By Jeff Maisey
The story of Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols has been well documented; of Sid and Nancy, the exploitative management of Malcolm McLaren, the publicity stunts, the legendary shows and, of course, arguably one of the most important, and certainly most controversial, albums of all time in “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols,” with its politically-charged punk rock anthems “Holidays in the Sun” and “God Save the Queen.”
In his song “My My, Hey Hey (Out of the Blue),” classic rock artist Neil Young sang of the Pistols, “It’s better to burn out than it is to rust.”
But Johnny Rotten didn’t just fade into oblivion after the Sex Pistols split following its mismanaged, ill-fated tour of America. Using his real name, John Lydon, he immediately rebounded, in 1978, from the disillusionment of the Sex Pistols to form one of the most experimental, equally chaotic anti-rock bands of the era, Public Image Ltd (PiL).
PiL released its debut album, “First Issue,” in 1978, followed by the groundbreaking records “Metal Box” (1979), “Paris au Printemps (Live, ’80), and “The Flowers of Romance” (1981). In all, Public Image Ltd released 10 studio albums, the most commercially successful being 1986’s “Album,” which spawn the MTV-played “Rise,” “Happy” (’87), and “This Is Not a Love Song” from 1983.
After a nearly 17-year hiatus, PiL reformed in 2012 and has released two albums since: “This is PiL” and “What the World Needs Now.”
In marking the 40th anniversary of PiL, John Lydon, along with Lu Edmonds (guitar), Scott Firth (bass) and Bruce Smith (drums), is embarking on a national 18-city tour that begis October 9 in New Orleans in support of a career-spanning 5CD/2DVD boxset package titled “The Public Image is Rotten (Songs from the Heart),” which features the PiL singles collection, B-sides, rare tunes and the notorious live concert from New York Ritz in 1989.
In addition to the tour and boxset, a fascinating documentary is touring cinemas as “The Public Image is Rotten,” and will be shown Tuesday, October 30 at Naro Expanded Cinema in Norfolk.
The documentary is masterfully woven together in chronological order and tells Lydon’s life story — worts and all — from his sickly English childhood to the Pistols and everything post-Pistols in a fun-filled, intriguing manner than only he can do. The film is brutally honest and Lydon allows former bandmates — and there were many — to have their say. From behind-the-scenes stories to live concerts, music video clips to late night TV interviews and a now famous butter commercial, this is a captivating film for musicians and fans to absorb.
To dig deeper into his Public Image Ltd career and the documentary, I had the pleasure of speaking with John Lydon by phone. Here’s an excerpt from our lengthy conversation.
VEER: Touring now for your 40th anniversary of Public Image Ltd, do you find it a more relaxed and enjoyable experience than when you first began? Is the tour a victory lap or sorts?
John Lydon: It should be, but because the workload is so intense and there’s all these other things to consider; the documentary and we’re recording a new album in the middle of all this the workload is so intense you don’t get any time to stop and pause and just enjoy it as such.
As a matter of fact, I have a whole bunch of family issues that are weighing very heavily on my mind, so it’s like 24/7 for me. It’s no sleep to Brooklyn as the Beasties would have it.
VEER: Well, I’m sorry to hear of your family issues. Regarding the upcoming tour, since you’re working on new material will you be testing anything live?
Lydon: No, only a fool would do that because your copyright will be stolen instantly.
VEER: Good point, John. What can you share about the boxset?
Lydon: We put a lot of work into that because we wanted to use the highest quality material and keep the price down. It’s a boxset I’m very proud of. It contains an awful lot of film footage that many people might not have seen. There are one or two completely new songs on it from ancient rehearsals. It’s chronologically correct and includes the beginning, the middle and the end.
VEER: John, the documentary begins with a quote from you stating “There’s nothing glorious about dying, anyone can do it.” Why was that an important quote to start the film?
Lydon: Ha. Ha Ha. Well, I suppose a lot of superheroes in music have annoyed me by taking what I think is a coward’s way out. You’ve only got one life; don’t throw it away, and don’t think that means you’re going to go down in a blaze of glory.
There is in the music business a terrible worship, a death cult of people who take their own lives, or fuck their own lives up. I want to draw attention to that as being incredibly stupid.
VEER: In the film you talk about heroin saying “if you use heroin you’ll end up using everyone around you.” Does that also play into that opening quote?
Lydon: It’s part of it, isn’t it? I’m referring to experiences with people who took that route, because they do. They weigh so heavy on you. The selfishness becomes unbearable.
I think the people who get involved with it liked it best — heroin that is — because it covers all guilts. Once that’s gone, well then, you’re not very human because the next thing that goes is empathy and any kind of compatriotism or connection to your fellow human beings. You don’t have friends, you just have objects that you can use and abuse to get to your number one aim — heroin.
VEER: Very well put. John, the documentary really tells your life’s story chronologically. Was that the original intent?
Lydon: You know, initially I thought when these people approached me it was just going to be about the last two albums. It naturally expanded and obviously had to include the previous lives.
VEER: And that paints the whole picture then, doesn’t it?
Lydon: It paints the full picture because — you know — it’s like love and marriage, you can’t have one without the other. We had a Ted Bundy moment and opened the doors to all the possibilities of what might occur if we did dive into the past, and invite everybody to have their say. For me contradiction is a complement.
VEER: From watching the documentary in its entirety, my overall takeaway was there was a lot of great, groundbreaking experimental music created out of a seemingly chaotic environment. Was there a certain beauty in that process from your perspective?
Lydon: Uh, well, it’s like I’ve had to learn to use adversity also, you know? In all of them early years and throughout a lot of PiL. The situations were so alien and negative to me. It’s quite amazing I had the stamina to ride on through it.
Now I find other ways, of course. There’s a great sense of camaraderie with PiL as it is now, and I think the music’s the better for it. It’s a completely different approach to having to argue all the time and know that the purse-strings are being squeezed on you, and the record company continuously trying to manipulate the situation, which ultimately amounted into breakups and band members leaving.
All manner of innuendo and rumor was spread amongst us by various record company cohorts; not all of them. Some were very decent and good. But it’s very difficult to deal with labels when really they’re coming at you from the accounting department.
VEER: And hence Public Image Ltd the name, right?
Lydon: Yeah. Everything was argued or wanted to be taken away from me. I think there’s a cottage industry out there all claiming to be the point and purpose behind everything I’ve ever done, and that’s very upsetting because you don’t have any backup from your label, and so a great many lives were perpetrated through the media throughout all of that. And having to get books together to literally explain myself.
VEER: The opening track to the documentary is your first single, “Public Image.” I recall when I first heard the song when it was released that it sort of had one foot in the Sex Pistols and one foot musically looking forward.
Lydon (jumping right in): Actually, it was four people in a room staring at each other not knowing what to do and that came about just like that from there — bangs and twangs and fiddlings and howling — and it all just fell together.
I wasn’t striving for a different voice or a different approach; none of us were, really. We just didn’t know what we were doing and that’s what we came up with.
I fell in love with that, like, wow, this was meant to be. I have many of those meant to be moments. I think that’s the power of nature telling you stay the course. So I don’t avoid those messages, I go forth and multiply them. There does come a time when you have to say c’est la vie to certain people because of their destructive negativity is impossible to comprehend any longer.
VEER: Did you feel a sense of betrayal or was that the dark nature of the music business regarding Jah Wobble and Keith Levene?
Lydon: I don’t suppose it was for no reason at all that it was Wobble’s first single.
Betrayal? I don’t have time to sit around and wallow in self-pity, you know? I had to keep the machinery running. It just meant further greasing the wheels of industry and finding replacements and doing the best I can with what’s available.
VEER: John, you mentioned not trying to find your voice post-Sex Pistols, though your vocal style in PiL is quite unique and different from the past.
Lydon: It was the subject matter because I was freed up to delve into different areas. The Pistols was a great learning camp for me. It really, really was. It was great and it gave me lots of things to work with, but my brain wasn’t happy to stay in that — what I would call a genre.
In PiL, we could explore all kinds of different sounds because there was a fearlessness in it, but also a rank amateurishness, which I think all the best things come from. Over-studied musicians tend to rigidly adhere to the manuals and manuscripts and the set formats. That’s just awfully unrealistic.
VEER: I thought PiL’s most adventurous album was “The Flowers of Romance” for it’s primitive, percussive nature.
Lydon: Yeah, I did that mostly on my own. If I gave any great thanks to anyone it would be Nick Launay, the engineer, who grasped what I was doing. We just had hilarious fun.
I had just come out of jail in Ireland, you know? I was just full of ideas.
But the band just wasn’t bloody interested.
VEER: And during that time there was the notorious concert at the New York Ritz. How did that live performance idea — playing behind the curtain — come to you?
Lydon: I say not notorious, but everybody tells me different.
For me I think it was the pleasant riot I’ve ever been in. No animals or humans were hurt in the production of this event.
VEER: The packaging concept for “Album” was brilliant and so current at the time. How did you devise this concept?
Lydon: I wanted it to be as generic as possible because I had seen this in supermarkets in America. It amused and impressed me. I thought, “Great, that’s one way to save on packaging.” I agreed a lot of money is wasted on packaging — and PiL is well-known for its packaging, so I wanted to go in the exact opposite direction.
Of course, that meant no credits. Unluckily enough, Elektra didn’t find the idea too amusing and, well, got rid of us.
I think the album went in at number 80 and then they pulled the plug. They didn’t realize the rank amateurs they thought I was working with were the likes of Ginger Baker and Steve Vai etc.
It’s amusing. If they’re running a record label they don’t know much about music then, do they?
VEER: No, they sure didn’t. What do you think of the music industry today in the age of steaming?
Lydon: I’m glad to be off all them labels. It took me an awful long time to wrangle my way out. They wouldn’t let me go, but at the same time they didn’t mind keeping me in debt. It was very Catch 22, the whole period.
I didn’t take it personally. I thought I’d get on and find a way to raise enough money to get myself out of that situation rather than wallowing around in self-pity.
I can happily say no one in the industry helped me at that time.
The only people who did were corporations like the British dairy companies. God works in mysterious ways.
VEER: And in Country Life Butter, no doubt.
Lydon: Yes, it was a most interesting idea they came to me with: Can you promote butter?
Oh, for god sake, no. How?
Great meeting with them. Really fun-filled events. We worked it out where they would present me a script. They knew I would ignore it and was let loose in a field with cows and improvised. I had a very, very loose idea, and it worked. We raised butter sales by 87 percent that year.
It’s just ashamed they didn’t honor the contract and let it finish. They cut me in the end. So I never got the really big money, but I got enough to start buying my way out of the labels and then to reform PiL, which is what I did.
I chose the members I enjoyed working with the best. Not the best musicians or the worst, but because their personalities were easy to endure.
VEER: After a 17-year hiatus, how was it for you to write new songs?
Lydon: Initially, very fearful. I didn’t know if we’d manage to do this.
I turned up late for our first rehearsal and when I got there and heard them playing “Albatross” from outside the door, I thought, “Oh, my god, they’ve got it better than ever with a fuller, deeper understanding.”
We just went into everything and anything. It was an absolutely complete surprise to me. There were no arguments. Everybody was willing to take-on the most challenging songs.
VEER: On your setlist for this tour, do you span PiL’s entire career?
Lydon: Yes, up and down oddly. It’s mostly what the band itself wanted to play because we had this idea of enjoying this — a party atmosphere with the songs. They all seem to fit in really well. Some have 10, 15-year gaps in-between. They all merge into a point and purpose.
It’s not to say musically they’re all the same, but they certainly are not. The emphasis is on a complete and thorough study of human emotions.
VEER: Is the songwriting process different now compared to 20 years ago?
Lydon: Yes, because it isn’t done with contempt or the feeling of temporary measures. I have faith and I’m very comfortable in my fellow band members.
I’m not being blackmailed all the time — “if you don’t give me more I’ll leave.” That’s the trouble with temporary membership. I try to pay the wages and raise the money, and at the same time deal with the record labels cutting you down.
Now we’re on our own label. It’s a little bit different. We’re recording our third album, literally, on the road. It’s with the same people. A sense of stability, which I never ever had before.
Thank you major record labels for never giving me that before — bastards!
VEER: When you look back 40 years, what are your overall impressions about your life and career?
Lydon: It’s been very, very difficult and challenging. There were times where I was very near just packing it all in.
Luckily I just managed to hold on and I met a few friends over the years who really bumped me up.
I’ve got to say around “Album” that’s when it mattered most recording in New York with Bill Laswell. The money was extremely tight. We couldn’t afford to mess around with the budget.
I had to find the better players and oddly enough look at the ones that said yes. Because of their quality and their ilk it amazed me that they said yes. I had no hope in hell of any of them wanting to perform anything at all with me. So it was my esteem, definitely on the wane. It really gave me a new lease on life. I’m eternally respectful for that, but I would never tour with Steve (Vai) or Ginger (Baker). That would be wrong. That would then be a super band and that’s not why this is put together. It was put together out of bloody desperation.