John Lydon:
Year Zero, October, 2001

© 2001 Year Zero

What? You're talking to us?

by Mike Karin

It's been twenty-five years since a teenager named Johnny Rotten, and his band the Sex Pistols, carved themselves on a nation's consciousness. It seems nothing short of incredible that the simple act of uttering the word "shit" and, shortly afterwards, the word "fucking" on an early-evening television show would galvanise a nation into a hysterical frenzy of fear and loathing. But then these were, admittedly, more naïve times. To a British tabloid press with an unhealthy appetite for folk-devils and cartoon villainy, the young Rotten seemed nothing less than a gift from Christ himself. Well, perhaps a gift from the Anti-Christ himself. A sneering, snarling, ready-made anti-hero; outspoken, unafraid, extremely articulate, and perfectly willing to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting country with his contempt for the cherished and cosy institutions of 1970's British society. They couldn't get enough of him until he got married to a 'mystery blond', ran off with the loot he made by suing the Pistol's former manager Malcolm McLaren, and appeared to be living happily ever after in California.

But, as Lydon himself would be the first to admit, nothing is simple when it comes to the story of the Irish lad from Finsbury Park. The past ten years have not been idle ones for him. Not only has he been making music and broadcasting a weekly internet radio show, but he has written a book, the autobiographical Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, and produced a film documentary 'The Filth and the Fury' , generally considered to be the real story behind the Pistols. He also produced some truly ingenious viewing in the form of Rotten TV, where he can be seen deriding smug American politicians and terrorising the likes of Rosanne Barr. More incongruously he recently appeared in two US sitcoms. He may also be about to embark on a full-on Hollywood film career.

The Pistol's music still has resonance but it is Lydon's voice and view of the world that really grabs attention. And, now that the fall out of the last 25 years has finally settled, we discovered, unsurprisingly, that his vision still remains one of the sanest…

What are your earliest memories?

I lost my memory for a huge amount of my life. I was in a coma for nearly a year because I had meningitis. Slowly but surely my memory came back, but only bits of it. The first memory that came back was of my father holding me at a park, I remember it because of the particular colour of a balloon. There weren't coloured balloons in Britain at that time. Really, it was that basic. People don't seem to realise how times have a changed. My Dad was surprised because he said I was only about six months old. It's funny how things like that stick in the memory.

What about musical memories?

Hah! Mum and Dad always playing Irish jigs - accordion stuff that was very popular with the Irish and Scots - the Celts - at that time. And the Beatles, they loved the Beatles, and I hated them. Probably 'cos they wouldn't stop playing it. I've always had a disgust, not based on the actual talent or the songs themselves, but of an annoyance at not being able to get to sleep. Mum and Dad were real party goers.

Isn't that why you kicked Glen (Matlock) out of the Pistols?

I didn't kick Glen out, we reached an impasse. I wanted it to go much more hardcore he wanted us to soften up and was moaning a lot to Malcolm about the trite lyrics. To this day he says anarchy is a bad rhyme. Well, bleeee-arrrr. I don't think the rhyme of the thing is really what the world was paying attention to. At that age, I mean, we were what ,17 you know, most American bands were around 23, 24, 25 and they'd been playing a long, long time. So we really had no competition at all and we were put down by everyone, but in a weird way that made us. No-one helped us at all.

What was life like growing up in Finsbury Park?

Very, very violent. That is a full-on area. It was heavy, gangy. But with a very close sense of community. It's all kind of drifted apart in the last ten years. Something is missing - that kind of working class thing where local pubs were quite literally community centres. You'd go to Arsenal and stand at the back with people who were called yobs, for want of a better term. But these were people you'd go to school with, you'd live with, they're all local and you'd be safe in that environment in an odd, peculiar way. And I miss that. I used to hang around with `the Johns` - odd but true, but most of the people I knew at that time were called John and we all still know each other. Except the one that died - John Beverly.
But I think Mr Blair and the likes of his political nonsenses are tearing that down and destroying the Britain that really was something damn special.

You don't think that's just nostalgia?

No, I think it's reality. If you don't have anything you care about or want to protect then you don't give a toss, do you? These days it does seem to be everybody out for just themselves. It's become very selfish, the world. But it can go back, it can change.

When you finished school what did you want to do?

I had no ambitions. I didn't think I'd amount to anything. I didn't finish school, I was thrown out and put in what they called an approved school, a kind of day borstal. You had to turn in and sign on and be sent home on a little bus with bars. But every exam I ever took I passed. The only real reason for sending me away to those kind of places was because I thought I was too clever for them. I'm sorry, but if a teacher's talking rubbish, I'll say so. I wanted to be educated and that made me a problem.

How did you come to join the Pistols?

Apparently because I was wearing an 'I hate Pink Floyd' T-Shirt.

Why apparently?

Well, because this comes from Bernie Rhodes. There must be a damn site more to it than just a T-Shirt. To my mind it was just the full-on bravery of a statement like that. I was attacking an institution, Pink Floyd were like the royal family.

Do you think Malcolm's idea of what the Pistols should have been was different to yours?

I don't know if Malcolm had any idea at all. He'd been to New York, he'd seen the New York Dolls, he liked the idea of managing a band, but he had no real motivation as to what that would be. He had a kind of a Bay City Rollers sensibility - good for a laugh, prankster, kind of take the money and run, none of it means anything kind of attitude, but I came in with a little bit more than that I'm afraid. It wasn't quite a giggle for me. This was, rightly or wrongly, my chance to stand up and say I'm fucking fed up with this. Change the world. You won't change it just by going along with it - the shitstem. The songs are fun - the lyrics are written with a sense of sarcasm and a great deal of fun but they are poignant, they mean something. That's just the way I feel, that's not me boasting or bragging here, they mean something. I put a lot of energy into that. I mean, the biggest hatred we faced then was `oh, they can't play`, but I'm sorry, for the six months, a year whatever they rehearsed before I came along, they did astoundingly well. That album kicks fucking arse. And you can't be wasting time comparing us to the Ramones or Iggy Pop - they're entirely different genres, set-up and sensibility. The Pistols was a stand-alone unit and what came out as punk and punk bands was just everybody jumping on to a bandwagon and hoping something would stick. There was lots of great bands, but they were all very diverse. I mean I loved X-Ray Specs and The Raincoats, but you could hardly call them thrash metal punk. There was a lot of variety.

What do you think you'd be doing if you were 16 years old in England today?

Not heroin. I'm not into loser drugs that make you imitate somebody else's culture. That's not a particularly British thing Heroin, I don't think. Drugs are very British and always will be. They've been there since the dawn of mankind. Heroin makes you wallow or hide in self-pity, and it stops you being creative, (belches loudly) and I see that as being very anti-British. I'm sorry, but Brits come up with the best ideas and always will. But there seems less hope than ever in Britain today. It's much more volatile.

Because of the class system?

It seems to be something else - those in the know and those not - information wealthy and information poor. Decisions are being made without any sense of involvement; the majority are definitely a minority in decision making.

Have you ever had any heroes, even secretly?

Gandhi, because he took on an empire and won. It failed after because greed came in and ambitious men diluted his message, but he did show that you don't need violence to solve a very bad situation.

What about Churchill?

Churchill was fantastic during WW2 and I love his memoirs of his life before. He was a brilliant man during a crisis, but a lousy politician after. He didn't have energy for 'the people.' (laughing) He was also a lousy painter, but better than Hitler.

What do you think of Eminem?

What those little sweeties? Or is it an internet porn site, Men On Men? I don't think anything about Eminem, he's pop music, people like that will always be there. It's harmless, he can only really thrive on all the yelling and shouting, There's nothing really outrageous in what he's saying, it's the same old palaver, it's not really politically motivated and it's not about changing society, it's just selfish whinging to be frank. If he doesn't like gays, well he doesn't have to hang around with them, so shut up, who cares?

Don't you see any similarities between him and Sid (Vicious)?

Yeah, but I give him more kudos than Sid, I think he's a little bit more clued in. Some of his poetry is quite great - it's really clever, shifty stuff and he can run with it at the speed of lightning. There's not many rappers out there that can be that fast. It's not all of us that should be toxic, there is a need for entertainment and he's highly entertaining. And if Elton John isn't scared then, you know…

You don't think it's because the public needs anti-heroes?

Is it that though? It's ridiculous. Is it because the Pistols created this fashion for anti-heroes? Because there really wasn't anything like that before. I guess we're all accidents waiting to happen. Marilyn Manson, is he an anti-hero? There's no real threat in what they're doing, there's no real threat in anyone who openly expresses exactly what they believe, that's to the benefit of mankind, not to be feared. At worst all they can be is wrong, and if it's open to debate then you can prove that's wrong and therefore it's of no threat. But if it's right then what are you scared of? Change?

The Filth and the Fury, was it a chance to set the record straight?

Yeah, and it's a damn fine, excellent movie. It's bang-on real. There's no fantasy in it. Couldn't afford that. Couldn't tell a lie, everyone else had, so we just told it as it was. There we are, we're all arguing and disagreeing with each other, as we always will.

Do you think it's the case that Malcolm (McLaren) is more concerned with his key position in history than he is with the film's implication that he's ultimately responsible for Sid's death?

Malcolm is definitely more interested in his role in things and exaggerating that to the nth degree, which is all well and fine because Malcolm is a funster, he loves to mess about. But he's been taken quite literally for far too long and that had to be re-addressed and corrected. We shouldn't be criticised for that, it's just that you have to set the record straight. He should have set the record straight himself, but he obviously doesn't have the courage because quite frankly, apart from the Sex Pistols, what has he done?

What about the implication in the film that he's to blame for Sid's death?

To my mind, yeah, because he led him that way. Through his own childlike behaviour. He wasn't a responsible adult. He was definitely the adult in the equation, we were young children and highly impressionable, quite frankly. Arrogant or whatever, but still young and naïve mate, I mean tell it like it is. We should have been warned about some of these dangers. This is a man who had been to America, knew the runnings, had been around and never really bothered to pass any of that information on, because to him it was a matter of sheer intellectual indifference whether we lived or died. It was all to him about himself. Anyone who has a disrespect for the lives of fellow human beings is not anyone that should be tolerated to any great degree, and that's not really ever been expressed very clearly.

What made you conceive your stage personality from Olivier's Richard III?

(laughs and feigns embarrassment) Oh I don't know if I really did. No, no, I'm teasing… When I was called in to rehearse to an Alice Cooper song on a jukebox, that was the first and only thing that would come to my mind. I had no perspective as to what a singer is, does or should be, there was nothing I could relate to because I'd never bought music for that attitude - I wasn't like, pre-training myself. So when that opportunity arose, it was anything that came into my head and that was just coincidentally there.

It's an unusual choice…

It's the way I think. I can't help it…

Why do you think there's always been a tendency to over-intellectualise what you were doing with the Pistols?

Yeah, it's a shame that people do that. They lose the plot and they go off on their own ego. Really, John Savage (author of England's Dreaming: Sex Pistols And Punk Rock) was just praising his own sense of perspective and genius and not really talking or discussing the situation at all. At all. There were some quite bizarre words in that book that you needed a Latin to English dictionary to translate. He also missed the point about women in the punk thing standing up for the first time as equals with men. There was no problem about that. It wasn't, oh, look at the bird band - it wasn't like that. But that might be because of his pink triangle connection. I'm sorry John, but you were only focusing on the boys.

How would you define what you were doing at the time?

There were no rules. There was nothing to follow. You could do what you wanted. But then that's too big a freedom, so you had to focus yourself on specific things that interest just you. So in a weird way that's great because you're not pandering to public taste and you're not doing this to be popular and then oddly enough you become popular and you don't know why. It's a coincidence, it's not a deliberate plan or a scheme. No one could ever, ever put that together as a plan.

Does it depress you that ultimately you changed nothing and British culture in the 21st century is now the essence of tedium, banality and mediocrity?

Oh, I disagree. I changed everything and then it all went back. That's isn't my fault, that's for the next lot to come up with their stuff. I'm not waving no big flag here for you all to stand behind. I'm not the leader, there are no leaders. We all lead ourselves individually. Life is bad because when you don't do fuck all about it. But something will come out of it, I don't know what. I hope so at least, and if it doesn't, it's tough tits because I've done my bit and now it's your turn mates. You can't just leave it all up to just one bod, or a group of people, that's selfish and lazy. Followers are the very people, from the Sex Pistols onwards, that I dislike the most, because they're sheep. They're living their lives through you and that's wrong. Respect what I do, but don't bloody live in it, or copy it, or imitate it.

Bearing in mind what's happened to the Royal family over the past few years, was there ever a predictive element to God Save The Queen?

That's how I felt about the royal family. This lot now? Waste of space. I may have started the ball rolling on 'em, but they've done a wonderful job killing themselves off, because they don't have any content, they don't know what they're doing this for, they're Disneyworld characters, Goofy and the like. It's sad how petty and spiteful they all are with each other.

Does the British class system play a large part in why you live here in LA?

No, the police harassment in the UK became unbearable. Four raids in the space of three months. Smashing the doors, dragging me off to the police station in my bare feet, and then just turfing me out four hours later. Having to walk home in my pyjamas, house just left wide open, they wouldn't even leave anyone there to protect it while I was in the nick. That kind of abuse went on a lot and you couldn't get anyone in the press to pay any attention. They didn't want to know, they wanted me to suffer the consequences of standing up and shouting.

But LA would seem to be pretty much the antithesis of everything you stand for?

(laughing) That's why I went to New York first. But I got bored with New York because people being rude under the guise of fashion didn't impress me none. I came here because, like you say, it seems to be the worst place on Earth for someone like me. (loud belch) But it isn't, because here you have to live on your own devices. If you don't entertain yourself, you - are - fucked. You can't rely on others, so you become very self-sufficient and I like that. In England it's hard to be creative sometimes because every time you do something there's a hundred thousand booing and hissing you for being different. England can be very negative to change.

Was the Rotten TV thing your idea?

Yeah, it came from Rotten Radio which was broadcast for five minutes every morning on network radio throughout America. It was a rundown of the Indie scene, but telling it like it really is. I moved it into the TV thing, VH1 were kind enough to offer me the chance to do that. But it also made life very difficult. Not so much through censorship, but not wanting to discuss certain celebrities because VH1 had friendship deals or whatever. But you can't compromise. My thing isn't to go out there and swear blindly and criticise everyone, I wanted to go out and be kind of positive actually. And humour is the most positive thing you can have. I didn't just want to be vindictive. But they narrowed it down all the time and kept cutting my options. It was great fun and I'm going to put the whole thing together somewhere else. One of the best periods of my life was shooting those three episodes that got aired. The three years putting it together was grim hell on Earth. There was no end of lawyer hassles and all kinds of rubbish. Plus all the record company shenanigans with Virgin at that time. I was under a lot of pressure, mentally and financially, but I pulled through.

What do you think about the state of political play in England now ?

The politics? Tony Blair is evil to me, he always was. He looks like a soup terrine and he's full of bile. He's a liar. He's nothing to do with what you would call a Labour party. And I don't like the vicious skinhead that's running the Tories.

Do you think your future lies in TV, film or music?

I don't really think about it like that. I do what I want to do as an opportunity arises. I love TV now, but I'm going to go back out on the road. I'm currently putting together what's jokingly called The Magic Box. Basically it's a big cupboard on wheels which contains my computer, keyboard, drum machine, everything, and I will play live, my version of dance. It's always going to be a blues, dance, reggae-style vibe anyway, PiL'esque. And just play it myself, no big stage, no lights, no crew of 20 or any of that nonsense. Just wheel it out the door, put it in a small van and drive to the next gig. Keep it simple. Chuck the ego out. I'd really like that and I think a lot of other people will. Between that, I love making TV and film. In between getting Rotten TV back on the air, I've taken up a load of acting roles. Of the two I've just done, one's called 'Bad News Mr Swanson' where I play a character called Death. The other's 'Young Person's Guide To Becoming A Rock Star' where I play the main singer's father - he's a heavy metal Def Lepard fan. Very different roles, but great fun. I'm also running for a couple of films too, right now. With a bit of luck Julia Roberts is going to like the idea of me playing a romantic lead next to her in a Cary Grant style. (laughing) That's just me pushing the boundaries, challenging myself, but in an odd way challenging everybody's sense of reality, 'cos even my wife can't take that serious.

Do you still believe there's No Future?

If you don't make an effort. Even though class systems are vile and they suppress you, it's a mental thing in your own head. If you play the victim, you will be the victim. The song was never meant to be a downer. It's like, here are all the things that are going wrong here and if you carry on with that then there will be No Future. It shows you that you can get away from that.


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