Mixmag, May 1994

© 1994 Mixmag

John Lydon
Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs

(Hodder & Stoughton)

Rotten Life

by KE

Billed as the autobiography of John Lydon, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs works as well, if not better, as a '70s generational memoir and indictment of post-war class-ridden Britain as it does a personal account of one singer's life. Unimpressed by Jon Savage's history, England's Dreaming, lydon's method is to shatter the dead weight of the Pistols' myth by including a range of voices which completely contradict and indict each other; thus rewriting '76 to '78, not as the golden years of pop culture, but as the "utter disaster" they were. Lydon insists he never felt a real port of the Pistols, a gong Mclaren had already pulled together before he and then Vicious joined up. As the song-writer of the group, he nonetheless embodied their spirit.

Setting up this distance between himself and the others allows him to take the Rotten persona out of the milieu of Kings Road and the Sex shop and back into his own upbringing. The second generation North London Irish context he sketches hasn't been noted before, and it yields surprising images: of lydon as on artistic 18-year-old happy to stay to stay in his room and listen to Can records, of Sid Vicious as a pre-Pistols Bowie fanatic, of how Bowie's music was the crucial nexus through which soul boys and art school kids, football fans and the Bromley crowd could all mix. The non-aligned squat scene enabled the not-yet-named punks to slip in and out of different Londons: the London of soul, of reggae, of Jarman, even of House Of Lords perviness. This squa-tocracy, more Wildeian than Clockwork Orange, allowed girls an equality of reinvention unknown to previous pop cults.

By including interviews with many of the major players and excluding Mclaren, Lydon makes Rotten a walk-on part in the drama of the times. The result is to restore arbitrariness to the punk moment, to give it a sense of no-one knowing what it all meant or where it was all leading. The last section is taken up with the eight-year-long court case he pursued against McLaren, and, while this drags on, it's saved by Lydon's Ortonesque relish for the crafted put-down.

The missing element, though, is not Mclaren but the story of Public Image Limited. Where the Pistols in their conviction politics now seem impossibly ancient, Pil's dub-inflected mystery points to now, the '90s of The Orb and Aba-Shanti, ambient and jungle as survival strategies for the hard rimes of this present. Lydon is less willing to disinter the bones of PiL because they mean more to him, but it's their sound we can use and abuse nowadays, not that of the Pistols anymore.


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