBLIC IMAGE (1978) "People wanted a bombastic Sex Pistols part two, and we went for a very different approach. Much more rhythmic, and I think Keith Levene's guitar work around that time was excellent, and stunningly original - and is now bog standard (laughter)."

The early stuff shocked people though. The debut album was almost universally crucified, mainly because people didn't understand it.
"Well, it cost me enormous amounts of record sales at the time, because people wanted 'Never Mind The Bollocks' part two, and they weren't gonna get it, and they never will. I don't believe in repeating myself. Once I've done something well, then I move on."
Why have you hung on to your credibility - albeit at times by your fingertips - whereas punk contemporaries, such as the still active Chelsea, tend to be dismissed as sad old men? Lydon sniggers at the mention of Chelsea:
"It's probably because they never had it in them in the first place. I think I do good work and I think that's observed, and noticed, and that's all that matters."
Is it vital to keep moving? You've never stopped.
"No, and I've not lost my my edge either. I've not mellowed, which is important. Far too many people do. Nah, you're not gonna get complacent cocktail jazz records from moi."

Lydon is suffering from a truly shocking cold (I know, I've seen the greenies). But, despite it, he's in an amiable mood, cracking jokes, laughing frequently and generally being the kind of pleasant host (excepting the skilfully aimed fountains of phlegm) that no one expects him to be. The rehearsals he's meant to be doing now, for an upcoming US tour, hardly fill him with enthusiasm, but he's happy to talk (pop fact: John Lydon with nasal congestion sounds remarkably like top TV game show host Bruce 'Didn't he do well?' Forsyth). Do you think you're good at interviews, John?
"Probably so."
Is it all a game?
"No it's not a game, it's that I know my own value. I know how to handle myself, and I don't tell lies, so I've got nothing to be fearful of."
Don't you even tell fibs?
"I have been known to, but I've definitely tried to curb that actively. A whopping great lie can be extremely enjoyable. Or even little lies. I mean yesterday I talked to some German magazine. I told them I was Jewish, cos they were waffling on about Nazis, and the Germans don't have very much sense of humour so I know they're going to print it. That's a lie, but it's a good one."
John, who's having a chortle at the memory of this cruel prank, actually comes from an Irish catholic family.
"I told them that was all made up," he giggles, "but that's just playing with it."
Lydon produces a couple of Vicks inhalers and shoves one up each nostril, sucking up the smooth vapours with a theatrical zeal and leaving the tubes hanging there like two big plastic bogies. Possibly he does this so I can mention it in this article, possibly not. Either way, you've just read about it. Has he ever tried Vicks Sinex spray? It's great stuff, works a treat. "Nah! Ugh!" he shudders. "It'd make me feel like I was choking. I'd hate that."

POPTONES (1979): "I remember doing that on The Old Grey Whistle Test. It was terrible. It was really awful, with Anne Nightingale saying it was the best thing ever. It wasn't we were dreadful. We were absolutely out our brains, although at least it wasn't a shambolic event. We were paralytic by the time we got into that studio. I was reading the lyrics from a sheet. We'd never even rehearsed."

The rest of PIL - McGeoch and Dias, along with the additional musicians for this tour, multi-instrumentalist Ted Chau and ex-Smiths/Buzzcocks drummer Mike Joyce - are waiting in another room while the singer does the talking. Lydon is keen to make the point that PIL are now more of a band than the original line up, which featured the disparate talents of guitarist Keith Levene, Jim 'Donut' Walker on drums and brooding pop sensation Jah Wobble on rumbling bass. Today's PIL has already been together longer than PIL Mk I - so what's the secret of this unexpected longevity?

"We're a solid working unit now," says Lydon. "And I think that shows in the work. It's the strongest we've ever been. When PIL first started it really was a very volatile kettle of piranhas - we were constantly at war with each other. It was a lot of ego problems, and a lot of jealousies. These things you expect when you work with other human beings. This is what happens. I suppose it's still there to a greater or lesser extent, it's just that we've all matured as human beings and we're able to cope with these things now, whereas all of us, with all the bands we've worked in in the past, I suppose 'cos we were younger, we'd just lost our tempers. Yes (in posh voice), like a fine wine we've matured with age."
Are you actually mates?

"No that'd be hell. We're all very different. We have very different social lives, very different musical interests, and that's what makes it work. And when we do get together, it's always interesting. Sounds lovely, doesn't it? Perfect marriage - keep away from each other as much as possible!"

In July 1983, between '81's disturbing and controversial The Flowers of Romance and 84's almost totally dismal This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get, PIL became John Lydon and John Lydon became PIL. The 'Visual Assistant', Jeannette Lee, had left yonks earlier, and now the last surviving original conspirator, Keith Levene, had buggered off too. Nobody else was left.

FLOWERS OF ROMANCE "Jeannette (Lee) actually never did anything, but she was chucked in there just... for one reason or another. Well she did look after the buisnessy side of things, and made sure things went out on time. She's now a director of Rough Trade, so she obviously learnt something."

Surprisingly unperturbed. Lydon embarked on a string of projects that varied from the appallingly tacky '83 tour, with its cheesy session musicians and Johnny Rotten's Greatest Hits set lists (Lydon had previously vowed never again to play a Pistols song), to '86's brilliant Album, a record that reaffirmed the singer's ability to dabble in all kinds of sounds and earned him a number eleven hit single with the hugely infectious 'Rise'. Throughout this period, until the consolidation of the current line up in '88, Lydon functioned by hiring musicians for vinyl and live work (F&F note: Actually, McGeoch and Dias were in the 1986 tour line up along with Lu Edmonds and Bruce Smith, who were also very much part of the band until they left in 1989 and 1991 respectively) - a situation Lydon hated because, "There's no give and take in that. It's just me giving orders and them receiving them. There was no feedback. If I had a crap idea, the crap idea would go on to vinyl almost directly! Working with a band, that doesn't happen now. Now there's people that will stand up and say, Fucking shut up, that's awful! It's important."

Does that really happen?

"Yes, of course. And the same with me and them. That's what makes it a working unit. This is not an egotistical mind game for me. I'm part of a group."
But isn't it still very much your group? Lydon suddenly becomes bashful: "Well, I suppose it is, one way or another. I mean, I'm not gonna concede everything in my life! My own creation... (he chuckles at his old lyric). It's my baby, lets put it that way."

Could your ego have got out of hand without others to call your ideas crap? "Well, of course. That's the very nature of this industry. It does turn you into that, because there are so many sycophantic grovellers around (he whispers to avoid a nearby Virgin press officer overhearing) - a lot of them work for record companies - who will tell you whatever they think you want to hear, and never the truth. And that can play tricks with ya, inside your head, and you can end up believing it."

Aren't people scared of your reaction? Isn't that why they tell you what they think you want to hear?

"Hmm, yeah, but experience has stopped that. I mean, I'm now told exactly what I don't wanna hear, practically on a daily basis!".

BANGING THE DOOR (1981): "I was raided by the police three times in a four month period, and that was just too much. I left the country after that. They'd just smash the place to bits, for no reason whatsoever, and just make life really awkward. It happened twice in the evening, but the worst one was at six in the morning. I was the only person in the house, and I had no idea who these people were. The other raids were uniformed. That I could cope with but, you know, plain clothes running through your house, smashing things, and all armed with axes... it's an extremely disturbing experience. I don't really have any respect for the police. I mean, I can see what they should be doing, but I'm seeing what they are doing, and the two don't quite tally. They're supposedly there to protect me. I can remember people throwing bricks at my house, and I'd ring them up and say, look can you come and stop this please? And they just wouldn't turn up. It was like, Sod You! I can honestly say they've never worked for me, and always against. You can't expect me to respect them for that."

Are you compelled to be obnoxious to fit in with people's expectations?
"No, I'm not compelled - but I can be obnoxious."
I'm thinking of your first Word appearance (on which, following some provocative questions from Terry 'Is poonk dead?' Christian, Lydon unleashed a torrent of wonderfully fruity four-letter abuse that had the panicking presenter fumbling with his suddenly red hot earpiece).
"Yeah, well, I wasn't obnoxious then. I thought it was amusing. I just wanted to play with it, because I thought the whole format of it was so hokey, and so tedious that y'know, it is TV after all. It's there to entertain, so I play with it, which I did."
Oddly enough, John claims he was later asked to host an edition of The Word (although this could be another of his "good lies"). He did reappear - and claims that, after the first incident, the show's ratings went up. Do you enjoy that kind of confrontation?
"Sometimes, yeah. It can be amusing you know? That's what I think TV is for - confrontation. And it's highly enjoyable. You Have to keep your wits about you, that's all. I like that, I like the stress value of it too, cos it plays hell on my nerves! It's almost like I have to pat myself on the back for surviving another one."
But you always seem to be having a great time.
"Yeah, but it's knife edge stuff. It can go either way."

Nowadays Lydon, along with his wife Nora (mother of former 'Slit' Ari Up), spends much of his time in the US, where PIL are considered 'underground' - but only for as long as his holiday visas will allow him. When he's not at his LA home, John resides in Fulham, south-west London, where he lives with Nora, a TV set, a hi-fi, loads of books and a heap of painting materials. Back in 1977, when the Sex Pistols released 'God Save The Queen' at the height of her majesty's Silver Jubilee celebrations, John was almost literally public enemy number one. He suffered several physical attacks at the hands of tabloid-blinded patriots, including one which ended in a razor slash across the face. Is it still difficult to walk the streets of London?
"No no, it's fine. Respect is the most common thing, which is pleasant. It's taken a long time. There's the occasional yobbo and 20 of his mates who wanna prove a point. That happens no matter what you are."
Do you get yelled at from building sites?
"Yeah, but they shout at everyone. The poor bastards are bored outta their brains. It's a mindless job, good luck to 'em, I say. Anything to relieve the monotony. After all, I am here to entertain."

Does London still seem like home?
"I've never felt that. I'm not that kind of person, there's too much gypsy in me. I like to travel and I like to move about. I get very bored if I'm somewhere for too long."
Are there places in London you get nostalgic or sentimental about?
"No, it used to be Arsenal but they fucked up, so they can fuck off!"
Can music affect you deeply, trigger off certain memories?
"Well, occasionally I can pull out the odd old Alice Cooper record and revel in it, and remember what good days they were, and how hilarious the whole thing all was. That's the thing about music. It is timeless. Some records date, but that's not a bad thing. It's a bad thing if you try to imitate that. This is the 90's, not the mid-70's. Don't be looking back. That's why I don't like all these punk band out at the moment."

What do you think of the Manic Street Preachers?
"I've not seen them."
They're quite amusing.
"Well, if there's a sense of humour in it, then that's fine (there's not though - Ed). But if it's deadpan, humourless imitation, then there's no point to it."
A lot of people have been wound up in a big way by them.
"Oh well, so long as they're annoying people that's very good. Then I salute them. People can actually learn lots by being annoyed. I know, because I've got the most irritating voice in the world (hoots of laughter), which I use to great effect, occasionally."

THIS IS NOT A LOVE SONG (1983): It was all very tongue-in-cheek. At the time, people were saying that that I'd joined big business and become a bourgeois shit. So I thought the best way of tackling this would be to pump out a song saying that's exactly what I am, tongue firmly in cheek. And that kind of stopped that nonsense, so it worked. The appearance we did on The Tube was a disaster, because I had laryngitis. I couldn't hardly speak, so it fell flat on its face. That wasn't deliberate, it was an accident - but like the brave trooper I am, I struggled on regardless. All that stuff about it being a cabaret band is true. I picked them up in a hotel in Atlantic City, the Holiday Inn, they were playing in the lobby. I thought, This is hilarious - I'm gonna have some of that! I made damn sure they could play, so all that aspect was taken care of. There was a great deal of self-parody in there. I have no qualms about that. But also, at the time, the huge lack of money made it impossible to do it any other way. I'm not sure if it was our biggest hit (it was - it reached number five). I don't really know about the sales. As long as the money arrives six months after the event, then that's fine by me. This is not completely a work of charity. I live in the west, and I want to reap the rewards."

A recent Rolling Stone review drew parallels between That What Is Not and, of all things, tedious late 60's art-rock outfit Van Der Graaf Generator. It's a comparison that has Lydon slapping his thigh in mirth.
"It puzzles me what some reviewers have for ears," he says gleefully. "But if you put together all these reviews, and you read it, it's hilarious what you can come up with. God knows what else is gonna be thrown in. The kitchen sink, eventually. Why do these people need to say, That sounds like..., in order to describe it? Why can't you describe it accurately? Is there such a shortage of vocabulary in the English language? I don't think so."

Do Americans understand you better than the British?
"Possibly so. They're not as bogged down in the past as they are here. There's a great many people out there who don't know anything at all about my past, and they're not very interested. It's now that they want me, and by God, I'll give them me in large amounts."
Do you like the way Americans see you as underground?
"Yes, it's fine. I could never join the mainstream, it's not my style. The Clash became mainstream there, which was a very, very, sad thing. It's like, I can do stadiums there and still keep my integrity about me. It's not perceived as a sell-out, and probably because of the way I approach it, and what I do with it - I play up the event, and make it entertaining. And again that's a knife edge thing too, and I enjoy that. I like the risk factor. If you're not supposed to do something, fucking well do it."

Talking of Americans, John recently saw a video of Motley Crue playing 'Anarchy in the UK' at Donington.

"I thought it was hilarious. In fact, I knew they were gonna do it, because they rang me up. They wanted the lyrics so I gave 'em to them. I thought, yipee, what fun! They put it on their 'Decade of Decadence' album. Lovely, that's money in the bank for me."
Megadeth also did 'Anarchy'.
"Yes, they did, and their version was hideous. That was the one with Steve Jones guesting on guitar, and it was horrible!"
Americans always get that sort of thing slightly wrong.
"I thought Steve got it slightly wrong too! he guffaws. "You don't guest on versions of your own songs, it's a kind of crappy thing to do."

TIE ME TO THE LENGTH OF THAT (1984): "That was about being born. 'When I was born, the doctor didn't like me, he grabbed my ankles, held me like a turkey, Dear mummy, why did you let him hit me? And this was wrong, I knew you didn't love me'. It's about that experience, of when you're born. I don't know why they slap their bottoms, I think it's enormously cruel. It might have influenced me, is what I'm trying to say. Maybe they slapped the wrong end, they couldn't tell my arse my head!"

John doesn't go out much when he's in LA.

"All that I really do is watch TV. It's difficult going out, because there's just nowhere to go, and when you do you just get pestered by morons. If I go see live bands, I'm just followed around the club or whatever, and it's really annoying, and then you're sort of forced into this backstage scene, because it's the only way to get any peace. And then you find that you're amongst all the liggers, and the pretentious lot, and that's dreadful, so I'd rather not go. I'd rather not deal with it."

But Lydon has plenty of time for his leisure activities, preferring to balance business and pleasure by not rushing anything work-related (F&F: no kidding!). Hence the three year gap between the last LP and the new one.
"Everything is... almost ponderous. I always check things out. I like to think that I dive in at the deep end, but I definitely check the water temperature first. There's always that bit in reserve."
Do you ever feel old, or older than you used to?
"Well, I thought I was gonna die when I hit 21, I thought that was the end of my life. It wasn't, and neither was 22, ad infinitum. It just doesn't work like that. I cried on my thirtieth birthday, I mean real wads of tears, but you just realise that you're as stupid now as you were at 18, all that's changed is that you've learnt a lot more. Of course mirrors can incredibly unkind."
Are you scared of the inevitability of the ageing process - stuff like going bald?
"That's the whole 'youth culture' nonsense, which is meant to make you feel guilty for ageing! I say BOLLOCKS! I hope I don't die and definitely get old. Very old. For as long as possible."
What bands are you listening to at the moment?
"Well, I don't think you can knock KLF, can ya? Their singles are really special, annoyingly so. They have fun with it. There's a few things that I like, I love Nirvana too. I think they're number one now in the states. Wow! It's amazing, 'cos it's not a very good album. I like the single most. The lyrics are particularly excellent, I think - 'Entertain me'..., that absolutely sums up lazy audiences."

The pop charts, both here and in the US, are definitely opening up to..
"To rock. It's coming around again. I think people are bored with listening to machines."
Do chart placings matter to you?
"No, they never have, they never will. Chart placings only matter to ego-maniacs who want to win awards for some ridiculous reason. I've never bothered with any of that. Airplay's never been a problem either, we just don't get any!"
John creases up at this one, his pint mug of tea splashing everywhere.

HOME (1986): That's about the end of the world, and fear of nuclear holocaust, which I think is now greater than ever, because of the chaos in the USSR - anything is likely to happen. If these people can kill each other so gleefully, they can certainly aim at the rest of the world with equal abandon. That worries me. And these are morons now, in charge of serious toys. I knew the USSR would collapse sooner or later, I think everybody did really. It's a shame though, that they want everything instantly. It's gonna take a long time to clear up that mess, but people being people, they want it all instantly, immediately, give give give."

Bearing in mind the physical attacks he was subjected to in 1977, it's no surprise that violence and hate top the list of things that John Lydon finds frightening:
"I have very little tolerance for it," he says, "or any kind of prejudice. It got quite nasty with PIL for a bit. The last time I toured England I had a billiard ball thrown at me, in Stoke. I was none too pleased with that, 'cos that's out and out... death, really. It hit me right on the skull, so fuck that for a game of soldiers. That kind of vicious hate is unexplainable to me - that people will pay money to go in and see me, and aim to hurt me seriously. That's kind of pathetic on their parts."

Contrary to popular opinion, the teenage Lydon was never a skinhead.
"Nah, I always a long hair then. I was always much more into Hawkwind than reggae. I liked some of the clothes, but I could never have a crop, because I've got big ears, and I look stupid. I'd look like a jug!"
For the last 15 minutes Lydon and Dias have been jumping twisting and turning and generally being perfect subjects for Steve Gullick's camera. Lydon throws himself into the session wholeheartedly.
"Far too many of these pop stars take themselves too seriously," he grumbles. "They need reams of make up ladies and stuff before they'd go anywhere near a camera. I think it's all bollocks."

You've always seemed quite proud of your spots.
"Well, they're there. They're a feature. Enjoy."
Have you ever been tempted to join the showbiz set? You know, Clapton, Collins, Jagger...
"No, no, it isn't possible," he says, for once genuinely appalled. "I wouldn't tolerate, and they certainly wouldn't tolerate me."
Have you got any music biz pals?
"Very few. I don't see any reason to have any. I mean , if I was a plumber, I wouldn't go out looking for plumbers. It'd be very tedious. And that's kind of precious, too, isn't it? They all hang around certain wine bars, or clubs, and those places I avoid, because I just don't see any entertainment in it."

THE BODY (1987): "There was a lot going on around the time about the anti-abortion league, and the pro-abortion, and I just thought I'd throw my tuppence into all this - standpoint? Women have the right to have abortions. Period. This is somewhere where no one should interfere. It should never be considered illegal, but then you shouldn't be able to get yourself into that position in the first place. It's only ignorance and lack of education about contraception that leads to these disasters."

How do you find musicians as a rule?
"Bloody boring! They're always performing, they don't relax, there's no fairness in them."
Does that come with success?
"Yeah, chart positions can do amazing things to people. It can make them incredibly conceited. Overnight."

Can money have the same effect?
"Definitely. Money is incredibly corrupting. I know that as a fact, because there are very many people I know that have made a great deal of money, and they've become absolute shits because of it. And the music industry itself does tend to judge... each other, according to record sales, or things like that, and that is very unfortunate. You know, (mock triumphantly) join the two million sales set!"

John Lydon contemptuously blows snot into a spoon and flicks it across the room. Does all this corruption stuff make him wary of having a hit?
"Well, I wouldn't say no," he chuckles. "It doesn't happen like that with us. We're not that kind of crappy teen band thing, where people will rush off and buy the album in the first ten minutes. We'll never be like that. Never was, never will be. Never should be."

DON'T ASK ME (1990): "Well, what's it all about? How do we clean up this world? Where do we begin and is it worth it? Of course it was a genuine statement. I don't like swimming in other peoples piss and shit. This is my world, for fuck's sake. I don't enjoy industrial wastelands. There was actually a problem with the record company at the time, in that they didn't press enough copies of the single, and it went straight in the charts and then it couldn't sell any more because they didn't press any. And they did the same with the 'Greatest Hits' album (the same year). They only pressed 44,000, which sold straight away, and then there were no more. BUUURRRP!!! So it's almost impossible for us to have hits, if they continue this way. And then, because it's all they press, it's very difficult for people to buy it when they feel like it. I mean, you won't see that album in a shop any more. That's it. They've deleted it already. It's pathetic, I think. But there you have it."


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