31st January 1956. Finsbury Park, London, England
Founder Member: THE Public Image
John Joseph Lydon was born to Irish parents (Eileen and John) in London, Great Britain, January 31st 1956 (he thinks). Lydon grew up on a council estate in Finsbury Park, North London. Rough and working class, to say the least.
John, the eldest of three brothers (Jimmy, Martin and Bobby) was a shy kid, who at the age of seven contracted a serious bout of meningitis; which left him in and out of coma's for almost a year. The meningitis would almost completely ruin his memory (and also be the cause of his now infamous stare). The young Lydon, tutored by his Mother, had to learn everything again from scratch. Despite this, Lydon had to grow up fast, there was no time to be mollycoddled. As the eldest child he had responsibilities. His father was a working man, and unfortunately his Mother became even more ill than John himself.
Labeled a "dummy" at school by lazy teachers he would soon become disillusioned and detached, but never a loner. He was painfully shy, but realised it was getting him nowhere; he had to take the bull by the horns. Lydon had friends, but he chose them carefully...
By the time he got to Secondary school he had already began to form his own strong ideas and beliefs about life and his school work. Something you're not supposed to do at school, especially a Catholic school. Although a bright and attentive student it wasn't long before his 'opinions' singled him out for special attention, and by the age of 15 he had been “asked to leave”.
John demanded an education, not just a stack of rules. He knew that there was no point in rebelling just for the sake of it. John knew that education was the way out of poverty. Not in the monetary sense, but as way of improving yourself. To this day he is still a firm believer in the 'right' of education.
Lydon would end up at Hackney & Stoke Newington College of Further Education, a college of sorts, well, if you count a college for 'tearaway's and no hopers' a college; but it was here he would fly through his O Level exams, before moving on Kingsway to start his A Levels...
The majority of friends he had from this period he still has today. This is one loyal firm! A person in Lydon's position needs the loyalty and respect of friends, but has no qualms in returning it in equal amounts. Popular myth has it that all his friends are also called “John.” Commonly referred to as the “Gang of John's”, as with all good myths, this is only half true. There are many John's: John Gray, John Wardle (aka Jah Wobble), John Rambo Stevens, and John Simon Beverly (aka Sid Vicious). But there was never any roving gang of John's! Some of them barely knew each other. All the John's came from different backgrounds and had different interests. But with Lydon they shared a common bond of music and/or football; and more importantly individualism.
Musically (and socially) Great Britain of the early seventies was dying a death, but Lydon and his friends would find a variety of different music. Mixing and matching what they did and didn't like. Anything and everything from pop to the most eclectic records they could find. From T-Rex to Can; from The Faces to Big Youth; from Alice Cooper to Captain Beefheart; it was all there. Open ears and open minds...
Eventually John's Dad kicked him out (the excuse of having green hair was used, but his Dad knew he was really doing him a favour). On leaving home John began to squat in abandoned homes with Sid Vicious; then set about getting some work. Not always an easy task in London in the seventies, but this was no 'Dole Kid'. John Lydon has never been afraid of hard work. He knew no one would put his life on a plate for him; he had to go out and make things happen. He would work first with his father as a Banksman or “Ratbasher”. Helping to guide him as he drove Cranes on building sites and sewage farms; killing rats as they tried to attack the Crane! He also worked at children's play centres in London. Lydon loved working with kids, and maybe in another world would have ended up a Teacher, if albeit not a conventional one. However, things panned out somewhat differently...
One day while walking down London's trendy Kings Road John – complete with his hacked green hair and a homemade "I HATE Pink Floyd" T-shirt – was “spotted” by Bernie Rhodes, and the rest as they say is history...
Rhodes was an associate of a certain Malcolm McLaren, who owned a fake fetish boutique called 'Sex'. McLaren had just begun to take a (very vague) interest in a young and upcoming band; formed by two cockney tearaway's: Steve Jones and Paul Cook; later to be joined by Malcolm's Saturday boy Glen Matlock. After some persuasion, and a few beers, Lydon was invited to McLaren's shop to audition as singer for the band. He thought they were a bunch of jokers, but went along with it, eventually...
John auditioned by miming to Alice Cooper's 'Eighteen' in front of the shop's jukebox. He launched into a series of self-mocking fits, hunches, and weird dances; while the others fell about laughing. However, deep down they knew they had found their man, someone who could help vocalise their thoughts. Lydon was an individual of the highest order. He looked and sounded like no one else on earth, and due to his childhood bout of meningitis, he had a stare that would kill! The perfect front man, apart from the fact he couldn't sing. But what did that matter, when he had something to say...
The 'Sex Pistols' soon started rehearsing with Lydon (soon to be dubbed Rotten on account of his decaying teeth) providing the lyrics, and Matlock and/or Jones providing the music. One look at this mixture of mad men and working class delinquents told you they weren't going to be just any other band.
Much has been written and said about the Sex Pistols, the majority of it bitter, spiteful, and highly inaccurate. Suffice to say that the Sex Pistols found themselves at the forefront of what would become “Punk”, while at the same time becoming "Public Enemy Number One" in the eyes of the British establishment and media.
It's often ignored that the Sex Pistols would pen some of the best records of all time, and in turn become a force not only musically but socially. With titles like: 'Anarchy in the UK', 'Problems' and 'No Feelings' together with lyrics about the Monarchy and abortion they weren't exactly The Bay City Rollers...
Rotten wasn't scared of saying, or doing, anything. He was more than happy to sow seeds of discontent. It's a cliche, but yes, maaan he really did mean it. The Pistols would eventually self implode in 1978, they had recorded only one album, but changed everything for ever.
On leaving the Pistols in 1978 Lydon found himself embroiled in a legal dispute with Malcolm McLaren. A dispute that would take nearly 10 years to come to court, but of course, he won. You don't try cheat John Lydon.
His next step would be Public Image Ltd (PiL), and it was a step. PiL were nothing like the Sex Pistols musically or morally. This was something completely different. He recruited Keith Levene on guitar and his old mate Jah Wobble on bass. Inspired by the 'We know how NOT to do it” ethic, PiL would become a limited company as well as a band. They would manage themselves; they would produce their own records; and they would take no shit from no one, not least the fans who wanted Johnny Rotten back in the Sex Pistols.
By 1978 the masses of Great Britain had woke up to “Punk”, but it had become a tired cliche for third rate pub bands and chancers. Lydon was rightfully proud of his time in the Pistols, but he was never a “punk-rocker”, he was never limited to a single image or sound. It was time to cut ties, completely. His musical background wasn't exactly steeped in rock n roll tradition anyway. He would listen to anything from Dub Reggae, to Middle Eastern Folk Music, to Val Doonican (seriously, “it's all music”).
PiL would fuse and confuse a variety of different musical styles; there were no rules. The change of direction would annoy many Sex Pistols fans, but equally open up a variety of kids to more eclectic tastes. Public Image Ltd are probably one of the most underrated and misunderstood bands of all time. Their work is only now finally beginning to be appreciated, and in turn abused...
Public Image would continue in one form or another through three decades, releasing numerous albums on their travels. Always chameleons, bar Lydon, the line up would constantly change; as would the style and content of the music. John Lydon is not the type of person to repeat himself. Just about every musical scope and genre was covered. Rock, Folk, Dance, you name it; it was all there. There were no labels or limitations, this was anything you wanted it to be.
PiL would also dip in and out of “pop structure”, scoring some unlikely hits along the way... John Lydon knows that there is no point hiding in the wings and being an obscure novelty act, every so often you have to slap the music industry round the face. Something PiL became very good at...
John Lydon has also made some spectacular records outside of PiL, as far back as 1984 he teamed up with hip hop pioneer Africa Bambaataa as "Time Zone" for 'World Destruction', one of the first 'rock/rap' crossovers. In an industry terrified of urban black culture, and equally of the white working class, people just couldn't figure out what he was up to? 'Why was a “mad Englishman" doing disco with black kids'? They still probably don't get it... Mr Lydon has always been on the cutting edge... As he proved yet again in 1993 when he teamed up with dance duo Leftfield, creating one of the most popular and influential dance anthems of the 1990s with 'Open Up'. This wasn't a case of Johnny Rotten going dance; Leftfield were schooled in PiL and their peers. Modern music had finally came round to Rotten's way of thinking...
Through (un)popular demand? The Sex Pistols would finally return in 1996 to play live on the hugely successful 'Filthy Lucre' World Tour. It might have upset the purists. Good. The tour finally meant Sex Pistols fans got to the see the band, and surely that's the most important thing. The Pistols have since returned on a number of occasions; but only on their own terms.
With PiL (still temporarily) on hiatus Lydon has continued to make his own records. “Solo” records in the real sense. He plays, writes and produces all tracks himself. The album 'Psycho's Path' was released in 1997, and he is currently working on new material for a second album. 'The Rabbit Song' a brief taster for the album was released in 2005 as part of the 'Best of British £1 Notes' compilation.
Outside of music Lydon has continued to harangue the industry from within and without. He is not exactly short of ideas. Lydon was 'multi-media' long before the term was fashionable. He has appeared in films, most notably 'Order of Death' (aka 'Copkiller') with Harvey Keitel. While his best-selling autobiography Rotten, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs on the Sex Pistols is required reading for any music fan, in fact any human being.
With the turn of the century and the advent of new technology Lydon would again find himself breaking new territory with his online radio show for Eyada: 'Rotten Radio'. This wasn't a rock star playing his favourite records, 'Rotten Radio' meant no censorship and no strict format. In true Rotten style it would range from hard political debate to light relief...
He would follow the forthrightness and fun of the radio show into television with his very own series for VH-1: 'Rotten TV'. Each episode as unique as the man himself. Not a talk show; not a music show; not a comedy sketch show; not a political debate show. But yes: all of the above, and more. I think it's called content... Only three episodes were completed before VH-1 and Mr Rotten decided they were no longer suited. Anybody who saw Lydon become the true winner of the ITV reality show 'I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here' – or his nature shows on Channel 5 and Discovery – will be testament to the fact that we desperately need more Rotten TV...
Lydon is often accused of “self-parody”, that his whole persona and career is nothing more than an elaborate joke. It would take a cleverer man than Lydon to have planned the way his life has worked out. Is having a laugh self-parody? Lydon is as capable of intelligent discussion as he is of making light of himself, but he knows there is more truth and honesty in humour than in being a pompous intellectual. People might actually listen.
JohnLydon.Com - Army of One
Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)
John at Primary School. Taken from Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs
Sex Pistols, 1976 © Bravo, Germany
The Public Image, 1978 © Dennis Morris
Rotten TV at Democratic Party Convention, LA, August 15th 2000 © Laura Rauch
"One loyal firm", Q Awards, October 29th, 2001. Q Magazine © unknown