John Lydon & Keith Levene:
The Face, 20th November 1980
Transcribed (and additional info) by Karsten Roekens
© 1980 The Face
JOHN LYDON AT LARGE
interview: Chris Salewicz
photos: Sheila Rock
It seems poetically appropriate that John Lydon has chosen Kubrick's 'A Clockwork Orange' as the film to insert into the video-cassette deck at Virgin's Townhouse Studios in Shepherds Bush. John is hunched over a 32-track mixing desk that dwarfs his slight, unexpectedly studious figure. He is mixing new PIL tracks recorded the previous day for a new studio album. Between takes, from time to time, he peers up at the television that is set in the wall above his head.
The cassette we're watching is a bootleg that John has recently bought. "Kubrick withdrew the film in England a few years ago. Got a bit too close to comfort to the truth of what's going on, didn't it?" he announces in the condescending sing-song whine he reserves for the near-truisms he tosses like stick grenades into conversations or silences. These vocal irritations now provide the only memories of a once more mannered speaking voice that, two or three years ago, used to rise and dip like the verse-reading efforts of a petulant school kid: a voice possessed of a grating quality guaranteed to get under even the most insensitive skins. John Lydon DOES have a super-ego: even though much o it was doubtless erected as a defence mechanism against all the nonsense to which he was subjected as a Sex Pistol, there were certainly some pretty solid foundations already existing upon which to build.
His wit and natural style (the latter being the reason he got into the Pistols in the first place) must for long have induced in John some measure of self-admiration - though whether, pre-Pistols, he consciously thought in those terms is another matter. He is probably more intolerant than he believes himself to be: John doesn't seem very readily able to accept the humanity in his fellow man's folly, and there is a suspicion that he doesn't always see his own fallibilities either. Certainly, he's a little too convinced of his own innate wisdom.
"I was born 2000 years old", he sighs with histrionic all-knowingness at one point, leaving the listener with the lingering memory of just how much John Lydon can sometimes appear like a wizened, dirty old man. Considering, though, all the nonsense to which he's been subjected, John Lydon is remarkably well-balanced human being. He is also very funny, with a deep-rooted, natural humour.
Though this has not always been the case, his perceptions these days overrule his paranoia. As well as separating him from the Kafka-esque period of the late Pistols and its immediate spiritual and legal consequences, the passage of time is justifying John's ambitions for Public Image Ltd. Also, he has presumably in some ways come to terms with the tragic death from cancer two years ago of his much loved mother - he lovingly refers to her as "my old dear". As was shown by his Dublin arrest (he's on bail to reappear in court just before Christmas) John Lydon is still under constant scrutiny from the forces of officialdom.
One can only hazard a guess at how wearing he must find this: until the early hours of the morning one day last February when John was wakened by the sound of his front door being broken down by police officers, who subsequently charged him under the Fire Arms Act for possession of a pocketpen-sized teargas spray, he and the occupants of his Chelsea home were aware that for some months they'd been under sporadic police surveillance.
Since that bust, though, for an item that is legal in the United States, and for which he was given a six months conditional discharge, he feels that the upholders of law'n'order have lost interest in him: "They seemed very disappointed they didn't find anything more. I really got the impression they thought they were going to discover an arms cache. God, I've never seen so many police."
People ostensibly on his side have caused John equally as many problems at his home. Mutant punks have been the major difficulty: "It's much, much worse than it was in the days of the Sex Pistols. I've even had them pitching their tents on my front doorstep. Victor Vomit from Hull, I remember, was a big problem." There was also a time when the Lydon front room would be regularly peopled with ultracool sycophants, like fawning toadies at a Regency court. "I just don't let any of them in anymore. I just don't answer the door", he shrugs, with the faint irritability of one who realises he's been used.
John Lydon seems a bit of a lonely fellow sometimes, though he claims his real friends are rarely seen and have nothing whatsoever to do with the music world. With his jacket, trousers, waistcoat and shirt all made out of different patterned check materials, John Lydon looks like a racecourse bookie who got dressed whilst under the influence of a bad hangover. His sartorial ensemble is set off by a black tie: "I thought I should go for a more sombre effect." Around one o'clock in the morning, as 'A Clockwork Orange' flickers to a close, the Public Image singer can be sighted sniffing surreptitiously into his armpits. "CORRRR, I do SMELL, don't I?" he announces, having traced the source of a stench like dead cats that is polluting the studio. "Can we get some air freshener in here?"
In an expedient move to eradicate his own unpleasant odour he removes his shirt and tie and replaces his jacket and waistcoat. No wonder the Chelsea police have stopped hassling him: they probably had to get in Rentokil after they took him down the station last time. Back at his mixing desk seat John continues pouring Guinness down his throat from an unending series of pint cans. This Arsenal's fan's love of his Irish roots is far removed from the self-conscious showbiz nonsense that Rod Stewart, another Celtic North Londoner, utilises to demonstrate his Scottishness.
A couple of hours later John makes his way along the long corridor from the studio PIL are using to enter the Townhouse's lounge and television room. As he passes the main studio he jerks a thumb in its direction."The Jam are in there," he laughs over his shoulder, "if you want to nip in for a quick interview...heh heh heh..." he cackles contemptuously.
There is not exactly a lot of other musicians' work enjoyed by JR - the Lydon bit was introduced into general usage after Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren claimed HE had sole ownership of the Johnny Rotten moniker: even so, privately, John has and still does refer to himself by the initial letters to which he had a claim long before the existence of a certain TV series.
Currently PIL consists of John, Keith Levene, filmmaker Jeanette Lee and corporate overseer Dave Crowe. Much insistence is made that Public Image Ltd. is a business company and not a group. And it is not restricted to MUSICAL business, either.
Drumming with Levene and
Lydon is Martin Atkins, who worked with them on 'Metal Box' and is shortly
due to tour the States with his Brian Brain group. Though PIL are
working at the Townhouse on their next studio album, released this month
is 'Paris Au Printemps', a live LP recorded at a concert in the French
capital that preceded the outfit's string of US dates last
John settles down on one of the plush Chesterfields in front of the large colour TV. I ask him who played bass on the heavily percussive number on which he just tried out some vocals. Original PIL bassist Jah Wobble, of course, was asked to depart from PIL following the American shows. All the bass I've heard, he replies, is down to the bass drum! He is dismissive of the need for a bass player, explaining that when necessary Keith Levene plays the instrument. He goes on, reluctantly at first, to explain the departure of Wobble, for long a close friend of the singer.
"There was a divergence of opinion, that's all." he says, an obscure trace of bitterness in his voice. "It's all down to the records, really. I'd like to keep it down to that. Keith won't work with him. I won't work with him. No one in this entire company will work with him." he adds. "Listen," he continues, "while being a member of PIL and being given all rights and freedoms blah blah blah - more than he'd get with any other organisation anywhere - he did a few nasty things behind our backs, and that had to be stopped. But there's no big deal about it. It's just a fact of life."
One of the Wobble's sins,
apparently, was that he utilised, without the other members' knowledge,
rejected PIL backing tracks for his solo work. It does appear additionally
that the Sex Pistols fell apart under the pressure of an American tour,
so PIL felt the strain of working in the USA. Why had they decided to
tour there in the first place?
"I don't honestly know WHY we fuckin' went to America..."
It seemed out of character...
"Which is a good reason to go ... because we wanted to. We needed a holiday. We did gigs in between HUGE amounts of time off when we roamed around the countryside. After we'd finished in Los Angeles I went to Mexico in a camper bus I hired with some friends. A VERY heavy place...It was all" - he mimicks a New York media intellectual accent - "a very, very VALID experience."
"Then, you see, I'd gigged a lot before. Keith never liked gigging. I don't like gigging now. Wobble had never gigged before really in any way at all. And you need to know how AWFUL life can possibly get before you appreciate the value of your instruments." He laughs sardonically.
"Look, touring is VILE. The whole thing has either to be reorganized or stopped. TOTALLY. It turns people into cabbages or alcoholics. Us, as PIL, we can organize gigs just about anywhere in this universe, make it highly successful and at the end come out with money, actually earn a wage out of it. Yet if you leave up to, say, Warner Bros. who release us in America, before they even begin to book the dates, they're talking about losing twenty, thirty, forty thousand dollars. And it's NOT on. That's CRAP.
Mismanagement - totally. All the way down the line. It's all, like, a tax loss for record companies. They like to cover these costs, because when it comes to reviewing your album contract and you're running at a loss then they can keep you, but keep you under hand because you're so in debt you have to do as you're told. But it's only if you're a mug that you get into that situation, if you have management and middlemen."
At the time of this interview PIL are so short of money that John is expecting to bounce the cheque that's just been written for his domestic electricity bill. This though, he says, is a purely temporary situation: like any business in its initial stages they must expect their finances to fluctuate.
"Besides," he chuckles, swallowing another mouthful of Guinness, "we DO seem to spend rather a lot on entertainment. None of us has any money in our bank accounts, yet we all have colour TVs and video sets, and rather expensive stereo systems. We don't seem to buy much food, though. We're doing alright. It's just ups and downs." "It's well bizarre," he adds, "the whole tax situation.
If you credit yourself with stuff you need, and show the tax people you're running at a loss, then in fact you're gaining. Just as long as we can do what we want, then we're happy... It's just unfortunate that what we'd like to do involves very, VERY high finances. I'd ideally like someone with a lot of money to talk to us."
"We want to do films, but not like The Who's scheme of things, which I think is WELL shitty. That's just following the normal pattern and getting them nowhere. Look at the film industry all over the world. It's collapsing, right? What it needs is whole new ideas and a totally different approach. Without these two things you might as well forget it. There's no point in trying to condescend to OLD attitudes and OLD ways - you've failed before you've begun. I've always been someone who wants to CHANGE the things ARE. The possibilities are ENDLESS..."
"It's simple: everything is run by a bunch of OLD FUCKERS who are too scared of change, but know at the same time that what they're doing is crumbling. It's not working anymore."
"It's the same thing with the dinosaur bands. You know the huge amounts of money they make, and yet they're moaning all the time about things getting lacklustre. But what are they doing with their huge amounts of cash? They should be putting it back into other bands, or helping out in some way like building studios for bands that don't have the chance or money to get a record contract. The kind of stuff that WE're trying to do."
In fact, though, because they're playing within this vast corporate rock structure, a lot of these huge bands don't have half as much money as you'd expect. I understand this is particularly the case with the Pink Floyd...
"More fool them. They could very, very easily have got away with doing it their own way, the lot of them. Cowardice, I suppose. Or just basic laziness - that's more like it."
When he uses the word "laziness" there's a certain droll roll to John's voice that suggests perhaps HE is not totally free of that particular deadly sin...
"But anyway, Rock'n'roll is a dinosaur. It's dead, and (laughs) I thought I buried it with my last band. I don't like silly fuckers resurrecting it. The whole system should be changed - TOTALLY. Right from the grassroots upwards. And that's what we are trying - and SUCCEEDING - in doing. And if we don't get the credit, or some journalist or whoever don't APPRECIATE it...then that's TOO bad. I do feel that what P.I.L." - he recites the individual letters, as opposed to Keith who pronounces it 'pill' - "is doing is DAMN important." "Plus", he laughs, "we make jolly good fuckin' records! But anyway, this is boring for me really...if people don't see it by now, I'm just pissing up against the wind ... though I seriously have no idea who or what our audience is."
If it seemed poetically apt that 'A Clockwork Orange' should've been screened in the studio, it has to be an irony of near epic proportions that as JR enters into the customary rock'n'roll-is-completely-redundant rap that one feels is part of his very life force, the opening credits are rolled on the TV in front of him of the quintessential mid-50s rock'n'roll film, 'The Girl Can't Help It'. He watches the screen out of the corner of one eye. After it has been running for half a reel or so, we are joined by Keith Levene, who appears to divide his time in the studio between ascetic electronic work and playing Space Invaders. Via the articulate erudition with which he expresses himself tonight, Levene belies a reputation for being morose and dourly awkward.
These supposed character traits seem to be the result of simple introversion. He "hates going to gigs just for the sake of needing somewhere to go out to." Like John, he has no time for the revivalism that plagues modern music. "You might as well go RIGHT back", he grins semi-serious, "and become a fucking Viking or something like that. I'd much rather be a Viking than a skinhead." Though he never completed any of the courses he commenced, early Clash member Keith has an art background that included much video work. It seems likely that plenty of the current desire within PIL to pursue a video direction is rooted in his practical knowledge.
As he sits down, JR is commencing
a diatribe against the infatuation with back garden independent labels
that grew out of punk: "I seriously don't give a tuppenny shit
about any other outfit at the moment, because they're ALL wankers and
wallies. WE know what
we want, WE know what we think is right, and usually we're very fucking CORRECT. It's as simple as that: we'll just carry on doing what we want, not what we THINK people want. We will not support big labels, small labels or any other fucking label. It's just a matter of common sense. You obviously want the largest possible distribution for your record that you can get.
Not the most MINIMALIST.
That's CRUD. That gets you NOWHERE. So a few trendy journalists appreciate
what you're doing...well, GREAT. WONDERFUL... But isn't
that just a loser's way out? 'I've made my statement for art!'"
Yeah, well, operating like that you can end up disappearing up your own arse. But what will you do when your contract ends with Virgin? With this next studio album out you'll be halfway there. Or perhaps you haven't really got round to thinking about that yet...
JR (laughs): "YEAH...quite
frankly! Look, large record companies ARE manoeuvrable. Not everyone
who works for them is cloned beyond reason. You CAN manipulate
circumstances in your favour - it's just down to common sense."
Keith: "When you do
a deal with a record company what people seem to forget is that the
record company is working for YOU. That's where record companies and
managers and groups get it wrong. The manager tends to make the group believe that the group is working for him and for the record company. Yet it's the EXACT opposite: the record company is there to help the group...and themselves. If you go and talk to the record company yourself it's much easier than if you have some manager who just tells you what he wants to tell you, and undermines you. If you deal with it yourself you're more likely to get what YOU want done."
In the past the relationship between PIL and Virgin is known to have been volatile, to say the least. For long stretches of time, particularly around the release dates of the two PIL albums, communication between label and signing has been close to non-existent.
"A few wankers have
been eliminated..." is John's way of describing how this impasse
has been overcome and an apparently close working relationship arrived
at. No longer does PIL have to deal with a vast Virgin beaurocracy who
in the past, John and Keith allege, would distort their intentions and
redirect the original PIL desires. Now they deal directly with
Virgin boss Richard Branson.
"Virgin", Keith explains, "gave us very decent advances for our records. For example, we're getting an advance for this live record which is almost unheard of. But then they'd blow it by not promoting what we gave them. It got to the point about a year ago when I just said to Simon Draper, the managing director of the label, 'Go on, sling us off the label if you don't want us.'"
Keith then inquires what I think of PIL's music. Generally it's great, I reply, although in comparison with the first album I find 'Metal Box' somewhat devoid of humour.
JR: "That's funny...that's the one we were giggling all the way through..."
Keith: "'Metal Box' can be a hard album to get into... But I think that album's got so much depth..."
'The Girl Can't Help It'
is still showing on the television in front of us. John interrupts Keith's
words with a sudden yelp of delight: "O-O-O-OOOOHHH... 'CRY ME A RIVER'!!! TURN IT UP! KEITH, THIS IS JULIE LONDON - THE WOMAN I LOVE! I never knew she was in this! I REALLY like her. 'Cry Me A River' is one of my all-time fuckin' favourites."
Keith resolves to remain unmoved by this display of devotion: "...if you restrict yourself to labels like rock'n'roll you're never going to get anywhere with PIL. We're not even a group: we're a company. I don't think we connect with any of that stuff that groups are doing. That's my dilemma in the studio right now. Right this minute. The last album, 'Metal Box', if you want to call it rock'n'roll, it's the furthest you can go in rock'n'roll... Now there's got to be a complete change. At the moment I'm designing a drum synthesizer that I'd like to be able to put out on the market. I want PIL to do loads of things. We'll be doing videos soon. Well, we're doing them ow, but we'll be releasing them soon. But that doesn't just restrict us to playing the numbers that are on the tape, for example."
JR: "Listen, you do a song, but why does it have to be pictures of a band strumming guitars to go with it? Why should that be your visual?"
Keith: "Why should the soundtrack even have any music in it at all?"
JR: "Taking it the other way round...YES!!!"
Keith: "It might just be a dialogue soundtrack to go with the visuals. That's what a videodisc means to me. It's access to the film industry and -"JR (with the peevishness of one whose beloved has disappeared from the TV screen): "WHY, WHY, WHY! You either like what you see or you don't! That's it, isn't it?"
Keith: "I'm trying to
show the difference between the restrictive attitude and the open mind."
Me: "But the way most record companies are approaching video, they're obviously just going to turn out the predictable hackneyed rubbish..."
Keith: "Well, that's why I'd like to get money out of ITT or someone like that. Because I don't feel PIL is restricted to record companies. We're signed up to Virgin for the music side of it, but why should we be restricted to them for films? I think that by using video and Super-8 together we can blow all the unions out, which is the whole problem that fucks up film-making. And that's what PIL's all about - accessibility and non-restriction, opening things out.
Facility and creativity - not money. Just get it together yourself. That's the example WE want to set. Not CHANGING ROCK'N'ROLL because I really don't think we have anything to do with it. I'd rather send out a video of us than do a 30 date tour. Because videos don't have arguments with themselves, and don't split up, and don't ever tire."
JR: "How can you be honest if you have to play the same set every night?"
Me: "Have you stopped doing live gigs for good?"
JR: "YES! It's just not on. You might as well go to a museum. I'm afraid it's not on."
Me: "But are there no groups whom you would enjoy to see on stage?"
JR: "At the moment no."
Keith feels the same. Though he loves the new Bowie album, he wouldn't like to see him play a live show - though he would like to see him in 'The Elephant Man'. This, though, provides John with the opportunity to express HIS sentiments on the subject of Bowie: "People like Bowie, they should do very small nightclub gigs...totally different, totally separate. The geezer reckons he's an actor, he reckons he's into mime... (dramatic groan) GOD! I've yet to see it! UUUURRRGGGGHHH! I hate him SO much! I've NEVER liked him... We have quite a few differences about things like that, don't we, Keith?"
Keith (his thoughts leaping): "We're in here doing an album, right? We have to concentrate on doing music,that being our main money-puller and our main reason for being about at the moment - even though we want to do lots of other things. But we obviously have to concentrate on the musical side of things because that gives us the facility to expand. But, as I said, that's my present dilemma: I refuse to take part in any of it anymore... I don't understand why we haven't sold a load of records, but we haven't. 'Metal Box' sold out, and the 'Second Edition' sold loads, but they should all have sold millions more, and I don't know why they didn't. In the end, maybe our forth album will do really well, and people will just buy up the others.
But by then, we'll be doing so many other things that the musical side of it will be the least important..."
Me: "I think you're seen as a cult band..."
JR: "Unnecessary rubbish.
Because there's no intellectual in this outfit - that's for sure! I
not GIVE up. There IS a future. I will NOT accept the nuclear threat as being the be-all and end-all. I will NOT crawl back into escapism. The nuclear threat is just another form of escapism for the manic depressives. Or alcoholics. Or drug fiends."
As John is speaking, Keith stands up and returns to the studio. With Keith gone, John bemoans how disillusioned he's become with reggae, laying much of the blame for the devitalization of the music on the reggae snobs who swarm homicidally about it: "Do they like the RECORDS? Do they actually like the MUSIC? I don't like what reggae clubs have become, there's very few blacks in them anymore. It's all social workers and trendies. That's why I don't like reggae music anymore. It's all 'Oh, you don't like that record? You racialist bastard!' But why don't I like it? Could it be that I've heard twenty better versions of it two years ago? Over the last two years there's been very little but re-releases. The only band I can think of who're doing anything at all is Black Uhuru. That's it."
Understandably Malcolm McLaren, due to whose actions all the Pistols' money ist still in the hand of an official receiver, remains a BETE NOIRE. Former Clash manager Bernie Rhodes, McLaren's supposed lackey, is seen, though, in a very different light.
"You have to appreciate
about Bernie", explains John, "that he does TALK. And so do
I: I talk myself into death traps sometimes. And that's what Bernie
And it hurts him. I know how much he influenced Malcolm. He DEFINITELY influenced the start of the Pistols. He made all Malcolm's shirts. He did all the t-shirt designs. He got ME in the band. Malcolm hated my guts, because of the way me'n'Sid used to take the piss out of him. WANKER! It's not that Bernie was Malcolm's stooge AT ALL. It was the other way around." I take exception with John over his continual sniping about The Clash whom, whatever he may feel are their misgivings, I certainly see as most sincere blokes.
"Oh, I'm not saying they're NOT. There was a time when Joe got very upset about something I said about them. It doesn't matter. I just DON'T LIKE their records, and I don't like their direction, I don't see what they're aiming at as being in any way constructive..."
But perhaps things have to operate on - "Many levels? Different attitudes? Fine. Perfect. But you can't expect me - as a normal person just like everyone else - to like everything. I have my likes and dislikes and I don't like what they're doing. It's not good enough for me. Personally."
Considering the official absurdities with which he's had to contend, it's hardly surprising that John Lydon is appalled by the political nonsense currently being propagated in this country. Like many others he is increasingly disillusioned at how little difference there is between Left and Right:
"Basically, it's all the same - it always will be. They just go round in circles. In actual fact, you need dull boring people in those positions of power to keep things together. Because as soon as you vote for opinionated leaders the extremities are going to provide a backlash to match it. So you just need a dullard, that's all - as a stabilizing factor. But I think (laughs) Margaret's gone a bit too far... I think it's bloody obvious she's mad. THE WOMAN'S DANGEROUS! The Tories will be in to 1984. And I can't see ANY way of stopping them."NOTES:
 The Jam finished the recording of their 'Sound Affects' album at Townhouse Studios on 22.10.1980 and started their UK tour on 26.10.1980
 Martin Atkins flew to New York on 1.11.1980 and played Brian Brain's US debut gig the same evening
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The face, November 1980 © Sheila Rock