The Guardian, July 17th 2010
© 2010 Michael Odell / The Guardian
Ahead of PiL's UK tour, frontman John Lydon scratches his nuts and surveys the pop-cultural landscape – Lady Gaga, Vampire Weekend, Jay-Z and all by Michael Odell
It's 2pm in Los Angeles and John Lydon is slumped on his sofa, drinking beer and watching World Cup football on the telly. Fair enough. We must assume a certain lifestyle laxity in a gnarly artist previously self-billed as "anarchist", "antichrist" and a "potential H bomb". But the truly remarkable thing is that he's still angry; angry that a stupid, uncaring world does not see that a 54-year-old Anglo-Irish Cali-tanned punk burping and scratching his nutsack with a belly full of lager on an LA sofa is an advertising and marketing opportunity that's too good to be missed.
"I showed what I can do with butter, right?" he says. "Eighty-five percent increase in sales. I'm very proud of them Country Life ads. They were funny and clever and classy like the Toblerone ads I grew up with. But no one's come in for me with anything else. Like … Red Stripe lager! I drink lakes of this stuff. Why haven't I been signed up for something like that? Or Marlboro fags? It amazes me that people don't get the opportunity of me. I sell."
It's a modern tragic-comedy cultural tale. Lydon – formerly Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, who scared the shit out of the 70s with his boggle-eyed meningitis stare, and then became leader of post-punk noise makers Public Image Limited – is struggling to get noticed. In the US he would have his own wing in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, be playing 365 nights a year in Vegas, or living as a recluse in Elvis's old mansion by now. But here? He sells butter to finance a career resurrection.
"The thicker you spread your toast, the nearer the PiL reunion album comes!" he laughs. "Eat people! Eat!"
But before a new album we get the tour. It features no original members save for Lydon, due to "selfishness, attitude and all-round people expecting me to pay for everything". The new recruits are good, he says. If he could afford a TV ad for PiL he says he'd simply fill the screen with his snaggle-toothed leer and say, "Oh you need us, baby. You need us!"
HELLO JOHN: PUNK POWERED BY BUTTER? ISN'T THAT WEIRD? "That's where I'm at, baby. The lack of respect in the industry never ever fails to amaze me. It's been industrial sabotage what's happened. But they cannot deal with me so I use other means. Butter is a weapon in my hands."
WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY 'INDUSTRIAL SABOTAGE'?
"They [Virgin] didn't respond to my calls when I approached them about rereleasing [1979 album] Metal Box. Without that being out there I wasn't able to get the money to do a tour. I've been trying to recoup what we lost on that album with its fancy packaging for 18 years. And then I did the butter ads. We started rehearsing and in the second week of rehearsals they announced they were rereleasing it without telling me."
PIL RECENTLY PLAYED SOME AMERICAN SHOWS. YOU WERE UP AGAINST JAY-Z AT COACHELLA …
"Yes, with his circus and his fireworks; that was the competition. Still, 15,000 people came to see us despite the attraction of him and other major tartlets. We had more energy. We are more real."
I TAKE IT YOU DON'T RATE HIM?
"Don't talk that shit in my ear! No, I cannot be doing with that. It's too orchestrated and manipulated; too designed for my liking, really. I find it all a bit pointless. Why have explosions unless it means something? Not for me. I always find the mirror in the dressing room is where the best artists are. Ha! Having said that I was quite taken with Vampire Weekend with their safe jumpers and Casiotone music. They were very kind about PiL and charming. I think their music owes a little to us ... "
WE HEAR THAT LCD SOUNDSYSTEM ARE MAKING A FILM ABOUT YOU
"Yes. They are a strange bunch of people but I like them; they share the PiL philosophy. They have raised the money to film a documentary of our US tour. Can you think of anything better playing on your TV or in your movie house? Me on stage. Me in my underpants on a bus. Ha! It will be inspirational ... to all those with a mind to be inspired."
OTHER THAN DRINKING RED STRIPE, DO YOU WORK OUT FOR THE GIGS?
"Nah! Never. None of that. Sorry. Not a sportsman. Not selling aerobics videos am I? I'm me. People will get me for two-and-a-half hours giving my all. And that's a lot. It's real, it's honest, and I don't need a personal trainer or someone with an oxygen tank at the side of the stage. I'm not Ozzy Osbourne. "Sharooooon!" This isn't a circus. I tried to say hello to that man once at the Comedy Awards and I might as well have been addressing a sack of corn. No, I will not work out for the people. They will accept my frailties. PiL is a rave full of real people with good hearts and minds. Morons will be refunded at the door."
'Malcolm McClaren didn't inspire. He took credit for things he didn't do, so fuck him! Though I'm not great at dealing with death'
John Lydon with PiL Photograph: Didier Messens/Redferns
DID YOU MARK THE PASSING OF MALCOLM MCLAREN?
"Listen mate: I'm still very disturbed by the death of my father a year ago. End of story. That's where my grief is. From what I hear the wake was a terrible mess."
"Bob Geldof came to see PiL in Canada and he told me. He said he attended the funeral and the wake was full of wannabes, and I bet he was one of them himself! It sounded dreadful: Bernie Rhodes and Vivienne Westwood fighting. A real letdown. Not dignified."
DO YOU MISS HIM?
"Malcolm McClaren didn't inspire. He took credit for things he didn't do. So fuck him. I'm not great at dealing with death, I have to say. I find death very hard: my mum, my dad, Sid Vicious. I'm not a monster; I feel it and it scares me. One death at a time please is all my heart will bear."
YOU WROTE DEATH DISCO AFTER YOUR MUM DIED. YOU'VE TALKED ABOUT YOUR DAD'S DEATH AS INSPIRING NEW PIL MUSIC
"Possible. Dunno. I take things that are real and true and sometimes painful and that's where art is. And believe me there is pain there. My dad had a heart attack during a family argument over the fact he was having a relationship with a cousin. To some it was an 'unholy alliance'. I was never a fan but to me it was two people who needed each other getting together … Catholics can be so judgmental, though."
JULIE BURCHILL ONCE WROTE 'WE'RE ALL CHILDREN OF THATCHER AND MCLAREN'. TRUE?
"They are not my parents thank you. Hers maybe. Yours maybe. Not mine. I mean you don't like to imagine your parents having it off at the best of times but those two? Fuck me! The shame! Disgusting! Pluck out my eyes for even trying to ..."
I DON'T THINK SHE MEANT LITERALLY ... CULTURALLY. THE HARD-FACED MATRON AND THE FOPPISH AGITATOR
"Take some advice from one who knows: have some self-respect! Never fall in love with your captors. You're sounding a bit nostalgic for my liking. But this is the Guardian isn't it? You one of them, eh? You hated Thatcher so much you probably couldn't spend a day without thinking about her. Oh dear! The boy's in love! Well, I don't have the rose-tinted specs problem. I don't miss the battle of the 70s. I remember how truly shitty it was. I got beaten and stabbed for telling those fuckers what I thought of them. I am not their child. I hold them to account. I am their nightmare. Next!"
YOU'RE A RECESSION VETERAN. GOT ANY SURVIVAL TIPS?
"Move to Italy. I mean it: they know about living in debt, they don't care. I stayed out there for five months while I was making a film called Order Of Death and they've really got it sussed. Nice cars. Sharp suits. Great food. Stroll into work at 10. Lunch from 12 till three. Leave work at five. That's living! Their fascist and communist regimes come and go but they don't really mind as long as the football team plays well and they've got Leonardo Da Vinci hanging in the gallery. It's amazing! You know we've made it so hard for ourselves living on that rain-soaked rock. We're in the EU, we have freedom of movement around the continent! I'm surprised that there isn't 60 million people at Dover making their way south to the boot-shaped promised land!"
YOU LIVE BY THE OCEAN IN LOS ANGELES ...
"That's cheeky. That's unacceptable and snide. I'm not having that. I spend a lot of time in London. It's home. I've paid my dues. Have you? My battle scars are longer and deeper than yours, matey boy, I'll put any money on it."
'I am doing my number twos. The Guardian is here. I am annoyed by him but then everyone annoys me'
YOU'VE DONE I'M A CELEBRITY, AND DOCUMENTARIES ON BUGS AND ENGLAND. ARE THERE MORE TV PROJECTS?
"I love animals. I'd love to do more. But people forget we are animals ourselves. I am a complicated animal. TV people want you to sign a contract and do the same thing for five years. I do not do the same thing for more than five minutes! Go away with your rules! Stop telling me what to do!"
YOU WERE BORN TO TWEET. HAVE YOU DONE IT YET?
[Mocking] "'I am doing my number twos. The Guardian is here. I am annoyed by him but then everyone annoys me.' Is that interesting? No: it's a waste of electricity. There are so many distractions for young people today. They ban smoking and license 24-hour rolling bullshit! I ask you!"
LADY GAGA CITES YOU AS AN 'AWESOME REBEL'. COMPLIMENT RETURNED?
"Did she? Did she really? I like that a lot. Oh, she's marvellous and I'm glad she has knowledge of my doings. I'm a sucker for a little bit of respect. But yes, I think Paparazzi was one of the best things last year. She's comic and clever. That bubble dress was a celebration of life, my friend! Bubble dresses and bubble suits for everyone, I say. Madonna was seedy and desperate and deadpan. Didn't like her; no fun at all. The kids today are daughters of hers. Ugh!"
HAVE YOU GOT AN IPAD YET?
"Is that what you put on your face when someone punches you in the face? We used a steak in my day ... hur hur. No, I do not have an iPad. Don't be ridiculous. Don't get me wrong: I embrace the internet up to a point. I maintain johnlydon.com as a fortress of truth against lies and viciousness and innuendo. It's the only way to keep the liars at bay. But I'm not so cosy with the internet that I need to carry it around on a thing that looks like a slice of toast. No way."
WHAT ARE THE BEST AND WORST THINGS ABOUT THE UK IN 2010?
"We are still troublemakers, just about. That's good. But we've let those two rosy-cheeked dribbling posh boys take the reins and that's bad. Get them out! But I also think the taste of eggs and milk has disappeared in the last few years. Just our regular non-organic milk and eggs don't taste of anything. Would I advertise them? No, not unless I used them. Not unless they were quality products. That would be dishonest and not real and truthful. I could not eat my breakfast with dignity and that is important to me."
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