John Lydon & Leftfield:
NME, 27th November, 1993
Transcribed by Karsten Roekens
© NME 1993
by Kris Needs
It's one night in June '92,
long past midnight at the Brixton Academy. The Orb have finished washing
the cerebral nether regions of the full-on assembly with their biggest
bubble-bath to date. The backstage bar is bedlam. No-one in the building
seems rooted on this particular planet......
I'm walking along, wide of grin and contemplating the handy invisible surfboard which appears to have materialised under my feet. Suddenly a tottering figure looms into my field of vision. It's wearing a shell suit and an orange spike top. It's talking to me in a familiar barbed hiss. The eyes bore into my face from a distance of at least four inches. A familiar figure which suddenly lunges forward and plants a large, wet, beer-smacker square on my lips.
'Hello John', I say
Ten minutes later John Lydon is ejected from the building, bottle aloft and football song on his lips.
He'd had a good time. I knew he'd be back and somehow this crowd – the new generation of hedonist clubber - would one day be his.
Some people devote hours to unearthing old quotes which cause our entertainment heroes embarrassment. A recent fave has been to throw up John Lydon's quips about dance music being 'regurgitation', 'just machines', '70's disco recycled' and 'musical McDonald's'. And, of course, the obvious motive for mentioning is the fact that Rotten's gone and made a dance record!
But dig a little deeper and you'll find John spent most of the punk years slagging off rock 'n roll - and punk. During the Public Image '80s, he would regularly pour vitriol over anything that upset him. He's always done it and he always will.
He's doing it today and the targets are not that much different. For 'dance music' read formulaic, machine-cold imitations of current in-vogue sounds churned out to capture the masses. Unoriginality and desperate fad-following are, as always, his targets.
A member of the Full Moon Scientists - one of the groups on Leftfield's Hard Hands label - saw Lydon on American TV some time before he collaborated with Neil Barnes and Paul Daley on 'Open Up'. Again, John said that a lot of dance music was crap but that the only people doing anything decent were Leftfield.
'He hadn't shown much interest at all in what we were doing before then but that's typical John,' reflects Neil Barnes today.
THE FIRST thing Leftfield did when they met up with Lydon in May was have a sesh: a few light refreshments and a pile of dance 12-inches spun by Paul Daley who, when he isn't ensconced in the studio with Neil, does the rounds of the underground clubs, one of our more respected DJs.
As the beer flowed, John was subjected to several hours of the contents of Paul's DJ box. Anything from the Underworld remix of Bjork's 'Human Behaviour' to Hardfloor's apocalyptic 'Hardtrance Acperience' and even tunes like West Bam's 'Alarm Bell' which had sampled Lydon. He was impressed. At last he had heard some of the good stuff. Also the trio got on like, well, like a house on fire…
Finally, six months after the recording, 'Open Up' is out, in the charts and, after much negotiation with Lydon's American management, he is in London to shoot the video.
John's month in the UK has been typically hectic, doing everything from visiting the Betty Ford clinic with Neil and Paul, to hanging out with an autograph-hungry Arsenal squad. He has also imbibed enough beer to prompt a first-in-a-lifetime oath of abstinence.
This interview took two months to come together. For weeks Lydon refused to speak to the press. Finally he relented and agreed to do just this NME interview - the sixth I've conducted with the man since a memorable encounter in '77 on the eve of the Queen's Silver Jubilee when 'God Save The Queen' held the charts at safety pinpoint (although most memorable of all had to be the 18-hour sesh-cum-interview in '79 when I heard PiL's groundbreaking 'Metal Box' for the first time).
In November 1993, Neil Barnes, Paul Daley and John Lydon are sitting in North London's Rollover Studios, where 'Open Up' was recorded and Leftfield do most of their work. Lydon's orange dreads have recently been cut by former barber Daley. His black T-shirt just says 'Duh!'. His demeanour alternates between the I'd-rather-not-be-here impenetrability which comes as second nature when journalists are around, and a more relaxed amiability when the tape recorder's off. As soon as the red light's on, the answers become classic Rotten, terse one-liners emitted in tones like an animated snake.
The conversation is pretty much restricted to the record. When I ask about the upcoming autobiography he just says, 'I'm not going to say a thing about it.' His past - now being discovered by a yet another generation as 'Open Up' inflames the charts – is dealt with thus: 'I am not a walking history book and I should just be judged by what I do as I do it.'
He means the Sex Pistols. Mention of PiL's 'Metal Box', which seems to be universally held up as Lydon's finest achievement, provokes, 'Yes, if you want a reference point that would be the one.'
The 'Open Up' project actually came about via Neil and John's mutual friend John Gray, who was a crucial backroom man in the PiL setup, particularly with the visuals. He now teaches but has maintained contact with both Lydon and Neil. With Gray being a fan of Leftfield it was hardly surprising when some cross-fertilisation of ideas took place.
'Just the way things work,' says Lydon, 'not through any deliberate managerial manipulation. It was just by meeting'
Neil: 'It wasn't just about using John. It was about using John's voice. He's always had a voice that's very exciting. We just thought he was the most suitable singer for what we were trying to do. Obviously, we had to send John the track to see if he liked it. It was like, 'let's do it for the track'. We thought we had written something that John would like.'
John: 'They didn't ask me in because they wanted a pop star floating around on top like a little fluffy cloud.'
Recording took place in May. It was a memorable session which, Leftfield recall, took place with a minimum of fuss but maximum graft from Lydon.
Neil: 'The best time was when we were in the studio making the record.'
It wasn't like pulling teeth then?
John: 'No. I thought it might be.'
Paul: 'It just went off, really, so to speak. We didn't know what he was going to do.'
John: 'I didn't know myself! But I'm very good at that kind of thing.'
Neil: 'You did! I don't believe it! Two days before, when you came down and we were playing records, we played you the backing track and you were singing the f---ing chorus then! It was all written down.'
John (knowing he's been sussed): 'OK, I'm lying. You know darn well I spend a lot of time doing everything. I'm one of those horrible perfectionists with a gross sense of insecurity.'
'I really think he is a great singer,' Neil mentions later. 'He's got an original, soulful voice. I knew he would come out with something special because he was really nervous. Put John on the spot – that's the best way. We treated him like we treat anybody else. We weren't star-struck. We made him work and he liked that. He did have everything worked out. He's a professional. He plays that down in himself but he really works at it.'
I FIRST heard 'Open Up' under oath of secrecy in Hard Hands' office. It took every ounce of willpower not to bellow it's magnificence from the rooftops.
The four-month gap before the world was told was caused by the tedious to-ing and fro-ing between John's management and Hard Hands. There were several times when the record looked unlikely to come out. It was initially promoted with just a Lydon-free dub and there was to be no promotion.
John: 'Making the records is easy but there's always behind the scenes…'
As soon as 'Open Up' emerged, the reaction was phenomenal. Here was John Lydon back in full flight: a legendary sound which, in the right setting has been the most compulsive tonsular ejaculation in rock ever since the opening bars of the Sex Pistols' 'Anarchy In The UK'.
John: 'There's such a sorry lack of vocals in music at the moment. It's extremely sad. It's naff. It drives me crazy. As I prove on this song, it's not an impossible thing to go out and bloody sing. To anything. The problem is sheer laziness.'
Neil: 'It goes back to that thing that people aren't willing to experiment. There are a lot of good singers out there but most of them are trying to sound like each other. But there are a lot of others that aren't.
'It's just a matter of experimenting. It's the only way you can go anywhere. You can't stay instrumental forever. That's been interesting but now there's got to be another human element come back in to make it more interesting. Not all the time but…'
Paul: 'Dance music seems to come down to formula. I'm not saying that me and Neil have been emulated a hell of a lot but…'
Ever since Neil Barnes – a self confessed '80s electro-dance-freak – started a project called Leftfield in 1990 and then hitched up with all-round rhythm-addict Paul Daley from A Man Called Adam, they seem to have been in the front-runners of that crowded field. The first record – 1990's 'Not Forgotten' – is usually credited with creating what came to be known (and emulated) as 'progressive house'.
Paul: 'It's half flattering and half annoying. I can't understand why people don't wanna do something that's original. That's the thing that dilutes a lot of it. It's good for someone to come in kind of objectively with what we're doing who wasn't involved in with the London Dance Scene.'
John: 'I'm simply into anyone who puts a lot of effort into being themselves rather than following formats. That's all I'm interested in. I don't categorise my record collection. I couldn't even begin to. It's that diverse and that's what it must be about. If you live any other lifestyle you're just a copyist and a trendy/ And therefore a temporary figure.'
Leftfield are a rarity in refusing to join the mainstream despite the many easy options. After the music biz nightmare which dogged the success of 'Not Forgotten', the pair embarked on a string of remixes for the likes of React 2 Rhythm and Inner City which were bang on the crest of the rising wave of UK house music.
They didn't release another record in their own right until they had set up their own Hard Hands label with manager Lisa Horan and could do things exactly how they wanted. There have been three subsequent Leftfield singles – the exotically dub-throbbing 'Release The Pressure', apocalyptic 'Song Of Life' and now 'Open Up'. Hard Hands has also released tunes by Dee Patten, Scott James, Vinyl Blair and Delta Lady.
They've come quite a way from the penniless pre-acid house '80s when both had just discovered a mutual interest in each other's record collections and would stand on club stages whacking congas along to the DJ.
Neil: 'A culmination of all the music we've ever been into is coming out in what we do now. We've kind of regurgitated the last 15 years of what we've been listening to. And I have to say that PiL did have a profound effect on me.'
Lydon's re-emergence with one of dance music's top teams is inevitable if you think about it. Many older members of the dance community were into punk rock, whether as safety-pinned fashion victims po-going at Lurkers gigs or in a more involved capacity as band members or journalists.
But mention a 'New Movement' and John is disgusted.
'He just doesn't see the point,' says Neil.
Punk lasted a mad, enjoyable year but it soon collapsed under the weight of too many shit records from bandwagon-jumpers. The original attitude (very important word) was epitomised by the likes of Lydon, The Clash, Banshees, The Slits, Subway Sect – individuals who tried to take music somewhere else, even if they had to learn their chosen instruments while they did this. Musically, the Sex Pistols were simply a great rock 'n' roll band anyway, and by the time the punk monster created by their management had enveloped the gullible masses, Lydon was far away in the crashing dubscapes of PiL.
The Pistols and the Bromley contingent of discerning punkers actually frequented early '70s soul clubs like the Lacey Lady and Louise's disco (from whence came the fashion for mohair jumpers and plastic sandals).
John: 'I'd spend more time down Lacey Lady than the Roxy or any of the punk clubs. I only went there about twice in my entire life and hated both times. I was much happier with soul clubs, dance clubs, reggae clubs. That's my musical roots – plus a thousand other things. I like to see huge varieties of people supposedly not capable of getting on with each other and being perfectly fine together.'
If the original punk ethic was about doing music which was new-sounding, barrier-breaking, sticking two fingers up at a perplexed biz and provoking an unstoppable groundswell of mass public support, then it has similarities with dance music. Right now, the latter is provoking disdain among rock's creaking entrenchment's and head-scratching in a music business which continues to try but has yet to wholly understand (and therefore profit from) What's Going On.
If John Lydon had re-emerged in '93 with the American-geared exotic rock style of the most recent PiL, it is likely that the reaction would have been a fraction of the furore caused by 'Open Up'. To cut deep into the mass psyche again he had to sharpen his wits on the current cutting edge music.
And, uncannily, Lydon once more emerged amid controversy. It was unfortunate timing that 'Open Up' with its refrain of 'Burn Hollywood Burn' - was released the same week as raging forest fires swept southern California. When The Chart Show pulled it at the last minute, there were definite memories of the filth and fury days. A wearisome occurrence for Lydon and a valuable promotional opportunity down the pan for Hard Hands. There has been the odd screening on late night shows like BPM - and small snippets on Top Of The Pops but MTV have baulked too, citing the song's 'insensitive lyrics'.
'Who are they to be purveyors of good taste?' says John. 'There are governing bodies to decide what should and shouldn't be played. They've overstepped their mark. I find that bloody offensive. THAT'S what is offensive in this country. Not a song like this, which in no way bears any relation to the catastrophe in California.
'It's nothing to do with that. So I see it as a bit of a victimisation thing going on. We worked hard putting this video together. There's not a lot of money about here. We cared about the product. It's damn upsetting to see things like that going on. I don't like to be anyone's victim.
'Year in, year out, it just gets more and more restrictive and people just seem to put up with it. How dare they dictate what is good or bad taste? They're supposedly The Chart Show. Well we're in the damn charts and where are we on the show? Nowhere.'
Of course the song was written months before the recent fires. It's not, it transpires, about the LA riots either.
Neil: 'It almost implies that we knocked it together after watching the news'
John: 'This track was made quite some time back. To accuse us of being insensitive is where the piss-off begins. How dare they undermine my work? How f---kin' dare they? What are we supposed to do, wait until the December floods, which they always have in California, and re-release it then? Would that be sensitive?'
The whole episode must bring back memories for Lydon.
'It's not the first time. Probably won't be the last. It's not funny, actually. It's damn annoying. As you know I've been on the cutting edge of that almost fairly consistently. That costs you sales. That costs you a lot. Let an audience decide.
'I'm very sorry that some English fool (in Malibu) would rather save a pussy cat than himself, but that's not my problem. It should not affect my career… and if the world's not careful I'm gonna go out on a cat murdering spree!'
This last statement is delivered with mischievous calculation followed by a laugh which shows that Lydon knows that to some - including, inevitably the tabloid hacks who are probably even now scanning these words for a morsel to kick about – he is simply living up to that public image.
He warms to the theme:
''Vengeance is mine! sayeth Johnny'. But you know if you quote that in the paper that would be taken as arrogance, but it isn't. It's my natural reaction.
'There's enough people out there who know that in the end I'm not some shyster and that's all that really counts regardless of what's said in the press or the banning of videos on TV for absurd reasons that I don't think Dolly Parton would be getting. I could see her singing those lyrics, to be frank. I don't see them as offensive. Jesus, the song to me is about not getting a movie part and burning down the studio in sheer frustration. In a metaphysical sense, of course!'
SO IS 'Open Up' the history-making colosseus it's being touted as? To it's creators and to observers on the NME's Vibes desk, it's a perfectly natural and exciting turn of events. It was the jolt dance music needed because the high profile is almost always given to the wrong records.
Leftfield have long been known for their eclecticism and willingness to chart new waters. They continue to work with reggae singers and any sound in the world that takes their fancy. They made David Bowie's solo comeback 'Jump (They Say)' into a dance floor stormer and, while following the quest for the more unusual vocal, went for one of the most riveting voices contemporary music has known.
Neil: 'It's an obvious move. I don't know why everyone's so surprised.'
Paul: 'The intention was just to make a good record, really. We didn't intend to be so big. I mean we're busy working on our next record.'
John: 'And I'm in between records. I'm just about to start a solo project. This came along and I just did it. We're mates here. We do these things because we like the world of music. It is important to cross over continually if things are to progress, otherwise they become ghettoised. Ouch – a new idea! We all have that. And then of course you get the 20 imitators.'
The nightmare vision of punk's third division – many of whom still lumber on-stage today – teaming up with their dance music equivalents causes a mass shudder throughout the room. Neil reveals that Virgin have asked Leftfield to remix 'Pretty Vacant'.
'A pathetic idea,' spits John succinctly. 'With an idea like that you should shoot yourself in the morning.'
Amidst the ensuing ribaldry which sees the term 'punk house' ripped to shreds, John's voice suddenly cuts through with a more serious tone. 'Here, you should lay off the punk references. It's not relevant and a lot of reviews of the record have brought that up, but that's something like 15 or 16 years ago in my past and it is completely disrespectful to what I've been doing in Public Image, which was most definitely not a lazy outfit.'
This brings back memories of PiL taking the stage at their first gig – Christmas Day at the Rainbow Theatre in 1978 – and proceeding to send shockwaves through press and punkers by kicking off with ten minutes of 'Theme', a broken glass grind of despair and, to my mind, still one of the top Lydon moments. The early PiL was about exploring the unexplored and unexpected. Punk rankled with John back then.
'Originality always offends. It's been very difficult with that old label and that tag being stuck to me like glue. But it's something that doesn't affect me and it doesn't affect the general public. Unfortunately, they read these rags that you are writing for like they are The Bible and they're not.'
DURING THE 'Open Up' commotion, Leftfield have continued to work on their first album which will include other guest singers, and possibly even another Lydon collaboration. Meanwhile, Public Image is on ice while John embarks on his solo career 'for a year or two'.
He has installed a studio in his LA home and – rather impressively – is being taught how to work the computer and Midi gear so he can become entirely self-sufficient.
'I've amassed a quantity of instruments and things and I'm gonna make it myself. That's something I haven't done for a long time and I need to.'
Not since the home-made percussion excursions which dominated 'Flowers Of Romance', the third PiL album, actually.
'Well that was before synthesisers came on the scene! If you haven't got a box that goes 'bing!' then you find something in the room that does it. Kitchen utensils and garden implements are a fave of mine. In fact, it was those albums that were sampled for electronic sounds.'
The indications - for instance former PiL guitarist Lu has been teaching John about Eastern European and Bulgarian music – are that the new material will return to the experimental nature of the early PiL stuff.
The last word goes to Lydon who, when all is said and done, will probably get the last laugh too: 'This business is too difficult for a lot of people because they're after the quick quid. Risk-takers are very rare and when you run across 'em, grab 'em… and work with 'em!'
Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)