John Lydon and the Unlikely Rise of Post-Punk Pioneers PiL
John Lydon is happy—and something of a hippie. Huh?! No, really. In a recent, nearly hour-long interview with the man many know as Johnny Rotten, the sneering iconoclast turned icon who fronted the Sex Pistols during punk's first sputum-flecked flourishing, Lydon spouted bromides more in line with a woolly '60s rocker like Ray Manzarek. (By the way, Lydon likes the Doors.) One senses that the firebrand immortalized in Neil Young's "My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)" doesn't want to destroy passersby anymore.
Now 54, this London-born son of Irish-Catholic immigrants who suffered coma-inducing meningitis when he was 7 seems like he should be a bitter geezer... or dead. But no. He lives in wedded bliss in Los Angeles with Nora Forster. His post-Pistols group, Public Image Ltd. (aka PiL, which Lydon pronounces as "pill"), lumbered back into life in 2009 after a 17-year hiatus with some UK dates, and received generally positive reviews—some 30 years after they peaked with the landmark post-punk album Metal Box (retitled Second Edition after its initial run of three 12-inches packaged in film canisters ran out). PiL's current 22-show North American tour includes Coachella and Seattle's Showbox at the Market.
After flaming across the world's consciousness as one of punk's most provocative figureheads, Lydon could've coasted on the notoriety of his Pistols tenure and milked that persona for easy money. Instead, he ripped up the script and started from scratch with PiL, which initially included ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene, earth-moving bassist Jah Wobble, and a rotating cast of drummers, including Martin Atkins.
With their first three extraordinary LPs, PiL shook punk's stylistic shackles and forged uniquely caustic and stark variations on rock, dub, and disco. Their alien vibrations are still inspiring musicians and blowing listeners' minds today. Stereolab's Tim Gane, Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, the Jesus Lizard's David Yow, among many others, are die-hard fans, and critic Simon Reynolds proclaimed Metal Box to be post-punk's zenith.
Although technically flawed, Lydon's vocals—ranging from droll hectoring to otherworldly wail to a sort of diseased, plaintive warble—radiate charisma and remain a distinctive instrument. His lyrics—ranging from smarter-than-you'd-think sociopolitical and religious castigations to obliquely harrowing storytelling—reveal an active, sharp mind, which was in full bloom during this interview.
So, why take PiL back on the road now? Two things prompted this tour: lack of money and record-company support, and the death of his father in 2008. The latter "brought back to home a song I wrote many moons ago in PiL called 'Death Disco'—which is about the death of my mother," Lydon says over the phone from L.A. He speaks in ALL CAPS and with crisp enunciation; dude's a bit of a ham, and though his answers sometimes come across as rehearsed, they're usually entertaining. "The same emotions just strung through me. I really need to get Public Image back out there. It was a band both of my parents truly appreciated.
"I've never been able to come to grips with the death of friends and family... or the death of anybody," he continues. "It's my nature, because I'm a pacifist at heart. If I have any philosophy to follow, politically, it would be Gandhi. [Hippie!] The only way to relieve the stress of those things has been the songs that I write in PiL."
This sounds like a good strategy. "It's not a strategy," Lydon counters. "It became a complete necessity. Otherwise I'd feel incredibly stifled. I just can't be cozy in a rock band and just coast. Although I'm always close to financial ruin, it doesn't really matter. The work I do in PiL is always 100 percent honest. Because of that, it's incredibly cutting-edge. I'm not copying anybody; I'm singing from the heart and the soul. The musicians who wrap themselves around me are of equal billing and stature."
Those musicians for this jaunt—which is mainly happening due to money Lydon made from a whimsical and successful TV advert for Country Life butter (PiL are label-less)—include drummer Bruce Smith (ex–Pop Group and Rip Rig + Panic), guitarist Lu Edmonds (ex-Damned), and bassist Scott Firth. Lydon talked to Wobble about rejoining, but they couldn't agree on compensation.
"He doesn't understand that I don't have the cash to be paying top dollar," Lydon explains. "It's unfortunate, because I certainly helped him have a career." Wobble bad-mouthed the reunion in the press, but PiL's leader dismisses his gripes as "a load of fallacy."
Lydon remains unfazed by the setback. "I've worked with 39 different people over the years in PiL. The ones that I think work the best are the best. We ended up with the best bassist [Firth] the world has ever offered—a man whose résumé stretches from Stevie Winwood to the Spice Girls is not to be balked at. That's the full range of emotions right there. That's the perfect person." (Lydon seems to be applying the sarcasm thickly here.)
"Bruce Smith and Lu Edmonds I've worked the longest in any PiL format with," he continues. "We're mentally so in tune with each other onstage that the songs have an amazing freedom. We're able to improvise things beyond the regular imagination of the more mundane out there. None of us are aggressive. I don't live in this world to propagate arguments. Public Image is a band that tries to resolve issues."
Wait—aren't arguments Lydon's raison d'être? "Oh, no!" he protests. "If there's a row to be settled, my song is there and it will deal with many issues. But ultimately it's about coming together. [Hippie!] We've only got one life on this earth and that's it. Don't make it ugly for yourself or anyone else. All my songs resolve with that message. I don't leave anyone mortally offended—except of course if it's an institution that's been wicked and cruel to people.
"There are no personal attacks in my songs. [Actually, 'FFF' and 'The Suit' appear to contradict this claim.] I'll give you an example. 'Disappointed' was about friends and friendships and how they can go awry from time to time. I have the refrain 'Isn't that what friends are for?' because you have to learn how to forgive."
Quoting one of PiL's most popular songs, "Rise," he asserts, "Anger is an energy; resolve it. Used correctly, it will stop the need for war and mindless violence." (Hippie!)
What the hell would Johnny Rotten think of the peaceful 2010 edition of John Lydon?
"I think the young Mr. Rotten/Lydon would appreciate that I've followed a true path," he states. "I have a serious sense of values. I will not hurt or rip off anybody. I try not to lie, but one can squeak out because the Irish in me can't help but tell a good tale—which can help in the songwriting. When you're singing in the third person about a victim, some powers of exaggeration have to go into that. You're drawing from emotions that you can't express in words alone. It's not a compromising position to be in when I write a song; it's a most excellent minefield of booby traps I somehow have to discover the truth in. [Laughs.] That's what every PiL song is for me.
"Realizing the containments and restrictions of [the Sex Pistols], when I formed PiL, I was messing around with terms like 'anti-music' in kind of a self-mocking way. If your subject matter warrants it, you don't need verse/chorus format. You don't need limitation of what is a good or bad note. You need to go for the character of the song. That's why records like that are successful. That's what was done, and it was done well and honestly. It wasn't done to be avant-garde or weird for the sake of it. People... all have the same capabilities as me—probably more so, some of them. But they don't let their free will reign." Lydon concludes, burping, "You mustn't do anything to pander to an audience."
John Lydon's never pandered?
"No. I've never made a record where I thought, 'Oh, that's a fashionable genre.' When I do waver off into other projects, like with Afrika Bambaataa [Time Zone], that's before hiphop was really even a genre in its own right. That was the first crossover rap/rock record. We opened the door for Run-DMC and Aerosmith to plonk on top of that. Yet our record was stifled and theirs was fully promoted. [Laughs.]
"The song with Leftfield [1993's "Open Up"] was a wonderful thing to do. Up to that point, there weren't many people singing over techno. It took us about a year to hone in on what it was and where it would work properly. When I was ready for it, I went into the studio at night and laid it straight down. That's how a good vocal should be; it should flow completely naturally. It's worth all the work in advance. There's a hell of a lot of thought that goes into a thing—and then you do it. You don't just mumble your way through it and re-edit and retake, because that never rings true when people do that."
It seems like something of an outrage that PiL don't have a record label, although Lydon hints that a few are interested (he wouldn't reveal names till his signature hits the dotted line, though).
"It's very difficult to do anything like this without any record-company support whatsoever," he says. "Even to talk to you is costing me money. Because everything is run by systems. Normally a record company would be in control of those operations. But we can't get them involved with us in any way at all. It's a shame, because I think I've brought the wonderful world of music quite a lot of good things. I've definitely filled the banquet table."
When asked what he thinks PiL's greatest musical legacy has been, Lydon is characteristically immodest.
"All of it. And I'm far from finished. I think so far it's quite an excellent body of work, and I hope to continue, regardless of the consistent walls and barriers put up against me."
Wasn't PiL originally supposed to be an autonomous unit that didn't need the music industry, or is this a misreading of history?
"Oh no, we absolutely needed to put records out because that's how you make the money to go out and perform live." (I couldn't get a word in edgewise here, but this reasoning strikes me as indicative of the old music-biz paradigm.) "That's how I've always approached it. To me, live is the essence of it. If it was any other way, what would I be? I'd be a hermit living in a cave? [Laughs.] I don't see that quite possible. I love interacting with other human beings far too much.
"People in other bands are always mumbling inane nonsenses to me like, 'Don't you find it difficult to keep writing songs?' No is the answer, and I do not run out of subject matter. Every day, any conversation leads to a new thought and a new angle. I read a lot. I constantly become aware of thought processes that enlighten me. I have the capability of adhering to the finer points of other human beings. That's how life should be. It's all a wonderful give-and-take. Unfortunately with me, everybody's taken, but given me nothing. [Laughs.]"
It's an outrage. Lydon laughs, then channels comedian Rodney Dangerfield. "I can't get no respect. It doesn't matter, because I'm not one for the self-pity. A character like mine is irrepressible. I smile in the face of adversity. Shakespeare taught me well."
As it happens, this interview is happening on Good Friday; on "Religion" off First Issue, Lydon ranted against Christianity. In light of the recent Catholic Church pedophilia-cover-up scandal... "Yeah, in light of what's happening now, evolving, and the knowledge therein," he intercedes. "I don't mean to say I was ahead of my time... Believe me, anyone who went through Catholic school will know exactly what I was talking about. [Laughs.]"
Lydon feels just as strongly now about those words as he did then.
"It's my way to state what an issue is. The fact is, I did that a hell of a long time ago. It'd be as valid today as it was then, because people tended not to listen. ['Religion'] was put down as merely being contentious, just for the sake of it, at the time. Well, lo and behold, I'm right, like I have been with the royal family, in another band. [Laughs.]
"If there's a problem, you have to go straight at it. The Catholic Church should've been dealt with more severely a hell of a long time ago. My primary school was run by nuns. They were the most brutal bitches from hell. There's nothing good-natured or Christian about their mentality toward little boys. And we all know what the priests were up to. From a very early age, we learned how to run from the man in the dress.
"I'm kind of making light of it with you, but those are tormenting times, and they carry on in later years unless you find an outlet to resolve that. For me, that's what songwriting does. I'm very lucky."
The set list for the North American tour will resemble those of the UK shows, which means that fans will get around a dozen songs from the first three albums: First Issue, Second Edition, and Flowers of Romance. Lydon says the rationale behind the choices boiled down to what they found to be "most enjoyable. The ones that deal with a fuller range of emotional issues. On paper it looks like these can't possibly work together, but believe me, they do. With 30 years with the way I've been making music, I should be believed and trusted on this. [Laughs.]
"PiL is a never-ending engine of fairly consistent, high-quality material. If I was going to focus on just the first two albums, I'd be rather foolish to myself. Because, indeed, songs like 'Four Enclosed Walls' or anything off the Flowers of Romance album, I can't negate on them. I can't negate on 'Disappointed' or 'Rise.' There are many things in there."
Undoubtedly, the first three PiL albums are all tremendous.
"Mmm-hmmm. And involving different people, I might add. The British press tend to think they were all done by the same people; they weren't. The only consistent was me. When you work with a group, first you get the personality blend right, and then the music will flow. Anyone who wants to keep upsetting the applecart, well, you have to say good-bye to them."
Unprovoked, Lydon goes off on a tirade about the British press. "Let me say that a lot of negativity came my way from [journalists]. They always resented the fact that I came to America very early on with PiL. They then stopped listening to what I was doing and were negative just for the sake of it. That was unfortunate, because at the time we couldn't get any gigs in Europe. We were being starved out of existence [in the '80s]. And America accepted us really openly, which was really surprising. In England, I was having to deal with a Sex Pistols–type audience denying me the chance to advance musically. For me, the two things go not exactly hand in glove, but yin and yang. The different facets of my personality.
"The advance press about the last PiL tour was mostly negative. But once they'd seen and heard us, well, you just can't be negative. This is the best band I've ever been in. I cannot wait to display that in America. This is a proper full-on show. No laziness. We don't skedaddle off after an hour and a quarter. We're capable of playing up to two and a half hours a night. The only restrictions on that is that in America you've got a lot of licensing problems and fire-marshal laws and unions. Touring is very tiring and strenuous and mind-numbingly painful sometimes, but I like to continue a concert till I drop quite literally from exhaustion. And I think that's how it should be. If somebody's going to pay money to see me, they're going to get 100 percent and then more. I'm proper serious Polish vodka. [Laughs.]"
PiL's recent live shows have made Lydon reevaluate some of the band's songs.
"Some of them we've expanded into all kinds of fantastic regions. Because of the musical dexterity inside of us, we can take a song into so many different darker or lighter, brighter, more folkier, more experimental areas, and all with a dance sensibility. There are certainly no clichés. Although there were many acts that try to copy whatever it is I've been doing over the years, I don't think any of them have quite gotten it right. It's not very often that you can listen, dance, and agree with a song, from the lyrics all the way down to the tambourine, and have every single part be valid. I view my voice as an instrument, as part of the overall sound. It's capturing a proper emotion. You can't do that with music alone."
Will "Poptones," for instance, be altered?
"'Poptones' is trying to stick to the basics," Lydon says. "But the wonderfulness of the song leaves us plenty of space to explore it. People were standing up and cheering after the end of it, and I thought, 'My god, it's a song about a poor girl being raped. Show some decorum.' By no means am I condoning rape, but if you can turn an ugly situation into a positive, I'm saying that there's another point of view in the song, too, that's not about that.
"I love irony—when you say one thing and mean completely another. It's wonderful to see [Jon] Stewart and [Stephen] Colbert practice that art. It's been so missing on American TV. It's an incredible new thing."
Another irony is how the nihilistic young punk became a world-historical figure about whom academics write scholarly essays and books. Does it ever freak Lydon out that he's become an integral part of cultural history?
"I don't ever think of that. I gave up all foolish thoughts inside myself when I was 21. I remember crying bitterly about, 'Oh, god, this [Sex Pistols breaking up] is going to be the end of my life.' And it wasn't; it was the beginning. When there are terrible problems and sadnesses, maybe something good will come out of them.
"Suicide is not an option. It's such a conclusion on yourself that you're probably not well equipped to make at that precise point in your turmoil. You need help, and PiL will definitely help you out of that. I wrote a song about it; it's called 'Theme.' It has the refrain in it, 'I wish I could die,' but then it goes to, 'But I will survive.' You keep that mantra running through your head and you'll come out of a depression. At least that's how it is for me."
Lydon saves his most shocking sentiments for the end of our talk. "God bless you. May the road rise and your enemies always be behind ya." (Hippie!)