london calling: princess julia meets john lydon
Two people who know more than a little bit about street, sound and style are our own Princess Julia and Sex Pistols alumni John Lydon. Here, the two talk growing up in austerity, architecture and surviving airplane disasters…
You can more or less talk to John Lydon on just about anything. Back in his formative years, growing up in North London in the late 50s and 60s, Lydon had more than his fair share of trauma. But who can forget the moment when in the mid-70s the charismatic and strangely angelic faced Johnny Rotten glared down at us with a sneer, epitomising the face of Punk. He symbolised everything wrong with late 70s Britain, scared the shit out of the grown ups and made anyone with an ounce of a rebellious streak want to join his gang.
There was something so alluring about his presence on the music scene that at once he set a stance that others tried to emulate. All too quickly, Punk dissipated but the gates were well and truly open to the emergence of a pure DIY counterculture we still reference today. Lydon turned his gaze forwards and continued his musical affray into exploring further diversions. Public Image Limited - PiL - was born out of a disenchantment with punk and an urge to widen, garner and impart further knowledge. Today John Lydon continues his on-going investigation with an ever questioning and compulsive quest to decipher the human condition... which as you will see he does with sincerity and a good sense of humour.
Princess Julia: I bet you're really bored with having to answer so many questions?
John Lydon: No. Listen it's better than working in the subway innit?
So darling, what do you think is your greatest achievement?
Recovering from meningitis, and four years later recovering my memory. I must have somehow, when I was young, when I was very ill, had the will to live. I did something I wasn't aware of at the age of seven or eight, but it's kept me in good stead ever since.
That had a really profound effect on you didn't it?
Yeah, well, I talk about it in the book. I've only ever mentioned it briefly or fleetingly up till now, but I thought I had to deal with it. It's about time that I shared this because I mean there's still the endless negative critics out there talking bollocks about me. So hello, you know, I'm not an invented pop star, I'm a human being and I've endured quite a lot of personal tragedy in my life. And that really has been to my benefit ultimately.
I always think when things go tits up, it's a learning curve really...
It is, it is... My mum and dad were real good with me, they wouldn't allow self pity so there you go. Self pity is self serving you to an early grave, and so you just get on with it. You could call it the school of hard-knocks or whatever. Look, life's shit then you die, but look you can have a nice soft shit or one of them hard horrible ones (laughs).
Sometimes it's good to have a bit of a wallow as long as you get a grip on it.
I'm not perfect and I'm very prone to going into those depression periods. In a weird way they help me. It's like recharging the battery. Putting the book together was painful. I went into a wallow doing it really and I started to run off to the what, if's and why's. I had to be fished back into reality. I didn't want to tell it all, it does hurt, I had me childhood stolen but I got so much more out of it... I missed the toys. My earliest memories of playing was with cardboard boxes. It was grim down South (laughs).
I come from North London as well, Wood Green.
Oh you're right round the corner; all these places sound so beautiful... don't they? Wood Green, Finsbury Park. Well lets put it this way, none of us were pony trekking on the weekend. You were lucky if you made a 'pony' on the weekend!
Do you have high standards and morals?
Yeah, I do and I'm furious how ugly the new Arsenal ground looks.
That's where I was brought up, on Benwell Road. That was where I first lived till I was 11 - two rooms with no indoor toilet. And they knocked that all down to build that stadium and we moved to Finsbury Park. To me, from the outside, it looks Dagenham bus depot. It's all bitty and arty; it doesn't strike me as substantial and brave, it looks like a frenzy. I'm a specialist in resenting modern architecture...
Is there any architecture you like at all?
Yeah, bits and pieces. In fact everything that's ever been constructed in Barcelona and Madrid. And I love The Tower of London - cor who wouldn't want to live in that. The Shard annoys me, it looks like it's tearing a rip in the sky. I don't like the idea of that mentally. I think it's anti social.
And they charge you 30 quid to go up there as well.
You're jesting! It's the same old thing isn't it, little boxes, you know. So there we have it. When we moved out of the slums of Benwell Road, we moved into Finsbury Park, in the Six Acres Estate. That was thrilling, I loved that because we had an indoor toilet and a bath - fantastic! But then two years later because of the bad design of it, the mould was killing us all and the windows constantly leaked and me with all them childhood illnesses, it turned into a place of torture. It was a blessing really at 15 when my dad kicked me out; I did everything to make sure it would happen. It was prior to the Sex Pistols. And so, you know, there I went… Punk Rock was born.
I always thought of the Sex Pistols as a really modern pop group.
It was, I would never deny the pop side of it, because I love pop music, I grew up with it. It was essential to me to understand how to dance to T Rex 'cause that what's girls liked. And style, I mean I've always had my own style, I don't follow fashion trends. You do these things because you want to attract the right kind... it all falls into place one way or another and being working class myself that's essential. You do need some form of attraction because your lifestyle and the way you find yourself of planet earth, it's not very attractive at all is it? Council flat fodder that's what every rich bird's looking for... in a man. A bit of rough, you gotta have some smooth edges. Well my idea of smooth edges is a little on the brittle side, so there it goes... I'm awkward.
I'm really into the idea of personal style and expressing yourself in an individual way.
Fashion is for victims, but street styles, most things really are created in a working class environment, we're not that easily led. I know that Gucci and Armani would be very angry if they found that's they're choice clothing of top football hooligans, I love that sense of irony in it.
Did you realise what a huge impact the Sex Pistols would have?
We had no idea at all, and it just exploded, we just seemed to land in the right time at the right place. A great amount of luck was in that, there was no skilful planning although the management claimed there was years later. But hindsight it's like self-pity, it's self serving and it doesn't achieve much. It was luck, luck of the draw and lucky that I was well equipped enough to grab the opportunity and get straight into writing what I was always feeling - which was disenfranchised and left out of the agenda like everybody I knew around me. I just voiced what we were all feeling.
Is there anything you haven't done and fancy having a go at?
Well next year I'll be 60 years young... so I reckon I've got another 40 years to finally really get into it. So far really I've only just experimented. Gawd bless Pete Townsend but the idea of 'I hope I die before I get old' is not what I'm on about. No, I want to get to be very old and continue to be a very naughty old man. You know if I have to drive around in a perambulator in my later years, it's gonna be a hot rod one.
Do you get a lot of days off?
No, not really at all, so it makes it all the better. My friends that have daily jobs, they're always desperate for the weekends. I don't get that. I've learnt to make the best of every situation that I land in. I can have as much fun listening to the old folk in a pub as I can wondering through a library or a museum or anywhere that's selling vinyl records.
You're very positive.
Is there any other way? I mean I survived meningitis, which almost killed me, I survived the Lockabie disaster too! Thank god my missus, she couldn't pack the bloody suitcase in time so we missed the flight. I've always been a stickler for time and being on time but that told me sometimes you really shouldn't be.
You've got a new Public Image Limited album and tour planned.
It's a blinder this one. We're capable of exploring non-musical territories, with this one we tried to screw it down to much more deliberate rhythmic patterns, it's a different approach but the results are very familiar to me. So it's a healthy terrain and a perfect backdrop really for the emotions I'm dealing with within the songs. The problem in life is to work out why I'm angry or why I'm happy and I use songs to do that.
Nowadays in the modern age people are still playing the same music from 30 years ago and it doesn't sound dated...
Listen, you can't beat a good tune! You just can't. Culturally we're united by pop music, it's a modern form of folk music, it's a way of communicating messages in what is assumed is a very simplistic way but it's deeply, deeply rooted in subversive information, it's what keep us rebellious.
Do you think that is a modern form of rebellion?
I don't know if I can really be that interested in supporting other bands here which is kind of where this question is leading. I do the best I can to be as open and honest as I can with always a sense of subterfuge. Unlike most people I like my secrets, and secrets as well are a very generous and transparent approach to humanity, both work equally well. It's very difficult, it makes for an imperfect creature which how I view myself and sooner or later the longer I get to live the better I'll become at this. Life's an experience, I watched this with my mum and dad, They had us when they were very very young, no one gave them a manual on how to be a good or bad parent and so I'm aware of that, it's a learning curve and unless we share these experiences we're just going to constantly be repetitive in raising kids wrong... raise your kid to be a rebel, an individual!
PiL's What The World Needs is out 4 September. They tour the UK and Europe from September