September 24, 2015 Interview – John Lydon of Public Image Ltd
There is an old saying, never judge a book by its cover. To add on that wise statement, those who do, often short-sight themselves. That could never be more true when it comes to legendary Punk Rock icon John Lydon, AKA Johnny Rotten, of Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd. Lydon, an outspoken and honest musician who has never been afraid to express his feelings in and out of his music, has withstood many ups and downs through life, only to come out a better person because of it. After departing from Sex Pistols in 1978, Lydon harnessed his creativity into Public Image Ltd and blazed a new path in his career. Experimenting with sound and styles, Public Image Ltd has stood the test of time with ten studio records to their name, including their most recent in 2015, What the World Needs Now… The singer takes nothing for granted at this point in his life and has risen by the trials and tribulations of the big machine to come out on top. Recently we sat down with Lydon to talk his history in music, the new Public Image Ltd record, creative freedom, and more.
CrypticRock.com – You are considered one of the most defining artists of the Punk era with Sex Pistols and further expanding your music career with Public Image Ltd. In hindsight, how would you describe this amazing journey you have been on?
John Lydon – (Laughs heartily) Hilarious, in one word! I mean, it has been a bumpy ride. Nothing has ever been made easy. Nothing was handed to us in any of my bands, was ever handed to us on a plate, everything has been a consistent struggle, but everything has been worth it. I have had to endure a lot of problems the record industry has thrown my way; some I asked for, some were unfortunate. I am still here, and because of each and every single different aspect of what I’ve been through musically, they have all gone into contributing to the finalized product, which is why we are here today talking. Public Image Ltd has now finally managed to buy its way off the labels that was restricting me for so long and out of the industry that gave me so many problems. Now we are completely independent and nobody can tell us anything or what to do. We do it ourselves, and we really enjoy it, and we have been like this now for some five, six years.
CrypticRock.com – That is excellent. Music is an art form and form of expression; a form of freedom that we all love.
John Lydon – Yes, it is, it is completely about that for me and such a shock, really, that when you sign up to a large label that is the very first thing they try to take away from you. They start to dictate, and they dictate through finances. They withhold the money and, literally, it feels like blackmail, trying to make you make records that are not a part of your personality at all, or character. It makes you wonder why they signed you. An even bigger problem comes along when you want off that label and they will not let you go. That is what happened to me for a great chunk in the middle there of Public Image.
It got to the point where I could not make music any longer and I had to go outside of music in order to raise the money to buy my way out of the contract; they would not just let me go. I have been fairly quiet about that because I do not believe in self-pity. I think many other bands have had to endure that kind of catastrophic manipulation. In my mind, good riddance to large labels. They only really work with alleged artists who are completely bloody corrupt. You know, that would do anything for money, fame, and fortune. It is a shame because a lot of these labels began with the original concept of helping creativity. They actually end up just being accounting departments destroying creativity.
In my mind, a classic example of how it is all gone horrible, and I suppose it was always horrible, but more so than ever, is if you watch the Grammys each year; it is the same people. It is the same ten artists or so with a few small changes, but basically you can predict who will be there every season. That is why ratings are dropping, that is why sales are affected. It is so stupid; it shows no sign of progress. It is just all about sucking money out of you, and it puts people like Taylor Swift there, clearly in your mind. There she is, also at the same time, fighting for artists rights; so it is a very puzzling figure she comes.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, it certainly is a very strange time when it comes to music, popular music and big labels as your saying; it seems to be getting worse.
John Lydon – Yeah, I never thought possible, it is even more restricted than when I first started with the Sex Pistols. There you go, maybe that is what the world needs now, is another “fuck off!” (laughs)
CrypticRock.com – Very blunt, but very true (laughs). When you formed Public Image Ltd after initially leaving Sex Pistols, did you have an idea that you wanted this new musical venture to be something vastly different, and perhaps more experimental than anything you had done prior?
John Lydon – Well, I would say exploring your personality would be extremely experimental (laughs)! It us all experiment, everything in music is experimenting, but what we do not do is go out and copy formats. What we do is, the issues involved in songs sometimes come first, sometimes a bit of music come first, but it always has to all complement each other emotionally according to the topic. We can do that sometimes using a verse-chorus format, which would be our own ideology of what that may be, or absolutely free-form; anything is possible and everything will be, and always logically according to the subject matter.”
CrypticRock.com – As you had mentioned, you had to take a break from music because of all the nonsense you were going through in fighting for everything and such, but you came back with Public Image.
John Lydon – I had got very, very little support, probably no support at all actually. So, you can understand why the ideology of the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” does not appeal to me at all; as an industry that almost crippled me. I am certainly not going back to them, cap in hand, going, “Please sir, can I have some more porridge?” You know?
CrypticRock.com – Yes, why would you want to be part of something which really turned their back on you essentially?
John Lydon – Yeah, and turned its back on creativity. That wants to absorb us into, of all things, a museum; while we are still alive (laughs)! It is like putting tarantulas in Tupperware (laughs); I am laughing at that imagery myself.
CrypticRock.com – It is excellent to see Public Image Ltd back in recent years, and now you are set to release the band’s tenth overall studio record What The World Needs Now…. What was the writing and recording process like for this new record?
John Lydon – No rules, no regulations. First we set up the microphones; we love the ambient sound of the barn where we recorded. Its stone walls have got beautiful natural reverb; almost cathedral like, and its from just playing around and bashing things, and the mic is always turned on as our songs developed. We deliberately tried to record things all together as much as possible so it keeps its live vibe. That way very little work is needed in post-production; hardly any, just slight tightenings, tiny little things, a tiny overdub, but nothing major because it’s all about being able to play these things live. That’s what gives it its sense of urgency, immediacy, and probably angst and anger; they are all in there. I will always naturally, I suppose, sound angry when I want to because of my need to pronounce every word, because I want to be clearly understood.
CrypticRock.com – Right, and the record is quite potent, musically and lyrically.
John Lydon – It is a great fun record though.
CrypticRock.com – You talked about recording live and not turning the microphone off, that is something a lot of bands do not do anymore, everything is cookie cutter.
John Lydon – Oh what a shame, what a shame, but maybe this will get a few of them out there thinking, “You know, John is right, that is where all the best stuff is;” because it is (laughs).They think it flows naturally.
CrypticRock.com – Yes, and that is how this album flows, naturally from one piece to the next.
John Lydon – And there you have it.
CrypticRock.com – You have never been one to hide your feelings on anything ranging from religion to politics. With that said, we are living in a time where it seems censorship and thought control is as widespread as ever. Why do you think we as a society continue to go down this road?
John Lydon – It is astounding. All my friends have told me, I am a liability to myself (laughs). If there is something that has to be said, you have to stand up and say it or else we all will find ourselves sucked up into the shitstem, and the shitstem is very, very poisonous. It is really all about taking away even our right to vote. One of the most awful statements I ever heard from any human being was Mitt Romney, when he said, “Corporations are people too my friend,” (laughs). That is no friend of mine that talks like that.
CrypticRock.com – That is certainly a frightening statement within itself.
John Lydon – That is about taking away your right to be an individual here, and that you’ve become basically the property of the corporation you work for. That will be our challenge in the future. You look at who is currently out there right, election-wise. Well, we have got Trump and Clinton, and it really does not look like a great bleeding opportunity, does it? It is frightening; they both want to maintain the shitstem. Both will not change the system because that is what they work in. They are all career politicians and no matter what Trump says about not wanting to be a politician; he is become one very, very quickly. Vote for someone, and this will be my first American election to vote for because I became an American; yippee aye oh, but it cannot be Trump. I will tell you that for nothing (laughs). I ca not have a real estate agent run the country; that is not what I signed up for.”
CrypticRock.com – Very valid arguments and concerns. A lot of people have many misconceptions of you as a person; about your thoughts on things, your tastes in music, everything down the line. Your recent book, Anger Is An Energy: My Life Uncensored, really gives people a deeper insight of who you are. Does writing a book of personal recounts differ for you than writing music and performing?
John Lydon – Yeah, it is longer, and it is without the music, which to me, words work best when there is a musical accompaniment to it; that is my favorite way of expressing my inner thoughts. A book is more like a diary; it is a detailed diary of what I have endured in life, and a lot of it extremely painful and hard to bring up and share with. I mean these are memories and thoughts that have never left me; not ever. They are the only thing I have left really after that coma and loss of memory; was the recovery of that memory which was the greatest thing in my life and I will never ever lose those memories as long as I live.
Every day for me is filled with new things to take on board and I cannot treat any of it with any disrespect, but I am sharing this now. I think it is about time people fully understood who and what it is I am, rather than the nonsense and prejudice that goes on out there by complete strangers. It is a hard thing to do, but I feel it is the right thing to do because the way I have been working for the last five or six years is; I go on stage now and completely leave the ego in the dressing room. The ego stays with all the stage fright and nerves before the gig, and what comes out on stage is a man who wears his heart openly, and so there it is, as big as I find.
CrypticRock.com – The book is very compelling. You spoke about your illness as a child and you have expressed how frightening that illness was. Seeing all you had been through at such a young age, do you think that changed your perspective on life for the better as you grew as a person?
John Lydon – I survived, and oddly enough, I think it actually helped me. I have made it, and I have endured it in the way that I think that it was supposed to happen in order to get to where I am now. It is all been little building blocks or steps on the ladder. That is what life is, it’s an endurance course and, “Can you last it or not?” I have never been allowed self-pity in my life. My parents would not tolerate it, therefor, I am fully with that wisdom. I have got no time to look back and feel sad about myself; quite the opposite. I face it, and I face it like a man.
CrypticRock.com – Right, exactly, and the things we endure as human beings should make us more appreciative of the things we have and the things we are doing.
John Lydon – Absolutely, absolutely, and it should teach us a bigger sense of empathy towards our fellow human beings. This is why I do not mind paying my taxes for things like “ObamaCare,” because any society worth its weight is one that takes care of its ill and unfortunate and disenfranchised; otherwise it is not a society, it is a shootout at the OK Corral with business men telling others to pull the trigger on each other. That is really why I became an American; you know? There is a couple of songs on the album, well “Bettie Page,” the people, my God, are suspicious of the motivations, it is such an innocent sounding song (laughs).
I am trying to get to the root core of what being American is, because it propagates itself, and through the moral, righteous brigade on the right of being a God-fearing nation, and yet this is the biggest pornographic country in the world; it is the largest industry for such a thing and yet the two don’t acknowledge each other. Now for me, if America is to go forward, it has to stop being ashamed of the human body and start being ashamed at the absurdity of religion. The point is, it is a diversity thing, religion; it is all about not tolerating or enduring your fellow human beings because they may differ.”
CrypticRock.com – Right, exactly. You mention the human body. It is really quite compelling in our popular culture in America that we fear showing a slight bit of nudity, not gratuitous nudity, but a little bit of nudity, but we show gratuitous violence constantly.
John Lydon – Yeah, that does not seem to upset the religious far right, does it? How odd! Only by open discussion, by the way we are right now, will these situations change? Do not leave it in the hands of politicians any longer, and Donald Trump is not the answer. I don’t want a real estate agent running my life, so pious and prejudice as him. He has very dangerous ideas, that man has, and if he did get in, he would become a complete dictator. He is not used to listening to argument, he is not used to discussion, he is just used to dictating. Be very, very frightened of that.
CrypticRock.com – Really valid points, people should definitely consider that when making decisions. One last question for you, CrypticRock.com covers all forms of music as well as Horror/Sci-Fi movies. If your are a fan of Horror, what are some of your favorite Horror films?
John Lydon – The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) (laughs). Absolutely riveting, that film, and worked on me when I first seen it; what was I, seventeen? It was vile, what I was looking at, and very, very scary, and it worked in every way. The music, the characters in it; they were all awful and you did not want any of them to survive (laughs). I mean that for me is the perfect, perfect film, absolutely, it gets you riveted. I could actually really seriously feel the heat and the sweat of the characters in the van travelling to their imminent deaths. I could feel that, it really, really was excellently done; it is a shame that the 1994 Texas Chainsaw Massacre: Next Generation one that came out with Matthew McConaughey was a mess. They went back into it beforehand; I thought it was appalling.
CrypticRock.com – You are right, the edition was not very good at all. There are a lot of great Horror films from the ’70s and the ‘80s.
John Lydon – A lot of the English ones, the Draculas, and that from the Ealing Studios were very good. They are a bit dated now, but you know, when I was like ten, eleven, that way; they were frightening. Hammer Horror, that is it, my God, ugh, lovely. There was a beautiful, brilliantly terrifying series in England called Mystery and Imagination. I was very young, and wow, that was scary. That was very, very gritty, badly acted no doubt, but when you are very young, the idea of being locked up and buried alive in coffins, which was a regular kind of thing, it had a lot of Edgar Allen Poe in it and was thrilling. My dad was so angry at catching me watching this stuff, saying, “Ah it’ll ruin your mind,” (laughs) but it didn’t (laughs). It used to air on late on Sunday nights, and my God, it turned my head; all for the better (laughs).