John Lydon interview
First published Fodderstompf, January 2004
© 2004 Fodderstompf.com
Fodderstompf.Com: At long last – despite the best efforts of Mojo to steal our thunder – we bring you Part 2 of our John Lydon interview. Part 1 was conducted for The Filth and the Fury and concentrates on the Pistols 2003 US Tour.
This interview was completed in summer 2003, but has since been updated to bring you the latest developments with John's proposed solo projects; as well as a lengthy look at PiL (and that's from start to finish, not just the first three albums), plus life in general through the eyes of Mr Rotten. The interview is so extensive we were tempted to split it into two, but we've been there before...
How's your new solo record coming along?
It's going great! Jesus, the best term I can put to it is 'Stonkers'
! Solid Stonkers! Really on a good foot, I'm writing in a really
clear way, and they're working out great, the songs are really
coming on. For me they're almost finished, and Nick Lanuay
is coming in way late on it, but he's a great person to work
with 'cos the word 'No' doesn't come into the
studio when were in it, there is nothing we cannot do. We're
doing it my studio, in my house, but Nick is only coming in on the
mixing part, I'm gonna put the tracks together myself, because
it's just easier. I like working on my own, I'm very happy
with it, I never used to be, I always liked the 'gang'
feeling of running into the studio and not having the money and
having to get out quick and all of that, I like now being alone,
I'm more confident with myself, I've earned my wings to
What direction are you heading in? Do you know yet?
You cannot describe it, can you? When the Pistols first came out what direction was that? What was PiL when we started?
Path' you played all the instruments yourself, will you be
doing that again?
Yeah, that's no problem to me, I started doing that on 'Metal Box' with keyboards and bits and pieces, and went on into 'Flowers of Romance' and completely took that over, it's not a problem. I don't understand why people think playing instruments is difficult, it's not. If you hit and bash and twang them in the same way you are feeling - the emotion of what you are writing - you are on the money, and isn't that what music is supposed to be? Not the singer has to adapt to the technology. I'm sorry the technology should adapt to the singer, 'cos that's the emotion. If you focus on that and the dynamics of a thing you've got it, but if your focus is all on 'note perfect' you've lost it. It's unemotional and it's dribble. It's like Japanese Jazz, everything in the right place, but so what?
How do you actually write? Do you write the lyrics first?
Sometimes, but I usually write off keyboard. I'll either program in drum parts, or usually Accordions or stringed instruments or wacky Oboes, those kind of things, because I can tune in finer with them to the way I write. You get the best sounds out of instruments that are fucked, broken Saxophones and two stringed Violins!
At the moment my lyrics are, I suppose you could describe them as the bass line, to a solid rootsy kind of dance groove, blues rock reggae. That's the way I've always written. The emphasis in all music seems to be on instruments and it shouldn't be, it should be on the voice. I think I approach it in a more truer Gaelic tradition, you know, where bag-pipey drones fit the voice not the other way round.
I've always thought the voice should be seen as an equal to the instruments anyway.
They've lost that, they've lost that in music, they try to make the singer blend in, they perfect the little music in the background and make the singer try to match that, well, then the song isn't any emotion I can recognise. And frankly, discordancy and things out of tune with each other create to me brilliant other harmonics, and that's what I'm listening to in the song. All that inner stuff is the Gaelic in us. The bit about PiL we all loved was that we would know; Wobble would know what he was doing, I would know what I was doing, Keith would know what he was doing, and all three of us would be playing different notes, but we would be getting a harmonic in there that was wonderful...
I think with PiL that it was more of an overall 'sound' thing anyway.
Yeah, and not actually anybody's playing. The overall combination creates something else, and takes it out of craftsmanship, and closer to instinct. We would use emptiness and clarity to a precision.
When you're writing do you play direct to the machines, or just use the programming? The drums for instance?
I prefer the freeform of playing things, playing real instruments, even if they be toilet rolls, whatever, they are real things, and when you're just putting it all through a computer it's not real, it's a substitute... Computers limit all that, they take a lot of the sound out, they have to 'cos it's mathematical, and I'm sorry I don't live in a mathematical world (laughs), I'm not a load of zeros and ones! I like the bit in between, and there is a space between a zero and a one that a computer will not understand, and fuck off to quantising! I find the technology side of things too fucking limited I can't write and sing the way I feel to 'blick-blick-blick', it's just not possible... I got a bit bogged down there for a little while 'cos we were going into too much technical equipment shit, and I don't want to run it that way, I want to keep it down to basics. I don't need the latest gadgetry and software, or computer technology, I don't find it useful...
Drums, I don't play as a drummer would, I dissipate where the hits lay, they don't have to be off bass drum, or a hi-hat, or the bass guitar, or a rhythm guitar, or a keyboard, they can come in from any one of those at any moment. Anti-structure. It clears the head to enjoy itself much more, you can randomly float off wherever you want to without too much discipline. It's very hard to put this into words, the emotion, anger doesn't come with a jazz hi-hat!
With Nick Lanuay being involved, and you both previously working on 'Flowers of Romance' together, I presume this album will have a definite rhythm influence?
As always, it's a million miles away from anything I've ever done, but yes, I suppose closer to 'Flowers...' than anything. I'm certainly not doing no revisionist thing, but because it's me, it's me. And closest to what is really me has always been the 'Flowers of Romance'.
How many tracks have you got so far?
I've got eight clearly done, and maybe four to seriously work on. We're gonna keep the mix simple, no over elaborate effects, it's all really about stripping it down till its minimal, so you get a spaciousness in it.
That was the thing about PiL, the 'big' sound, there was so much space.
There has to be. I hate heavy cluttered mixes, it aggravates my head in a way I don't find enjoyable. I've never found speeding up rhythms very appealing to me, not ever. I like things to be at a much slower pace, 'cos you can control them in your mind much better, and the thoughts become clearer.
How did you get to work with Nick again?
He lived in Australia for a long time but I knew he had moved back to LA, and got his number. He's a great mate. He's just what he is. He grew up in Spain when he was young so he's got the heart of what folk music is. This nonsense of modern day rock 'It has to be 4/4' and 'These are the only chords you can play' just makes no sense to him, he's spent his whole life, just like me, unlearning those disciplines because they're what have corrupted everything. He's got himself a good little reputation with many a young band because he insists they just record the thing in one or two takes, but they play it all together.
When I interviewed him recently he told me that when he was asked to produce 'Flowers...', he was still an engineer and when Virgin asked him if he was sure he knew what he was doing, and he said 'Yes, of course I do', but he was was really just blagging it, he was just so keen to work with PiL.
I knew that! The producer we had at the first I kicked out...
Yeah Nick told me the story of when you were working on the track 'Home is Where the Heart is', the producer you had was giving you grief because he couldn't understand what you wanted him to do, so when he left the room you locked him out, and told him to 'Fuck off, Nick has the job now!' It was something to do with a machine only Nick could get his head round.
Ha! Yeah. I think there was a little gadget we tried to use. At the time we were just experimenting with little wacky gadgets, there was some Jamaican lad who had invented a thing you put a guitar through and it would make it go 'bjonggggg'! So fuck the guitar, we'd put stick the whole fucking song in it! And we'd get a glorious discordant harmonic back into the track. We'd use anything, Ash trays on the Grand Piano, I used to love that, and my Violin! I've always had a little knack for the Violin!
I think with the way you and Nick approach music, this new album is shaping up to be very, very interesting, anything goes.
Yeah, I'm utterly fearless, 'cos I really feel what I'm doing.
Were you disappointed by the reaction 'Psycho's Path' got?
No, I expected it to be dissed. It just made it better than ever when I read reviews of 'How dare I', 'Who do I think I am to destroy music by using toilet rolls and Accordions falling down staircases'. Well, excuse me, that's what I've always done, and that's what you lot are copying years later. Anything that is handy is an instrument, anything, cardboard boxes on 'Sun' why not? I thought it was the best drum sound I'd ever heard. To me a Hi-Hat is an instrument, I love it, when I listen to dance music I'm on the Hi-Hat mate, to me that leads the song, and if that's anti-music, fucking right, more of it please.
I think 'Psycho's Path' is very underrated. I was still doing the fanzine at the time and I was telling people you have to buy this album, but a lot of them couldn't, they couldn't find it in the shops, not for under £15 anyway. For a company like Virgin not to have proper distribution or arrange a new release price is just bullshit.
Well, the record company didn't want it, it was too wacky for them, but they didn't mind signing up two PiL copies like Massive Attack and Smashing Pumpkins...
What sort of time scale do you have for bringing the new album out?
I might release it one single at a time, I don't know. I don't know where it would go, and I don't know who would play it, I don't know what radio format anything I do would ever fit in, that's just par of the course for me, I don't make music that fits into any format really, ever. The format catches up later, but by then I'm somewhere else (laughs).
Have you got a record deal set up yet?
Well, I'm not happy with the offer, from SOME label, so I'd like to scout it out a bit more. We will come across something, I'm in no rush, it'll be a finished product. And quite frankly, I don't need no record label telling me they need a “Hit Single”! Fuck you, by hook or by crook I'll get this one out.
I don't think a record label really matters anyway, it's distribution that is the important thing.
That's all I'm really looking for... A lot of people don't understand it's not been easy to do anything I've done. It's a constant fucking battle. The Sex Pistols wasn't set up with a record contract from day one, and with Malcolm's bloody phony showbiz nonsense, we were just about the last punk band to be signed! And with PiL, the negativity, and the lack of money was always a problem, but we made it work. My name has not been a help, it's been an actual hindrance. To presume, 'Well you're Johnny Rotten you can get what you want', is not true, I get what I want, but first I have to work at it. It's not that I can just have it and I'm a spoiled brat, far from it... Look, after what, nearly 30 years record companies still don't show me no credit at all. You know, if I'm arrogant and shout my name out it's because I don't get it much, I get ripped off and that seems to be perfectly fine, but I don't get much more than that.
And I feel the same about Wobble, Wobble doesn't get the credit he should. You know, the boy showed the world something there, with three notes, right. You get more a melody and a tune out of the least you play, sad but there it is, it's not sad, it is what is, we never expected anyone to like us anyway.
When the album comes out do you think you will do any lives dates?
most definite, that's the best thing with Nick...
Oh, Nick will be playing too?
Yeah live. We can do it as a proper live thing, that's the point of keeping it simple. I was gonna put together a solo thing anyway, a black box of machines, and just wheel it into a club and plug it into a PA.
Was that the 'Magic Box'?
Yeah! All my loops and keyboards, and instruments, and pull out what I need to do. Just sing live, while mixing. Mixing off CD takes, not 12” singles. And now we're gonna go back into that, and use foot pedals to trigger certain things, so I'll always be on the beat, and in control of it. Fucking marvellous fun! I've missed it, I miss just making music.
Do you think you would ever do anything as PiL again?
There's really only one person I'd want to work with as PiL, and that's Wobble. But that would be a whole different thing, because I really can't work with any of the others, for many different reasons, and trust me, some of them are good reasons...
What about setting up a new band as PiL?
No, for the moment I want to do my solo stuff, but I love PiL, as much as I love the Pistols.
I know from speaking to you, you're just about the biggest PiL fan there is!
What me? Yes, I am. I just lurvvv me PiL! Listening back to it it's like 'Cor, hardcore'.
Wobble is the same too, he's so proud of what he did. The whole thing of pretty much doing nothing before being in the band, then getting to play and make those records.
And absolutely free to do what we wanted. The Sex Pistols was a legacy. It was a serious problem to have to deal with at the time about what I would do next. I didn't want to do anything like the Sex Pistols, and Public Image just came around really very naturally from just hanging around with Wobble and Keith. It just fell together. You've got to know a person like Wobble is very shy about his bass lines, I'm very shy about my parts, and Keith was very shy about his. We never really discussed much before we went in, we just chucked it all at once on the table, and worked it out that way. But that nervous energy and doubt and fear of your own capabilities is what makes it, and absolutely no conceit towards following a genre. And money was a serious problem too because of that Pistols court case. God, that was seriously on the ropes, but do you know what? The lack of money and backing from anybody is what made it work, it made us try harder... Knowing I could lose my house because of that Pistols case, I could lose it if it went wrong, I mean nobody had anywhere to stay. My name was taken off me, Malcolm claimed that he owned the rights to the name Johnny Rotten, he tried to stop us working, it was absurd. When things are like that, don't wallow in self-pity, get revengeful, and you get revenge by moving on.
When I listen to 'First Issue', I think the lyrics are really powerful, angry lyrics, I wouldn't say they're all about Malcolm or the Pistols...
They're not all. Not at all!
You can just sense the stress you were under, and the antagonism you had at the time. It comes across straight away.
You know, I use my music, if you want to call it music, to sort out my own problems, it's from the heart.
That album certainly illustrates that, whereas 'Metal Box' was a definite move on. I know you've told me in the past that 'Albatross' isn't about the Pistols, but I've always saw it relate to that whole period, it was a new beginning...
We were more competent with ourselves after getting the first one out, you have to do that, make that clearly defined break and set up 'This is different'. With 'Metal Box' we took a calmer more deliberate approach. But at the same time, again, money was a huge problem, a fucking horrible problem. We'd have to sneak into the Townhouse Studios late at night after The Jam had finished their sessions. We'd get, what? Eight hours, one night, four hours another, and have to work quite literally that way, and things like 'Albatross' are done live. I'd free-form, I just free-formed, we all did, and that's how it should be when the mood is right, that is what you do.
The other night I was listening to 'Death Disco' and I thought it was hilarious where I'm deliberately not going with the pattern I set up, and that's exactly what you should do! Not limit it to just strict music, but go that far, and also when you write for it, do do strict rhythms, but each song requires a completely different approach. To be forever and ever exactly in the same genre would never be what I ever wanted to do. And if I'm writing a song about my Mother dying, believe me I ain't gonna be following no three chord progression! That's anger and fear, and rage, and it goes all over the place, it's formless by nature.
That's the kind of feeling I'm getting about your new stuff, it seems to be the way you're going, that kind of free-form structure...
Yeah, well that's what I've always done!
I liked the later PiL, I don't give a fuck what people say, they were a good band, but do you think by the end it had ran its course?
No! No, and what is not understood is it's took people a long time to catch up to what we were doing in the first three or four albums. And now that period from us has somehow managed to have been blended into modern culture, but they don't understand what came after. What came after was us going into 'Pop structure', in a deadly serious way and restructuring the concept of a pop song. Which was great fun, and just as important to us as anything else, and it's not for anyone to say 'That's not as good as' it IS PiL, and it's beyond judgement, it is what it is, and it is honest and it's not done for any other fucking reason. But it quite clearly set up 'Indie', indie comes directly from it.
They've got to understand this, things like REM are directly related to PiL. REM were inspired by Public Image, and have said so too. Michael Stipe saw very early PiL in Atlanta when we were touring America, and he said the way PiL were, the way we done it, he never thought that was possible to take it beyond music, and that's what REM became, they took the idea and went into, well, whatever they went into...
Miles Davis said the same thing about me with 'Album', he said, yes, there was a very rigid musical structure, but it isn't about that at all, that's there to lead you to something else that's going on in it, you know, which is what jazz was supposed to do. James Blood Ulmer too, these are people that know what PiL was. But nobody ever picks up on that.
I think those later records definitely get slated more than they deserve.
It doesn't matter, it's just irrelevant, the fact is they have to talk about them. What people have got to understand is that PiL weren't part of any of that eighties fashion. We were the stone dead opposite it. They're not relating it to the time period, and that is how you would clearly understand where 'Rise' and 'Don't Ask Me' and everything in between and before, how nothing like anybody else we were, and if you don't understand the historical context you won't understand the value. All these private armies arguing about my life (laughs), it's so judgmental. 'Oh I only like early PiL', 'I only like the later stuff', oh just fuck off! (laughs).
For instance for people to call 'That What is Not' a straight rock album, what fucking rock band sounded like that? There were bongo drums on it! Horn sections! In 1992 we had all the dour grunge stuff, that was a breath of fresh air.
They're not getting it, but that's because they don't want to. But they do want to copy it! And it's to try have a dig at me, because it's like 'Damn him, he keeps coming with ideas'.
I can hear PiL in things like Garbage, that polished pop. Things like 'Don't Ask Me' were great pop, and I think bands like Garbage they took that on...
Yes they did. But it wasn't there before. It just set up genres, and that isn't understood, or maybe it is, I think it is understood, but I'm resented for doing that. The Pistols are resented because we showed you what could be done. You know, all my life I've been told 'Oh, no you can't do that', so I do it. But here's the thing, I can freeform landscape like 'Albatross' or I can pop structure to the max. I can go any way, and every way I want, nothing can stop me. I can handle any form. Now, what's wrong with that? Anyone who slags PiL off isn't understanding they have such complete diversity from just one band, they need go no further for any music from anyone! Because it all comes from there...
The difference between each album is unbelievable, and the thing is, when you came out and did 'First Issue', people wanted to hear 'Never the Mind the Bollocks', when you did 'Metal Box' they wanted 'First Issue'...
Yeah, then when we did 'Flowers...' and they wanted 'Metal Box' and so on, that's exactly right.
It's not just the music that gets ignored, even things like the big package tours you did in the late eighties and early nineties with New Order & B.A.D etc, that was long before the so called alternative Lollapalooza tours, I don't see those tours mentioned anywhere.
No, it's odd isn't it. And trust me it was an alternative. That's a very odd combination of outfits, New Order, PiL and The Sugarcubes too.
the first time in years there's actually a lot of bands name
checking PiL at the moment.
Well, so long as they don't take the attitude of 'PiL hate rock, they hate this, they hate that'. Do you know what I mean? Because they wouldn't be understanding PiL at all, or me, or anything to do with anything I've ever worked with. We take the best from everything, thank you, if it's there. But there's no need to copy, and there's no need to hate another complete lifestyle, because if you do that, it's because you're not too secure with your own. Just stop being limited.
There's nothing wrong by showing an influence, but I think to sit down and try structure a PiL sound is completely missing the point.
It is. You're copying something else, that's something that comes from inside us, and not inside you, and you can't imitate what somebody else is. It doesn't make you a better person, it makes you a worse person, if you're not offering what you are to the world, then I don't want to know. I don't want to hear someone trying to be me, I don't find that impressive. It's hilarious to me that I went through ten solid years in the early days of the Pistols and early PiL of 'I can't sing' to now everybody wants to sing like that, I mean that's bizarre (laughs). But it's not like that, I'm not singing, I'm not a singer, I'm telling you how I feel, there's a difference.
I am pleased these bands exist, but at the same time I think they are getting held up to be far more than they actually are.
And by doing that it's lessening what they are trying to achieve, or where they are taking from. It's like, bloody hell, I mean I love Miles Davis but where's my trumpet? Would I be accused of copying him, it's so ridiculous! And I don't like these bands coming in and only listening to one particular type of thing, we didn't do it for that, we didn't do it to ghettoise, and it's the Public Image nature, the second people get on and into it we're up to something else.
If it gets PiL more exposure it can only be a good thing, because a lot of young kids just won't have heard PiL. They just don't get the exposure they should, that's why I do the web site. I don't particularly like the internet but it is a great way to get information, and the thing I found was that anything about PiL was just so way off, I felt I had to do something to counter it. It's seems the press just write PiL off as Johnny Rotten's solo band these days.
Nothing could be further from the truth! And it's a shame some PiL members are yapping that way too, because if that's the case then it has to be clearly understood I always share the royalties, equal shares. I've never worked anywhere with anyone on any other level but equal shares. Now Mr Rotten could quite easily grab the lot, but I don't because I treat people with respect.
You only have to listen to those records to hear it's a group, it's a band. It's not just one person.
Do you have any plans to put any PiL stuff out, unreleased tracks for instance, there is a demand for that.
Well, Virgin wanted to put out a new compilation, as you know, but there's a few things missing on it (laughs) That's about all... There's not much that was never released, in fact, nothing at all really. There's a few B-sides that I think were never really heard properly, things like 'Blue Water', when we used a skip in the beat, almost a 4-4-2 step! (laughs)
When I interviewed Nick and Martin they talked about unreleased stuff from around 'Flowers of Romance'.
There was a period there when we messed about a lot, well, we did a Beatles thing too! (laughs).
Isn't that Jeannette singing? That's what she said to me!
Yeah, she's in there somewhere, but it was all kind of rubbish. There was one good song from around then that was called 'Vampire'. I think I've got that on master somewhere. What I liked about that song was that the night we were doing it, they couldn't work out how I got out the studio (laughs), 'cos there was only one door out, and that's through the main room. I honestly don't know how I did! (laughs). To this day they think I walked through the wall! (laughs). Was I so boring I wasn't noticed! It's amazing what you can do when you are blind drunk! I must have just crawled out under the desk!
Karsten who helps me with Fodderstompf interviewed Jim Walker and he mentioned a track called 'You Stupid Person'. Do you know anything about that?
I don't know what he's talking about, I know he thinks he did a lot of stuff on his own, but I can't work out where he actually thinks he did it, because at the time he was living at my house in Gunter Grove. So I don't know what he's quite on about.
There is a danger in all of this that a lot of people like to claim it's all about them. PiL was all about “us” not really any individual. It's always an “us” with me, and it's wrong it's perceived any other way. I don't steal or rip off anybody, in fact I'm probably over fucking generous, publishing, royalties everything, it's equal or I won't do it. I'm not into nicking, only sharing. I get very upset when I read from old PiL members and whatever that it was the Johnny Rotten band, they seem to be forgetting they were living rent free, food free, booze free, cost free, and getting fucking equal royalties and publishing deals. Equal, equal but not paying a penny for anything, right, and that's to be remembered...
There are some members like Martin Atkins or even Bret Helm for instance, that are still grateful for the chance they got from PiL.
Martin, I don't think would have been noticed, not by anybody, shame, 'cos for me he was a fucking stunning drummer. He doesn't like drumming, I don't understand it. On 'Flowers of Romance' Martin was going off on tour with Brian Brain and he only had two bloody days, so I just started to lay down loads of different drums beats, and we didn't have any time to set up any real sound, the Townhouse in Goldhawk Road was being built at the time so the drum kit was on a wooden frame over this huge deep hole in a stone room and that's what created that incredible sound, Nick will tell you this, we just heard it and went 'Ooh, lets just have some top mikes for the echo off it, and fuck it, don't do any EQ'.
Where people make mistakes with production is they go into fiddling with EQ's. You should just go to monitor mix. A monitor mix is without any of that huge equipment attached to it, which always dissipates the energy. It's just as it is, as you hear it, and when you put that down you get that live sound, you get that spaciousness, it isn't all compressed.
That's probably where that thing I said about the records sounding like an actual live band comes from!
Yeah I know, duh what a concept eh! My limitation is, if I can't play it live I won't do it, because I need the humanity of it, because then it would just be machine trickery, and what the fuck's with that? That's what I don't like about Techno, the Techno stance, is that it uses machinery to imitate natural music, and it's still stuck into the same format, use a drum machine instead of a drummer, why? Why can't you go further with that? And that's what my last solo album was where I juxtapositioned the beats, if you want to find the correct rhythm in those songs you don't follow any one instrument, you just let the whole oral tapestry flow in, and it naturally occurs to you. That's what I used to like about early reggae, the rhythm was never played, but you always knew what it was, and the singer would be on it, but there would still be another melody in there that was never actually played.
Are you still planning a PiL book?
A PiL book, yes, definitely. A lot of people want to be involved, but they want to be involved from their angle, and a lot of people, old members, friends and whatever, have already built concepts in their minds of what a PiL book would be, and that's where they are wrong.
I know we've talked about it before, and you suggested it would be good to maybe put a DVD or a CD-ROM on it, with PiL tracks, footage, or images, whatever. Obviously, the book is the most important thing, but there is plenty of scope to add to it.
All of that yes. There's enough footage of PiL that I've got, and is out there, and can get anytime to stick onto this and make it a DVD.
The transition between
the Sex Pistols to PiL that wasn't just a pop star having a
whim, there was a serious court case, serious pressure and serious
bankruptcy, and somehow in between there I went to Jamaica for Virgin
Records, and helped sign up Reggae bands. And more or less introduced
reggae to the commercial world that way.
Yeah, that whole Jamaica thing needs documented, it's often written off as 'Johnny goes on holiday', there was a lot more to it than just that. Quite a lot of those bands wouldn't have signed without you being there.
That's right. In fact, there would probably be none of them actually! It's not understood that when I did the Capital Radio show and brought in things like Big Youth and whatever, it was never heard on radio. It was a complete mystery and it shocked people. But then Tim Buckley and Peter Hamill, people didn't know these things existed either, well they should, if I can find out, anybody can.
People are still that way to this day. Going in to a record shop and buying a load of strange things is great fun for me, and I mean buying, I always buy, I don't like freebies, because I'm aware that a band need the money... I bought Audio Bully's the other week. I really like them, they're cheeky, they just chuck it all in. Very PiL in its way, not as you can say a specific PiL song, but the way it's put together, with a great sense of fun and enjoyment, and not too structured. They sound like someone I would know. They fit bang into a neighbourhood I live in, I can relate to what he's saying. Good luck to them.
Do you think PiL get far more respect from dance culture, than the rock crowd.
Yes that's absolutely right, but the dance culture crowd don't have the same voice in the media so it doesn't get out, but that is absolutely right. And if you want to talk about, oh I don't know, Ethnic music creeping into the whole thing, well it's stuff like 'Flowers of Romance' that did it. Arabic folk music is the same as Irish to me, and Bulgarian and whatever, it's always been in there for me. Then much later, when you look at 'Warrior' or 'The Body' these are Techno based tracks, because Techno did come from regular music, there's computers in them, there's all kind of midi keyboarding but it sounds like a band live.
There was a period there when we brought back 12” singles. Virgin, in fact all labels, had cut back on making vinyl for a while, and it was a real problem with them. So we decided to do an extended dance mix of 'Warrior' that was a serious club anthem at the time, as was 'Death Disco' back in the day. We were always covered on the dance side, as well as the rock crowd, and doing both at the same time, and that's missing in the historical perspective of it. 'Warrior', that remix single, that sparked off a whole vinyl backlash, and 12” singles started flying out, and remixes started going out all over the gaff in that particular way. If you look at Bjork when she went into Techno it's all from around that period. It was from people we were bringing into this world...
Here's a little key factor, there's two consistencies in PiL, one is of them is me, the other is bloody excellent drum sounds, because that's where I put my most focus. To make the drums as fucking 'up there' as you can, hard hitting, and that for many years was seen as being anti-music, and now it's acceptable. And oddly enough the rhythms that come from things like '4 Enclosed Walls' & 'Banging the Door' set up a drum and bass kind of vibe, and now there's an awful lot of that in music, I don't know what you'd call it, Gangster, Techno, whatever, but it's using those kind of progressions. And let me explain 'drum and bass', I'm not saying we invented drum 'n' bass Techno! By 'drum and bass' it means quite literally we only had a drum kit and a bass guitar! With two strings on it! Which to most musicians would be unplayable, to me is a joy of life (laughs!). Even back then when we were doing 'Flowers...' for instance, Phil Collins was checking out what we were doing (laughs), so check out when he started to have ferocious drum sounds.
Yeah, Nick told me that, he also told me Kate Bush bought your bass!
Yeah, we also programmed the Fairlight for Kate Bush, well, we tried too, but there was no midi instruments out there at that time, it was ahead of its time. We had all these kind of Moog things for you to stick leads in all over the place, but there was no Midi keyboards to use with them! And you couldn't make any sound samples because you couldn't relate analogue to digital, and it was insanely hard for us!
PiL always seemed interested in musical technology. You've said before that you would treat the studio as an instrument.
Yeah, but now it's fashionable to say that we copied Can. Well listen to Can and Kraftwerk and you're talking shit! (laughs). It's nothing like it, it's like saying the Pistols copied The Ramones, what the fuck are you talking about! Have you no ears (laughs). It's just not understanding... Can were a band nobody tolerated then, or Magma, or NEU, but you know, I wasn't going with that because I was fashionably weird, it's just what I liked.
Can were one of the few bands you ever admitted to liking at the time, it was the only reference they had! It's just lazy journalism.
Yeah, Can, along with 20,000 others! And if you want to know how I first found out about Can, it was from Sid! And I don't mind telling anyone that 'cos that's the truth, that's how we were with music. We'd all go out and find our things, and you might not like it, or you might, but that's what it was about. And all of that seems to have gone now. It's now all about imitating something, and the older it is the better, and the least anyone knows about it the more fashionable it makes it, well, I don't think so...
I've always been very open about the music I listen to, it's extensive and huge I don't have any limitations. Alice Cooper has always been in there, but journalists don't want to hear that. I even have Val Doonigan records, and why not? I like some Genesis very much, I can't remember which one now, but I do! Peter Hamill, my god, that album 'It's Over' is fantastic! He's just moaning and groaning away. His wife ran off with his best friend and it's really sad! But I loved the way he dealt with it emotionally, he just got angry with them, instead of self-pity, so I respect it. Yet, I'm supposed to not like stuff from that class structure, wrong, I like people from any structure when they are honest. I liked Joy Division at the time, very early lot, and all that nonsense about the singer killing himself was like well, 'how fashionable, but how stupid'!
A lot of people think Joy Division are depressing, but I don't find them depressing at all.
No not all. What, it's depressing to solve your problems? Is it depressing to know you have emotions, are these depressing, NO! I love them (laughs). To me music isn't just there to make you happy, it's to make you feel everything possible, including suicidal, which in its on weird way can be helpful.
I've heard that said about PiL too, but I don't know how they could find it depressing.
On the first album that line from 'Theme', “I wish I could die, I will survive” they used that here years back in a psychiatric clinic and it actually helped people with suicidal tendencies because they could relate directly to the emotion in it. It was like, 'somebody else feels that too', so for it to be seen as nihilistic is completely wrong, it's a cry for help song. And that's what Joy Division were. If it's depressing it's because you're trying to hide some of your emotions, you can't do that, you have to deal with everything, human beings that's why we are here and frivolity and love tities, just create problems.
Any plans to bring back 'Rotten TV'?
Yeah I do, but I think the backing won't come from America this time. They don't like outspoken here. It's not that I'm outspoken, I'm just basically bloody honest, and that's not liked. I don't understand it myself... I loved doing 'Rotten TV', and when I see something like that recent Ali G show here in America, I cry for humanity, I really do.
Yeah, that's an Oxford Graduate.
That's right, and he likes to play the working classes all down as ignorant. That's fucking condescending. I think he should be taking the piss out of his own culture, and we could learn from that, but don't give me that shit. Don't put that on us, that's not right. I don't put that on him, and therefore he's not playing the game fair. It's an ignorant, ignorant assumption. Of course there's those sort of wannabe rap wankers around, but they're not liked in the real world either, and frankly the only kids that are like that are from his class.
I think it was a shame because 'Rotten TV' had a lot of potential, but it seemed to me VH1 didn't back it properly, it didn't even get shown in the UK till last year.
No they didn't back it in any way. Of course, now years later I'm all over it, they have me on every bloody second night! Not that show, but from anything. They keep showing old PiL videos, or old interviews, and yet when I was on it they were just totally not into it, 'Are you taking the piss?' thinking it was all just some elaborate joke, well, maybe it is, but what's the problem with that? I think I wasted far too much time, and I went into it far too heavily, and I let it get me down, because I really wanted it to work, but September 11th put an end to everything, it really did, and nobody really knew what they should do or think about anything, which is ridiculous.
Do you think you will do anymore talks like NXNE thing you did in Canada?
No, it was a one off fun idea, and it came about because a lot of people had cancelled, and wouldn't go to Canada because of American Network TV led, 'SARS, oh we're all gonna die, you won't catch me going there', so I bothered to look into it and I thought well why not?
I'd like to see you doing more things like that too. I know Spoken Word is a bit 'Coffee Shops and Bean Bags' but I think it's something you would be great at.
Well, it's like this, I'll just be myself, there's nothing I can tell them about the industry because I just don't like the industry and I don't follow any of its rules. The fact I'm up there talking away proves that, learn from that, be yourself. I'm not up there to give it a big nasty 'Johnny Rotten I hate everything', because Johnny Rotten isn't like that, I'm a bloke who wants to have fun. I don't know if there's a Heaven or not, right, so I'm gonna make my life alright, there's too many bastards out there trying to stop that and I ain't gonna give them the weapons to do it.
Can you tell us a bit about the Blacksmoke thing?
The flaming cheek of them of putting that out on the radio, without asking me! Oh John won't mind he's an Anarchist' . Excuse me? I mean it's so low in the background but it was the flaming cheek. And if after all these years after KLF if that's all they can come up with, a dodgy tape of me on a worktape, well you know... ! (laughs) It's an insult, but only really to themselves.
Where does the vocal come from?
I did it years ago, but the music wasn't right, and I couldn't be bothered to educate them. I was gonna make a record called 'In the Year 2525' and I added an extra bit at the end to show I could take it into any pattern I liked, 'cos the music they sent on a cassette was fucking wrong, and I reminded them of that, and they couldn't get the beat right so they scuppered the project, and then they ended up doing it with Siouxsie Banshee, and I thought you aresholes, you know? (laughs).
Is that the same backing track they used on the radio?
No they used a completely different tune, right, which was a real scupper, a real nerve, and cheeky. Scott, you know, isn't it like this, here's Mr Rotten, you want to use him, well fucking ask him! Ask him and he'll give you the level you would fucking appreciate.
I thought the track sounded a bit like Ministry playing GSTQ, it sounded like the same riff.
It probably is, it probably is. To me it's not worth bothering with them, to behave like that, they should be on a higher level. Oh god I dunno, what am I supposed to do, it would cost me a million pound a day just to stop that kind of thing. Everybody wants to use my stuff, sorry it's not being arrogant, it's just the way it is. Whether it be adverts or movies or whatever, but they don't want to show no respect or pay, or give any connection, or thank you about it, in any way shape or form, in case I might get arrogant (laughs) about myself ! (laughs).
Right thanks John,
I'll let you carry on...
I'll just carry on fighting the shitsdom. Not willingly or deliberately it's just the way it is. People like to roll over and are constantly trying to get you to roll over because they've rolled over. And as you get on you realise that happening around you, because it's easy to just settle in and hang on your laurels, but what laurels? I didn't do it for that, I've got a need to just fucking do something, and all the more fun if it irritates the universe, that's an achievement in itself...
Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)
NXNE, Toronto Holiday Inn, Canada, June 6th 2003 © unknown
John Lydon live at Tokyo, Liquid Room, September 26th, 1997 © Smash
Levene, Wobble & Lydon at Gunter Grove 1979/80 © unknown
'9' promo pic, 1989 © Bonnie Shiffman
John in Jamaica, February 1978 © Dennis Morris
John Lydon, circa 1983 © unknown
John at Reform Party Convention, Long Beach, August 10th for Rotten TV & eYada © Sam Mircovich
Q Awards, October 29th, 2001 © unknown