Orange County Register, April 13th 2010
© 2010 Ben Wener / OC Register
Coachella 2010: John Lydon sounds off on the return of Public Image Ltd. and the fest itself
by Ben Wener
“Is that how it’s pronounced? Coach-ella? I’m reading it as Coach … hell … eh?”
Leave it to the former Johnny Rotten to damn the fest before he even arrives. “I’ve not done that one,” he admits. “But it’s very corporate. Festivals aren’t what I was brought up with. They’re too structured, too organized, and it’s really more about people sitting down in deck chairs.”
“Oh, that’s not what this is,” I countered with a tone suggesting he should know better. This is a Goldenvoice production, after all — and corporate or not, John Lydon and the L.A. concert promoter go way back, to the scrappy early gigs of his second, longer-lasting and (in my opinion) better band, Public Image Ltd. Surely there’s some fond feelings there.
“Yes, well, I doubt that it’s the mucky pop we used to call British festivals. It’s not like sitting in the rain and the mud and the snow. It’s just the organization and the structure of it. I’m always wary of that, of looking a bit too corporate.
“But listen, this is PiL — we make it our own universe, whether we’re playing to 200 people in (bleep-bleep) Iowa or 200,000 … which I have done from time to time, in certain European countries … it’s all the same. It’s a different approach, but you make it enjoyable, you’re there to do the best you can, and share the joy.
“And if people don’t like you very much — then you share that.”
We’ll see how much Coachellans take to Public Image come late Friday night, though during the group’s 11:20-12:10 time slot Lydon has some stiff competition from Jay-Z on the main (starting at 10:50, though why do I bet he’s late?), the theatrical and often masked Swedish enterprise Fever Ray in the Mojave tent (11:10-12:20) and a lengthy set in Sahara from deadmau5 (11:35-12:50).
Ahead of that, however, comes tonight’s lengthier PiL performance at Club Nokia, the first of several Coachella previews this week and a gig that now stands as the group’s first performance in North America in nearly 18 years, since Lydon put the project on hiatus following 1992′s That What Is Not. (Limited tickets, $35.50, are still available.) He has re-formed it with two members from his sterling mid-’80s lineup, sound-shaper Lu Edmonds and drummer Bruce Smith, as well as bassist Scott Firth.
Why resurrect Public Image Ltd. now? What will happen after this Coachella appearance and brief tour afterward? I caught up with the group’s spearhead late Monday afternoon to get some answers … as well as a passing thought about the late Malcolm McLaren, for whom the one-of-a-kind singer has had little love in the decades since the former Sex Pistols manager pulled off his own great rock ‘n’ roll swindle of that band.
“I thought you were especially gracious about Malcolm in your statements.” Recall that the 10 1/2-minute “Albatross,” the stark opening sprawl from PiL’s seminal second assortment Metal Box, has been viewed as an angry diatribe directed at him. “You could have been very nasty.”
“No, no, I don’t like that,” explained Lydon, 54, his notorious outspokenness often mistakenly branding him a troublemaker with no feelings. “I tell it like it is, from the heart — and in death always try to remember the best first. He was many things, but he was many good things also.”
You’ve always said that Public Image was merely on hiatus all these years. But what sparked your interest to finally return to it?
The finances were appropriated entirely correctly, and that enabled me to structure this entire operation. To put together a band like PiL requires an enormous amount of money, because there are all kinds of considerations — least of all rehearsals, which anyone should know don’t come cheap.
The lack of record company involvement or interest has been utterly appalling. But I must say that comes as no surprise to me, because when I first started PiL, right from its outset, the record company was amazingly distant and quite negative about it all. Public Image for me has always been a financial struggle to make ends meet.
I remember you mentioning in the liner notes to the retrospective Plastic Box that those early albums were mostly recorded on the fly, whenever free studio time would become available.
Yeah, well, they never made money available to us for rehearsal or to record properly, so we’d just be ringing up friends of friends and finding out what studio is available for a couple of hours. Run in, knock a few tunes down, and run out. Not much has changed! But I don’t want this to come across as “oh, poor me,” because it’s not. Adversity is actually a very useful tool, and one that’s close to my heart. The bigger the problems are, well then the greater the solution required.
Yes, but why revisit PiL in the first place?
Because there’s a whole bunch of new material to be recorded, and we need to go out live first to raise the funds, the appropriate funds, to be able to get ourselves into a recording position, and then release on a proper label. We can’t go out and perform new songs straight away, because we’d be unprotected. We’d have no copyright control. And over the 30 years I’ve been in the music industry, the one thing I can guarantee you is that everybody loves to copy me! So, even though they’re breaking copyright-control law all the time now, I’d still rather be in that position than to give it to ‘em on a platter.
How hard was it to put the pieces back in place?
Lemme tell you, out of the 40 members I’ve worked with in PiL over the years, for me it was a no-brainer who I ultimately wanted to work with. And that’d be Lu Edmonds and Bruce Smith above all else. I know there’s been some inconsistency, shall we say, put out there in the press, that I only wanted to work with, say, a certain bass player (presumably original PiL anchor Jah Wobble). Those are misinterpretations. One of them I cleared up this morning … with the very reporter who propagated that myth.
Well, you’ve drawn primarily from the lineup for 1986′s Album. That was one of your best works — and best bands.
Yes it was, it was. I’ve asked quite a few members, but a couple in particular came back with such high wage demands that they absolutely bracketed me into outer space. People who work with me have to muck it on the same level I do, else what’s the point? I don’t need ex-band members — who I have given very good career boosts and hikes to, when they were absolute unknowns — I don’t need them coming ’round and trying to bankrupt me. It’s really unfair.
Listen, when I worked with Ginger Baker (of Cream, who played on Album), he wasn’t doing that! Pass that information along to any snooty journalist there that doesn’t pay proper attention OR certain bass players themselves, and they can realize they’re being ri-dic-u-lous. As always, Public Image has always been entirely fronted by me. Nobody else ever put a penny into it, including the record labels.
Even when you were having hits with “This Is Not a Love Song” and “Rise” and “Seattle”?
“No, not really — just enough cash to maybe turn over. It’s always the constant problem. And quite rightly, in many ways. When I first started PiL I wanted it to be a live band, so we made records so that we could go out and play those songs live. Live came first and foremost; we only made records to play live. And here we are trying to earn the money to record some new material so that we can go out next year and perform that. But in the meantime, I’d like an audience that might be missing a few links in the nether regions of the brain to remind them just what a full potential Public Image Ltd. is. So I’m performing songs from all areas.
I heard you did “Albatross” and “The Flowers of Romance” off the air at Jimmy Kimmel Live! That has me enthused about what else might be coming.
Yeah! The fun of this is that it’s so easy for snooty record collectors to go, “Oh, I only like this period or that period.” Well, lay off the snobbery! When you see PiL live, you’ll realize that all these songs, from any time zone, all match well within each other. They’re fairly consistent. They’re all extremes, but they’re all consistently genuine.
I want a set that includes “Rise” and “Seattle” but then has stuff off Metal Box.
That’s exactly what I want! And I get great pleasure performing these songs live. Some of them actually break my heart, because they’re sad memories of people dying and things. Especially my own parents. “Death Disco” — that’s about my mother’s slow demise. And then my father died last year, and that absolutely broke my heart all over again. And my brother had a serious attack of cancer, which luckily is now in remission. The Grim Reaper is always lurking around the corner.
Do you see renewed relevance for Public Image these days?
I don’t think it’s ever gone away. I think anybody who really, really loves music and what it can be will always appreciate this, because it’s from the heart and soul, and it’s totally genuine. There’s not a lie in it, at all, anywhere. There’s not one conniving penny-pinching move made on you.
PiL is totally about respecting its audience — in fact, it’s about respecting the human race. Our songs are deeply personal calamities, tragedies and joys — and moments of great love, moments of great sadness. It’s the full gauntlet of what being a human being is all about. And never self-pity. That’s utterly loathsome, I have no time for that. That’s why death-rock bands annoy me so much. You don’t need to stick on plastic teeth and pretend you’re a vampire and sleep in a coffin, you know? A dope is a dope is a dope.
Is it more personally rewarding to be back with Public Image, which was always foremost your endeavor, than when you’ve gotten back together with the Sex Pistols?
It’s not like that. I don’t make those kind of comparisons. But the one thing I do note, highly, is that this is the best band, and best mindset, that Public Image has ever had. The blend of personalities and the sheer good-natured way we understand each other instinctively is a complete reward in itself. Even the British press had to admit: that’s a damn excellent band! Must have killed them to do so.
Did the material come back to all of you quickly?
Yeah, yeah … I didn’t use the word “instinctively” lightly, I meant it. All of us, as a band, have separate musical issues in other directions. It’s not at all stifling, it’s rewarding.
Is it really all that collaborative? I’ve always gotten the impression that everything filters through you.
Oh, no, absolutely. I wouldn’t be in the same room with them if they couldn’t do that. And an exceptional soundscapist like Lu Edmonds is a reward in itself. What happens between his far-out, his Middle Eastern instruments and my voice, is astounding, to both me and him — and hopefully that translates to an audience. When you see us live, you will grasp that. You will grasp the textures that we are capable of experimenting and waltzing into … and we do it quite naturally, because we’re all very open-minded.
I hope it’s more advanced. Johnny and the boys don’t believe in stagnation. No, we’re like a fine wine — we’re maturing with age. That’s an old quote, and I don’t mean to be corny by using it again. But I do love it. Because I don’t like wine.
But why did you put PiL on the back-burner to begin with?
Money! Money! Didn’t have the money, and the record company just feigned disinterest. It shocks me all the labels I’ve been through. I thought when I made Album, I thought that was masterful. I loved that album. I could not understand why in the first week of release, it hit No. 100 in the charts … and then they stopped pressing it. And shortly afterward they (Elektra Records) said goodbye to me. What is a person like me supposed to do, always continuously being cut off at the neck?
Why does that happen to you so often, then? You must have a theory?
Ahhh, no, this is business as usual for these breadheads, innit? At the time, the company that Album came out on, they were busy trying to promote Metallica, OK? And they didn’t want to have anything that might conflict with their potential record sales. That’s my constant enemy: the fraudulence perpetrated on you in the name of music.
I mean, here I am rehearsing at the moment in Los Angeles, and it’s brilliant fun for me. And two days ago, Kiss were in the other room. Now I’ve got nothing against them as people — they’re hilarious, really. But listening to the way they approach their music … it’s not even cynical. It’s so disinterested, what they do. They sounded like a daft karaoke version performing their very own songs. They just couldn’t care less.
It can be empty professionalism.
But the professionalism isn’t in the music at all! It’s in packaging. I cannot understand how a man can go home and feel happy about his life being so callous toward others. Music is the most amazing art form. You have the greatest potential to be completely honest with others — and be rewarded, in return, from an audience giving you their honesty. And to negate on that responsiblility is a disgusting thing.
Nothing personal, haha, but it really upsets me, because there must be many many, many musicians out there who could really use that time and that space and that finance to come up with something that would be truly worthy. You only have one life to live, and in that short time frame, we should give the most we can toward others, because that’s the only way we’ll be rewarded. To be out to make money off others and sell them secondhand cheesecake … who cares?
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