john lydon: “don’t get stagnant, safety is the kiss of death”
As he heads on a UK tour, and prepares boxsets of classic records Metal Box and Album, the Public Image Ltd singer and punk icon talks anniversaries, legacies and feeling freer than ever.
Earlier this year, John Lydon (nee Rotten) turned 60. An impressive milestone for a man still seen as shorthand for teenage nihilism. Yet for a public figure often reduced to a wild-haired and wild-eyed youth intent on attacking the dishonesty and hypocrisy of the British establishment, the 40 years since punk broke have seen Lydon reinvent himself away from punk cliche into musical pioneer. Something he's not often given the credit he deserves for.
Because as The Sex Pistols collapsed, John started Public Image Ltd with childhood friends Jah Wobble and Keith Levene; a band intent on ripping up the three chord punk formula and starting afresh; their visceral blend of deep, abstract bass, trebley scratched out guitar, and Lydon's dense and intense lyricism set out a template to move beyond punk. It feels incredibly relevant today, as London spends a year honouring punk's legacy, that two of the most incredible albums to come out of the punk movement are getting re-released as deluxe four disc boxsets; Metal Box and Album. Two of the most inspiring, visionary records, records that showed what was possible if you took punk's energy and anger but freed it of all musical restraints. To celebrate all of this, and the reunited Public Image's upcoming UK tour, we sat down for a chat with the inimitable John Lydon.
How are you today?
I appear to be alive, so that's very good.
It's a start. So how do you feel about Bob Dylan getting the Nobel Prize for Literature? Do you think pop music can be literature?
I don't value the awards systems particularly highly. I don't think, as human beings, we need to be judged like that. But good luck, Bobby! Do what you can with it. The Nobel Prize is as meaningless as any other prize.But I've got to say, Mr Dylan is a damn fine songwriter. That can't be disputed.
But your lyrics are incredible, too. I've been listening to the old PiL albums to prep for this interview, and Metal Box especially has an intensity and poetic density of imagery that I still find breathtaking.
Thanks for saying that, that's why I write, to create that feeling, to open the eye and mind of the listener. I do pack my songs very densely, but I do try to do it using as few words as possible. So I'm pleased there's a listener out there who's caught on, even if he is a journalist.
How do you compose your lyrics?
My brain never stops working, it's full of songs running around in there. I very rarely think in rhyme though. My approach is topic first, and then usually I stew an idea around in my head for years before writing anything down. It's a really long process, a very confusing process -- I'm way ahead of myself most of the time. I keep it all in my head and only commit it to paper when I'm making an album. It's all about finding the perfect way to say what I'm trying to say, the perfect place for a phrase, and often it comes to me when I'm sound asleep and dreaming. There are barrel fulls of stanzas waiting to pour out of me.
Why are they re-releasing Metal Box and Album now? Have you been involved much?
Well it's all connected to Universal, they offered and I thought it was very nice of them, so why not? It might open up the eyes and ears of the indifferent. And they're both, pleasingly, exceptionally, different from each other.
They're two very different sides of you as a musician.
There are many sides to me, I'm far from two faced. I'm very multi-faceted. I don't like to stick in one genre for too long, I get bored very easily. The longer I live, the more I learn, the more expressive I want to be and I can't do that if I find myself trapped. It's a compulsive behaviour, to move on, or an impulsive behaviour? One of those.
Do you feel like these are your best albums?
I would never say that one record I've done is better than the other. All the things I do are different explorations of human nature. I don't have a favourite song, or anything like that, they're all different pieces of the puzzle, and you can't have one piece without the rest. But I'm still figuring out the jigsaw myself, so good luck listeners!
What do you think we can learn about you, from listening back to these two albums. If you had to do a bit of amateur psychoanalysis on yourself.
Haha, alright then. Listen to me and you won't be bored! That's what I'd say, because I don't do boredom, or boring. I'm a musician always trying to do something new. I think though, if you try to analyse it too much you ruin it for yourself. I think my advice would be, don't get stagnant, always do something challenging. Safety is the kiss of death.
What are you proudest of, on these records?
They are what they are, the reflection of an outward looking mind, not an insular, selfish one. That's a sense of achievement. Gone are the days when I was a sick little baby, I've done marvellous things with my life.
How involved do you get in a project like this?
Well whose voice do you think that is on the record? Joking aside, we have a very good, loyal team, solid and honest, we find the creative process thrilling, I find it great to do something like this because gone are the days when the record company would decide what the cover of your album would be. In fact, I never put up with that, I was always difficult to work with, or at least that was the rumour. I'm a hands on bloke. But not in a Donald Trump way.
The artwork on these albums is amazing, maybe two of the most iconic ever?
The artwork is as important to me as the song itself, they have to have a relationship with each other. I love painting the covers when I can, because I think it gives a visual tapestry as well an aural one. My favourite is the drawing I did for the Death Disco single. I took an art A Level exam, and they rejected the image because it was too grotesque, a mother eating a baby. But years later I thought that it made sense to illustrate the single because the song is about the death of my mother. I think a little differently from others sometimes.
Do you find it cathartic to paint?
I love it, it's my hobby. I released my sketchbooks a while ago, and packaged them with an x-ray of my skull, every now and again I like to make sure I don't have brain disease.
It's nice these are getting re-released now, they clash with the Punk Anniversary stuff, Metal Box especially, shows the amazing possibility of punk beyond a cliche or formula, it's a great counterpoint.
Yes, that's a nice way of looking at it, thank you, you're very generous. You can't forget the Sex Pistols of course, they were the best of punk, but that was baby steps for me, I've moved on an awful lot since. It's a shame that a lot of that punk audience never learnt to grow as well. The whole thing became very rigid and uninspiring, people got trapped in the formula, started to become the cliche. No thanks! I had to walk away from that.
In other anniversary news, you also turned 60 this year. Do you still feel like a rebel? An outsider? You're almost national treasure now.
I cried when I hit 21, I thought my life was over! But 22 quickly came, and 60 soon after. There's been no loss of energy in me, I've never been the strongest physically, but mentally I'm still pretty astute, sharp and poignant, and somewhat relevant. Music is the only thing I can do with life, the only thing I'm good at. I need to constantly turn the tables on myself, I need to move forwards, challenge myself. This is the result so far, but the race isn't over.
Do you find it odd that people are still interested in you, 40 years after you started out?
I'm grateful! Thank you! Keep up the good work, guys and girls. I'm as honest as the day I started, I have the same set of values but that's the only thing that's consistent, the format will always change. There's a contradiction there though, because at the moment with Public Image I'm very very happy. I think we are mining a very rich source of inspiration, and I don't want to wander to far away from that because it's a pure pleasure to have a found a band that respects each other in the way we do. But it's always been my ambition, to work like this, to find myself in an equal environment, it's extremely healthy.
You're still playing live, too, still going strong.
Playing live is what we do, we view ourselves as a live band, even the way we record is practically live. When I was younger I was terrified of being on stage. Now I'm genuinely happy to be out there. It's amazing, having endured so many problems in the wonderful world of music to have got here now.
Public Image's music really thrives off that intimacy and immediacy of playing live.
I still love to make eye contact with members of the audience, that's the most important thing to me. I like playing smaller venues, I like the intimacy, I find it incredibly inspiring. And somehow that leads to integrity. It tooks me years to learn the craft of presenting myself on very large stages. The biggest crowd I ever played to, strangely, was in Estonia, years ago. There was something like 180,000 people in the audience, it took my breath away. Too much! I couldn't deal with it. I prefer to be up close and personal. By nature I'm a shy person. I don't like parties. I don't like being talked to by lots of people at the same time. It's the same thing with gigs; I had to be drunk on stage for a long time because I was so shy. I had to work hard to leave my shyness in the dressing room. Now I feed off the crowd as individuals, they give me ideas and inspirations through their eyes. We're constantly working as a band to hit a deeper emotional level, but it wears you out, emotionally and psychically.
What kind of setlist do you have at the moment?
We can play anything, we play stuff of the new albums, but of course, some bloody good tunes from the past. There's no condescending attitude towards the audience to play the crowd pleasers. I'm shocked that Rise has become such an anthem. It's a nice, tightly put together little song that's taken on a new life.
Did you not think it would become such an anthem?
Never. It was the same with Anarchy in the UK, I didn't think anyone would give a damn, and look what that did. But I don't sit down, all conceited, and think I'm going to write an anthem.
This is the most stable line-up of PiL as well. Is it the freest you've felt?
We're a small, compact unit, a viking raiding party. We don't need the clamminess of record label advice. It's pure honesty. I feel very free at the moment, there's no dictators from the accounting department asking us to write a hit single. As if there's a format for it. This is why I'm difficult to work with. I won't be told what to do. I'm not a child and I won't be treated as such. At the same time, I think of PiL as childlike in its innocence, there's no conceit to it now. That's what frees me up.
You're still planning more records?
As soon as we finish touring, we'll be back in the studio. We love to see as many places as possible. We've been to China. It's amazing the Chinese let us in, if you think about it, if you read the lyrics. But they welcomed us. I don't deal in Student Union Politics, I don't judge nations on what their governments get up to. I'm no government's friend. We played in Israel, and I'm not having anyone tell me not to go, telling me it's a fascist regime. But they're still human beings in Israel, still worthy of entertainment. I'll play to Arab and Jew, I'd go to Palestine and play, more than happy to.
Do you know what direction the next album will take?
Not a clue, that's the fun of it. The first day is the worst and best of the recording session; you're nervous, frightened, scared, worried you aren't going to come up with anything that's good enough. But it's thrilling, that knife edge, not knowing where inspiration is going to come from. That kick up pants! Whenever I've been over prepared, I've always been bored to death. It's always been like this in Public Image. Here's the deep end, let's see who jumps in first. Sink or swim.
It's always been more of a collaborative project than just Johnny Rotten's Band.
Always has, always will be. There's no room for superstars. I left that nonsense behind with The Pistols.
PiL will reissue deluxe versions of Metal Box and Album on 9th December. They tour the UK in November.
Text Felix Petty