Record Mirror, July 7th 1984
Transcribed by Karsten Roekens
© 1984 Record Mirror / Eleanor Levy
JOHN LYDON – 'I'VE GOT RESPECT BUT I AIN'T GOT TUPPENCE'
by Eleanor Levy. Pic by Joe Shutter
John Lydon is sharp and bright. After years of silence, he is back in London and wanting to talk.
He's just spent the afternoon being interviewed, and he and companion Nora are giggling merrily. All seems happy as we drive to a pub overflowing with Sloane Rangers. The irony of the man who was thought to eat babies for breakfast frequenting such a place is sweet. The conversation, though, does not remain so.
Lydon flew in from Los Angeles the previous week.
"To me it's funny that the press have made such a huge deal about me living there. I've been there barely two months," he says. "The press here are fools. They don't understand America. It's not all palm trees and everyone doesn't wear diamond rings."
I ask him what Americans think of his music.
"All right," he continues, ignoring my question. "Back to the phones. It really is the bottom line that in London I cannot get either a business or private phone without joining a three month waiting list. I can get one there in a hotel room in 24 hours. And it will work, and you can get discount charges and a credit card. Money works for you. Understanding it, not resenting it in a bourgeois British way. I have no false ridiculous socialist attitudes like, say, Joe Strummer, son of an ambassador. I have nothing to fight against. I know what it's like to live in squalor, I know it's not good and it's not something to wave a flag about. The idea is to progress! The problem with Britain is that it's impossible to live in. If you fight for working-class values and begin to earn some money and win respect, your very same working class friends will disrespect you because immediately you become middle-class. So what's the point? I never get that anywhere else, why just here? Why is everyone in Britain such a loser? You tell me!"
The question is asked vehemently. I wonder why, from such a seemingly innocuous question about America, Lydon embarks on an unprompted analysis of the British class system? The reason soon becomes clear.
"I'm asking you!" he says again. "In a way I'm sort of interviewing you. I know what your questions are going to be, it's fairly obvious. I just dealt with whole topics, whole subjects. I just dealt with three quarters of your interview. What's it like living with palm trees, John? Are you really middle-class? What's it like having an Access card? Come on!"
Only the first one had entered my head, but Lydon doesn't believe me.
"You don't understand," he continues. "I don't think anybody here does. It's really pathetically tedious. The only respect, and this is what I like about America, is he who does and he who doesn't. That's their fast role, simple as that. Doesn't matter what colour you are."
This sounds suspiciously like a wind-up, although Lydon maintains he doesn't do such things ("I never lie!").
He obviously looks at himself as one who has 'done'. Yet, can he honestly say he did it all by himself? Didn't he have any help or push anyone out of the way to get there? This question proves to be a mistake. John obviously thinks some veiled reference to Malcolm McLaren is being made, and whenever McLaren is mentioned (by him), he goes green.
"You can't mean that question!" he says, his patronising smile slipping for a second. It's here things begin to turn nasty, with Lydon trying to force me into a corner by a skillful mixture of misinterpretation (I tell him I've liked much of his music and disliked some, he turns round five minutes later saying I hate it all) and straight insults.
"You're acting like a British secretary."
At one point he demands I play back a bit of the tape. When I refuse he looks like he's about to leave. If it hadn't been for a Hooray Henry coming up to the table to ask where the interview would apear, it may well have ended there. The friction continues, but we carry on.
ELEANOR LEVY: "Do you see yourself as a musician or look on your work in a wider sense? Your work in films, for example?"
JOHN LYDON: "I avoid terminologies because I don't particularly like what it implies. But because of the limitations of the business I'm in, it seems to be the only term that I can use and be taken seriously. I suppose 'artist' is something I'm going to have to stick with. But most definitely everything I do is crafted and deliberate. Nothing is a joke."
ELEANOR LEVY: "But what are you aiming for?"
JOHN LYDON: "I'm white, I love reggae, I love jazz, soul, I like lots of rock and I love lots of all types of music, and I see no reason to imitate any of those forms. I stand up for what I'm into, which is myself. I want to do something which I have always wanted to listen to, and that's somewhere inbetween all those forms of music. That hasn't been done so far, so I think I deserve respect. I think I've got it."
ELEANOR LEVY: "Have you achieved what you wanted?"
JOHN LYDON: "Financially, no. In finance I've been ripped to fuck. I've got all the respect in the world, but when I walk down the street I get 'Oh, there's Johnny Rotten. Oh, you're so rich, you bastard!' I ain't got tuppence! Nobody understands this part of the business. When you stand up and stand out, they kill you, they strip you financially bare. That's fine, I can deal with that and I'm still alive. Lots of good people aren't. Jim Morrison was the same way, he was murdered. Janis Joplin. Serious rebels. People might have got pounded down, the point is just to stick with it."
ELEANOR LEVY: "So you think you can break out of all that?"
JOHN LYDON: "Yes. I'm alive, aren't I? Politically-wise, according to every record company in the world, I should be dead. It would be very nice for them to have me dead."
ELEANOR LEVY: "To bring out the John Lydon version of 'Legend'?"
JOHN LYDON: "Revised. A Jim Croce. An Elvis Presley. See, you don't know shit about this business, dear. They're all cunts. And I'm alive. No drugs on this one. It's like Malcolm saying he owned the name Johnny Rotten. I had to go to court to win that back off him. There was an entire year in which all music papers refused to call me John Rotten, now, that wasn't on my behalf. I knew who I was. I had to go to court to fight that. I never see any paper stand up for my rights in that respect. Not one."
JOE SHUTTER: "I remember at the time there was all that publicity that Johnny Rotten would now be called John Lydon."
JOHN LYDON: "Right. And that was bullshit."
ELEANOR LEVY: "So why, if you've won back the name John Rotten, do you still call yourself John Lydon?"
JOHN LYDON: "Let's face it, who knows me as Rotten anymore?"
ELEANOR LEVY: "A lot of people."
JOHN LYDON: "It's a joke. It's a battle I had to fight and lost by winning. You can't expect me to be fair, see, I've got a whole history of bullshit from journalists."
ELEANOR LEVY: "If ..."
JOHN LYDON: "Don't say if. That's the trouble. If Malcolm speaks it's taken as fact. When I speak it's an if. There's an incestuousness in this business that is really not on. It's all down to record companies ultimately. And I have serious arguments with Virgin at the moment, by the way. I'm not Boy George. OK, got your interview? Because I'm telling you, dear, don't attack me, attack the whole fucking business before you have any digs at me, because I know where I stand and I fought it all my life."
Which is something I would never have questioned anyway. Eight years on from the Sex Pistols, John Lydon is still enmeshed in them. But that's him. There's a whole new generation of people interested in music now, to whom they are no more real than the Beatles or Eddie Cochran. They are history to all but those actually involved.
Lydon seemed to expect questions about all the things he says he doesn't care about (money, class, credit cards, selling out), but feels he needs to justify this anyway, prompted or not. All of these relate to the whole Sex Pistols/McLaren mystique. I expected (wrongly) that he'd have had enough of talking about it all, not knowing that he believed he hadn't had the chance. Oh well.
There's no doubt Lydon's a clever man – but you can be too clever sometimes.
Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)
© Joe Shutter