The Telegraph, November 25th, 2009
© 2009 Telegraph
John Lydon interview
John Lydon is going back on tour with his post-Pistols band, Public Image Limited. He looks back at the band's beginnings and explains how he reformed the band. By Andrew Perry
What a perfect time for my return to this country,” announces John Lydon, with a victorious cackle, “now that Jordan is stuck in the jungles of Australia!”
Fans of punk rock and reality television alike will recall how the sometime Sex Pistols singer confounded expectation by appearing on the 2004 series of ITV’s 'I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’, only to walk out after a fearsome clash of egos with the model, aka Katie Price.
Though Jordan wasn’t in the jungle for long this time round, Lydon has been holed up in confined circumstances of a different nature — a rehearsal complex in Putney, where he is drilling a new line-up of his “other” band, Public Image Ltd, aka PiL, in advance of their first tour in 17 years.
In 1976, as twenty-year-old Johnny Rotten, he was the leader of punk’s angry charge, shaking the foundations of the British establishment. Since the mid-1980s, he has been resident in California, but he clearly relishes coming back to the city where he was born and raised.
Now 53, he unashamedly sports the bright-orange, spiky hair of his youth, and revels in firing off withering asides about cultural developments at home, from Gordon Ramsay (“he only got famous by stealing my Anglo-Saxon vocabulary”), and Harry Redknapp (“a dodgy car salesman”), to the BNP.
“If ever anybody got the Sex Pistols wrong, it was that lot,” he says, referring to the fascist skinheads, who appropriated the Pistols’ sound in the late 1970s. “Britain’s an island, it’s always had a constant ebb and flow of immigration, it makes it a better place. And there’s not a BNP hooligan in existence that can do without his curry on a Saturday night, right?” He laughs, scornfully. “There’s no brain challenge with these morons.”
Lydon’s own dalliances in mainstream culture have, however, earnt him equally scathing criticism: does the original punk rocker have any business starring in a TV advert for Country Life butter? He impatiently argues that such projects have enabled him to finance his PiL reunion.
It was the reformed Sex Pistols’ triumphant residency at London’s Brixton Academy in 2007 which inspired Lydon to reactivate the band he formed post-Pistols, in 1978. Public Image Ltd are, on paper, not such a guaranteed box-office draw — hence Lydon has had to stump up the cash to fund this comeback — but their fiercely experimental music is a perennial benchmark, explicitly influencing big name acts such as Massive Attack and Primal Scream, as well as latterday “post-punk revivalists”, such as the Rapture and Animal Collective.
In the original post-punk landscape, Lydon was a true icon, but deeply averse to being seen as his generation’s spokesman. Having walked out on the Pistols, he was tired of bearing the brunt of respectable society’s rally against punk.
As we discuss PiL’s beginnings, in the next room his new backing band strike up a rollicking instrumental rendition of 'Public Image’, PiL’s debut single.
“When I wrote this song,” he says, visibly galvanized by hearing it again, “it was the freest moment, because the Pistols felt like a trap, a noose round my neck.”
In his scathing lyrics, Lydon attacked the formularised travesty that punk had become. He and his cohorts saw punk as a tabula rasa, upon which to design a new music, free of rock’s blues-based structures. Contrary to expectation, the single charted in the Top Ten, but from there, PiL struck off in a more challenging direction.
In 1979, they released 'Metal Box’, a legendary album made up of three sprawling 12-inch singles, housed in a tin designed to resemble a film canister.
“The packaging was awkward in the extreme,” Lydon notes. “It was impossible to open, and you couldn’t get the records out.” The music itself was, to many ears at the time, equally impenetrable.
PiL’s guitarist, Keith Levene, who had been booted out of an early line-up of the Clash, spirited up otherworldly guitar effects and weird synth noises. Lydon’s mate, Jah Wobble, meanwhile, anchored the sound around ocean-deep dub-reggae basslines. Lydon’s lyrics were barbed, alienated, yet oddly ungraspable.
“The Sex Pistols could be a little emotionless,” he says. “A song like Pretty Vacant, it isn’t really an emotion, it’s a stance. PiL was always heart and soul. It’s bare bones. I’m exposed and vulnerable up there.”
One song, 'Poptones’, was written from the perspective of a real-life rape victim — the perpetrators were eventually identified when police found a cassette of the inane pop music that they would play while committing their crime still in their car stereo. Even closer to the bone was 'Death Disco’, which Lydon wrote for his dying mother — she passed away soon afterwards.
“I was howling,” he says, “in bitter pain and agony. It was an incredibly hard time to go through.” Making matters worse, PiL were greeted with what he calls “walls of animosity” from both critics and orthodox punks. Jah Wobble, his friend, soon quit following a bust-up with Levene, and, after another weird masterpiece, 1981’s 'Flowers of Romance’, Levene departed, too.
Lydon fled to Los Angeles with his partner, Nora, to escape all the misery, but also on health grounds. During his impoverished upbringing in Finsbury Park, he’d suffered a debilitating bout of meningitis, which left him prone to illness. On many levels, he needed warmth.
PiL rumbled on as an open collaboration, with a more conventional ’80s rock sound, scoring occasional hits such as 'This Is Not a Love Song’, 'Rise’ and 'Don’t Ask Me’.
Lydon claims that, following 1997’s solo album, 'Psycho’s Path’, his record label, Virgin, refused to let him record any more, but wouldn’t release him from his contract. Hence, in order to make a living, Lydon turned to the Sex Pistols tours, and the telly career.
Interviewing him for more than three hours, I often dare not speak, such is his righteous fury. Most of the time, though, he is hugely, savagely entertaining.
“I don’t see me being able to be stopped by anyone or anything,” he roars, leaping to his feet, can of lager in hand. “Let’s face it, I ain’t ever gonna be the best singer in the world, or the best anything. My good looks have gone out the window” — cue a hideous gurn — “so I’m just getting on with what matters.”
And so to the forthcoming PiL tour. He explains that he was unable to reconvene the 'Metal Box’-era line-up, because “Wobble and Levene hate each other — it’s not possible to put them together in the same room — and how could you have one without the other? I worked so little with them, anyway. To go back with songs, you have to at the same time go forward. PiL is a shapeshifter, it adapts.” Thus, his new line-up includes two alumni from his mid-’80s live band, Lu Edmonds (guitar) and Bruce Smith (drummer), and a rock-solid bassist named Scott Firth, who has previously played with Steve Winwood and, of all people, the Spice Girls. “Genius at work!” Lydon hoots.
He adds that he intends to perform material from right across his post-Pistols career, including 'Open Up’, his 1993 hit with Leftfield.
As darkness descends on Putney, Lydon lurches through to the band room, and I watch, open-mouthed, as he and the three-piece ensemble vamp up 'Albatross’, 'Memories’ and 'Poptones’, all from 'Metal Box’, each striking a miraculous blend of spontaneity, spikiness and 'flow’ — the open, free spirited yin to the brutal yang of the Sex Pistols.
For any aficionado of punk’s more forward-thinking legacy, these shows are not to be missed.
PiL’s tour opens at the 02 Academy in Birmingham (0844 477 2000) on Dec 15 and continues to Leeds, Glasgow, Manchester and London
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