throwback: it's 1986 and ex-sex pistol john lydon aka johnny rotten stars in i-D's the madness issue
As Punk.London, a year-long celebration of 40 years of punk influence launches across the city, we throw back to an iconic interview with original punk Johnny Rotten. Having just celebrated his 60th birthday and about to release his rather eventful...
Foto: Nick Knight [Aus unserer The Madness Issue, No. 34, März 1986]
Hello, which one are you from then?"
"Oh yeah. I like that… I've still got some of the first ones."
"You should sell them and make yourself some money…"
"Aha! Seems like every time I come to England, I strike it rich!"
The 30 year old ex-Sex Pistol, founder of PIL and legendary lover of lager was recently back in London, to fight - and win - the Pistols v McLaren High Court case. Paul Cook, Steve Jones, Anne Beverley (Sid's mum) and himself each walked away with a cool £250,000 - more fuel for the Cockney catalyst who was also in town to promote his new LP Album, single Rise, compact disc CD and lager Lager. Recorded with Ryuichi Sakamoto on keyboards, Shanker on violin, Steve Vai on guitar and former Cream drummer Ginger Baker (produced by jobsworth Bill Laswell), at times it's difficult to stomach - coming on all AOR and guitar-solo bullshit - but on the whole it's a catchy bag of biscuits... Lydon's cartoon voice screaming punchy prophecies and platitudes over a polished jumble-sale soundtrack full of dizzy percussion and power chords.
It's his most commercial offering ever, and most definitely Rock 'n' Roll. He's in the middle of a press blitz, still sneering, still gobbing and still predictably scathing of the British music scene. The flock of flaming red hair still doesn't appear to give a flying fortress about anyone, apart from of course his blonde German wife Nora, with whom he lives in a mock castlette in Marina del Rey out LA way: Rock 'n' Roll Heaven.
But far from being the miserable guttersnipe, this time around he's adopted the wisecracking-lush stance; anti-journalists, anti-war, anti-pomposity and anti-bollocks… but pro The Fred, Marc Almond and London's ability to manufacture good suits. We met one afternoon after his wife had just spilled a pint of wine over his baggy strides - so the obviously-irritated Lydon was brusque as well as entertaining: threatening to sue everyone in sight.
Over the obligatory Red Stripe, he said this into the Walkman.
You don't seem to have explored the realms of hip-hop that you were working on with Afrika Bambaataa...
The Bambaataa thing was a one off and a piece of good fun, but I'm not particularly interested in making Hip-Hop... I like the music and I collect the stuff; but just once will do nicely. It was my first chance to work with Bill Laswell in the studio,and I'd had him in mind as someone to use in a producer capacity for years…
But hip-hop in the 80s has become a lot more important than most rock'n'roll - why didn't you explore it further?
There are enough people out there doing it much better than I could... so I'm sticking to my area.
The LP sounds very Heavy Metal in places... very American...
Aaaah!! Heavy Metal, now there's an unexplored territory. The guitar on the record has annoyed a lot of people… but I think Bill Laswell and me shocked each other the way we formulated this particular piece of work I told him I wanted to make a rock album and was determined to do exactly that. I'd written practically all the songs beforehand and a lot were already done on demos… it was merely a matter of having them remixed properly in the studio.
What do I think of Heavy Metal? What do you think of Never Mind The Bollocks? By those standards that's exactly what that album is. What I've always hated about HM is the lyrical content and the stupid imagery that is associated with it, but there are a number of records out there in that market that are really quite good but ruined by that silly stance. I don't mind bits of Journey every now and again, and Van Halen have always made me laugh - especially live, where they're brilliant!! They are a funny band not in a silly way, but in an enjoyable way. So Heavy Metal could be a viable force.
Do you remember i-D's Terry Jones, who you did the PIL logo and first LP sleeve with?
Oh him! Yes of course, he was quite popular then... what's happened since? He's still popular? Good.
Punk was in many ways a release of hysteria... a religious belief... do you think your new record is capable of creating hysteria? Are you looking for that?
I'm not particularly searching for that because it's not my generation anymore - you have to be honest with yourself and face up to that. It's for a whole new bunch of kids to go out and do that for themselves. I'm merely making a good record to my standards... and if they like it then it's really alright. But I'm definitely not waving no flag and asking you all to stand behind it.
Who do you think your fans are these days?
In Japan I'm worshipped like I'm God, in Australia I'm liked by very violent thugs and hooligans, in America it's a very mad crowd... so it differs all over. In England, I don't know. Glasgow was always a great gig - always will be. But the London lot was well suspicious about me... they always thought that I was trying to manipulate them, and I'm constantly being accused of it. That's not what I do and that's not what I'm doing now.
Do you still have a need to make records?
Of course. I make records for myself, I really enjoy it... especially being in the studio. I don't need the money - it's bloody obvious ain't it? During certain periods I have become bored with it, but I always come back.
After your appearance in Order Of Death have you given up trying to be an actor?
No. I thought I did very well in that, thank you very much. But the offers that have come in after that have just been appalling - they want me to be a cliche... and I won't. I wouldn't mind doing some kind of medieval costume drama, a real wordy serious monster... or maybe a Renaissance character. All the scientists of the time were fascinating, but they all ended up being executed so I wouldn't like that bit. And the public would hate me if I did something like that because they'd want me to play Kings and Queens and Popes. Obvious targets. All the American directors drive me up the bloody wall and I don't like any of them. Most of what I watch is made by English directors as there are some fine films coming out of this country. Dance With A Stranger I liked because it looked exactly like that period - very tasteful, very beautifully done - I didn't think it was acted quite so good though. The Americans, for all their dollars, can't seem to be as authentic in their backgrounds and they always miss the point. I love accuracy and detail.
Just like Absolute Beginners?
Absolute what!?! (There then followed a brief description of the film, its characters, stars, songs, troubles blah blah blah...) Since Julien Temple said he wrote Anarchy In The UK he and I have not seen eye to eye... But 50 people have claimed they wrote the song... Yes, and 50 people might just be taken to court, hehehe... Absolute Beginners does sound like a good subject though, even if it is a bit insular.
But what about the jazz boom that has happened in the last few years?
What jazz boom? (There then followed a brief explanation of the Electric Ballroom, Paul Murphy, The Wag Club, Working Week, Tommy Chase, Sade blah blah blah... ) I don't consider Sade as jazz at all ... it's MOR. I'm surprised she isn't American because she is the American dream. I think if all black kids can do is dance to old Coltrane records that's a sad reflection on the music business.
How has the fashion business affected you?
Oh, covered in it, aren't I? He, he, he, he, he! I'm still sticking to old 40s demob suits... so fashion hasn't become important to me. I don't mind people trying to look their best, I think that's a fairly healthy young thing to do - that's the pursuit of girls isn't it? And girls don't like badly dressed idiots. I don't like clothes-horses in the music business though, but nobody really seems to be complaining about it that much... I mean all that would be fine if there were other things as well, but there doesn't seem to be. People liking jazz and constantly looking to the past for excitement is sad. Grim - a sorry state of affairs. (belch)
Do your think that 1985 is similar to 1975?
It's more conservative now. When I look, at say, working class kids now, they' re really much more violent and much more organised about their violence than they were then. Football gangs then, for instance, were maybe 1000 or 2000 strong at most - now you' re talking about an entire end of a ground full of nothing but absolute vicious hatred for the opposition. Football has become impossible to enjoy and I wouldn't dream of going onto the terraces anymore ... you never know who's gonna stick a knife in your back.
How do you think youth clubs have changed?
I can see no signs of anything new. Things like Sigue Sigue Sputnik won't change the world ... but I hope something does come up and shock us all. You can't ask me to re-duplicate my past just because everyone else is lazy and can't conceive of it themselves. I won't. I've done my effort for society and I'm getting on with my own life - it's as simple as that. The funny thing is that the people that misconceive it are usually the people who weren't around at the time - how many people have claimed to see the Sex Pistols that you know damn well never did - everybody and their pet dog was at the 100 Club.
What have you got left to say?
Plenty, and it's all in the lyrics ... they're very clear. The main thing I believe is that America and Russia will destroy us, using Europe as a chess game. The Americans are taking away all our antiques, and when they've taken what they want they'll blow the rest up. I only live in America because it's less hassle.
What's the most valuable thing that you learnt from Malcolm McLaren?
Not to trust him. I've learnt nothing from Malcolm, he's learnt from me if anything: I wrote the songs, I gave it all the direction, I was the brains. Not him. In hindsight, he claims it was all him, but then he conceded so badly in court that he obviously knows that he is wrong. Malcolm wouldn't know one end of a console from another... to him it's a big lump of metal with flashing lights... and he's gotta cheek putting his name to all those records that were made by Trevor Horn and all the rest.
Frankie Goes To Hollywood?
A glorious sham.
Love Kills: the story of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen?
I was not consulted, which is disgraceful isn't it? Shocking... so they can expect some legal action. I will over-emphasise this point: I find it appalling to try and make light of Sid's death and that whole period in his life... it shouldn't be treated in that way. Alex Cox is obviously doing it for the money, and I thoroughly recommend that nobody goes to see it. On that filmed boat trip apparently they had loads of mohawks and things, which wasn't the case then. There were only two people with spiky hair: I was one of them and Sid was the other... I remember... I've still got the scars to prove it thank you very much. They've done the whole thing without considering even me, Paul or Steve... I got a copy of the script by very devious means, and when I read it I was furious. It's a farce, and I despise my character; they had this one scene where I come across like I'm standing on a soap box at Hyde Park Corner eschewing the totalitarian this, that and the other... using words I've never even heard of. Nonsense - they made me look like a pompous idiot (belch), they made Sid out to be a complete moron and Paul and Steve even dumber, which is very unfair. We're still alive thank you very much.
You seem very protective of Sid, where in the past you've been quite dismissive of him.
Yes, well, he did kill himself in a deliberate way...but that doesn't give any bastard the right to go and make light of that in a film... he was my friend and I find it disgraceful that somebody who knew nothing about any of it hasn't bothered to ask anybody about this film. I mean, as much as I don't like Malcolm, at least he must have a say-so in this too... it would be very funny if I had to fight a court case on Malcolm's behalf. He! He! He! People don't do that to Mick Jagger, do they? So why should we be treated with such utter disrespect, when we did more for everybody than anybody I can think of in the music business. Let me go to the toilet... (Gob).
(Sound of John Lydon pissing into nearby toilet bowl...)
You're not taping me pissing are you? He! he!
I don't think it will convert well into print…
You should release it as a Disco 12"!
As a B-side, maybe… (Belch)
What about the accusations that you've become mad over the last few years?
Well then again I always was! Hahaha. l I fully expect journalists to say that... trivial pursuits...
Have you ever visited a shrink?
Of course not, why would I? I thought only Americans did that...
Well you do live there…
My home there might as well be in outer space because I don't mix with Americans. It's got big walls like a small castle so I can keep everyone out... In fact Malcolm lives out there too - he rented his present Condo from the live keyboard player's father ... so I know where he lives!
Have your got anything to say about your performance on The Tube a few years ago…?
It was terrible bad taste playing those Sex Pistols' songs…It was just about the most appalling bad taste thing to do - with a cocktail jazz outfit behind me struck me as being mighty wicked and funny ... I did enjoy it! It was just about the worst thing that a human being could be capable of. It was spiteful and malicious, yes, but it was funny. If you had the opportunity, would you turn away?
Do you think that punk has had a detrimental effect on things?
Only in the negative side of things, the love of death, death rock and all that stuff. Because we were so adamant and took such a definite stance that it obviously had to happen that the backlash would be dreary, wimpy homosexual disco music - nail varnish on the keyboards.The good side is that Marc Almond has continually made me laugh - he is hysterical!! His tongue-in-check attitude is great... it's the serious bastards I hate. He's not liked in Australia though... Once on The Tube he sang something like 'Keep those donkeys rolling 'cause I'm coming up behind' - great stuff!
Clubland - do you go to clubs these days?
No. I don't like the environment. Let's face it, you go to those places to show off and I'm not interested in that. It's especially uncomfortable forme because I feel all these attitudes being thrown atme like 'Who does he think he is?' Playing live is something I enjoy doing, especially with people I can choose myself ... I've had a lot of driftwood in my time.
You're very much a hire-em fire-em kind of person aren't you?
Yes definitely. It doesn't work any other way for me because people tend to get jealous, and the more you try and treat them as equals the more they despise you.
What do you think of Billy Idol?
From Cliff Richard to God knows what!! (belch) I hate what he does musically, but he's alright when I meet him. I just can't bear the lip.
Did you expect such a large amount in the settlement with Mclaren?Well put it this way, I'd rather have it than not...it's not outrageously huge, it just means another house or two, hahaha! God how contemptuous I sound. I've been way over the top with most of the journalists I've seen this time ... playing up that nasty image... and I'm amazed at how many of them eat it up. 'More, more, more!' they say! I've learnt more from them than they have done from me . . . which is that basically nothing is happening in this country. A lot of the radio stations in the States refuse to play anything unless it's English, and they see England as being the centre of the universe for music. Sitting in LA listening to it, it all sounds wonderful, but then you come home and it's not like that at all. Over there they jumble it all in, where in reality there's years between good records here. (belch). I drank that Tennants the other night when I went round to see my old man... God it almost killed me! I completely forgot where I was, and I fell overloads of times. It's odd stuff, you feel like you're on some kind of exotic drug...
Do you still drink a lot?
Yes, but nowhere near as much as people do here.
What about drugs?
I don't do them ... why would I? I've watched loads of friends of mine fall by the wayside and it wasn't very pleasant.
Did you ever try and stop Keith taking heroin?
Yes, yes, yes... and it got me nowhere. They have to do it for themselves... I'm a bit worried about Steve Jones as it happens at the moment in LA he's stopped taking drugs but he's very nervous and tense... and I don't want him to go back on them. The pop business does drive you to drugs; you don't join the pop industry to take drugs - you're driven to them... by the relentless pursuit. And the journalists, God the journalists - the sarcastic journalism that condemns you to death can be very hurtful...
Were you hurt by it?
I could have been, but I learnt not to be... you have to take a back seat.
Have you any regrets?
Not really. A few things that went wrong here and there, but no, I don't have hindsight like that... I just get on with it. The one thing that I regret about the times since Punk is people's deaths - but they just didn't listen.
Do you exercise?
I must say you're not as fat as I thought you'd be!
I only weigh twelve stone!
Do you read a lot?
All the time... so long as it isn't Science Fiction or Barbara Cartland...
I like Barbara Cartland.
You must be joking!
It's no worse than you liking Marc Almond for the same reasons...
Yeah, OK. We each have our weaknesses. He, he, he! I'm not sure who's the better out of those two.
Is there anything left that you want to achieve?
Nothing comes to mind. I'm quite happy to carry on in my ploddy little way.
Has anyone been a particular influence on you recently?
No one except Winston Churchill's memoirs of course; they're valid mainly because the wit of that man was superb. There was someone who wasn't academically brilliant but had great insight . .. but he's definitely not a hero because the bad side of him was way awful - he wanted to be a dictator and that's dangerous territory.
Have you ever been to the Soviet Union?
No, and I don't think I'd like to go there. I've heard that it's nowhere near as bad as everyone makes out, but their best is still nowhere near the worse here; Russia won't save the world ... and knowing that the entire population of the world is totally against World War, the US and USSR still somehow or another manage to threaten our existence. That's part and parcel of why I live for the moment, because quite frankly I can't see a future. I don't want to bring kids into this world because there isn't very much for them to look forward to. It will ail come to a grinding halt well soon. (belch).
Were you here for the Westland affair?
Yeah!!! How can she get away with such a blatant lie? It's stunning, it really is. How can the general public have no reaction whatsoever?! She was bragging just after it happened about how she was going to win the next general election. She has a lack of consideration for the populace and they have a lack of consideration for themselves; they accept it as their God-given right to be walked on... I fully expected riots.
It's the last resort of the gambling man - Save The Labour Party! Don't you think it's tragic that they can't save themselves?
(A ring at the doorbell and Nora arrived,bringing with her fresh clothes from Kensington Market - namely a large heavily flecked red suit from Johnsons - to cover up the wine-soaked Lydon body...)
Lydon: Aha, clothes!
Nora: You have so many grey suits I thought I'd buy you a red one.
Lydon: Very nice - London really is a great place for togs... oh dear, what will i-D mag make of this?!?! What waist is this?
Nora: It's the largest one they had.
Lydon: 48 - (to microphone) yes, that should fit!
Nora: Do you want to put some socks in the shoulders, how about some white socks, a clean shirt...?
This sartorial problem seemed in its infancy... so finishing my last can of Red Stripe I made my excuses and left...leaving Mr and Mrs Lydon to their domestic bliss, and the arrival of hack No. 346.
Text Dylan Jones
Photography Nick Knight