JOHN Lydon is chuckling away to himself. Actually, it’s more of a chortle with a blatant ring of subversion to it. Almost 40 years since he first crashed into the public eye as the fresh-faced and foul-mouthed frontman of the Sex Pistols, he retains a Loki-like capacity for mischief.
Lydon is free with his opinions and gen-erally available for comment – not unusual in the global communications age, except that Lydon’s is the opinion you still want to hear.
Interviewing him is a pleasure and a challenge. Occasionally a question will make its way fully formed over the wires to his home in Los Angeles. Say, something simple such as: how are you, John? To which the concise and not entirely expected response is “It lives!” But mostly, Lydon doesn’t wait for the finished query. He’s already one step ahead and brimming with ideas, eloquence, wit and good nature.
He appears to be in particularly fine fettle at the moment. That might be because in recent years he has fulfilled “the dream of my life” by reforming his beloved PiL, the ever-innovative group he founded the moment the Sex Pistols imploded but was forced to power down 20 years ago when EMI bought Virgin Records.
“It’s unfortunate that I had tangles with record labels that knocked me back for almost two decades,” he says, “but the resilience was always there in me. Everything I did was in mind to get PiL properly back together again and luckily a pound of butter helped.”
Ah yes, the notorious Country Life butter ads. Lydon took almost as much flak for his decision to advertise dairy produce on television as he did at the height of the Sex Pistols’ infamy for any number of perceived scandals. Such capitalist advancement was clearly no fit behaviour for an old age punk. As if John Lydon would ever care about meeting expectations.
“I’ve broken every rule in the book of musicianship,” he says. “I’ve fully disqualified myself on that count for many a year. When the invitation to audition for the Pistols came along I jumped wholeheartedly at it even though I’d never done any singing of any kind before then. I was frightened of being drawn into the school choir. I went to a Catholic school so that meant the priests had direct access to you and we all know that’s not what any of us wanted. So non-singing was very popular where I come from.
“Trying to avoid the very thing I ended up doing actually helped me because I found my own voice very quickly. I opened my mouth and whatever came out, that was it. You can spend your whole life learning everybody else’s style and approach but what you’re doing if you’re not careful is you’re unlearning yourself. I don’t want to sound like anybody else at this point in my life and I’m really pleased I don’t. I’d know me anywhere!”
It is a tonic and a relief to hear his distinctive bray fronting some new music again. Since PiL were last active in the early 1990s, Lydon has published his autobiography, released a solo album, reformed the Sex Pistols twice and made numerous television appearances from Judge Judy to I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! His brief but memorable stint on the latter led to an unlikely diversion as host of several wildlife and nature shows.
But it was the money from those butter ads which funded PiL’s comeback tour in 2009, the setting up of their own label and the making of the group’s first album since 1992.
This Is PiL is as vital a musical statement as any Lydon has put his name to, a genuinely invigorating set of songs with a sense of adventure, menace and humour. Having had to tread water so long, he is making up for lost time, relishing the opportunity to take PiL back to countries the band has not toured for decades and into new territories, including a controversial visit to Israel in 2010 and, earlier this year, China.
Lydon is predictably pugnacious about the former: “There was demonstrators proclaiming that we were supporting the fascist Israeli government. Don’t they know anything? There is no government in the world I support, not one of them.
“China, I found utterly amazing and a great revelation. Of course, they analysed every lyric I had ever written – and approved it! That’s quite something. I’m far from praising the communist system. I think that’s probably why they wanted me there – I’m in that perfect position between communism and capitalism, and trying to make sense of life somewhere in the middle, and maybe that’s China’s story at the moment. Gosh, Johnny, you’re a cultural ambassador!”
According to the operating principles of Johnny’s brave new cottage industry, the proceeds from all this industrious touring will go towards the recording of the next PiL album. Lydon cannot say what shape it might take until he gets in a room with drummer Bruce Smith and guitarist Lu Edmonds, both PiL veterans from the late 1980s, and Scott Firth, the new boy on bass. But he can say it will be great.
“This is a fantastic band to be in,” he enthuses. “We truly are friends, based on close working relationships. Who knows, we could all end up hating each other by Tuesday afternoon of next week but that in itself is song material. As long as there are human beings on this earth I’m never going to run out of subject matter for a song ever.
“Even emotional drama I will experiment in,” he says, positively revelling in the word “drama”. “I’ve wallowed in depression from time to time and I’ve found that I actually enjoy being depressed. I enjoy being ill too – wrapping myself up in a warm blanket with a hot toddy, it’s very comforting. But that’s my nature – I always look for the good in the situation rather than let it overwhelm me. And I’ve enjoyed some pretty damn near life-threatening situations yet here I am grinning.”
Lydon pronounces this last word with such alacrity that I can only picture him leering playfully into the nearest lens, ready for his next challenge.
Does he consider himself to be a dare-devil? “Yeah, but not foolishly. I will weigh the odds up but if it’s a risk worth taking I’m in. Putting myself in a band in the first place was the biggest risk I ever took, and I’m absolutely pleased with the end result. I found I was born for it.”
Lydon is now of a vintage where lifetime achievement awards are being floated for his consideration. “I’m quite happy with the ones I have accepted and very, very pleased with the ones I have rejected,” he says. One accolade he will accept in the next few days is the BMI Icon Award, in recognition of his “unique and indelible influence on generations of music makers”.
“It’s obviously about the music,” he says. “It ain’t about vomiting at an airport! It’s humorous but I don’t take it seriously. I’m not like Sting – I don’t want to be taken as a serious a**ehole.” Unique and indelible.
Sounds about right.
• PiL play the ABC, Glasgow on Friday. www.pilofficial.com