Interview: John Lydon on PiL, Sex Pistols, Green Day and the Olympics

John Lydon — aka Johnny Rotten — speaks in stanzas, with grand pauses. He”d finish a thought, I”d give him a few seconds, I”d start to speak but then he”d start in on another thought on the same subject, sometimes in third person. He was full of sharp declarations and axioms like they were print-ready for badges and t-shirts. Perhaps its because many were badges and t-shirts.  

It”s been 20 years since Lydon”s Public Image Ltd. has released new music, but the frontman contends that PiL was never really gone. Listeners can hear the band”s influence in contemporary artists today, and that his parade of rotating members have gone on to initiate other bands bearing PiL”s mark. You should and could say the same about the Sex Pistols, Johnny Rotten”s other heavily influential band. Along with guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook, the group has performed on and off as the Sex Pistols live, and this month the “God Save the Queen” single is getting a vinyl reissue and the Pistols” album “Never Mind the Bollocks” will drop as a 35th anniversary reissue.
PiL”s resurgence started in 2009 when guitarist Lu Edmonds, and drummer Bruce Smith and new blood Scott Firth on bass hit the road. They circled up, ultimately, at Steve Winwood”s studio in Cotswolds, England and bashed out “This is PiL,” out next Tuesday (May 29) via PiL’s own label with distro from Redeye. The entire album is available to stream, and has been for two months.
Last month, Johnny Rotten was on the phone from California, his adoptive home for more than two decades. Despite what I was warned, there wasn”t too much sass, barely any spit and the 56-year-old was willing to talk about just about anything, from his contentious relationship to ex-bassist Jah Wobble, to the passing of his step-daughter Ari Up (of the Slits) to his money troubles in starting another PiL album again.
Despite past troubles, Lydon seemed at peace in many ways. He was also in a good mood. We spoke for 50 minutes, fits and starts and all. When he picked up the phone, I think I heard the toilet flush.
I especially like the song “The Room I”m In.” Very different for you.
It”s about the deprivation of council flat living, the hope or way out of it. It”s a tragic song really… “there but by the grace of God go I,” ‘n all that. We”ve got Lu to thank for that one. It was a long recording, a long jam that lasted some 30 minutes. We kind of like… turned all our noses toward what we were supposed to be doing. And Lu edited out all but a three minute section of it.
But then you smack on an eight-minute song right after [“Lollipop Opera”].
Yeah it”s like eight minutes of “I wish I would could die.” “Lollipop Opera” is the backdrop to Finsbury Park. A place that is very thriving, interracial and lot of music stores, Greek, Turkish, all sorts of immigrant music. It”s utter Englishness. It blends the Jamaicans, the Irish.
It”s like what Jim Reeves did with American country music.
How long really did it take for you to make this album? Why now?
After 18 years of being stifled by financial debt and inadequate procedures from the record companies, I wanted to go back to my roots to find myself again. It happened instinctively, automatically. The recording — which I financed myself – were made up of ideas of songs I already had in mind.
Then of course we had a house fire at the recording studio and we had to start from nowhere again. And we did well. In three weeks we finished it. It was us, three sheep and beer in a barn in the middle of the country. Great place.
And it”s the finest band I”ve ever worked with.
Did you guys butt heads much in the studio?
It was a great blend of personalities. I grew up thinking every band had to be at war with each other. You can work outside of animosity, These are my friends, y”know? And I hope they like me! As a human being I”m work in process.
I had to… Financially… well let me say I”m glad to hear of the demise of the record industry. I”m was still paying out those big advances. We were working with shoestring budget, and it worked, it worked better than ever.
Budgets are a kind of constraint, maybe it helped your recording process. Did you keep any deadlines?
We had internal deadlines. Other people have tried to put deadlines on us, record labels, and it”s rubbish when you talk like that to a person like, “You owe me…”
We started genres. We had some hits. We led the way. Many people have copied and followed what it is I”ve been up to. Often times it”s a compliment.
You seem very specifically angry toward the money you owed record companies. How do you make any peace with it?
It”s very difficult for me, particularly with Virgin, them denying me access to finances. They were busy signing up bands that were living in my shadows. I bite my lip over the years, but that”s all.
I”m bitter about… gossip mongers.
What sort of gossip?
Nothing specific. Gossip is a very dangerous tool. We should be more wary of the gossiper, and not the gossip they”re trying to relay to you. “Don”t say I”ve told you, but…” when you hear that line, walk away from that person.
So I educate them. I talk about it in “It Said That.”
My whole life I”ve believed if I”m going to make a comment on a person… I will not hide behind subterfuge.
Stand up and be counted brave citizens!
I”m wondering if you”re referring at all to Jah Wobble. Since he”s not on this album and you guys back and forth…
He”s one of my babies. I”ve helped launch 49 careers, those that have been in PiL. To me they are my babies, whatever they get up to, they know I love them. They”ve been living in my pockets and they should show more gratitude.
It was terrible trouble when I first started PiL. I said I could start a new band, and I could get label out of it. So I took in unknowns. Wobble was one of them unknowns and I stood by him when… That”s what we”ll say about the subject.
Is there a portion of your career that you regret or that you could advise against?
Again, you”ve got to slowly walk out of crippling debt. I was practically forced to do TV work. I”m 100% proud of the TV work I achieved. The work I did on shows on insects and Great White sharks… stuff that”s in school curriculums in England. Now they are showing up on discovery channel.
Everybody”s just waiting for Johnny to test the waters. Well stop being big-headed and factual. I do everything for my peoples. As a species we are wonderful.
We have to get back into the garden from all this backstabbing nonsenses.
I don”t want to be divided, divided we fall.
In “Reggie”s Song” – that”s a nickname for our friend – there”s a part about how can we believe in a God that chases us out of the garden.
Reggie is a very fine man of Jamaican descent.
We wrote about the projects of California. It”s a tragedy here, with the slumlords… Sucks away your pride of person. People can”t get out from underneath it. I despise politicians until they start working in where we work. 
Obama makes a nice noise. It”s a long and hard road that man is facing… there”s people being ungrateful. How short people”s memories are! They hear a sound bite, they go with that flow. I”ve suffered that all my life.
So you”re an Obama supporter? Even though he”s clearly a politician?
Yeah, I”m an Obama supporter. He”s a turning point in American history. I don”t want America to f*ck it up after all that. All eyes on you, America. Please vote sensibly.
You”ve been in America for how long?
Twenty-five years. I love America. I love Americans. It”s unfortunate when you go back abroad, politicians are the only way people judge America by. You”re much kinder, less judgmental as a race. Much more varied. The problems here are by economics.
In my early life I didn”t have an indoor toilet ’til I was 11. Upper class don”t have time for the likes of me.
Are you becoming a U.S. citizen?
In my heart, America is more open to me. But these things take time.
We need wealthy dogs off the seats of power. They”re taking us back to feudalism and I really don”t want that. But I”m very far from being a socialist. I think we should pick and choose the best policies for everyone.
In America, you congratulate people who are successful. But in California, every surfer I see out there, I see a successful lifestyle, an achievement of what they set out to do.
Are you any good at surfing?
I”m absolutely hopeless on a board.
On stage I have to be very careful, you see. I”ve got the steel toed shoes and they”re the only things that keep me down, otherwise I”m a ping pong ball. Oh, and with the lighting and the stage, every night ends with bruises, bashes, bangs. But Johnny doesn”t cancel a gig because he”s got a boo boo on his ankle.
Do you have complicated feelings about the Sex Pistols “God Save the Queen” reissue?
When they signed the Pistols, they put our music on vinyl. For me, I”m particularly keen on the vinyl. What it really was that we were up to back then is… without that path, without my path, I wouldn”t have had a future. It”s an odd situation. I”m competing with myself.
It”s all about the timing of the release. I want people to go for the newer stuff. The Sex pistols collectively deserve the attention. But PiL is my MO.
Do you already have plans for another PiL album?
Depends on the mood for making a new one. Were going to go out and tour with this album and hopefully it will be an enjoyable source of entertainment.
PiL audiences are so varied. Everyone and everything. Like little teeny-bop girls to jazz fanatics at the back of the hall. It”s muliti-cultural, all over.
Don”t tell lies. Treat others as you”d want to be treated. There is no god, there is no devil except inside your own head. Sort it out for yourself. What life really is worth is sheer love.
I remember studying Shakespeare, and one line about coming out to “smile at the face of adversity.” There”s no age-gap. We are teenagers. Viva la revolucion!
Are you going to play a lot of PiL”s older material on tour? Any you”re definitely going to skip?
I”m never about releasing something I don”t like. Anything that”s bad has never really hit the public. After a decade of not making music, the scary monster go into a studio and write new songs, jam with each other. That led to some songs beind done in one take like “Deeper Water.” It was [recorded] completely live.
You took to your website to mention that you refused to play during the London Olympics, or to lend them Pistols’ license. What was it?
[The Olympics] are of no consequence to me. Britain can”t afford it. It”s destructive. They don”t support their Olympians. They want these crazy-ass buildings but have no money. Landlords and the bleeding goldrush. Out goes their rent, out goes the natives…
The Olympics come from Greece… well? Let them stay there.
Only things I like are the swimming. I”m a big swimmer. The happiest place for me is underwater, the deeper waters. I got my diving license years ago.
I know the [Olympics organizers] are not offering us any money. They want to use us without acknowledging us properly. The matter will settle itself, not too bothered about getting my face put on a poster. It really is hype. Bands and musicians are running at it, desperate to be attached to the Olympics. Careerists. I don”t smell any camaraderie, just show-business hype. That”s creepy to me. I”ve been to the Grammys. The Olympics will be that times 10.
Maybe they wanted something that didn”t sound like the rest, which the Pistols were.
We were all for change. But their first offer to us was remove the naughty words from our songs. Censorship!
Is punk still alive?
I”m here aren”t I?
Green Day are not punks. They”re plunk. They”re imitating a thing that they clearly don”t understand. We”re all for equal opportunity… we view them as that. They rate the Pistols very highly, and I have no animosity. But I don”t like to see [punk] watered down like that. I”ve been practicing what I preach. I rate people who have values.
I don”t like the term anyway. Its just musical honesty. That”s what punk is, always will be. Quite a few outfits come along, and it”s all about the clothes first, a pale imitation. It”s a commitment to a life and a lifestyle, based on respect for others. It”s about earning your respect in a society that doesn”t have any place for you. I”m Mr. Rotten, loud and proud and im not going to go away.
Are you a pop artist?
I love a killer pop song. I love writing pop songs. It”s bang on the money.
You”ve worked before with dance artists like Leftfield before. Do you want to work with those kinds of artists again?
Hey, it”s there. They were friends of mine. It was done simply like that. Not the be-all and end-all. I mess about in many areas, in those days I”d go by different names. Such is war with the record label. I didn”t want them to come and give me a problem. Such is life.
When Atlantic heard [Leftfield”s ] “Open Up” they said it wasn”t radio friendly. Well done, record label! When I went with Afrika Bambaataa on “Time Zone,” it was the same thing. Now just look at what dance and rap music is today! It”s bizarre to me. We constantly listen to people who didn”t know ass from their elbow. That”s the demise of big labels for you, spoiled rich kids with all-access credit cards… drunk and eating fine meals at restaurants… and I was there on some of them! Luncheons and dinners with labels was FANTASTIC. Gee, why did they run out of money? It was madness. Then they went spinning the bill back to me.
Are you debt-free?
All of those kinds of debts are paid off. The future is clear.
I”ve got to mention, I”m sorry about your loss, about Ari [Up”s] passing.
Oh, for [wife] Norah, it’s murdered her. I thought about writing about it. I don”t know how to put that in a song. It was deeply felt, beyond words. She”s in a better place. She was talented and a very proud woman. Still, a raving lunatic. We loved her very much.