“Hallo, is that John?” I ask my illustrious interviewee, somewhat needlessly.
“It is … ‘allo!”
“Good day to you. It’s Malcolm here, calling from Leyland, Lancashire.”
“Fantastic. Let’s take the scenic route!”
It’s seven months since the release of What The World Needs Now…, the 10th studio album by Public Image Ltd, aka PiL, the band formed in 1978 by the Sex Pistols’ frontman formerly known as Johnny Rotten.
In some respects it’s hard to believe it’s been so long since PiL’s explosive self-titled debut 45 and following LP Public Image – First Issue signalled the next phase of John’s leftfield career. At that point John was joined by Keith Levene (guitar), Jah Wobble (bass) and Jim Walker (drums), but PiL had something of a shifting line-up and certainly employed a unique fusing of styles all the way through to 1992’s That What Is Not album.
A 17-year hiatus followed before John reactivated the band in 2009, and from 2012’s critically-acclaimed comeback album This is PiL onwards they’ve remained on a high. And like that first release and many more that followed in the intervening years, the single that preceded PiL’s latest long player, Double Trouble, was somewhat explosive. A second single, The One, is also up there with the very best from the PiL stable these last four decades. And now they’re enjoying a busy European and UK touring schedule.
As I put it to John, What the World Needs Now … includes some of his finer moments over a long, long career.
“Well, thank you. I think it’s rather good mi’self.”
Like novels by well-known actors or comedians, you probably read that in his distinctive voice. And you’ll probably carry that on now.
“And I’m very pleased that for the first time in my very long career I’ve been able to keep a band together for more than one album! It’s historical for us. We all appreciate that independence has brought us unity. You have to stand up to these large labels or they tend to break you up rather than keep you together.”
The current line-up, together since 2009, also involves Lu Edmonds (guitar, etc) and Bruce Smith (drums) – both first recruited in 1986 – plus Scott Firth (bass). And John describes the band in 2014 autobiography Anger is an Energy – My Life Uncensored as a ‘very happy bunch’ that ‘look out for each other’. I put it to him that he gave two of his band something of an apprenticeship many moons ago … and they came back to him.
“I know what you’re referring to, but you must understand that I’ve known Lu and Bruce practically my entire musical life, from when they were in other bands. We go way back. All three of us really are at the very roots of punk. And Scotty just fits in really well with us because he has an easy going personality and is very, very good at company. That’s the key to it – we like each other.
“I’ve learned to work and smile in the face of adversity, but I don’t want that to be the be-all and end-all of my experiences in music. There are many people I’ve worked with over the years that I miss … but there are many I don’t!”
Mr Lydon is at his chilling best for the last part of that statement, and I’m quite tempted to ask for a few examples. But I carry on, asking if he think he easier to work with now than when he formed PiL in 1978?
“Err …. if anything I was much easier going then. I wasn’t quite so hard on myself.”
With that, he comes up with a trademark throat clearance, half-way through my next question, but adds a swift ‘sorry’, and I continue. Is there added pressure with the advancing years? Let’s face it, few of your contemporaries have stayed the distance like yourself.
“Oh no – there’s been no mellowing! It’s kind of like a fine wine – I find I’m improving with age. And of course I’ve always got in mind that I mustn’t go past my sell-by date. There’s the happy balance – at the moment things are doing really well and all the right things are falling in the right slots.”
This album’s relatively accessible, I’d say. I wouldn’t use the word commercial though. There are still Lydonesque moments ruling out daytime radio airplay – getting a bit sweary, shall we say.
“Oh, for calamity’s sake!”
I carry on, but he’s clearly ruminating on this. I start my next question, saying it’s a shame in a sense that the record industry isn’t as it was …
“It’s a shame that us as a species hasn’t evolved past the point of realising all language is useful and we’re one of nature’s best creations because of language. Banning or chastisement of certain words is pretty damn foolish. And I use the negative words sometimes to very positive thoughts. I’m not openly insulting anyone.”
Well, let’s face it, it’s almost poetry from your mouth.
“Why that’s what I told the judge!”
I think you’d clean up with a few of those tracks as singles, and by way of example, Double Trouble is every bit as exciting or explosive as anything you’ve come up with these last 40 years. Are you as fired up as you ever were?
“Oh yeah! Well, it depends on the situation in the song I’m dealing with, but if it’s high energetic thoughts that’s what’s going to be accompanying it. We try to be as accurate as we can in our songs.”
At the other end of the LP is the equally-splendid Shoom. Is that your modern-day rewrite of a certain Bacharach and David song?
“No, that’s actually a requiem to my father … and missing him, and thinking about him in the studio. I wanted to capture that sense of cheeky fun he had – a very working-class way and that pubby culture we loved every weekend – sitting down and shooting the breeze! And it’s ironic that what is wrongly judged bad language isn’t – it’s very descriptive and hilarious.”
That said – I’ll try this question again – it is half a century since Burt and Hal gave us What the World Needs Now. Had you realised that when you recorded it?
“No, I don’t quite put thing together like that. I was just thinking of my Dad, and that was that.”
Will the new album form the basis of your tour set? Or do you tend to chop and change as the mood fits?
“We tend to chop and change, depending on the mood of the night and what the crowd are giving back to us. They’re the oil in the engine.”
How much is this a John Lydon album?
“Oh, it’s not – you can never view it that way. It’s a PIL album. All of us contribute equally. There are no egos involved. That’s why the work flows so freely. There’s humour in there too – something I’m not known for … but I always thought I was!”
Well, it’s always been there. Perhaps people just don’t know how to take you.
“Yeah, they take things too seriously. I’m sorry, but to survive any kind of life at all you’ve got to be self-depreciating. I’ll be the first to pop me own bubble!”
Is the next PiL record already taking shape? Have you written much lately?
“No, it’ll come about as we tour. The longer we tour the more eager we’ll be to get back into a studio and write new songs. That’s how it works.”
And will there be a TV advert to pay for it? Or did the autobiography put you on a better financial footing?
“Oh, I don’t run it that way at all. We make money through live gigs. We work and work and work, playing our little bottoms off until we’re absolutely physically and mentally drained. Then we’ve hopefully made enough to get back in a studio and start the process all over again.”
It seems to work that way with bands these days, getting by on live work rather than the big record label advance culture of the past.
“It does with us. Hard work makes us tighter.”
I see on the PiL website you posted Cygnet Committee when Bowie died. I hadn’t realised before, but there’s a lot of John Lydon singing style in that early track.
“Oh … probably because we’re both from London.”
Maybe that’s part of it. It’s just something that I hadn’t really picked up on before.
“Well, that’s the side of Bowie I liked – the more in-depth stuff. There we have it. But his presence shall be missed, and it needs to be said. Not by all the current idiots out there either. There’s something of a village community building preposterous claims around themselves. Poor man.
“Listen, I love the way he died – with great dignity. And he wanted a quiet pauper’s grave. What an excellent thing. No pomp and circumstance. My respect to him in death rose immeasurably.”
Somewhat like you, he continued to confound expectations, in his case with those last two albums. Creatively, they were as good as anything …
“Not bad at all, eh.”
We’ve mentioned Bowie there, and in the past you’ve expressed admiration for the likes of Oscar Wilde, people who stood up for what they believed in.
“Yeah, anyone who’s brave enough to stand up and endure is going to get five stars in my book, no matter what walk of life they come from. It’s the bravery of it, and then you find it isn’t brave at all, it’s what’s needed in order to have a good existence. Tell it like it is!”
I’ve recently been reading a biography of the Faces (with my subsequent review here), a band that made a big impression on an old bandmate of yours, Glenn Matlock …
“Yeah, me too. I used to love them live.”
Well, that got me thinking. Their story is one of rock’n’roll excess but also of a band reckoning they were having a good time …
“I always thought so, live. And they translated that to the audience very, very well. And you never felt left out. You felt like they were involving you. They weren’t snobs.”
Is that something you aim to do with PiL?
“Yes, a sense of camaraderie. And definitely our audience knows that. They know they’re more than welcome.”
So, on to the tour, and this weekend PiL’s mainland European tour leg ends in Ukraine.
“That’s going to be a bundle of fun!”
Do those visits to Kiev and Kharkiv concern you in the current climate?
“We’ve been there before, so know the territory, and the situation was brewing last time we were there. We have friends … not in high places though. People are people, and all that catastrophe is going on, but we’ve still got lives to lead.”
The UK leg includes Blackburn in early June (my excuse for talking to John). Will you be trying to see a bit of the old country en route? And are you a good traveller?
“I’m a very good traveller. I love it. I don’t sleep much on a tour bus. What I do is stare out of the windows – seeing the countryside go by, the town, the cities, the people – to this day it fascinates me deeply. It’s like free movies … what I’d call reality TV.”
How about following Lu’s lead and growing a bit of facial hair in time for the Bearded Theory Festival at the end of May?
“Oh no – that’s terrible, that is! And I’ll let him know that! But Lu is Lu, and he doesn’t do anything for fashion reasons. I’ll guarantee that!”
So we’re not likely to see a hipster-like PiL out there this summer?
“No, no, no! There’s just no connection at all.”
The football season will be over by then. When was the last time you watched your beloved Arsenal?
“Probably the last game. There are some problems there. But me – I’m Arsenal, win, lose or draw. And I wouldn’t dare presume to be the manager. I know nothing about managing a football team. And all those loud-mouths yaying or naying don’t count. You don’t talk bad about your team in public! What kind of loyalty’s that? That’s just fodder for the enemy.”
Well, you’re talking to someone who supports a non-league team.
“Exactly, you tell me anyone who follows any football team at all that’s having a good time … and I’ll tell you they’re in the wrong sport!”
Talking of leisure pursuits, we know your LP sleeves well enough. Does your artwork – the drawings, paintings, and so on – take up a fair amount of your spare time?
Is that a different discipline for you, something you switch off from?
“It comes in spurts. It’ll just come on me without any calling or preparation, then I’ll just spend two weeks doing nothing but painting – totally, completely involved … and then stop. I don’t know what the on-button is, nor the off-button, but it’s something I let happen. And when the time’s right, it’s right. I’ve never done anything to a stopwatch.”
You’re a big reader, as covered in depth in the autobiography.
“I love books!”
What was the last great book you read?
“Oh gosh, that would be sometime back. Probably the A-Z or Yellow Pages! I’ll find that very interesting – going through numbers and addresses. With books in particular I know that’s some other human being’s heart and soul being poured out in the most honest way they can. For me, it’s an enormous privilege that somebody lets me in that deep into their thinking process. What I try to do is match up to that in my own work and be as honest as I possibly can.”
We’re in a situation over here in the UK where libraries are being closed and public spending budgets slashed …
“It’s the same here in the States, and all around the world. It’s really the dismantling of culture. The internet is not going to serve us. It will turn us into slaves. All information and all free thought will become some kind of electronic opinion. And you know that comes with censorship. So there you go – the death of civilisation.
“I don’t mean to be too negative but do see that as a frightening, alarming possibility. It’s the same with live music – it’s so fundamentally important to us as a species that we go out and meet each other socially. And that’s what live music offers. If these things are slowly being taken away from us, we’ll have no connection as human beings any longer.”
There’s been something of a love-hate relationship between you, England and your Irish roots. Has living in LA all this time made you appreciate what we do best?
“I just speak as I find. It doesn’t matter where I am physically on planet Earth. My heart and soul is Blighty. That never goes away, it’s just that I can’t bear one more rainy November, thank you! That’s when all the illnesses come back.”
I get the impression you’re a great believer in the welfare state framework you left behind in this country – the free healthcare, free education, libraries, and so on. Perhaps you’re more of a patriot than you’re given credit for.
“Well, I love my Blighty! “I love my Blighty! That can never be taken away from me, no matter what the upper echelons of the media would like to distort. I’m horse and cart, me!
That fits in nicely with your love of Steptoe and Son, one of the TV comedies that I understand helped you through a difficult period getting over spinal meningitis, suffering severe memory loss as a child.
“That was one of the prime motivators of my early youth, when I had no memory and it took a long time for that to come back. It was comedies like that which really helped me. I learned to laugh at myself and my predicament. And that eliminates your self-pity, through humour.
“That and anger, of course, which I use to search inside myself as to how I could ever have forgotten my own parents. Upon all of that substantial stonework I’ve built my church … which by the way has no religion.”
When I was a newspaper reporter, I’d often interview happy married couples about significant wedding anniversaries. Yourself and Nora have been together 40 years now. So what’s the secret of your success?
“Bare-faced, brassic honesty … and not harbouring grudges or keeping things secretly moody. Just full on! We deliver the goods and see what happens.”
We’re led to believe celebrity relationships don’t tend to work so well most of the time.
“Well, we’re both very loyal, that’s the thing. Very different, but at the same time capable of finishing each other’s sentences. We can have blazing, furious rows, as indeed the song Double Trouble indicates. But we’re more than willing to find a happy resolve and laugh at ourselves for being so agitated!”
Are you still to some extent that nervous, shy, retiring kid you once saw yourself as?
“Ah yeah, well that’s the major tour de force. Absolutely. That’s what I am. Yet here I am in an industry that demands I go out and expose myself! But it’s incredibly healthy for me to put myself into this and try and force myself to defeat my own shyness. And I do it nightly on stage.
“For me there’s a great sense of achievement after every gig. Then I can go back to the hotel room and be shy again, where there’s also a real me, with a completely different attitude. I couldn’t live with Johnny Rotten all day long. He comes out at night, that one!”
Could you ever have stuck it out as a woodwork teacher or working in the building trade?
“I could have. Anything to do with helping kids would always work for me. Anything to do with biology, animals, shark research … I’d be more than capable and fully involved.”
Despite your sheer doggedness going about things, following your principles, leading to plenty of past controversy, you’re now deemed something of a national treasure.
“Well, good – then you should sell me and use the money wisely! I don’t mind, as long as I’m going to a good cause!”
The first Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks recordings were made 40 years ago this October. With hindsight, how does that LP rate against the best of that era for you?
“I don’t think there’s anything that can compare to it at that precise moment. Nothing. It changed my life, and it changed many people’s lives. And all for the better! We opened up the idea that you could challenge the powers that be – for the first time ever really, in British culture – that the Royal Family was able to be discussed.”
Does it seem odd that us interviewers still ask about that period? It was just three or so years of a 40-plus year career.
“I’ve to really thank Margaret Thatcher’s Government for an awful lot of it. It was her that was fanning the fire!”
While she was in opposition at the time, I see your point. Are you suggesting that if they’d ignored you, it might never have happened?
“That would be fine too! But the album would still have been made. It’s just that it hit at exactly the right time. That’s what I always expect youth moments to come along and do. We’re waiting longer than usual though – the youth of today tend to be a little lazier than when we were young! And I don’t mean to sound like an old fart. I view myself as 60 years young. You’re never going to take my childhood away. Illness tried to do that. I shall remain eternally young … if only just to spite diseases.”
Time to wrap up, and I thank John for his time, honesty, humour and all those past and present works.
“Good on you, sir!”
And with that he switches to sing-song Irish brogue, adapting his own twist on an old adage (which you may partly recognise from Rise), delivered at breakneck speed.
“May the road rise, your enemies always be behind you, may they scatter, flatter, batter and shatter! Cheers!”
After dates in Spain, Germany, Slovakia and Poland, PiL reach Ukraine this weekend for shows at Kiev’s Club Atlas this Friday, May 20, and Kharkiv’s Cinema Concert Hall (KKZ) this Saturday, May 21.
And then come the UK dates: Coventry, The Copper Rooms (Warwick University), Tuesday May 24; Wakefield, Warehouse 23, Wednesday May 25; Wrexham, William Aston Hall, Thursday May 26; Walton-On-Trent, Bearded Theory Festival, Saturday May 28; Cardiff, Tramshed, Sunday, May 29; Sunderland, The Point, Monday May 30; Lincoln, Engine Shed, Wednesday June 1; Blackburn, King George’s Hall, Thursday June 2; London, Indigo at O2, Saturday June 4; Oxford, O2 Academy, Monday, June 6; Sheffield, O2 Academy, Tuesday June 7; Holmfirth, Picturedrome, Wednesday June 8; Falkirk, Warehouse, Friday, June 10; Inverness, Ironworks, Saturday June 11; Edinburgh, Liquid Rooms, Sunday June 12; Wolverhampton, Slade Rooms, Tuesday June 14; Brighton, Concorde 2, Wednesday June 15; Bath, Komedia, Friday June 17; Northampton, Roadmender, Saturday June 18.
For full ticket information and links plus all the latest from Public Image Ltd, head over to www.pilofficial.com.
Well played, Sir!
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