PiL interview:
Zigzag, December, 1978

Transcribed by Karsten Roekens

© 1978 Zigzag Magazine



ZigZag, December 1978 © Dennis MorrisThe enigmatic Johnny Lydon. Dubbed 'The Messiah of Punk' by those who only thought in clichés, he was catapulted into a situation that left him very little room to move. The popular media's concept of Lydon and co. (disgusting, depraved, subversive and devoid of all talent) ultimately became too restrictive. Trapped within this 'public image', which only occasionally extended further than the colour of his barnet or the nature of his attire, Lydon became a monstrous figment of the public imagination.

Largely to blame for this however was that Svengali-type figure and apparent puppet master, Malcolm McLaren. It was Lydon (a.k.a. Rotten for anyone with severe amnesia) who finally rebelled against the group's manager, and this rebellion eventually culminated in the breaking-up of the Pistols, with our hero stranded penniless in San Francisco. But concealed beneath McLaren's expertly engineered facade lies something infinitely more subversive than the (ultimately) superficial threat posed by the media's overkill/distortion. So for those of you who gleaned your rotten information from the daily tabloids, here is an opportunity to reevaluate.

Mr. Lydon's Chelsea dwelling is situated in the seamier part of that noble borough. Comfortable it may be, but no ostentation. No Habitat fixtures here, man. The freezer is full of lager, bass player extraordinaire Jah Wobble is full of fast-as-lightning quips, and to complete the picture guitarist Keith Levene (who was in the first Clash line-up) enters on his newly acquired skateboard. Levene has neatly separated himself from a long and draining amphetamine habit that constantly retarded his career (he actually sold the guitar that The Clash gave him as a leaving present of sorts to support said addiction) and he now looks, feels (and plays) better than he ever has done.

The stereo spills forth a highly edible diet of roots reggae, and after we've managed to suss out the complexities of my borrowed cassette recorder, the 'interview' proceeds.
Well, I thought it best to get what may be construed as the bad points off my chest as early as possible, so, holding my breath, I gently approach the subject of 'The Cowboy Song'. This was the somewhat controversial b-side of the excellent debut single, and I wondered, could it have possibly been some gigantic if obscure hoax cum self-parody?

Lydon is adamant. "You can dance to that song, and it cost us approximately 1 pound to make." (If you believe the latter part of that statement naivety doesn't come into it.) "It's just a jolly good disco record and it came about 'cos we were bored and couldn't think of a b-side."

Later on, John plays me the backing track from the aforementioned song, and he was dead right, you can dance to it! So with that out of the way, I venture to ask about the forthcoming Rainbow concerts. For some reason or other (possibly my own empty pockets) I felt that the 3.50 pounds ticket prices may prove a little prohibitive for some. The subsequent demand proved me to be completely wrong anyway, but Lydon filled me in on the details.

"You try self-promoting and putting on a load of bands at the same time. Now most bands charge 6.50 pounds for a show like that, and this is on Christmas day! I'm going out of my way to even walk out on a stage knowing that three-quarters of the audience won't be there just to listen to us, but to slag us off and survey and suss it out etcetera. I think I'm doing you all a great favour even bothering. It costs double to do anything on a Christmas day, and like I said, we're putting loads of bands on. I'm already running at a loss, and I've only just started organising it."

I ask if there are plans for any further gigging or even a tour?

"Tours are old-fashioned. Mass tours are rubbish, we'll just play live in different places when we feel like it and, you know, do gigs occasionally. But I will not personally go through the shit of a tour again. It destroys the band totally. You begin to hate each other."

When I venture that I thought a lot of bands wrote their songs on tour, Lydon retorts: "Oh yeah, that might be the old hippy philosophy, but how can you write songs on tour? Me personally, I come off stage and I can't get to sleep 'til seven or eight the next morning. By then you have to leave for your next gig, so you get no sleep at all and you're a total wreck." Here Lydon's voice leaps almost an octave into total send up terms. "And the company you're forced to keep is always poor, to say the least..."

So to get away from the subject of John's travels and back to the matter in hand, namely Public Image, I ask John if he was at all worried at the possibility of audiences overlooking the other three members of the band? The reply is immediate and Lydon's voice is, for once, completely serious.

"In this band we are all equal. No Rod Stewarts. We all do equal amounts of work, we all produce equally, write songs and collect the money equally."

How much control did he feel he had over his own situation at the moment?

"I don't have 100 per cent control, but I do know that record companies are your own worst enemies. What they think is for your best advantage is usually for your worst. They always, like, try and make things softer. Like the posters, they tried to grain them down, you know, so it made it slightly softer. The original idea was that it would be extremely intense."

A good example of the above record company 'interference' was Public Image's debut single. Mr. Lydon expounds: "'Public Image', right. We mixed it to our own requirements. Then...Virgin tried to change it with a special letter to the factory. The complaint was that you couldn't hear the words on the first hearing and that the bass was too heavy."

He ends with a groan of disgust. So things weren't running all that smoothly with the third record company he's been involved with? Right.

"Oh shit, they're quite the Commune, Virgin. A load of groupies as secretaries, and they're all disorganised and they're all Hampstead hippies. I mean, The Slits wouldn't go on Virgin, but mainly because it's too close to me. (laughs) Anyway, The Slits have gotta do things for themselves. They should try managing themselves for a start, instead of the incestuous connections they have with Malcolm McLaren, which I find quite disgraceful!"

Next subject on my mental list is the now notorious Mickie Most connection. What really happened?

Wobble: "I'll tell you what really happened, we met him and I borrowed a fiver which I never paid back!" (Mucho laughter all around.)

Lydon, who as soon as Most is mentioned growls "that cunt", takes up the story: "We had previously arranged that an entire programme of 'Revolver' would be in our control, we would produce it totally, decide what bands would be on it, plus we would be in it at some point. We set up and then Virgin, in 'our best interest' (characteristic Lydon sneer here) decided to ring the 'Revolver' people up and ask, was it at all possible that we do ONE song on the programme? So 'Revolver' immediately cancelled what we'd arranged."

Jim Walker, Keith Levene, John Lydon in Gunter Grove 1978 © Dennis MorrisBack to Wobble. "We'd gone straight to Most, right, and we'd sweated it all out with the headman. So it's all settled, THEN Virgin ring up and go (adopts abject grovelling tone): 'Sorry to ring you up and bother you like this, but would you mind if Public Image crawl their way in under the floor?' So they blew it all out 'cos the TV people think 'Oh, we're dealing with mugs!'"

John again. "So as a kickback, because we saw that as a personal insult, we let Virgin arrange it all with Mickie Most, both of them thinking they were doing us the world of good. So it's all arranged and we had them send over a coach to take us up north, and we hijacked it and went on holiday to the seaside for a day. And we had whoopee fun!"

A hugely humorous tale, and one that both relate with obvious relish. But it did have serious overtones. Lydon explains how those were countered (again with barely concealed relish).

"The result is that Most threatened to ban us from all TV work ever, which is exactly why we put that film out on 'Saturday Night People'. Just as a message to Mr. Most, 'Oh look Mickie, we just can't get on telly anywhere!'"

While John is finding the video of 'Saturday Night People' to run for me (I'd missed it, ain't got a telly, see), Wobble reminds me of the night almost a year ago when he'd crashed at the house I was staying in. He was pissed out of his skull and celebrated the fact by puking all over the place. This greatly displeased a certain Sebastian Conran (whose house it happened to be), especially when the ghastly Habitat heir had to clean up the mess himself. I too was an unwelcome guest, but that night Wobble, Strummer (a slightly more welcome resident of the same period, now squatting) and myself had stayed up until dawn, talking and drinking. It was a good night and I was well chuffed that it was remembered. A subsequent meeting that Wobble had with the lisping millionaire's son was even funnier. In a crowded Dingwalls, Sebastian Conran attempted very rashly to gain some form of physical compensation for the mess that Wobble had made. Sebastian was always a loser.

Anyway, we all sit around and watch the video. Public Image are great, but the following chit-chat between Russell Harty, Janet Street-Porter et al. is insulting and vicarious in the extreme. I ask John how he feels when he sees himself scrutinised by arseholes?

"Well look, Russell Harty doesn't matter anyway. His view is irrelevant, you've only got to look at the geezer to realise that. What I find really offensive is Janet Street-Porter desperately trying to defend me whilst wearing a Zandra Rhodes outfit costing several thousands of pounds. The irony in that situation is immaculate. Perfect. That film should be kept as an art treasure, it's" (and here his voice rises in a triumphant shout) "the ULTIMATE IRONY!"

More beer is brought from the freezer, the reggae is cranked up a few more decibels, and the interview as an ordeal is no longer. Lydon sprawls beside me on the settee, affable, articulate, serious and amusing, but always discernable is a certain intensity that leaves one in no doubt at all that beneath the multifarious accents and the sometimes yobbish exterior, there lies a person of (cough) depth and sensitivity. The threat has not been abated. I ask him idly if, in any way, he regrets the demise of the Pistols?

"I thought it was unnecessary at the time, and all down to Malcolm." His tone is almost wistful. "Listen, the crunch of the matter was that they (the other three) trusted Malcolm and his every move and I didn't. Therefore I was the problem in the band and had to go. And I went freely, but I expected to be given what I thought I fucking well earnt. Then there was that Rio stuff...and I found that insulting." Now his voice is bitter. "Meeting Ronald fuckin' Biggs. Big deal, he failed. He hasn't got the fuckin' money. I'll talk to the cunt who's got the money, not the fucking cunt that failed to get it!"

He lights another Dunhill, offers me one, leans back and frowns. "See, what Steve and Paul could never tolerate was that I actually knew what I was talking about and could keep it to basics without running into sort of ... being obsequious. Plus they were jealous 'cos they thought I was taking all the fucking limelight off 'em. And I told them time and time again, well boys, that's only fair because you don't DO anything. On the 'Bollocks' album and the singles, they'd just about manage to turn up to twang a guitar and bang on a drum, then they'd leave. Never gave a fuck about the mixing of anything. Couldn't be bothered. So I was left there, the only one... Sid was usually out of his brains on smack, which annoyed me greatly. Malcolm protected him etcetera, but that's another story. So I'd be left there making sure that Chris Thomas didn't fuck us up and make us sound like Roxy Music, and then finding out that that was exactly how Steve and Paul wanted us to sound! So I'd completely fuck up the mix and make it sound like a rock album should. The result was that Steve, Paul and Malcolm would sneak in the next day while I was asleep and remix it and not say anything."

So who won this battle of the mixes?

"Well, I won on 'Problems', 'Submission' and 'Bodies'... none of the others could even be bothered to listen to 'Bodies'. You ask them to recite the words to any of our songs, I dare you! They could just about manage on 'Lazy Sod', the most abysmal song I've ever heard. That was Steve and Paul, it appealed to their basic instincts or something. God, and it is basic. And there was all that Small Faces trash they used to try and make me listen to. I'm not interested in digression or mod period music or rock'n'roll. It's boring. I got pissed off listening to Steve run through Chuck Berry riffs and then gradually changing to Peter Frampton riffs. It got depressing."

Don Letts, Jah Wobble, John Lydon in Gunter Grove 1978 © Dennis MorrisLydon didn't really want to talk about Sid's current dilemma, and I found that reasonable enough. They were very close friends, and even though they may have drifted apart (largely due to Nancy Spungen and her introduction of smack to the previously straight Vicious) it was plain that Lydon was more than distressed by the tragic chain of events taking place across the Atlantic. I didn't push the matter.

Instead we turned the tape off for a while and John (with some justifiable pride) played me a few tracks from the forthcoming Public Image album of the same name. I kid you not, this was the highpoint of the entire evening for this dilettante scribe. The cuts that I heard ('Religion', 'Annalisa' and 'Attack') smashed me right between the eyes like the clenched fist of a Kung Fu devotee on sulphate. I wish to fuck I'd had a bit of suss and left my tape running. 'Religion' is just the kind of vitriolic, angry attack that you would (or should) expect, and it possesses and eerie, almost hypnotic quality that is all but tangible. Levene's guitar drones away somehow sitar-like, while Wobble pounds his bass with near psychotic anger. The drum sound of Canadian Jim Walker (who has a room below the one we were in, and knocked on the ceiling at regular intervals to demonstrate about the volume) is the final brilliant touch, and grab these lyrics...

"This is religion and Jesus Christ
This is religion cheaply priced
This is bibles full of libel
This is sin in eternal hymn
This is your religion
And it's all falling to bits...

Going from the two hearings I had of this song I can only say that it's one of the best things I've heard for ages and ages. 'Annalisa' is equally as powerful in its own way, with loads of treble on the guitar. The lyrics are aimed at the parents of a German girl who died tragically last year from starvation. She believed herself to be possessed by the devil, and instead of seeking psychiatric help her parents turned to the German Orthodox Church for help. Consequently she died. Very heavy subject matter that is handled with sensitivity and real concern. My feelings after hearing these tracks were basically exhilaration coupled with an odd twinge of verification. It's like, yeah, Public Image Ltd. are as good, if not better than I'd hoped they would be. A good feeling.

Anyway, the tape goes on again (I'm still kicking myself) and we continue with the 'interview'. John is eager to talk and genuinely pleased that I like the music, a fact that surprises me somewhat. Somehow I'd had the stupid idea that he wouldn't have cared, but fuck, after all it's HIS music. Right now he's enthusing on the art of 'overkill', you know, actually forcing people to sit up and take notice, because there simply are NO ALTERNATIVES.

With a Machiavellian gleam in his eye he explains: "Ideally I would have liked the 'Public Image' film to have gone on 'The Old Grey Whistle Test', 'Top Of The Pops' and the Russell Harty thing all in the same week! Now that would have been a laugh. That would have been mass-overkill, which I love. Overkill is brilliant. If only I could coordinate it so that every magazine brought out an article on us in the same week, and at the same time everything would be on telly. Can you imagine how awful that would be? I mean sales would suffer because people would lose respect, but the point is that people would then eventually have to suss out for themselves that the media is corrupt. It would be marvelous. Mass confusion. But people would realise immediately."

Did John still retain that faith, that people en masse could be shown, or realise for themselves the massive con being perpetuated upon them?

"If it's on that kind of scale they have no option. At the moment they won't, because they have an alternative. And, like, everything is controlled. Anything for instance written in the dailies has to be written in such a style that it's devoid of any intelligence at all. They make everything appear to be uninteresting and just consistent, so you flick through it in your tea break. There's nothing that will get your brain thinking very heavily about things, because once people started to do that they'd develop their interests in other fields, and that would be the end of that."

This is a highpoint for me, simply because we both know that what he has just said, in its utter truth and stark simplicity, gives both of us at least something to live for. Something to fight for.

He continues. "TV is the same, everything must have a good ending or a hook line. Like 'Coronation Street', it drags you in. I mean I watch 'Coronation Street' (laughs) and I'm dragged in too. You know, it's on and you think what's the alternative, 'Panorama'? It's all mass hypnosis and mass manipulation."

Does he hold any hope that he can alter that situation, make people more aware, actually change things through the vehicle of rock music?

"Well, it doesn't happen through books, does it? Who reads books except the chosen few who know already anyway. They're just confirming their thoughts. You can't get some slob sitting in an East End pub for instance to read books on philosophy and free thought. They wouldn't know where the first page was. People shouldn't be bourgeois about music and see it solely as an enjoyment source. There should be alternatives, and lots of them."

John Lydon has long been providing those alternatives, but is Public Image Ltd. a permanent fixture for the foreseeable future.

"We're just the beginning of a huge umbrella, we can each do our own solo ventures to our own amusement so long as they don't infringe on the band as a whole. I want it to spread out. I know that might sound a bit idealistic, but we do intend to have our own studio, so that everything will be totally contained. And that studio when we're not working will be rented out to other bands, to rehearse and come to understand... that a mixing desk is not a complicated procedure, very easy in fact."

Lydon himself was never one to be intimidated by the complexities of studio equipment.

"I never felt overwhelmed by the studios, I just went in and said, 'Oh look, pretty knobs, they don't fool me, it's obvious that these are the level controls, what's this for, ah, echo on the bass.' It's simple."

There's a lot of noise on the stairs and suddenly Leo bounces in, rasta friend of Don Letts (who was art director on the 'Saturday Night People' PIL appearance). Leo also used to work for The Slits. I ain't seen him for ages, but he can't stay long and he soon bounces out again and I'm back to work. Meanwhile though, Wobble (who only started playing bass this year and is amazingly competent for the length of time) has been telling me a little about his long, and recent, spell of homelessness. Apparently he even had to stay at Salvation Army hostels ("hurts your pride that does") on occasion, and all the time there was Sebastian with that great big house virtually empty. All wrong, ain't it?

Keith wanders back in, and when asked where he's been for the last half hour he retorts slyly, "Well, there's this little opium den..."

Lydon sends Nora out to get more cigarettes and then tells me all about when he used to have long hair!

"It was when I was about fifteen and I used to have it way down here," gesticulating to halfway down his back. "That's 'cos it was outrageous at the time, it annoyed and it wasn't how they saw fifteen-year-old Catholic schoolboys in my school, which was exactly why I did it. Anyway, North London was always like, whatever you wanna do just do it. It used to be funny going up Arsenal then, so many drugs floatin' about, you wouldn't believe the number of acid casualties that came out of that ground on Saturday afternoons! (laughs) Still, I never used enough to get 'urt by it."

I ask if he'd ever consider doing a Bryan Ferry and compile an album of his favourite tunes?
"I might for a laugh, but Sid sort of put the mockers on it. I don't think 'My Way' was as good as it could have been. But then again, I remember the geezer tellin' me he only did it for a poxy 200 pounds! Which I thought was really funny!"

What about the long awaited and much talked about Pistols film that has had more lawyers working on it than extras?

"Malcolm has lied about the film continually. I just decided that I would not be part of the film, seeing as how the band fucked off and left me penniless in San Francisco. I was not pleased. I met Malcolm two months later when I went back to LA courtesy of Warners, and Malcolm shit hot bricks 'cos Warners told him that unless he stopped playing the cunt with me they'd stop his film. He's still playing the cunt. So they stopped his film. It's as simple as that. The Warners dig is, they will not buy the film unless I'm in it. I refuse to be in it 'cos I will not make money for Malcolm, he hasn't even paid me what he owes me!"

And it was about there that my tape ran out. I had a fucking good innings too, plenty of lager and a chat with someone who's got something to say. Public Image Ltd. are a shit hot band and their album will be out real soon. What else do you need to know?


Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)
ZigZag, December 1978 © Dennis Morris
Jim Walker, Keith Levene, John Lydon in Gunter Grove 1978 © Dennis Morris
Don Letts, Jah Wobble, John Lydon in Gunter Grove 1978 © Dennis Morris
Archives | Fodderstompf