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John Lydon: “Have I mellowed? Absolutely fucking not!” – a classic interview revisited

With a brand new Public Image Ltd. single unleashed and — gasp! — aiming for Eurovision glory, we celebrate the former Sex Pistol turning 67 with a classic interview. Some of us may have issues with his love of Brexit (rebel who doesn’t understand the cause?) and Donald Trump (unforgivable), but no one can deny he does, to coin a phrase, give good copy.

This potty-mouthed piece shows him talking on the equally legendary Tom Hibbert on drunkenly eviscerating form, first published in Q magazine in July 1989 and taken from Rock’s Backpages, the online home of music writing for us weathered journos. 

Stick the sublimely soul-bearing Hawaii* on (or any choice cuts from the Holloway heathen’s catalogue) and chortle incessantly as no one is spared his wrath: Bowie, Sting, U2, Pet Shop Boys, Joe Strummer, “the French”, even Saint Nelson Mandela, they’re all ripe for demolition. In other words, heeeeere’s Johnny!

In the bar of the north London rehearsal studio complex, John Lydon, wearing a typically loud shirt, a pair of unorthodox dark spectacles and the kind of “colourful” straw hat Bob Hope might don for a round of pro-celeb golf, is treating all and sundry to his remarkable impression of an avant-garde lager lout.

Downing the pint beakers of foaming Holsten Export at an alarming rate, he’s roundly belching at regular intervals, using the wastepaper basket in the corner as his personal spittoon, and taunting some Liverpudlians (members of a young band called Big Still) with his abrasive chant of “Arsenewall! Arsenewall!” (this, a reference to Lydon’s favoured footer team).

The Liverpool boys and girls, somewhat in awe of the legendary rock person, take the extravagant behaviour in good part. “Did you really used to be sick in airports then, eh, John?”

“Fuck off! Of course, I didn’t,” cries our hero, the Johnny Rotten of old, in that well-worn sneery tone, aiming a jet of spittle at the bespattered receptacle and missing by millimetres. “Shouldn’t believe all that garbage that’s been written about me, you know! Welcome to the real world!”

Hawaii: This is a love song

On the television screen, the BBC comedy series Last of the Summer Wine is silently playing. “Oh, look,” hisses John with mischief and glee when that shabby and rather revolting character Compo appears in his wellingtons and disgusting old jacket, “he’s wearing one of Vivienne Westwood’s latest designs, hahaha”.

Heeeeere’s Johnny! Unwinding after a hard day’s rehearsing for Public Image’s forthcoming tour of America (with New Order and the Sugarcubes) … Issuing a torrent of (jovial) abuse when a member of Big Still makes the mistake of describing his band’s music as “a sort of funky U2” … Belching. Spitting. Laughing. “Arsenewall! Arsenewall!” Saying “Humans, eh? What an awful fucking breed we are.” And that sort of thing …

John Lydon was to be found earlier perched beside a rickety table on wasteland amongst what he called “the lovely English weeds” outside the studios, and I asked him if he had, ahem, “mellowed” over the years. The early recorded offerings of his post-Sex Pistols project, Public Image Ltd – Public Image Limited (’78), Metal Box (’79), The Flowers Of Romance (’81) – were often “difficult” and “obscure” (sometimes downright unlistenable); the seventh album, Album, was a monstrous brute of neo-heavy metal; the eighth, Happy?, was all “industrial” gloom and doom. But the new one, 9, has some proper tunes on it. Heaven help us, it’s almost pretty in parts. And even the hair of the ex-punk rawker has gone quite sensible, a modest bleached shock taking the place of the untoward and less-than-kempt flaming red dreadlocks that “graced” his head until recently.

“Have I mellowed? Absolutely fucking not,” he sneers. And that seems to be that. “Listen, dear boy, I’m a hell of a lot more easier going than a lot of people would like to believe, but I’m not easy going when it comes to making music. I’ve no time for laziness. I demand quality. And all we set out to do with this album was to make a fine piece of music. Too many outfits at the moment just use computers and they have no talent and can’t write songs and can’t play, and why should I be a part of that? I never was a part of that. I just want to write good music, thank you, and if that upsets a lot of posers out there – or shall we call them purists – that’s their jolly bad luck. I haven’t mellowed. I’m not going for the fast buck. The amount of time we spend writing these songs in itself defies the possibility of earning vast amounts of money.”

Public Image is a democracy, he insists, a proper group (Lydon, guitarist John McGeoch, drummer Bruce Smith and bass player Allan Dias – second guitarist Lu Edmonds has had to leave the band due to hearing problems), one to be taken seriously and definitely not to be trifled with.

“Here’s an interesting little story for you. This album we were meant originally to do with [producer] Bill Laswell, but he told me that my band couldn’t play, we had no songs, we were all completely incompetent, and as far as he was concerned the best move I could make would be to sack the band and work on the 10 songs he had. In a ‘U2-type vein’. Because this would be good career-wise for me. He wanted to turn me into Bono. Bozo. So bye bye, Bill Laswell. I’ll never speak to him again for that. Major, major stupidity. I will not be dictated to by arseholes.”

Pleased as he is with 9 (which was eventually produced by Stephen Hague and Eric Thorngren), Lydon refers to Public Image records as “just casual interludes”. What is far more important, says the man who, when he was Rotten, claimed that playing on stage was the most “booooring” thing in the world, is live work.

“That’s what Public Image is. It’s a live performing outfit. Too few bands appreciate that mentality. A lot of bands just take the easy way out: oh, there’s a computer, that’ll solve all the problems. I’m sorry, but I prefer human beings any day over technology.”

We have now been conversing for almost five minutes. Time, surely, for Lydon to deliver one of his caustic blasts against one or another of his musical contemporaries. Yes, indeed. He gulps some Holsten, issues a lusty burp and …

“A bad example of how bad things can be is Depeche Mode, who I absolutely hate. They are completely lifeless. There’s no love in what they do. When you see them live it’s a tragedy. They don’t move, they’re not excited by what they do …” Burp. “Same thing with the Pet Shop Boys – except they don’t even have the bollocks to get up live. They’re all computer-generated, same as Michael Jackson, and I find it all a bit pathetic and sad.”

Remember Johnny Rotten? Squatting on stages, clutching a fag and staring venomously, derisively, at his audiences? Undaunted, unshaken by the brouhaha, determined to offend. Nothing seemed likely to “faze” that punk. It’s hard to believe, then, that the grown-up version, Mr John Lydon, could suffer terribly and acutely from stage fright. But he says he does.

“I get frantic,” he says as he puffs away on another Marlboro cigarette. “Can’t cope with it. Get terrified. Can’t eat. Because it’s absolutely so fucking important to me. You got a lot of people out there screaming blue murder for you and that hits the stomach. When I was in my First Band…” as, with a languid sneer, he is wont to refer to the Sex Pistols, “ …when I was in my First Band, I used to hide behind a barrage of alcohol, for instance, because that has a certain calming effect. With my First Band, and when I first did gigs with Public Image, there were certain situations where I wouldn’t actually remember doing the gig the next morning and I found that to be a tragedy. If you’re asking people to pay money and you’re up there presenting your ideas, your lifestyle, and all you’ve got to offer is a drunken piece of debauchery, that’s really just not on. They say, Oh well, ha ha ha, that’s rock’n’roll, isn’t it, maaaaan, that stance of just wrecking yourself to amuse others? I see no enjoyment in watching people destroy themselves.”

On their last tour of America (it’s still difficult for Lydon to organise tours in Blighty, where he’s been banned from various venues since the Sex Pistols played there), Public Image supported INXS. INXS, it seems, were frightfully “rock ‘n’ roll”.

“I was disappointed in how lazy they were live. I thought it was very silly of them. They were just going through the motions of big rock stars, and the Mick Jagger moves from A to Z were fully copied. Bit sad. The fact that they didn’t allow us any soundchecks or anything like that was well and fine, because it didn’t stop us being as good as we are. Because we can play, you see. The worse the – for want of a better word – sabotage became, the harder we played, and we won over their rock ’n’ roll audience night after night, so when the first bunch of reviews came out, INXS’s attitudes changed dramatically. They started rehearsing etcetera etcetera. They had to work, the silly sods, and we just sat around backstage drinking tea and having a jolly good time. It was a wonderful competition to see if Public Image could win over a rock audience like that. Much more extreme than playing to a load of rowdy old punks …”