“That’s none of your business, you cheeky monkey!” It’s a taciturn start to the conversation from Britain’s anarchic national treasure but one to be expected from his brazen reputation.
If you believe the slew of tabloid stories and character assassinations bestowed on John Lydon, you may have been caught up in this whirlwind of pantomime villainy. The Sex Pistol’s riotous Bill Grundy interview in 1976, saw him unfairly cast as public enemy number one. This would all be ignoring the fact that his distaste for the publicity machine has simply resulted in him casting it all off as a sardonic game. Their loss.
Contrary to this hyperbolised opinion, Lydon is intelligent and well spoken for the most part. He’s the bestower of a cunning, seaside humour that has lost favour amongst more recent generations of dour faced guitar bands. A friendly and giving interviewee but quick to call one out during any lulls in conversation. Oh, and he’s not an anarchist. Lydon still needs roads to drive him down to the local supermarket. If only to buy some butter for his toast.
This personality is dripping from the Beano-esque pages of his new career-spanning Mr. Rotten’s Songbook. “It’s like a scrapbook. The words are separate from the music. I must state this. It’s not a song book as such.”
Indeed, iIt’s more of a diary that sees Lydon’s hand drawn lyrics and cartoons flung onto the pages Jackson Pollock style. The drawings represent his mood when writing the lyrics. “What memory I have left from the damage of childhood,” he says in relation to the drawings “has tended to be specific and articulate and usually in photographic form.” In one scene a nightmarish, bucktoothed clown with bolts of yellow hair coming out of it’s skull like lightening surveys the handwritten lyrics to the song ‘Psychopath’ from his 1997 solo album.
“It began when we went to China,” regales Lydon on the book’s making, “and they allowed us in which is an amazing achievement considering the Chinese analyse everything you’ve ever done. They analysed every song I’d ever put pen to paper on and approved us.”
This exercise in communist anality got the cogs in Lydon’s mind whirring. The interconnected nature of his lyrical life story worked well as a book. “I’m basically trying to unravel who the hell I am anyway so hello brave world fancy joining in.”
- - -
- - -
The project is anything but a cash cow. “There’ll be no money in this,” he shrills. Instead like his band Public Image Limited and before that The Sex Pistols it serves as an outlet of expression. “My point is to tell the truth as much as I can about everything that surrounds and effects me,” Lydon says, “and to deal with it as honestly and openly as I can. That’s not a burden to me, that’s a privilege that came along haphazardly with that offer to join The Sex Pistols. I sorted myself out through writing and hopefully that’s helpful to others. I really enjoy putting these lines to music. I think everybody can write really. It’s the way you write and what you mean.”
PiL were more experimental musically than the straight up antagonistic punk rock of The Sex Pistols, Lydon more cryptic and haunting with his lyrics. The Sex Pistols dissolution left a vacuum of attention that came to define the early PiL days with a “weekly rate of police harassment in England” forcing him to withdraw. “I went to Ireland with my brother,” says Lydon, “I was thinking of moving there and then got arrested. Such was my luck. So I thought, oh bollocks to this can’t get any gigs here so up and moved Public Image to New York.”
- - -
I was thinking of moving there and then got arrested. Such was my luck.
- - -
“We were still getting the banning orders and the restraints, the hangover from the Sex Pistols, and even though I tried to leave the publicity machine behind and call it a previous life, authorities like firemen and unions viewed it quite different and so booking halls was nigh on impossible. I definitely couldn’t get any insurance and very little record company support so basically rented a van and played all the surrounding states and from there PiL looked up.”
Despite the obstacles, Lydon has enjoyed a rotating cast of talented musicians to work with, including one of the best British guitarists of the last 30 years, John McGeogh. “Do you think?” he chuckles before quickly changing his tone, “It’s a shame he’s not around to hear that because we always told him that when he was blind drunk on martinis. It might have altered his perspective on life somewhat. What a shame.”
- - -
- - -
With every will in the world seemingly against them PiL recently released their 10th album at the end of 2015 despite a seventeen year hiatus between 1992 and 2009. Having released their earlier albums on Virgin records, Lydon decided he would go it alone for the comeback.
It can be insurmountably difficult to keep a band alive without the backing of a major label. Hence the butter commercials and “nature programmes”. In a way it was sacrificial. If John Lydon wants his creative outlet to be free from the shackles of major label interference then let him do as many butter commercials as he damn hell likes.
Now residing in California, the commercials haven’t made Lydon gone all establishment on us just yet. In a time of political upheaval that mirrors the anger and discontent of 1976 and the birth of punk rock, he is having apocalyptic orange wigged visions of our political future, “I’m seeing the place overtaken by businessmen which to me is the biggest threat ever. I think they’re worse than the politicians who I know are inherent liars. You can never expect the truth from a businessman because they spend their entire life self aggrandising and collecting on their own behalf. There is not much generosity to be expected from that world. The businessmen are not meant to be politicians.”
- - -
I’m seeing the place overtaken by businessmen which to me is the biggest threat ever.
- - -
Time has made a wise minstrel out of the former pantomime villain. The seeming chaos and disorder of those early Sex Pistols days has made way for a new perspective on life. Rediscovering his earlier output through the making of Mr. Rotten’s Songbook, Lydon was able to not only re-assess his public image but also his own opinions on himself. “I’ve been well-driven and purposeful over my life,” states Lydon. “I’m finding I’ve not always been as chaotic as I thought I was. I seem to have concurrent themes. That go back to the early beginnings. I won’t lie to you and I don’t want to be lied to and you can wrap everything in my career around that.”
It’s a retrospective that has in a way taken him even further back into childhood. As with the Sex Pistols and PiL his youth was fraught with difficulty after a bout of meningitis aged seven left him with permanent spinal curvature. You see John Lydon is a fighter. When faced with the facts you can’t say anything less of the man. “The book is done from personal love and joy,” he acknowledges, “It’s something my Mum and Dad would feel proud of. Inside my head of course they’re complaining but it’s better than doing nothing at all for them. It’s like showing them their son did recover from all those illnesses. He did go on to do alright for himself in an honest kind of way.”
- - -
- - -
'Mr. Rotten's Songbook' will be released on March 31st. Stay in touch with John Lydon at his official website.
Words: Richard Jones