John Kelly interviews John Lydon on the eve of Public Image Limited’s 40th anniversary celebrations.
Words: John Kelly
First formed in 1978 after the break-up of The Sex Pistols, Lydon has fearlessly steered P.I.L. through a number of forward-thinking releases. Beginning with the experimental post-punk blast of ‘First Edition’ and the dystopian dub of ‘Metal Box’ through to the industrial world rhythms of ‘Flowers of Romance and the anarchic avant-rock of ‘Album’, Lydon has never been comfortable with the ‘punk’ tag and continues to push musical boundaries with the current P.I.L. line-up
This interview was first aired on Sine FM’s ‘Orange Flavoured Pipe Machine’ on 29th April 2018.
John, how are you, sir?
Allo! I’m very much alive thank you!
That kind of leads us nicely into my first question, actually. You’re celebrating 40 years of Public Image Ltd, quite an achievement considering all you’ve been through.
Er…yeah. But for me, now I’ve got here, it’s not good enough and I want another 40! I’ve got to be honest, the level of work I’ve been maintaining is high!
Do you think P.I.L. has received enough respect over the years considering the fantastic legacy of work you’ve produced?
Probably not. It’s been far easier for the media to be cynical. But things are changing, you know? It’s just because I’ve got the persistence of an elephant. I suppose you get there in the end and people start listening and paying attention and realising I’m not just a filthy, foul-mouthed yob. I’m a lot of other things besides.
It seems to me you’ve had that life-long struggle trying to defy categories and labels. You’ve always seemed willing to transcend expectations and break barriers, even those thrown up by the so-called ‘punk’ movement.
Yeah, well you’ve got to be ahead of the curve, ain’t ya? And you mustn’t be imitating anyone, and that’s definitely me and my lifestyle. I’m not into copying, imitating or fitting comfortably into a category. The way I write and the things I write about are the things that matter, not only to me but to the people around me – to my family, my friends, my culture, my nations, my planet Earth…and you can’t do that wrapped up in pop garb, whether it be a studded leather jacket or a sequined tuxedo. Either way, they’re just images. You’ve got to keep away from getting entrapped in that and ensnared. Unfortunately, a lot of punk kids got trapped into thinking that was all there was.
Do you still find yourself defined by the work you did in the Pistols?
Not willingly. There’ll They’ll always be the haters in the national press and no matter how much you try to be accurate, honest and decent, they still play the dirty game and give it a nasty headline and misdirect people. But that’s the world we live in. I’m sure the people that appreciate what I do are smarter than that and don’t buy into it. As for the masses, well, hello! I’ve always known the masses to be sheeeeeep. Ha, ha, ha… I’m not one to bleat amongst the flock. I could have done that. I could have hung on my laurels and pumped out endless imitations of myself and made millions. But that ‘ain’t my way. Respect is the thing that I seek.
It must have been enormously liberating to draw on those wider musical influences.
I had to work against the easy money. But the trouble with that was that meant NO MONEY! Ha, ha, ha! And with noooooo money, it’s very hard to keep members and a permanent outfit. And that’s the way it’s been up until the last ten years. I’ve finally managed to break free of the stranglehold of corporate thinking record labels, formed our own label and now we have such a thing as continuity and a sense of permanence and dignity about it. We run it ourselves. That’s how it has to be. And this way, we can guarantee wages. And we love playing live. All the fears and phobias are still there before I go on stage, but there’s a sense of gratitude that I know I’m walking on to a stage with three blokes who I completely respect and respect me.
The current line-up is tremendous and draws on past P.I.L. line-ups with Lou Edmunds back in the fold alongside Bruce Smith who also served time in The Pop Group and The Slits.
The only new addition is Scott [Firth] who is just such a friendly, easy-going, outward looking bloke. No snobbery in him. Perfect. Because for me it’s always the personalities first and the musicianship can come second. But my God, didn’t I land well because I think they’re three of the toughest boys on any stage you’ve ever heard!
Are you still listening to music and enjoying stuff being created these days?
Not when I’m preparing for a tour, no. I don’t want a Taylor Swift melody to creep into my head. Although that’s not possible actually because I don’t know if she has any!
Are you looking forward to visiting the UK despite your problems in the past?
Listen, I’m there twice a year! That’s where my family are. Just because I’ve moved my business abroad; and had to because we couldn’t get gigs anywhere. The only way we could really operate was by setting up in New York and from there I expanded. That’s how it is. You go where the work is. There’s no point sitting on your socialist, moralistic a-hole and getting nowhere, ‘cos if the powers that be won’t move, they won’t move. So, you move. And when you come back you wave a big flag in their face and embarrass the hell out of them! Ha, ha, ha!
What can we expect to hear in the set list at these forthcoming gigs, John?
Oh, a huge variety. We’ll shape shift it about a bit. Basically, it’s all driven by audience vibration. I love these small venues because I can look into the eyes of everybody out there and I can feel their energies. I know when they’re sympathetic to where we’re going, and I know what they’re pleading and asking for. Hello, audience. Don’t shout out requests ‘cos we don’t do bar mitzvahs or weddings. Ha, ha, ha.
Just be polite and transmit it psychically.
Yeah, we’re not a showband on the love boat. It’s not like that. Just let me feel your energy and that will change the tempo. Some songs of course are bound to be sad ‘cos the subject matter is sad, while others are just complete escapism. And we need both things in life. In order to survive as a human being, you need to understand all of your emotions, be in control of them and know when to not be in control of them. That’s what Public Image is absolutely experimenting in.
(And with that, Mr. Lydon launches into this touching farewell homily and is gone…)
‘The Public Image is Rotten (Songs from the Heart)’ Career Box Set (1978-2015) is available from July 20th via UNIVERSAL.
For more details about the forthcoming P.I.L. documentary visit https://thepublicimageisrotten.com/