Meet John Lydon - the real Johnny Rotten - before he plays Grand Central on Friday
Takes the stage with his band PiL; talks candidly about musical career
The Sex Pistols was one of the most infamous and influential bands of all time, having personified and clarified the punk-rock movement of the mid-‘70s, and inspired countless groups to follow, including Green Day, The Clash, Nirvana, Guns ‘N Roses and Oasis. The British bad boys, led by snarling frontman Johnny Rotten, turned the prevailing musical culture on its head with shockingly irreverent songs such as God Save the Queen and Anarchy in the U.K. before imploding after their sole album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols.
For many music fans, that’s where their story ends. But Rotten went on to find new life in 1978 by reverting to his given name of John Lydon and forming the post-punk band Public Image Ltd (PiL), which mixed hypnotic, dub-heavy basslines, chiming guitars (later mimicked by U2’s The Edge) and his shouting, stream-of-consciousness vocals. PiL created the enduring tracks This Is Not a Love Song, Rise, The Order of Death and Disappointed before going on hiatus in 1992.
Now, 20 years later, Lydon and PiL are back with a new album, This Is PiL, a suitably defiant return to form with trademark in-your-face vocals and over-the-top jagged, reggae-tinged sounds. Check them out Friday, Oct. 5 at Grand Central in Miami. Lydon talked to Miami.com about what we can expect from the show, the demise of The Sex Pistols, the unfortunate origin of his stage name Johnny Rotten, and why he hates the music industry.
How much of the new album will we hear?
We’re not gonna play the thing in its entirety, but we are going to play bits and pieces of it, some nights different songs. But with us, with PiL, it’s according to our mood, very much mix and match. There will be at least four or five songs, intertwined in a two-hour set.
And then we’ll hear all the classics as well?
I think everything I’ve done is a classic, in one way or another.
This is your first album in 20 years. Why such a long wait?
Record-company harassment and debt. I had to play a waiting game — I had to wait long enough for it to look like the contracts were going to expire, so that they would lighten my financial load. And it took me that long to raise enough money to pay something off, and so legally I couldn’t release any music until I either paid back what I technically owed to the accounting department. It was a very spiteful act on behalf of the record labels, but there you go. I had to have patience — they kept me away from the one thing that I love, which is writing songs.
But weren’t you writing all along—- you just didn’t have a way to put it out there?
I had no way of releasing it, except, of course, what I put out on the underground, you know? I was always slying out rave tunes and stuff, because I loved all that. I love all kinds of music.
What inspires your lyrics? They’re very unique.
That’s my personal experiences. There’s no fantasy when I write a song ; I’m trying to be as accurate as possible to the situations that I’m trying to explain, not only to myself, but to the listener. They’re very much like true stories, and almost a detective novel in itself. There are references on this album to my very early childhood, quite a few of them, because I think after 20 years, you need to clarify to an audience who it is indeed that they’re listening to. And so I told the true human story.
Do you write them on your own and then bring them into the studio?
No, no, many of them were improvised. The ideas are always in my head. I’m one of those poor, misfortunate people that can’t stop thinking. A bit like the Robin Williams of punk [laughs]. I mean, the thoughts are there always, every waking moment. So you’re constantly readdressing the issues, and as soon as the “on” button goes on, you’re straight into it. In a weird way, all of us as a band are pre-organized improvisation [laughs]. I know it sounds contradictory, but there’s no other way of explaining it. Even the explanation in itself is insufficient. This is the trouble I find with the human language — it’s limited in its accuracy. There are certain emotions and things we feel as human beings that we can’t quite put to words. We also can’t quite put them to sound, musical sounds. The sound is an interpretation of human emotion. But if you could combine the two together, sound and written word, you can somehow get a bit closer to reality. And that’s kind of how we work — that is the interplay we have between each other. We’re very, very closely bonded. These are truly my friends, and I know they consider me the same. We respect each other intensely. It wouldn’t work any other way. Inside PiL, there’s no room for lying. There are certain songs on the album talking about me getting back to the Garden of Eden — well, that’s exactly what PiL is.
So it’s kind of like your sanctuary?
Yes, yes. And it’s not only the band, but the crew and everybody that works with us. It’s a very, very friendly organization, and it’s taken us nearly three-and-a-half years to put this together, and we’ve had to work at it from scratch. And in all that time, we’ve had to formulate our own record label, put together an album, make enough money to tour, and pay everybody’s wages. So it’s a serious piece of hard work, and that’s something that benefits because the music is so pure and genuine and honest.
It doesn’t seem like there are any false notes on the album.
There shouldn’t be, because we mean what we do.
Why did the Sex Pistols last only a year or two?
Because there was too much contempt and hatred allowed to go on. We never sorted ourselves out, and we let the management lead us all astray. Which is a shame, because that put an end to things. But in many ways it was right that it ended, because it’s led me into PiL. Everything happens for a reason in life, and though it’s sad at the moment, you have to learn that there is a future to everything, and a purpose.
Did you feel at the time that the Sex Pistols were doing something influential and groundbreaking?
No, I was oblivious to all that. I just write according to my sense of decency. If I feel a problem in the world needs to be addressed, I will address it. I mean, I will always stand up and argue for the disenfranchised, because, you know, I’m still one of them [laughs].
How different was your approach to PiL after the Sex Pistols crashed and burned?
I didn’t want any more show-biz shenanigans and bad managerial decisions to affect what would to my mind be a perfectly equal union of friends. Of course, problems went on, because the people I incorporated into PiL in the early days got very, very jealous very quickly. It’s taken me a long time to find the exact right amount of people and personalities. And that’s how it should be — if you get everything sold in the first minute, that’s not the correct answer. Life is a very long journey, and it takes time to lead it well, and there will be many pitfalls and errors along the way. But that doesn’t stop any one of those errors from becoming potential material for a new song. And for me, songs are cleansing experiences — that’s where you address your own heart and soul, and correct your own mistakes, and then you share that pain you’ve been through with other people, and hopefully, they learn from that process. And in return, they share their pain and thoughts with you, and that perfectly explains the Public Image audience. It’s a very, very warm, close room, a Public Image gig.
How did you choose the name Johnny Rotten?
I didn’t. It was a nickname given to me because I had very bad teeth. And some time in the last two decades I got very seriously ill and I contracted a very serious bone disease in my jaw, and I had to have reconstructive surgery and had to deal with many health issues. Which all went back to early childhood sinus infections. It’s something really of a bit of luck that I can sing at all after all that. And I had to learn how to use a toothbrush! I should actually be a walking campaigner for dental hygiene — I’m a classic example of how wrong it can go [laughs]. The illnesses and sicknesses — I was polluting my body with just rotten teeth. And yes, it earned me a nickname, but it brought a lot of physical pain.
Is it true you gave Sid Vicious his nickname?
Oh yes, after my pet hamster. It had two front buck teeth, and I took the name Sid Vicious from the Syd Barrett character — he used to be one of Pink Floyd. He was jokingly called Syd Vicious at one point, so I passed the name along to a little wack-toothed hamster, which actually bit Sid’s fingernail, and so Sid earned the name Sid Vicious in return. The reality of these things is so much better than what all those idiot journalists put out — you know what I mean? [Laughs].
There’s a movement to have you knighted. How do you feel about that?
What!? My advice is, you ring ’em up and tell ’em they’ve just joined my death-wish list. I’ll get Charles Bronson onto them in the morning.
You refused to attend the induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Why?
The music industry’s done me no favors. It’s done no band I’ve ever been in any favors for as long as I can ever remember. In fact, they’ve done nothing but cause me financial troubles and debt and ruin. So why on Earth would I accept anything from that like? And on top of it, they expect me to pay to get there. Excuse me, no.
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5
Where: Grand Central, 697 N. Miami Ave., downtown Miami
Info: www.grandcentralmiami.com or 305-377-2277; $30 in advance, $35 at the door
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