By Ken Scrudato on May 12, 2010
Way back in 20th century England, a gang of four insurrectionist-minded punk motherfuckers were to be found causing such an anarchic, subversive uproar as to incur the considerable wrath of the highest authorities in the Kingdom. Their leader, one Johnny Rotten (born John Lydon), and his fellow Sex Pistols topped out with a blitzkrieg on the Queen’s Silver Jubilee; they were arrested, branded traitors, and saw their slanderously heroic no.1 single “God Save the Queen” (“She ain’t no human being!”) literally stricken from the charts. They ultimately left for America, and swiftly went down in a blaze of blood, gob and chaos—but not before they had changed virtually everything around them, from music to fashion to politics.
His Rottenness re-adopted his surname, and, perhaps sensing that the smoldering remains of punk were ripe for corporate exploitation, beat them to it by branding his new band “Public Image Ltd.” and penning lyrics like, “Big business is very wise/I’m crossing over into enterprise” (from “This Is Not A Love Song”)—two actions that were slyly treasonous to which everything punk had ostensibly stood. PiL, though, was likely employing a postmodern joke as a smoke screen for its real “business,” that of deconstructing rock and roll to within a millimeter of its existence. Together with Keith Levene, Jah Wobble and eventually countless others, Lydon forcefully intertwined punk anger, Teutonic minimalism, dub atmospherics and Afrikaner rhythms into a futuristic backdrop for his scathing but heartfelt diatribes. He himself describes some of it, lovingly, as “painful to listen to.”
PiL’s resume as cultural seditionist would go on to include: releasing the album Metal Box in, well, a metal box; performing at New York’s Ritz-Carlton behind a screen, resulting in untold rioting; delivering The Flowers of Romance, universally hailed as the most uncommercial work ever recorded; and managing to chart with a song, “Rise,” which assailed the Apartheid regime’s brutal torture tactics whilst Nelson Mandela was still rotting in a South African prison cell. (For the record, Lydon today clarifies, “Mandela did condone violence, which is something I cannot do…ever.”)
Now, PiL (Lydon, Lu Edmonds on guitar, Bruce Smith on drums, and newbie bassist Scott Firth) is returning for a tour and, eventually, a new album. This is the perfect time, then, to catch up with the blunt, hilarious and shockingly not cynical former Mr. Rotten.
So, PiL is returning for the first time in the Internet age, which has exacerbated this postmodern idea that literally everyone’s ideas are valid…
John Lydon: No! They’re not. It’s like saying everyone can build a house. Well, my granddad built a house, after the Irish Civil War…and it was terrible.
But how much of your particular brand of rebellion do you think has genuinely seeped into the culture? Because if you look at what’s called “punk” now, it’s retained only the most innocuous elements…
Well, I don’t ally myself with Green Day, who I find to be really, really nasty. It’s too orchestrated and manipulated. It really is like a record company conspiracy, where any real voice of rebellion is absolutely filtered out.
Not everyone can be revolutionary.
Yeah, but [the Left] can wind up sounding worse than the thing it’s trying to replace. Even going back to The Clash, with their “Sten guns in Knightsbridge!” nonsense—which could be taken as, “go out and kill the rich.” God bless Joe Strummer, he was a friend and all, but…
I always thought that with PiL, much more than the Sex Pistols, there was that notion of attacking the very idea of what it was assumed rock and roll should sound like.
No, you’d be better off seeing it as this: We were just bored with all that nonsense, and this is what we wanted to do, to break out of those rigid structures. And it’s incredibly difficult to get most people to open up and understand something as brilliantly free-form as PiL. As an example, I’ll give you “Death Disco,” a song I wrote about my mother dying—I took the idea of Swan Lake and turned it inside-out on itself. At the time I was listening to that kind of music and trying to fathom what it was all about. I concluded that [classical music] was folk music done by posh cunts.
So, why are you bringing PiL back?
Because I love it! To be onstage and reach that moment where it all crashes into a glorious cacophony—there’s nothing else like it. And I can be trusted. I deliver nothing but the most honest performance. It’s punishing, it’s torturous, and there are moments of great joy and deep sadness. Public Image deals with every emotion possible.
Despite your reputation, you’ve always struck me as a romantic or an idealist.
Well, I’d be closer to that, or to being a utopian, than anything else. But I just speak what’s in my head. There’s every possibility I might be wrong from time to time, but I generally am not. And it’s not just random rabid ranting or bouts of negativity. I never understood anyone wrapping the word “nihilist” around me. It’s absolutely hilarious to call me that.
So you’re just as fired up now as you were then?
Very much so! The fear, the anxiety—I’ve grown to love every minute of it. And the truth is, I can’t bear letting people down, so I just will not.
A safe bet to say, John, I don’t think you have.
May the road rise! F