From the Sex Pistols’ first appearance on television nearly 35 years ago, Johnny Rotten has built a sturdy reputation as a difficult interview subject.
And although a question about an erstwhile bandmate in his recently-reunited Public Image Ltd., resulted in him telling this reporter to “f— off” about 10 minutes into the conversation, he didn’t hang up the phone.
Instead, the man who was born John Lydon spent the next 20 minutes talking somewhat enthusiastically about re-forming the band he began after the implosion of the Pistols, and opining on all things from beauty products to Vampire Weekend.
After publishing a volume of his memoirs in the mid ’90s that dealt with his time in the Pistols, the singer promised he was working on addressing the Public Image years, but right now the guy who once snarled about “no future” sounds like he’s actually looking forward to a happy one.
“I’ve had to put it on the back burner because of this work,” he says of the book. “I’m in no mad dog rush to finish it, because PiL is by far, far and away, an uncompleted project.”
He says putting together a concise setlist has been one of the biggest challenges.
“Seriously, we’re really having problems trying to cut the set down to just two hours, because there’s so much there,” he says. “But as we progress here, and get people to start thinking about what they think PiL is, it will get us in the position where we could tour almost constantly. I would hope so. But the general ambition is towards recording immediately on completion of tours.”
And how has the material aged? The singer says mining his old material has been gratifying, in particular the 1978 song, Religion, which criticizes the Catholic Church.
“It’s a shame no one was listening to me, because we could have saved a hell of a lot of children a hell of a lot of grief,” he says. “When I wrote Religion, the Catholic Church was just so on me, and generally society — you know, ‘How could I be so loathsome as to think such a thing?’ Well, now we know the truth.
"But then again, I was in the same position with a song like Anarchy or God Save the Queen. I don’t want to be in that position of turmoil, but as a songwriter, I feel I have to be honest and I have to approach the situation that’s bothering me. I tend to get bothered a hell of a lot earlier than most people. I came out of the starting gates firing on all cylinders, and I never looked back, so my songwriting proficiency has never been really lacking.”
Though he says he doesn’t listen to any new music while he’s creating his own, the singer did take in a band he had never heard before while PiL played Coachella last month. Legend has it that he kicked Glen Matlock out of the Sex Pistols for liking Paul McCartney, so did Johnny Rotten like Vampire Weekend?
“Yes, I did,” he says. “I mean, not musically, but I really liked the ideas. I’d never heard anything quite so strange and silly, so I utterly, completely applaud them. They have a concept going there that is uniquely theirs. Brave lads, really. They believe in what they’re doing, I hope. … I warmed to them as their set went on, and a wry smile appeared upon my face. I feel quite affectionate about them.”