The PiL leader discusses his record collection, Sid Vicious’ skin worries and the song he wrote for Kate Bush…
John Lydon has just published his second autobiography, Anger Is An Energy, and Public Image Ltd are set to perform at London’s O2 Indigo on December 13 – here, in this piece from Uncut’s December 2007 issue (Take 127), the former Sex Pistol answers questions from fans and famous admirers, including Thurston Moore, Jarvis Cocker and Julian Clary, on topics such as his record collection, Sid Vicious’ skin worries, his waistline and the song he wrote for Kate Bush… Words: John Lewis
John Lydon is sitting on the sofa in his Hollywood home, cradling the phone between chin and shoulder as he watches extended highlights of the week’s Champions’ League games on ESPN2. He’s sitting patiently as Chelsea beat Valencia 2-1, waiting to watch Robin Van Persie snatch a win for his beloved Arsenal at Steaua Bucharest.
“Absolutely spiffing!” says Lydon who, this month, heads back out on the road with the Sex Pistols. In fact, so happy is he by this turn of events that he’s almost shockingly cheery for the duration of our 90-minute call. A few random names find themselves on the end of a Johnny Rotten roasting (including the “spiteful and bitchy” Vivienne Westwood, a few old PiL bandmates and, of course, his bête noir, Malcolm McLaren), but otherwise Lydon is the very milkman of human kindness, dishing out loving tributes to Kate Bush, Peter Andre, Ginger Baker and Pink Floyd throughout a wide-ranging conversation.
“I’m full of love today,” says the man voted the 87th Greatest Briton of all time. “In fact, I’m always open and friendly to everyone. It’s only when they try and fuck me over I let ’em have it. So, what have your readers got to say, then?”
Do you know what happened to Keith Levene? It’s rare for someone to fall off the radar like that. Are you still in contact with him?
Ah, Jarvis, what’s that saucy sausage got to say for himself? I’ve got no idea what happened to dear old Keith. What a waste of talent. He used to be a great guitarist. But he made the mistake of over-grandiosing his own position in PiL, and then he complicated his life with various substances. And he ended up doing fuck all. Which is a shame, because there’d be no U2 without Keith’s guitar style.
Is there any truth in the rumour that Chris Spedding played all the instruments on Never Mind The Bollocks?
Steve McDermott, Dublin
That’s so unfair to Chris Spedding, isn’t it? I mean, how can you blame all that talentlessness on someone else? Ha ha! As it happens, Chris Spedding did us the world’s best favour when we were starting out. We were facing an almost weekly barrage in the music papers: “Oh they can’t play, they can’t do this, they can’t do that.” He took us to the studio and simply let us play. And he was enormously encouraging to us. So gawd bless him.
Hello mate. Do you still follow the Arsenal these days?
Ah Charlie, Charlie, Charlie George, King Of Highbury! He’s from Holloway, just round the corner from where I grew up. You don’t follow the Arsenal, it’s a life experience, mate. I’m long-term Arsenal. Always will be. We used all of last year to practise in the Premiership, and we still came fourth. Not bad, huh? I think [Arsène] Wenger’s got the right idea, get ’em when they’re young and then raise them as a team. They’re wonderful to watch. I think it’s great that Henry’s moved on and I’m really pleased that he’s doing well at Barcelona [er, not really – Ed], but he was lopsiding us as a team. You can’t be bigger than the team. ’Fraid not. Same with music…
Is it true you wrote a song for Kate Bush?
Justin Lewis, Newark
Oh yes. Years ago, I sent her a song I’d written. I don’t think she understood it. It was called “Bird In Hand”. It was about the illegal exportation of parrots from South America. No, don’t laugh! It’s a serious subject. It’s cruel. But I think she thought it was a reference to her, which it certainly wasn’t! But she’s a wonderful, wonderful woman, stunningly innovative and creative. One of our finest.
Did you ever imagine that the clothes you were wearing in the Sex Pistols – specifically Vivienne Westwood – would become so significant that they would ultimately be exhibited in museums as iconic symbols of 20th-century fashion and culture? And how do you feel when you see that look watered down and adopted by the mainstream who have no concept of punk?
If we get the money for it, that’s fine. But imitation is not the sincerest form of flattery. And unfortunately the fashion industry absolutely thrives off our reputation, our imagery and our work. And what they’re trying to do is steal our wings without earning them. Thievery is the order of the day there. And as for Vivienne – she’s spiteful, opinionated, bitchy, self-indulgent… And that’s the nicest thing I can say about her.
What are your memories of [Magazine, Banshees and PiL guitarist] John McGeoch?
Oh, he shall be missed. But he went weird towards the end, for the last few years. He created so much turmoil in his life that his death was almost like a relief. He wouldn’t stop drinking, and when you’ve got a dodgy liver, it’s not a wise move. So, self-inflicted, but easily understood, because the pressures of this industry are enormous. Very few of us have the staying power. I’m only here out of sheer spite!
Lydon is an absolute hero of mine – when are we going to record something together?
Ah, Sonic Youth, what a great band, I love ’em. Remind me a lot of PiL, the spontaneity, the fact that they seem to rehearse on stage, take chances, never play the same way twice. I dunno Thurston, there was a time, maybe a few years back, when I might have been up for it. Maybe I will be soon. It’s got to be the right time, right song, right attitude, right vibe, and it’s the planning that goes on in this industry that kills off all those things. All my collaborations have been incredibly spontaneous – the work with Afrika Bambaataa and Leftfield were just right for the moment.
Is it true that both you and Malcolm McLaren both had trials for Arsenal when you were teenagers?
Well I certainly did. I was 14, a scout came to our school and got me to try out. I got to wear the shirt, but I wasn’t good enough. But Malcolm? Ha ha! Someone showed me an interview [Uncut, Take 112] where he claimed he had trials. I found that hilarious. The man is robbing my bleeding life story because he doesn’t have one of his own! Can you imagine Little Lord Fauntleroy Malcolm in football shorts? I suppose he’d need lace cuffs and Elizabethan tights…
What’s the best Sex Pistols film?
Pete, Herne Hill
The Filth And The Fury, period, the end. The Great Rock’N’Roll Swindle is Malcolm’s pamphlet to thievery. Sid & Nancy was a ridiculous cartoon. I think that it led to the nonsense we had with Courtney Love years later, where heroin became something sacred. It’s not, love. I lost Sid, my best and dearest friend, to heroin, and it’s not nice. You’ve got to get away from drugs as escapism. There’s nothing you need to run away from yourself as a human being. Quite the opposite. Learn to love thyself and all will be fine.
I love your sense of humour – the grumpy old auntie demeanour never fails to raise a smile. Ever thought of stand-up?
Nige Cain, Manchester
Is that what it is? Ha ha! I’ve always thought that everything I do has a dose of comedy in it. All the way through my life. The Sex Pistols, we never really thought of ourselves as some dead serious load of old nonsense, it was always more to do with humanity and humour. There was no vicious undertone in us, no nasty edge. And certainly none of the deadpan, dreary political opinions like The Clash wallowed in. We lived in the real world. We actually did come from council flats. We knew the consequences of socialism.
Have you ever thought about retiring?
Ah, dear old Julian. Listen, I’d give it all up in a flying fart second if I wanted to. But I’m only doing this because I love it. I’m now 51, and I feel quite happy about that. And if you don’t, then fuck off, ’cos this is my life, mate, not yours. As for the old Pete Townsend lyric, “I hope I die before I get old” – well, no! No! Every time I meet Pete I tell him the same thing: “Aren’t you sorry you said that?”
Any chance of a Public Image Limited reunion?
Which variety? There have been so many! There’s only two people I truly respect out of the PiL era – one is [Jah] Wobble, the other one is Lu Edmonds. Those two are diamonds. The others, well… PiL is a very difficult operation to run. It requires vast amounts of money. It’s what’s kept me bankrupt most of my life. But the music was always excellent. It’s my favourite time of life, because there were no limits on creativity. We experimented with every single aspect of music. And we wrote great, great pop singles.
What do you think Sid Vicious would’ve said about you going on I’m A Celebrity?
David Murphy, Bow, London
He’d have loved it! In fact he’d have come with me. And he’d have had the hammock. I loved Celebrity. Loved it. The bugs, the ostriches, even Peter Andre! Lovely, happy fellow, pity he’s gotta spend his life with Jordan, ha ha! Yes, I did storm out, but for a distinct reason, which was never reported. My wife was flying in to Australia a few days after I started, and I’d asked the producers to tell me if she’d landed safely. And they didn’t. Now, me and my wife were booked to go on the Lockerbie flight in 1988 – we missed it because she didn’t pack in time – so I think it’s reasonable to want to know that she hasn’t been blown into outer space by some religious fanatic. And I was outraged that they wouldn’t. So I threatened to leave and they called my bluff, and I was out.
What would I find in your record collection?
Sid Drib, Maidstone, Kent
Lots of dust. It’s pretty huge. I’m getting a bit short-sighted now, so I just file everything according to colour, and pick up random CDs. You’ll find everything there – jungle, Chris Isaak, Abba, Miles Davis, Sun Ra, the lot. Oh, and Mozart. Always Mozart. That crept into me from the soundtrack to that wonderful film, Barry Lyndon. Some elements of country music annoy me, so you won’t find much of that. Same with New Orleans trad jazz, those silly banjos and soprano saxes really bug me. It sounds like a French traffic jam. Otherwise, anything goes.
How does it feel to you, performing songs that you wrote over 30 years ago?
Ryan Borkala, Leeds
I’m very, very proud that I can stand by every word I said 30 years ago as well as I can today. I got it right, and that’s a difficult thing to say in this industry. And I fought off a lot of conceit and arrogance and grandiose opinions to get that right. We faced some serious traumas with our songs. For people to turn round 30 years on and say, “Well, it don’t seem so threatening now.” You try it then, mate! Any freedoms you have now, we fought for them for you. So don’t turn around and sneer at us!
In 1981, when PiL were on their fifth drummer in 18 months, the NME ran an April Fool news story about Ginger Baker joining the band. Was that why you hired him five years later?
Ha ha! Actually, I’m not keen on these spoof stories. I hear at least two about me every year. They might start out as some drunk arse having a wheeze, but it ends up being disruptive, like all gossip. The worst thing is that people often believe them! Anyway, Ginger Baker was an absolutely smashing bloke, as was everyone on Album. Steve Vai, Ravi Shankar, Ryuichi Sakamoto – we came together as friends. There was more talk than there was actual play, which was very important. And the late, great Tony Williams [legendary Miles Davis drummer] – what a fantastic, wonderful human being. It’s a shame that his music still isn’t really appreciated. People don’t know how to listen to humanity.
Are you really mates with Dave Gilmour?
Steve McDermott, Dublin
Great bloke. They asked me last year to sing something off Dark Side Of The Moon with them for a gig in LA. And I would have done it, too, except I was off doing a documentary on bugs for the Discovery Channel. The whole “I Hate Pink Floyd Thing” was hilarious. Anyone who took that seriously needs a new head. As it happens, I love early Pink Floyd with Syd Barrett – the original Sid Vicious, by the way – and even some of the ’70s stuff. I just hated the assumption that they were holier than God and you couldn’t give them a knock. What was even more hilarious is that my brother went to Tollington Park school, and the art teacher there was Roger Waters’ wife! So it’s a small world. Unless she was lying, of course… them fake hippies!
When you see old footage of the Pistols, what do you think now, apart from the rather slimmer waistlines?
Andy Ruff, Horsham
The waistlines don’t worry me. It’s the pimples. To be a pop star at an early age is a terrible thing, because all you’re really worried about is acne. Poor Sid was so worried about his pimples. That boy would go into such deep, deep traumas about it. But always with the greatest possible humour, bless him.
Is there an unreleased studio version, without vocals, of the Pistols’ “Belsen Was A Gas” out there?
Carlos “Cake” Nunez, California
Oh, for Christ’s sake, why would people care? We released what we released and that’s it. I don’t think there’s bugger-all left in the can. As it happens, the only reason we came back together this year was to re-record “Anarchy…” and “Pretty Vacant” for the Guitar Hero computer game – we’d agreed to do it but then found out that Virgin had lost the master tapes. Can you imagine that? They lost the masters for the album that made them famous! Hilarious.
Photo: Davis Factor ©Drrmgmt
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