Licence to PiL – John Lydon
by Karen Shaw
It’s Friday night, and while most folk will be out partying. I’m not. I’m at work and despite it being Friday; the thought of having a cheeky G and T hasn’t even entered by mind. I need to keep my wits about me as I’m waiting for the King of Punk, John Lydon to wake up…
In an ideal world I’d like to say that he’s sleeping on the floor next to my desk, but, unfortunately that is not the case. He’s actually in Los Angeles, no doubt finishing his breakfast…
With his Destroy T-shirt, spiky hair, can of beer and shades John (Johnny Rotten) was the front man for the most recognisable band in punk rock, The Sex Pistols. The Pistols didn’t just kick down doors; they kicked them off the wall. After releasing one album and four singles, they spawned a sea of imitators; including my husband who spent most of his teenage years looking ridiculous in his ripped tartan pants and his rather offensive Mohawk.
After fronting the Sex Pistols, John formed post-punk originators Public Image Ltd (PiL). Widely regarded as one of the most innovative bands of all time, their music and vision earned them five UK Top 20 Singles and five UK Top 20 Albums.
Lydon reactivated PiL in 2009, releasing the critically acclaimed album This is PiL in 2012. The band have recently released their tenth studio album What The World Needs Now…
Following on from highly successful 2015 dates throughout the UK, Europe and North America, John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd (PiL) are back on the road again with a UK/Europe summer tour. I caught up with John just after he’s finished his kippers for breakfast and before I’d downed a G and T…
“Kippers,” replies John after I’ve asked him what he’s had for his breakfast. That’ll help keep his strength up considering he’s got a lengthy tour ahead….
“I like hard work, it’s not a problem. I’m looking forward to it. We love performing live.”
John is definitely not workshy or afraid to get his hands dirty and he goes onto to tell me about his plumbing skills and the rows that followed.
“I know how to put a toilet in and have done, but on this occasion I didn’t have time to fit a new one so me and Nora (wife) had a domestic. Easily resolved though, instead of issuing divorce papers we got a plumber!”
This domestic is covered in a song in question called Double Trouble and it’s about how silly things can lead to big arguments.
“Nora and I laugh a lot. It’s heartwarming to know how ridiculous we can be sometimes. But it’s good to be able to let off steam. I’d recommend a bloody good argument to any relationship that’s on the rocks.”
His latest album was self-funded and released on his own label, a route that he chose after he’d had enough of record labels.
“They wouldn’t release me and they wouldn’t help or fund me,” says John. “I found myself being in debt and I didn’t like that at all. So slowly but surely I earned enough money by doing TV stuff and internet shows, raised enough and then the butter campaign came along so I bought my way out of them labels and we formed our own. Since then we’ve managed to keep the same band for
more than one album, which is historical for me. Independence has brought us incredible stability.”
“I could have easily fallen into the trap of being a pop star and I felt uncomfortable with it and did everything possible to get away from that. It was a trap really. And there’s more to me than just that! As long as there are people in the world, it would be impossible for me to ever run out of ideas. I’m one of these people where there isn’t enough time in a day to get done what I want to. I view myself as 60 years young and if I could continue to make music for another 60 years I’d be very happy! That’s why touring is so great; you do get to meet very different types of people.
“I like to work with human beings, they mean things to me. You can’t get bored with emotions and that’s what PiL do. We study emotions, good, bad, ugly, indifferent, joyous, happy, all of ‘em. Each gig is a total reenactment of real life.”
After watching footage of John laying some tracks down in the studio, I’m slightly amused when he begins clutching his Adam’s apple and strutting around the studio like a demented chicken. “Well, he smiles, I wanted to reach that perfect note and if it rips my tonsils out – tough!”
John classes his voice as his instrument, and while giggling away admits: “Many view my voice as an instrument of torture! I put everything into our live performances, it’s very important. I like small venues. I like to read their thoughts and I can feel if they’re inside the song with me and that’s a celebration of life that is.”
Despite his former sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll image, nowadays he’s “stone cold sober” when he performs. “I get terrible stage fright before I perform and feel physically quite ill, but once on the stage, it’s sink or swim time and that’s how I like it. It’s important to heighten your emotions and unfortunately I’m in an industry that doesn’t do that. From the very first opportunity to being in a band that’s how I approached it – full-on commitment.”
That’s what I love about John; his willingness to embrace the new and the bold, it’s clear this lad was born to perform, and 40 years after joining The Sex Pistols he still gets goose bumps when performing.
His energetic voice drops significantly and is replaced by a sad tone when he talks about his mum. “The songs about the death of my mother affect me deeply. There’s no acting in it, and it’s genuine. But life goes on. My mum and dad are still alive inside my head; they’re still bashing me on the back of the head for being naughty! My mum was very quiet, but both of them told it like it was. Even though his parents would attend his Sex Pistols gigs, his mother (in a strong Irish accent) would exclaim “My God, what do you think that is?”
“They were super critical,” says John, “which is the way it should be.”
After contracting meningitis at the age of seven, John was left in a coma, and after gaining consciousness, he had no memory; no recollection of who he was, no idea of who his parents were. He had to learn how to read and write again. It took him four years before his memory started to return so he had to believe what people told him. He had to trust that what everyone told him was true. “I demand honesty. I’ll put up and endure an awful lot from people but I won’t take lies. I know from my illness how much lies can hurt. I know if I was told a lie and believed it to be not true it would really damage me. So I’d never inflict that on another person.”
So when I ask him if he’s ever told a white lie, he laughs. “Oh yes, huge, enormous ones. That’s the Irish in me. I love story-telling.”
After his illness, books played a massive part in his recovery, and he spent many hours in his local library. With half of libraries in Lancashire closing I was keen to discover his thoughts on the matter. “It’s like the last vestige of truth and when that goes it’s all down to a coward’s opinion on the internet.”
In his latest biography Anger is an Energy; John talks about how anger also helped him back on the road to recovery. “Anger is what brought my memories back,” he says. It kept me in that state of constant agitation so that I wouldn’t become institutionalised. It stopped me from wallowing in self-pity and forgetting who I was. I do not equate it with violence or hatred, quite the opposite. It’s a good energy.”
His parents loved music and would regularly buy records and have parties on a Friday night.
“Music was part of our lives, so I grew up with quite a broad taste; they used to say they had Catholic taste, which I never understood, because Catholics are very narrow-minded.
“Growing up in Finsbury Park area it was very multi-cultural so there were all manner of musical forms in the background. So I grew up with all of it, feeling that it was part of me.”
The issues with members of The Sex Pistols are well known. They didn’t all gel. However, it’s plain to see that his latest band PiL has a much stronger connection. “The reason for that, once again, is honesty,” says John.
But what if your honesty may cause upset? “You can’t always help that. Sometimes that might be important as it may spur someone on in the right direction. There’s no point in being pleasant to someone when you know you know you don’t mean it. I’m just a friendly and aggravated human being!”
Our John is a crazy ball of furry fire; his energy is infectious. He admits that he spent his entire youth ‘watching himself from the outside in’ especially after leaving hospital. “Watching myself from the outside, guessing at who I was, trying to get back in. For me, it’s been a permanent feature, but it doesn’t mean I’m bipolar. I don’t believe in that either!”
Many people view John as an icon. John finds this funny. Although, he lives in Los Angeles nowadays, he doesn’t hide away behind high walls and gun turrets.
“I don’t drive about in a Limousine with tinted windows. None of that interests me. I’m just a regular person in a highly irregular way. Some of us are just square pegs they can’t fit in round holes no matter what. I’m one of those calamities.”
People have photo albums, John has music albums. His life seems to be laid down in audio version.
“That’s right,” says John, “they’re audio images, creating pictures in my mind. The first two notes of any song, remind me instantly of that exact moment, and that’s how I remember things, photographically through music.”
It’s possibly not common knowledge that John nearly followed the likes of Buddy Holly, Otis Redding and Lynyrd Skynyrd into the annals of music legends, by dying in a plane crash, when he missed PanAm flight 103, blown up by a terrorist bomb over Lockerbie in 1988.
“We were supposed to be on that flight,” John recalls. “Nora couldn’t pack her bags in time so we cancelled the flight, and never bothered to tell anyone, didn’t think it mattered and went back to bed. Everyone thought we were dead. It’s terrible how you can be blown to smithereens by spiteful evil ******s. I’ve got no love for murderers of any kind, none of them. Killing you for religion or politics, they’re deeply troubled people. I don’t know how to help them.”
On the subject of evil people, I mention to John about the time I met Jimmy Savile. John has spoken openly about this subject and ‘did his bit’ to alert the public about Savile in 1978, but his comments made were never aired.
“They were all then put in positions of great power and in charge of children, and you’ve got to be suspicious of these kinds of people that volunteer for such activities. It’s the same with priests, you know, I had to endure them. I felt the same way. I knew there were dangerous, you can tell a lot by the eyes.”
Knowing what he knows now, I wondered what advice he’d give to his younger self. “Err, to listen more to myself,” he laughs. “I’m usually not wrong. I don’t mean it arrogantly but I do think things through and I tend to get things right. That would be my best advice to myself: Carry on John, but don’t be so slow about it.”
As the interview draws to an end, I tentatively ask John if he’d be so kind to say ‘hello’ to my ex-punk of a husband, Chris.
As I hand the phone over John says: “Is she putting you through the wringer and making you feel embarrassed?”
Chris replies, “How’s she made you feel? She’s been machine-gunning you with plenty of questions.”
“Listen, that’s what every good woman is for. To push us into the fire, which isn’t a bad thing,” laughs John.
Growing up as a ginger punk, Chris was often ridiculed, with comments like “You’re a punk, you can’t be ginger!” Chris asks John to settle an age-old argument: Are you ginger at all?
“I was born ginger, of course you can be a ginger punk, tell them the king of punk is a ginger Tom,” he laughs.
Time for a well-earned G and T, as I look forward to catching John and PiL at King George’s Hall, Blackburn, on Thursday, June 2nd. John’s looking forward to his gig in Northern Life territory, too. “Generally speaking the North of England has always been cosy with me because we both speak as we find. Any other attitude is a waste of time.”