From punk provocateur to post-punk pioneer, John Lydon has been one of the most singular and divisive figures in popular music for over 40 years – and he reckons he’s got 40 more where that came from.
“I’ve only achieved 40 years of work so far which is nowhere near enough,” he tells me over the phone. “There’ll be 40 more years of it, thank you. I don’t do full stops.”
You’re never 100 per cent sure when Lydon’s ripping the piss, but you’ll have a good idea. Before our chat is up he accuses me of wanking over the phone when I’m shuffling looking for a pen, sings the Irish blessing “May the road rise to meet you” in a leprechaun accent and burps quite a few times — generally followed by that infamous cackle of his.
But there’s no messing about when he’s talking about his life’s work, and over the half hour on the line he’s full of genuine warmth and sincerity, amid the trademark mischievous humour. “Ah, we all take life too seriously don’t we? And we shouldn’t, the Irish in me tells me this,” he says. “But I’m serious about my body of work, and educating yourself.”
For anyone with only a passing interest in music, Lydon will always be frozen in time as Johnny Rotten, the snarling, sneering frontman of the Sex Pistols, the band that’s still shorthand for punk nihilism, with their middle finger anthems like God Save the Queen and Anarchy in the UK gobbing all over the establishment.
But Lydon helped change the face of music twice. Beyond the Filth and the Fury, and after the Pistols imploded in the gutter on tour in the States in 1978, Lydon formed Public Image Ltd with Keith Levene, Jah Wobble and Jim Walker as an “anti-rock” band, and he always maintains PiL is his real legacy, still going after four decades, albeit with many members through the door. PiL are still held up as one of the most influential bands of all time, with experimental albums like First Edition, The Flowers of Romance and their masterpiece Metal Box in every post-punk best-of list.
“In terms of the longevity of Public Image I’m very pleased that I have the staying power and the patience – more patients than a hospital really,” he says. “I work in an industry that doesn’t like to be told a few home truths about itself. So you earn the reputation of being difficult to work with. Well hello, we’ve had 49 members of PiL, I’m not too difficult to work with, it’s just too difficult to work with me long enough!”
A life as packed as Lydon’s deserves an autobiography, and he’s got two. His 2014 memoir Anger Is An Energy references a line from PiL’s chart hit Rise, and 1995’s No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs is a take on the xenophobic posters in London in the 70s, which stuck in the throat of Lydon, the son of Irish immigrants in the unforgiving English capital.
Lydon grew up in poverty in Holloway in north London and spent summers in his mother Eileen’s native Co Cork (his father John was from Tuam in Galway). He says he was too Irish for the Londoners but not Irish enough when he came to visit. When asked where his rebellious streak came from, he howls: “Ho ho! Definitely my mum and dad, they wouldn’t toe the line for anyone, and taught me never to be cannon fodder – don’t volunteer for causes that you don’t fully understand. That goes for religion as well, I’m not having any of that nonsense.
“To earn my loyalty and my respect – and this is a complete working class approach to life – you have to earn it, thank you. You have to first understand that I have some value as a human being. And once you know that then we can talk about principles and the issues. And then if you’ve achieved that and you tell me nothing but the truth, I’m solid with you for the rest of my life.”
One of Lydon’s most famous choruses, “May the road rise with you…” from Rise is a take on the old Irish proverb, and he said for years he struggled with it until it clicked. He says: “Yep, that’s as Irish as you can get! I tell you, when I was very young that used to puzzle me, what do you mean may the road rise? If the road rises it’d be harder to get up! Such was my analytic nature, but it’s a glorious term and the phraseology holds such deeper truths. It’s the Irish in me… we laugh at funerals and we cry at weddings.”
Punk’s rebel ties with reggae is well documented, from The Clash covering Junior Murvin and referencing the Harder They Come on The Guns of Brixton, to Don Letts playing deep dub and reggae to the punk kids in the Roxy in the 70s. In recent interviews with Jimmy Cliff and Don Letts, they both went off on a punk tangent with me – with Cliff full of praise for Joe Strummer and Rancid’s Tim Armstrong, who led his band and produced his album Rebirth. Letts spoke fondly — and hazily — about the late 70s trip he took with Lydon on a reggae A&R mission to Jamaica to sign any reggae artists they could, backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Records cash.
Lydon also laughs hard remembering the voyage, saying: “It was a mind-blowing experience, we smoked everything but cigarettes! It was after the demise of the Pistols and I still wanted to do something in music. Virgin wanted me to go to Jamaica to sign some bands for them, they knew I had a history of being into reggae. So I said I wanted to bring some friends and I did, and Don was one of them.
“In many ways Jamaica had a country vibe to it, which I really enjoyed, cos it reminded me of going back to Ireland when I was young, my grandparents on the farm. It was very much that easier way of life and I liked it a lot. It helped me form PiL. I decided that from then, only work with friends and people I can trust, and 40 years later I’ve finally found the group of people who I really can trust, that be Bruce, Lou and Scotty. We’re discovering amazing things in our work now. And we’re able to have an ideology of continuity, and so we can be more open and trusting and it just makes for better explorations of ideas, emotions… and coincidentally music.”
Lydon credits his late mother for his unique take on the world and skewed wisdom, after she obsessively taught him to read at an early age. Another formative dent on the young Lydon was contracting meningitis aged seven, which led to four years of severe memory loss.
“I never thought i’d live through my childhood with the illness and everything is a bonus ever since,” he says. “I don’t have any long term career ideology other than I’ll do exactly what I want to do… and be as honest and open as I can and share my life experiences with anyone who’s interested.”
In Anger Is An Energy, he talks of the “library” in his head, and says he still carries Eileen’s mantra of “Learn, learn, learn, learn, learn, learn!” He adds: “I don’t switch off at all. Everything fascinates me, I’m curious about everything. I wanna know the writings and thought processes of all my fellow human beings. And somehow through that we can get to transparency and we can get self truth. And by doing that, well in a religious context, we can get back into the Garden of Eden and kick that damn snake out!”
One of PiL’s most harrowing songs is 1979’s Swan Lake, aka Death Disco, written for his mother who had died of cancer shortly beforehand. When he plays the song live he still breaks down in tears, saying he has a profound recall of her final days of suffering.
“I miss her like mad, you know, the things we could’ve explored,” he says. “And there it goes, you have to try and understand what death is, but I don’t. Even worst enemies, when they kick the bucket I miss ’em like mad, I miss their energy and their place in all of this. It’s all too temporary, and that’s why for me life is a gift that keeps on giving for as long as you let it.”
Aside from the two memoirs, Lydon released a beautifully-bound illustrated book of his lyrics. The idea came to him when he was asked to provide a full collection of his words to the Chinese authorities so they could pore through them to see if PiL were eligible for a visa to play a gig. After China, would he go one step further and apply to play North Korea like the Slovenian industrial band Laibach?
“North Korea? Haaa! Well, there’d be no more Korea if I went there! But seriously, that really is a society contaminated by a lunatic dictator and no one would really be allowed to enjoy a Public Image gig, they’re an enslaved society in the cruellest, harshest way. I mean, my God, how would you go with all your usual requirements knowing that three quarters of the audience are dying starving?”
Closer to home, Lydon is taking PiL to Dublin on a tour that coincides with a new 5-CD box set called The Public Image Is Rotten (Songs From the Heart). Even though he does play the panto punk baddie sometimes, these visceral, personal songs are a direct route to his being. He says at the gig we can expect “words like honesty and integrity, and if you don’t get them by all means complain… but you won’t need to complain. We’re full on we are. We run the whole gauntlet of every emotion and stress and joy you can imagine. We’re sharing our hearts and souls and we expect the audience to share their hearts and souls with us, and indeed that’s what happens.”
And even if he’s not still around in 40 years, would he give his permission to be resurrected for one of these hologram shows? He considers the recent Roy Orbison tour and admits: “Listen, I think I’d go to see that though, because Roy Orbison is one of my favourite singers ever.
“And that sounds like an old PiL idea by the way, I remember saying something like that 30 years ago, to project a holographic image of me and walk out and have an argument with myself [laughs]. But one when I’m gone? No! Certainly Not! You do not need a doppelganger – the real thing is alive and kicking.”
Signing off, he tries out a lilting Oirish voice to chant: “And may the road rise with you and may it always be behind you. May they scatter-batter-flatter… and SHATTER! I Just believe in peace. And If you don’t like peace you can peace off!”
- Public Image Ltd play Vicar Street in Dublin on August 26. The Public Image Is Rotten is out now.