New Musical Express, 12th July, 1997
© NME 1997
One Man and His Gob
After the shameless bid for the punk pound that was the Sex Pistols reunion, John Lydon is back with a solo album, "Psycho's Path" (clever wording, mate). Roger Morton meets the High Priest of Gobbiness and finds his mouth is, thankfully, in full working order. Nutter wouldn't melt: Roger Sargent.
Heeeeeeeeere's Johnny! Here comes honest John, dearly loved John, contrary
John, wary solo John, treading the not particularly psycho path up the
steps and into the lobby of Virgin Records in Los Angeles.
In a low-profile nuclear-canary-yellow sports gear he grins his way past the receptionist and arrives at the prone form of David Bowie.
Boing! Boing! Boing! Without breaking stride, Lydon steps forward onto Dave's back and commences to spring up and down like a four-year-old on a bouncy castle. Boing! Boing! "See all those marks, they're from these!" he chortles, his trainers spiking into the Union Jack-bedecked Bowie's spine.
Boing! Boing! "I love it!" cackles John. "It's fantastic!" Bowie maintains a dignified silence. Boing! But the pogoing Day-Glo degenerate hasn't quite finished with the floor fresco advertising Bowie's "Earthling" album. With a final bound he springs off the advert and tosses a parting insult Ziggy-wards as he jogs to the conference room. "Terrible fucking record that was as well!"
On the eve of his first solo adventure, John Lydon is in a ridiculously jolly mood. With his perfectly clashing lime-green lycra'd wife Nora on his arm, he sweeps into the conference room and clicks into party host mood. In five minutes, the make-up girl has been made to giggle, the LA office assistant has been charmed and the UK press officer, who informs Lydon that years ago he helped her into a PiL gig, has been indulged.
"We can't have people knowing that can we?" he teases. "They'll think I'm nice and that's bad for sales."
Ever get the feeling you've been misled? For 21 years John Lydon's been surfing the conservative absurdity of mass music'n'culture, raising an arc of vituperative wit and bloody-minded tunes in his wake. For two decades he's been a top dollar peacock of perversity, a comic genius and a sonic innovator- and yet still he's begrudged and judged as an untrustworthy troublemaker, potentially snide with it.
Odd, then, that when he steps out into the nakedness of a solo album he should write a series of songs which communicate the obscenity of psychopaths as glam figures ("Psychopath"), the evils of organized religion ("Dog"), the pain of an individual's suffering in Bosnia ("Grave Ride"), the destructive power of censorship ("Armies") and his very human need to be loved ("Take Me").
Contrary to the implication of its title, "Psycho's Path" is plainly interpretable as the howl of a sensitive, caring, highly percipient man. If 1994's autobiography, Rotten, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs was an exercise in damage control, putting Lydon's side to the warped Sex Pistols history, "Psycho's Path" is something of a corrective to the still lingering public image of Johnny the Rotter.
"I think it's deeper than anything I've done with PiL," says Lydon, sitting down with coffee and fags. "Because when you're in a band there's a lot of watering down. But solo it's full-on. I've got the comfort of my own studio. Like my book was the comfort of my own book. I could say what I wanted so I decided to just tell the truth.
"Originally, when I started that book I was really pontificating. Waxing lyrical, you know, with the quill! And loving my own big, bad self. I thought well fuck this, stop it. Start again. That's why that took three years.
"You've really got to check yourself every now and then, because being a pop star is a rather pompous position and you are lulled into a false sense of security. There's always yes men around you telling you that you're fabulous. And you're an idiot if you believe it."
But presumably to do the job you have to believe in yourself.
"Well, yes, to be in the wonderful world of music you've got to be an egomaniac and you've got to believe in yourself. Precious few have the content, that's why they all end up as drug addicts and alcoholics and fucked up." Not so Sir John. The best part of a decade in California and he's totally failed to turn into the boozed out/drugged up/brain-scrambled mess that much of his home country would've liked him to. No therapy. No marriage collapse. No drying-out clinics (not even a can of lager in his hand today). Instead, Lydon's continued to barge his way down the path of greatest resistance to become that most bizarre cultural glitch- the non-crowd-pleasing survivor.
The advent of a solo phase is in itself a testament to Lydon's individualistic belligerence. His previous label, Atlantic, disapproved of his building a home studio in his LA outskirts home and thus John moved on to sign "an horrendously underpriced" deal with Virgin. According to the financially frank Lydon, the album was only finished because he went out and earned the cash for it by reforming the Sex Pistols.
"I was doing it because I wanted to finish my solo stuff," he says. And for me it was a final way of putting a full stop to the Sex Pistols forever. All that mythology and ranting and raving and God knows how many bad books... I just thought it'd be nice to end it properly."
Was it a good way to kiss and make up with Glen Matlock?
"You know what, I got on all right with him, because we were just honest with each other. As for the other two; well, phhhhhh... I couldn't care less about them any more. All the old problems started to creep in and I definitely felt there was a bit of jealousy there. And quite frankly they're old men, and they've become settled in their ways. They don't seem to relate to the world around them. They're stuck in this 1976 vibe. It's very peculiar. It was a bit like walking around with a museum attached to you. But then, I'm perverse enough to enjoy that."
The final burying of the Pistols does indeed to have freed Lydon up to enjoy himself- his own way. And it's typical that at the very moment his critical stock hits an upswing he's headed off into the unclassifiable DIY loops and whines of "Psycho's Path." In the wake of techno's fragmentation, early PiL works (particularly "Metal Box") are getting namedropped regularly. The Leftfield collaboration has left huge goodwill in the dance community. The Prodigy continue to go globally ballistic, thanks in part to the Rotten-parodying Keith. And it's only a year since Creation had Allan McGee paid for an ad in NME, in which he proclaimed the reformed Sex Pistols to be Godfathers of Oasis.
"I like the geezers in Oasis," he says. "But I don't have to like their music at all, and indeed I don't."
Do you think their singer's copped a bit of your style?
"Well, he's done more than that. He's outright admitted to it. He sees himself as the reincarnation of John Lennon and Johnny Rotten. I'd like to remind Liam that, unlike John Lennon and Johnny Rotten, he's not written a single song. There lies the difference. And I'm sure this'll make him even more angry if you print it. We do like winding each other up."
Songwriting style has, of course, never been a simple matter for Lydon. His autobiography has it that Glen Matlock was the Sex Pistols melody man (an attribute which Rotten despised) and John was the freeform chaotic energy who'd have made the band "unlistenable" if he'd had control. Twenty years later he's still sneering at "Sweet melodies... a total con."
In his book he refers to himself as "a noise structuralist", a term which he now dismisses as "a silly expression", but it's probably apt for someone who was as happy using cardboard boxes as keyboards on his solo songs. The tedious confusion over Lydon- ie, is he taking the piss?- might well disappear, however, if he were seen as a genuine avant-garde loon with an interest in folk and dub, as opposed to some arch chancer.
After all, in the midst of the demanding ersatz ethnic electronica of "Psycho's Path", there are unique one-offs like "Sun" and "Stump" which open doors no-one else ever thought of. A chancer? Not in the slightest. His plans to play his solo stuff as a three-piece cocktail jazz outfit featuring his brother Martin on keyboards are entirely sincere.
"It just seems to be that I tend to not like what's made for mass consumption," he says.
Is it reasonable to draw parallels between current John Lydon and The Prodigy on "Firestarter"?
"The Prodigy! The Prodigy! (he grabs at a magazine lying open at a photo of Keith) Yeah look, he's got my hair, he's got my accent, ha ha ha ha! No, The Prodigy are fine, they're a really good pop band. If they're gonna be influenced I'd rather they be influenced by something good."
How come your autobiography attacks rave music as moronic when a lot of your album comes from there?
"Actually, what I was having a dig at was the sampling side, because at the time it was all using other people's stuff and that pissed me off."
But what did you think of it as a cultural movement?
"Well, I like the side of it with the travelers, because they keep it kind of clean, even though they're real dirty bastards. But in another way there's still too much hippy in it. Whereas 20 years ago they'd be bashing bongos, now they're sampling on Akais, it's not really that different if you think about it."
Did you do any E?
"I wouldn't admit to such a thing! It's illegal! I don't participate in illegal activities. Come now, you're not going to catch me out on that one."
Your John Lydon as interviewee is a beguiling mixture of hyperbolic opinion, sincere artiste and out-and-out comedian, behind which it's occasionally possible to glimpse the vulnerable, well-meaning, battered individual who was heading for a teaching career before the Pistols broke the chalk. Anyone who thinks that the human politics in "Psycho's Path" is merely spouting off should first read his book and get to grips with the meningitis-scarred outsider kid from the bottom rung of the Brit class system who escaped from the sewers. Lydon might start squirming in the middle of explaining his Bosnia track- "It's so pompous!"- but he definitely means it man. All of it.
"If you pay no attention to what's going on politically then you're part of the problem," he says.
So you're pro Rock the Vote?
"You have to vote. Even though you don't know you're voting for something that's quite awful it's better than the other side. Democracy is overrated but it works a hell of a lot better than, say, a monarchy system. When are you going to flog them off to Disney? They've got to go! And here's a point, I'm fucking furious! Lady fucking Di in New York, flogging her frocks to a charity of her choice. Now, 'allo. That's my taxpaying money that bought those dresses, and yours and everybody else in Britain. Those are not her dresses to sell. And quite frankly there are a lot better charities to pick. I mean, I'm a charity in myself. I need all the money I can get."
Are you pro European Union?
"Yes, because isolationism doesn't work. Britain can't survive on its own since the Tories sold off the oil and the industries. But I'm not so sure that one money system is wise. The whole of Europe could go Spain real quick.
You haven't walked down old Compton Street lately, have you mate, because it already has.
"Well, I meant the Spanish economy. I don't mind the plastic palm trees. Actually I do! Ha ha ha ha! And now I think about it all those coffee shops and things. I think that's really disgusting and negative. Give me a pub any day. That's real. And they're trying to stop the double decker buses, the Europeans. Fuck off! None have fallen over that I know of. Ha ha ha!"
Lydon can afford to flirt with a bit of nostalgic expatriate persona because he knows it'll never define him. He has some trappings of the self-made Brit abroad, the nice house in Los Angeles, the striking blonde wife, the money-gobbling boat to remind him of his childhood fishing trips with his grandfather in Ireland. He can grouch on about "the bloody English tourists off the plane at the weekends going, 'Oh, Johnny Rotten lives here'" and let it be known that he does not miss "the summer stench of the Thames." And he has good reason to be grateful that he no longer has to deal with 7am door-battering arrests from the victimizing British police.
But Lydon is the last person to be engulfed by his surroundings. Too bolshy, too resistant, and too busy soaking up the ammunition.
"When I decided to come here, it was a bit of an insane decision," he says. "I could never understand it and I've lived here quite a few years and I still don't really understand it. But if you're bored in LA it's because you're boring, because you have to make your own fun. And I like that a lot, because quite frankly being dictated to by discos and thinking that's where it's 'at', man, is really a waste of your life."
The current Lydon self-amusement program ranges from MIDI technology to reading five books at once (he'll only recommend Alec Guiness' biog: "In actors' biographies everybody's 'fabulous' and it's all 'Oh darling' and that really amuses me.") He hasn't read Bret Easton Ellis' American Psycho- his album's title track came from a news story about the fan club of brutal serial killer John Wayne Gacy. But these days, behind the defenses and the mild paranoia he's quite the cultured geezer.
The Oscar Wilde movie, African singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Robert Mapplethorpe, Siouxsie Sioux's washing machine- the conversation pogos about until it settles on the last big LA earthquake, the scale of which John declares was covered up by the authorities. Paranoid? Well, if you'd been cheated by your first manager, spat upon, vilified, knifed, indiscriminately arrested, forced abroad, near bankrupted, and betrayed by journalists you'd be a bit doubting too. Maybe that cynical John Lydon's just an idealist who's found out what's going on.
"I can't change the whole world," he says. "It's no use banging your head against the wall screaming and shouting because nobody's really listening. Until there's an entire generation that says, 'Look, stop this, it's stupid!' you can't really change anything. And I've not seen a generation to do that since punk really."
So have you got anything you want to achieve outside music?
"Yes... my own TV show. Seriously! I've done Rotten Day on the radio. It ran for a year here and I'd like to move something like that into TV. I'm planning it now. It'll be something extremely different and hopefully a showcase for original bands to give them an outlet, because nobody's doing fuck-all for anything genuine out there. Record companies are only interested in what they can mass produce. And as you can no doubt imagine that's very difficult with me and Virgin. They genuinely don't know how to flog this. And I don't care."
The interview concluded, Lydon gathers up his fags, his wife and his peerless existence, coughs a last gob of phlegm into the bin and heads for the door. The woman from Virgin catches him halfway and attempts to encourage Sir John to grant a few more solo LP interviews.
"There's a lot of good will out there," she says.
"No there isn't," he counters quickly. "I'm a realist."
And off he stomps, adding a few more realistic, individualistic solo dents to Bowie's arse on his way out into the suspicious Bel Air sunshine.
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