Interview: John Lydon, ex-Sex Pistol
JOHN Lydon is in characteristically combative form. Modern bands have no "gusto" and are lazy, he tells me. This may be because as children their parents aren't allowed to chastise them for being "arseholes". Damien Hirst is just "flogging cod". His record company, Virgin – which, you may be shocked to hear, he is not on the best of terms with – is "appalling". I suspect that his views on Bono, or "Bozo the clown" as he calls him, may well be libellous
So, John, has time mellowed you? "I think it has," chuckles the 53-year-old former Sex Pistol, "especially if I have had a glass or two of fine wine. But then, when I get up in the morning, it's all gone wrong again."
Lydon's permafrost of gleeful irritation makes him an engaging and sparky interviewee, albeit one whose default setting is to try to put the interviewer on his back foot. It is a fun process best summed up by the following exchange:
Me: "Are you a contrarian?"
Lydon: "No." (cue feigned shock and outrage followed by cackling).
In his own head, Lydon is perfectly straightforward. It's just that when he opens his mouth, he is compelled, if not to be deliberately provocative, then to challenge any assumptions that the person he is talking to might hold. Like the majority of performers, he also likes the attention.
"I've tried being a hermit and found it a rather dull lifestyle," he says. "If you have something to say then you want someone to pay attention or at least to have the opportunity for them to tell you to shut up and go away."
"Which has happened many a time," he adds happily.
The former scourge of the establishment, I'm A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! contestant and current face of Country Life butter is currently hard at work promoting the first tour in 17 years by Public Image Ltd.
Formed by Lydon in 1978, shortly after the demise of the Sex Pistols, PiL are now hailed as a massively influential post-rock band that, over the 14 years that they were active, produced a constantly evolving sound which has been cited as inspiring everyone from the Manic Street Preachers to Primal Scream.
Originally comprising Lydon, former Clash guitarist Keith Levene and bassist Jah Wobble, PiL had a churn rate of band members that would make even The Fall's Mark E Smith envious. This time around, the line-up features late 1980s PiL veterans, guitarist Lu Edmonds and drummer Bruce Smith, plus new arrival, multi-instrumentalist Scott Firth.
"This is the best gel of personalities for the music," explains Lydon. "Out of all the people I have worked with, Lu and Bruce are closest to the work we will be doing. They can play the full gamut of PiL, whereas some other members of PiL, who might be closer to me as a friend, really wouldn't be able to catch up with the newer or stranger stuff."
Lydon's plan is that this series of pre-Christmas gigs, a run that has been largely bankrolled by his infamous butter ads, will lay the groundwork and provide the funds necessary for a full PiL tour and, hopefully, new recordings in 2010.
Having dabbled in multiple side projects and reformed the Sex Pistols twice, Lydon has never been quiet for long, but he sees PiL as the defining statement of what he is about. Actually, I'm paraphrasing, he calls it the "dog's bollocks".
"The Pistols is an absolutely brilliant band and we said a lot of things that needed to be said," considers Lydon. "PiL is a more in-depth approach. It's self-investigation, feelings and emotions. I love books, and all the best ones are people analysing their own emotions. You can learn from that."
His real-life experiences and those of other people are usually at the root of a PiL song rather than them deriving from an imaginary boy meets girl scenario. Lydon doesn't do froth in his songs. He wants raw emotions, as in Death Disco, a track which stems from his mother's death.
"That song can flood my head with all kinds of sad emotions or images, but that's kind of why I wrote it. Because we play it differently every time, it always affects me in a different way. It's as though it is coming in another side of my head.
"Everyone has loss in their lives at some point. How do you deal with that? I think songs like Death Disco are much more relevant than a stupid pop love song. Although I have always been drawn to literature, oddly enough, for me, I have always found music to be the clearer way of communicating. Words cannot express quite a lot of feelings, whereas a noise or tone or drone or sound, an accordion falling down a staircase, can somehow capture an emotion much better. If you can sort out why you feel the way you do then you might be in better shape to meet your maker."
Possibly foolishly, I ask Lydon if he thinks there is a maker to meet.
"Who made me?" he sneers. "ICI? Some chemical institution? I'm really some kind of a Molotov cocktail with a cherry on top."
While Lydon is certainly as volatile as exploding petrol fumes, and his sudden indignant outbursts do tend to overshadow other traits, it would be a mistake to think they are all there is to him. Obviously, he is a contradictory sod.
He will happily sound off about the inadequacies of youths and then wax lyrical about the pre-Pistols period that he spent working as a carer for children with behavioural difficulties. At first I thought he was pulling my leg but, at a time when his granddaughters lived with Lydon and his wife Nora, it turns out that the former self-proclaimed Antichrist used to attend their school PTA meetings. Lydon sees no contradiction.
"I've always been able to get on well with any mixture of people," he reckons. "It's not being a chameleon; it's enjoying the way that different groups live and think and feel. It's seeing what makes them tick. There is no group of people who deliberately make their lives vile and unbearable and awful. Well, except the Goths." v
Public Image Ltd play Glasgow's O2 Academy on Friday www.johnlydon.com
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