A beer and a chat with John Lydon
The iconic singer talks us through PiL, the Sex Pistols, Star Trek, Joe Strummer, Liam Gallagher, and his new documentary 'The Public Image Is Rotten'
If there is one frontman deserving of a documentary it is John Lydon.
Obviously there’s his iconic work as the lead singer of the Sex Pistols. But, as Lydon recently admitted to me as we discussed the film and his career over a beer, although it was “a major part of my life, because it was the first rung on the ladder,” ultimately, it was rather “minimal.”
Instead, “The Public Image Is Rotten” focuses on Lydon’s work with Public Image Ltd (PiL), which he founded in 1978, and he insists was founded on ”integrity, honesty and transparency.”
“All of the things I wanted in the first band. But I found to be incredible stumbling blocks for no real good reason other than the fear that the management were displaying at being honest.”
Far from being a documentary that was clobbered together in a rush, Lydon insists that “The Public Image Is Rotten” has been 8 years in the making.
“It started in 2010 when we were reforming PiL. A man called Hunter approached us and said he would shoot footage of the reformed PiL, and he would do it for nothing and we would have control of the footage.”
“It just expanded from there. It was no instant done last year thing. It was a longterm project. We used the new PiL as the basis. But that story is only a tiny bit of it.”
“It wouldn’t make any sense if you didn’t include everything else. So it turned into a full blown documentary.”
It has not all been plain sailing, though, as Lydon admitted that several directors have come and gone during the making of the film.
“Being interviewed went on all the time. There were several different directors before Tabbert [Fiiller] came in. We had major disagreements. There were assumptions about what they thought was PiL.”
“Some of them just wanted it to be about the first two albums. Which would have been ridiculous. Silly. You can’t exclude the later stuff. It went on and on on and on.”
But “The Public Image Is Rotten” doesn’t mark an end for PiL. Far from it. As Lydon insists that there are still major plans for the band.
“Play. Play. Earn money. Record. Play. Outside of the sh**stem. Keep the wagon wheel running. Incorruptible. We’ll do the gigs. Then we will finish up what we are recording.”
“It will be out when the gigs are finished. But who knows what might happen in-between? There might be 20 more great gigs. They might not be. But either way we are adjustable to any agenda that suits us.”
“The more cash we can raise from touring the more time we can spend in the studio. The money goes straight back into the music.”
“If anybody has invested anything in this band it has definitely never been a record label. It has always been myself.”
PiL will embark on a North American tour next month, playing Brooklyn Steel on 15th October and Philadelphia on 15th October.
The North American Theatrical Premiere of “The Public Image Is Rotten” will take place at the New York, Metrograph on Thursday, September 13th, too.
There will also be several screenings at the Metrograph over the following week and John Lydon will be present at selected screenings.
On Thursday, September 13th John will be introducing the NYC 'sneak screening' at 10pm. Then on Friday, September 14th John will introduce the 7pm screening and do a Q&A after the screening. He will also introduce the 10pm screening.
Meanwhile, you can check out my full conversation with John Lydon, which touched upon everything from The Sex Pistol to PiL to Joe Strummer, Liam Gallagher and his creative process, below.
How did you get started on “The Public Image Is Rotten” then?
It started in 2010 when we were reforming PiL. A man called Hunter approached us and said he would shoot footage of the reformed PiL, and he would do it for nothing and we would have control of the footage. It just expanded from there. It was no instant done last year thing. It was a longterm project. We used the new PiL as the basis. But that story is only a tiny bit of it. It wouldn’t make any sense if you didn’t include everything else. So it turned into a full blown documentary. Being interviewed went on all the time. There were several different directors before Tabbert came in. We had major disagreements. There were assumptions what they thought were PiL. Some of them just wanted it to be about the first two albums. Which would have been ridiculous. Silly. You can’t exclude the later stuff. It went on and on on and on. The most difficult thing of it all, which is odd because they all want to use The Sex Pistols reference, that was the hardest thing to procure any footage from. The management of the other 3 and the industry itself. If we use it they want it to focus around all that. That was such a minimal part of my life really. A major part. Because it was the first rung on the ladder.
The documentary does a great job of showing that as the catalyst for your subsequent career, though.
The situation at the time warranted it to be that way. I would love to lie, no I wouldn’t, and say it is all part of a masterplan. I don’t think anything in life is a masterplan. What it is is a series of happy coincidences that sometimes bounce favorably if you’re smart enough.
You try to figure it out as you go along.
And to be as honest as you can. If you can maintain your integrity it will end well. If you try to fake any of it. Wow. Catastrophe. It might end up like a Sting documentary. Imagine that. The tantra sex. Please go away. Who wants to see that midget do anything? I joke because he is a friend.
When you first started PiL then, was there something that you wanted to achieve with the band?
Integrity. Honesty. Transparency. All of the things I wanted in the first band. But I found to be incredible stumbling blocks for no real good reason other than the fear that the management were displaying at being honest.
So PiL was a direct reaction to the Sex Pistols?
Not direct. Indirect. Because there were terrific moments. Without the band’s and my own incompetence really I don’t think we would have got to the next level. It was that learning curve that we all had to go through and endure that made this happen. One thing leads to another. Malcolm would constantly imply there was a masterplan. No. There’s no master. This is not "Star Trek." You know, that sexless bloody program that achieves nothing.
Looking back on what you have done with PiL do you think you achieved what you set out for?
No, no, no, there’s a hell of a lot of the journey left yet. There’s nowhere near enough. But working on it and progressing it and being as honest as we can. The PiL now is the best period of my life in music. Because of the bond we have and the integrity and the openness and the honesty. And the freeform arguments that don’t result in, ‘I’m leaving.’ It is not a b***hfest any longer. There was an awful lot of that. It was very difficult to start PiL because the record company were dead against it. They categorically stated to me. ‘We can’t support this because they are all unknowns.’ Well, duh, I was an unknown a year and a half ago. It is impossible to comprehend the stupidity of their decisions. But there it goes. So divided we fall. In came the gossip mongers, the different infiltrations of the record company, they can’t help it. It is not like it is a deliberate plan. It is more like a headless chicken. That resents something that doesn’t conform to their agenda. And Virgin at the time had a particularly hippy agenda of everybody is equal but some are more equal than others. That variation of communism. Which is impractical. There was a safety valve you could consider. All of that money backing us. That was for some bands. I never had that support. Never. Ever. So it is not something I have gravely missed. What I had was the attachments and the contracts that I couldn’t get out of. That bound me down. There you go, you have a media out there. The media will slam and condemn you if your record label is not supporting you. I have had 35-40 years of being that whipping boy nonsense. Why is nobody noticing that I am actually fighting the sh**stem here. I have been accused of selling out and this that and the other. Jesus Christ man. I opened the door for everybody. Can somebody just say thanks?
I remember that uproar over the butter ad back in the UK, did the reaction surprise you?
Oh my God. They were the only people that offered me any help. And suddenly I am a bad dude. There’s no self-pity. I ultimately don’t care. If people want to be deliberately spiteful and get a thing wrong. Well, well done. Great. May your life be as foolish for the rest of it as it already has been. Good riddance to ya. But there it goes. I think it is the most anarchistic thing I have ever been offered was to promote butter by corporations. Famous advertising people. And to hold a meeting and they go, ‘Look John, we know you’re not going to follow a script. We’ll give you one. Do what you want. Right?' So off I go to a field with cows and make it up. And it worked.
It was a great advert.
The British dairy industry improved by 87% thanks to not me because I am a sell out.
You have a tour coming up?
We are 39 gigs in so far. The American leg will start soon.
What have the shows been like?
Proper PiL. People know what to expect now from us. Intimacy. Honesty. Integrity. Bloody good fun and a whole research into your whole heart and emotions. What do we do? We tell the truth and our audience tells the truth to us. And our audience tells the truth to us. Eye to eye contact. Nice small intimate venues. I read what people are saying to us in their eyes. This changes the agenda of the songs.
Do you feel you have always been at your best up on stage?
Up close and personal. Not when I was very young. I couldn’t handle it. It was too much. ‘I hope they don’t see I am shy.’ But now shyness is part of it . Deal with it. But that’s experience. The emotional response from people around the world. We all share basic instincts and emotions. But you have to go through it to get there. It is a terribly hard thing to confront your weaknesses. But it is very hard to get to that point where you do. And then the songs start really meaning stuff to people. And that is where PiL is right now. A church without religion.
There’s a great scene from the film where you explain what "Rise" is actually about.
People wanting to believe it is purely political. It is not. It is emotional. And from those emotions there will be politics in it. It is just being honest with people. And telling it like it is. It is an intriguing song really. Even when I wrote it, there are so many issues that I threw into.
Are there any other songs that you feel have been misinterpreted?
All of them. And I hope so, too. Because that is the joy of being a human. We are allowed to get it wrong.
People can overanalyze and misinterpret.
And there’s too much destruction to themselves because of that. Or they can just open their mind and appreciate. Very few people know how to do that.
In your second interview with Tom Snyder you say that your previous appearance, which was a little heated, was just entertainment.
We became friends. He sent me everything he ever did. That was something I discovered about him. He wasn’t flippant after all. He was really furious that I even considered he was, or that he considered I was. You do these interviews and you don’t quite grasp what it is. So yes it is just another TV chat show. But then afterwards you realize no there is a hell of a lot more riding on it. Sometimes you miss that point. And, yeah, that’s entertainment. You can’t take it too serious. Because you can’t go back and correct it. So you just move on up.
How long have you been out in the States for now?
Oh gosh. 30 years? Something like that.
Why did you decide to move out here?
We got no work in England. We got banned everywhere. We got banned all over Europe. So we decided to up our ante and move to New York. Because there was some gig offers. We rented an apartment. We all lived together for a bit. Then we would rent a little transit van. Usually over the weekends. Load it up with some equipment. And perform in all the night clubs around the surrounding areas. Up to Philadelphia. Anywhere and everywhere that was near. An 8 hour drive would not be a problem. We really liked that. That reminded me of the early Pistol days. Which I really liked a lot. Just going out and doing it. Turning up at venues. Not much money in it but when you do enough you rake it up. Mentally, too, you are really astute. Because you are borderline disaster. With the name turning up at unknown bars. Anything can happen. You never know what might happen. If it isn’t like that. Then it is really not worth doing. I don’t have stadium rock written across my forehead. Although there are the occasional festivals that really work well. But only if they’re sporadic.
Stuff like Glastonbury.
Glastonbury. There’s a gig. With the sun directly in my eyes and me squinting for an hour. The late night rave ones are great. We are one of the few bands that can pull up a rave crowd really, really well. They can get the groove. You can tell within 30 seconds whether it is going to kick well. Because you handle yourself appropriately. You don’t go on with any arrogance. You open your mind. And share. And it works. It doesn’t work any other way. There’s no point going, ‘I can’t work like this! My light show won’t be seen.’ This is PiL, man. We haven’t spent more the 20p on a light show in 20 years. We don’t need the lightbulbs.
Liam Gallagher has always cited you as a huge influence on his persona, can you see that?
They have a very different approach. They are very good mates and that. But they love the distance and the pop star thing. That’s their stance. Very different approach. And why not? Because most of my friends disagree with me anyway.
Do you see your influence on him?
No, no. Not even looking for it. It is nice he says so. But it means nothing really. He is his own person and that is good enough.
You met him? You know him?
I know them very well. I wish they wrote a song that meant something. But there you go. We can’t all be wordsmiths.
"Live Forever" didn’t do it for you?
Is that it? They’re very Beatles-esque and their thing is very different in that it is always about the melody and the words don’t matter. It is a very different approach to mine. It works for them really, really well. It is lovely. They are very lilty kind of things. It is almost as if they are dealing with a lost language. Because there is no meaning to what they say. It is like Gaelic that got lost 20 centuries ago. It isn’t necessary. It is a fluidity in sidenotes. Which I find quite beautiful. But that’s not my way. I am a storyteller. I want to tell you some truths about the experiences I have in life.
How long does it take for you to construct a song?
Some songs years. Others minutes. Ideas are constantly flurrying and floating in my head. Generally speaking if I don’t hear the correct bunch of notes like say an accordion falling down the staircase all the ideas wrapped around that chaotic event called notes wouldn’t happen. It is inspired by the moment. We are not The Clash. This used to amaze me. Joe Strummer. A good friend and all that. He’d watch the news and he’d be writing notes and he would come up and go, ‘Oh, sten guns in Knightsbridge. That’s our new song.’ This is a ludicrous way of approaching life. Because it actually means that you’re faking the news and exaggerating it into your agenda. Cultivating riots. "White Riot." When there isn’t one. There are enough situations out there that should be dealt with accurately. So missing the point. That’s where me and Joe would row like cats and dogs. But we are all different. Our approach are all different.
What’s it like with the current incarnation of PiL then?
PiL is a traveling band. We travel together. We talk all the time. So the ideas are constantly going to-and-fro. There it is. It is quite different. It is intellectual chaos. It is. Because I know these are people I can trust emotionally. That’s really, really important. It is something I have always wanted PiL to be. Open and honest with each other. The initial PiL members were my closest friends. But I realized that as soon as money was sniffed things changed.
Did that disappoint you?
Oh come on, you’ve been young once. You know all that lot you hung about with when you were younger? Well you’re not hanging about with them anymore. You know what I mean. Agendas start to creep up that you never recognized. The inexperience of youth. Which is a wonderful thing. It helped to write some really, really good songs.
That goes back to your previous point about touring with the Pistols and PiL in the early days.
Yeah, and once you are back home and not gigging. Wow, man. The influences of spiteful girlfriends. Shady attachments. Poison. And the jealousy. Most people are jealous of each other anyway. It is the most difficult thing to concur. The seven deadly sins can really be put down to one word. Pure jealousy. Sometimes even your own family are that way. And you have to deal with that. This is the kind of issues that I want to be involved with Public Image. We need to get into those truths to stop it. Confront it. And change it in yourself before you ask others.
There’s a scene in the film that shows the lengths fans went to to try and get you to play Sex Pistols songs. Did that annoy you?
It is fine. But it is annoying when people expect you to be doing something that you did way way back in your past. And that is all they want. That is disappointing. But it is also six of one, half a dozen of another. It is why not? You have to realize that, too. Why shouldn’t they want it. But I am not a wedding singer. I don’t do requests. I am not on a cruise ship. You get what I think is the best I can offer. And that will always be the newer and newer and newer material. But if I am to go old, and every now and again I might just throw an "Anarchy" in there for the hell of it. But it will always have to be as a complete surprise. Not demanded. Because you are not feeling it correctly. If I see things in people’s eyes in the audience. I want to relate to that. I know what they are saying through their eyes.
What’s the future for PiL?
Play. Play. Earn money. Record. Play. Outside of the sh**stem. Keep the wagon wheel running. Incorruptible. We’ll do the gigs. Then we will finish up what we are recording. It will be out when the gigs are finished. But who knows what might happen in-between? There might be 20 more great gigs. They might not be. But either way we are adjustable to any agenda that suits us. The more cash we can raise from touring the more time we can spend in the studio. The money goes straight back into the music. If anybody has invested anything in this band it has definitely never been a record label. It has always been myself. That’s why I don’t take cheeky money comments from ex-members. Because it is like, ‘When the f*** did any of you c**** buy me a ham sandwich?’
“The Public Image Is Rotten” is in select cinemas on September 14.