John Lydon was a school dropout, a squatter, a youth caregiver, a Sex Pistol, and an international media celebrity before he started Public Image Ltd., his superior band. He's been in and out of the limelight for four decades, terrorizing variety shows, hosting nature documentaries, and even doing a spot on American TV court drama Judge Judy. But the latter gigs were just for the money, John says, so he could get out from under the debtors and record companies holding back his innate propulsive force to make dark, uncomfortable, primitively honest music.
I called the man formerly known as Johnny Rotten bright and early last Friday morning, reaching him at his home in Los Angeles in the late afternoon. I was groggy and a bit hung over but Lydon was more than ready to talk about PiL, why the new PiL record (This is PiL) is great, why children love PiL, why animals love PiL, why Chinese bureaucrats love PiL, and why after March 30, we will all love PiL.
If you want to order advance tickets, go here.
SmartBeijing.com: How's it in LA?
John Lydon: Smokey! So I'm getting well acclimatized to Beijing.
SmBj: Yeah, that's good practice. So, I wanted to ask you about some of your earliest musical influences. Even before you started PiL it seems you were into a wide range of music, like some of the early krautrock stuff, and some weirder American rock like Captain Beefheart.
JL: Oh those would be minor points, really, in comparison to the vast amount of music that was always readily available to my working class cultural background. I come from a place called Finsbury Park, which is north London. We know it as Arsenal land. I grew up with kids of many different races, creeds, and colors. But the one thing that we had in common was that we were all poor. Music was always everywhere. I grew up with reggae as naturally as I did with British pop music, with Captain Beefheart, with Can, with Miles Davis, as anything else, including Greek and Turkish folk music. As well as Irish [music]. And so music was always readily available, and that is one of the blessings of poorer areas. Musically, we're far more open-minded. And so, my influences are everything ever made by anybody that meant what he was saying. So long as I felt the content was honest and true, it would be instantly loved by me.
I've always paid special attention to the words in a song, as I would do, because I always wanted to read and write from a very early age. And so I understand pop music and the wonderful process of how it can access the greater parts of your mind. As well as the more intellectually defined aspects. I don't think there's anything really, culturally, that I'm not aware of at some point or the other. You cannot, for instance, name to me a specific band. I'm always thinking in terms of specific cultures. And I wouldn't say one particular person was responsible for an entire sound, because my quest for knowledge would teach me differently. And I would want to know the roots of what they came from and who they shared those experiences with. In other words, I need answers all the time to everything.
And Public Image Ltd. has given me some of those answers. Because using as a backdrop the vast amount of musical differences out there, I've been able to intellectually find my own heart and soul. I started fairly well with the Sex Pistols, but I was writing from a political point of view. In Public Image, I went deeper into my own faults as a human being, and into the faults of others. And what I've done ever since is explore human emotions. Why we have them and what they're all about. And where they can lead to if you make wrong decisions. And that's what's taken me on my life's journey to where I stand today: a man very proud of his last album, called This is PiL. I think it completely accurately portrays the vast acreage of musical experimentation that I fully understand, am aware of, and am capable of. And all in an accurate portrayal of the emotions I'm trying to express.
SmBj: As a listener and as an artist, it seems that the more important aspect for you is the lyrics and how they engage you intellectually. As a vocalist and as a writer, how does the actual style of the music interplay with the lyrics and the message of the music?
JL: There are many computations that can evolve into a song. For us, this particular album, it was because we toured so intensely for two solid years to raise the money to be able to get into a recording studio. Our conversations with each other are very accurate and open and honest and detailed. That formed the framework of the songs. We had no real chance to rehearse anything, but because we knew of each other's heart and soul, the songs naturally evolved. Sometimes a tone came before a word, sometimes a word came before a tone. Sometimes a drum pattern would lead you into a certain area of creativity. But all in all, it's all about each other. And expressed through… many of the songs relate to my very, very early childhood. Which is a situation that all of us could understand fully. Because we've explored these emotions and feelings with each other. This is a very open, honest band. In all the years I've ever made music or put music together, this is the best situation I've ever, ever been in. Where you can truly appreciate, respect, and love the people you're working with. And they with you. It's an astounding feat. It took all manner of problems and financial restrictions and record company misbehaviors for us to get into this position. And here we are, with our own label, completely independent. [John's phone rings, with an odd bleating ringtone.] Can you hold on one second? That's my other phone.
PiL in the recording studio, Cotswolds, July 2011
SmBj: No problem.
JL: Did you hear that? That voice? That's my cell phone. I'm imitating the sheep, because where we recorded this album, we were surrounded by 20,000 sheep. So I used the imitation of a sheep for my cell phone instead of a ringtone. It's just a love of nature. I've never found animal noises to threaten or annoy me. And also children. The sound of children playing and happy has never, ever disturbed me. And oddly enough, I think that that's kind of an expression of Public Image. And even more oddly enough, why Public Image is really, really loved by children.
SmBj: Is it?
JL: Yes, it is! It's a remarkable achievement, done absolutely honestly. I never set out with a specific mindset, other than the message being truthful and honest. And a direct relationship of my upbringing, my class, my culture, my beliefs, and my love for honesty. Children don't like liars.
SmBj: Yeah, they can pick up on that pretty easily.
JL: Oh yes, they can. And unfortunately we can tell when they're lying too [laughs]. But children don't lie, children play. You know? They push the barriers. And that's a wonderful thing. And actually that's part of my psyche, really, is to remain somewhat childlike. I don't mean idiotically, I mean innocently. Undisturbed by how the world really works. There's a reference in one particular song on the album about getting back into the Garden of Eden. Yes it's a religious reference, but it's a wonderful place to be, ideologically, where you can believe everything your friends, neighbors, relatives are saying to you. And there are certain aspects of my childhood where that was absolutely happening. And I not only miss those moments, but wish for them to continue in modern society. Now for me the internet creates liars. Do I need to explain how, other than it's the way the situation is, that people can just say what they like without any kind of comeuppance or payback? I think every word you ever say, read, write, or indulge in should be meaningful, pointful, purposeful, but never destructively negative or harmful. One of my major enemies with modern society is gossip. That is what the internet allows a great deal of.
SmBj: To go deeper on this point…
JL: Well there's a song on the album called "It Said That," which is about gossip. Sometimes you really should shoot the messenger. Not literally, but economically, with words. One of the worst things anyone can ever say to you is, "Don't say I told you so, but…" That is someone you should never listen to, because they are not being honest and open with their remarks, and it implies subterfuge and sneakery and skulduggery. That is the root of jealousy.
SmBj: It's interesting, your idea of honesty being of paramount importance, and how that ties in to internet culture. Coming from a different generation of media, over the years you've been quite involved in television, from hosting nature documentaries and appearing on reality TV shows...
JL: Well I had to, because the record business financially ruined me. But from that television work, I managed to claw my way back, and I managed to pay off some of the outstanding debts, and actually managed to clear the record company's ownership of me, which is now why we have our own label. And that took some time, that did. I can honestly, truly say I really am against the "shitstem." I am the voice of independence. I truly am independent of them, and there goes PiL. That's why we make the music we do. Honest.
PiL circa now
SmBj: So was it just in the last five years or so that you've been able to become totally independent?
JL: Yes. The last three to four years. I financially got myself into a good enough position to clear up the damage done to me. And I've never used it negatively. I see it as a refresher course, really. Of course I'm upset that they tried to ruin my career. But I'm not going to be spiteful about that, because it's not about any particular person. It's just how corporations think. And they think negatively to creativity. And so there you go. Here I am, in the West, the voice of rebellion. Completely and utterly. I stand for the disenfranchised, I stand up for the individual, I stand up for freedom of thought...
It's not a new perspective, it's what I've continued throughout my life. It's something my parents instilled in me from an early age. It's something my culture instilled in me. That you don't lie to your own. You don't steal from your own. You have a sense of neighborhood, of community, of commitment to your fellow human beings. It has always been there. It is exactly the same, intense message that I've continued, relentlessly. There is only one real way to understand Public Image Ltd., and my life story, and the Pistols, and anything to do with it, and that is to listen to the records. Not the journalists' reports or reviews. They won't tell you very much at all. Even if they're for or against, you really won't grasp it until you sit down with your own problems and find out that those problems can be shared, and most definitely shared in a Public Image record, of any kind, ever. All of it. All of it deals with it. In the most honest way possible. I'm just trying to do the best I can.
SmBj: What about your live show? How does that differ from the experience of listening to the record?
JL: Even more so. It is a wonderful event, a Public Image gig. All the enemies are outside. We're there to be friends amongst each other. Bring your children, they are safe at a Public Image gig. Bring your grandmothers, your grandfathers. They are safe at a Public Image gig, and they will love it. All of us. All's we have, as a species, the human race, is each other. And no politician can replace a family member. Hello China, you are my family.
PiL live on German television, 1983
SmBj: Earlier on your music and your lyrics were more political in nature, but at this point what is the message you're trying to get across?
JL: Self-analysis. You can only lead by example. And if you lead a very good and proper life, and decent to others, then you can expect the same in return.
SmBj: I ask because in China, you can't really write anything that's explicitly political in nature, as a musician or as an artist.
JL: Apparently not. But for some weird reason, and it's wonderfully intriguing to me, [the Chinese] government has approved all of my lyrics. [Laughs.] So I must be saying something right, because that's a lot more than the West has ever done. And so for me, it's a complete thrill that we are being welcomed so openly. It's absolutely fascinating. It's going to be the most wonderful experience, I think, in my life. Because China is viewed from the West as an outsider, an unknown entity. And I am there to meet Chinese people. Not government officials. And play to Chinese people, of which some might be government officials.
SmBj: You never know...
JL: You never know! And that's all to our bigger benefit. There is only one way to solve the problems of humanity, and that is through passive resistance. An understanding and an appreciation of each other without resorting to firearms. To put it simply, it's peace or piss off.
SmBj: Are you familiar with any music coming out of China?
JL: Not much comes out of China. Not much at all. I mean, we're aware that there's a punk movement, but we don't know what that actually, physically amounts to. For us, as a band, of course we're interested in that, but we're much more interested in people who've maintained the Chinese culture, regardless of the current political situation. Bear in mind that I studied Confucius when I was young at school. All of us have. So our view of China is not politics as of the last 70 years, it's China as a completely positive influence on the entire world. For centuries.
SmBj: China must be one of the few places you haven't played yet.
JL: No, because of the barriers. But those barriers are now intriguingly falling by the wayside. Don't expect us to come there and tell you how to run your country. We're not Elton John.
SmBj: I guess you heard about that…
JL: Yes I have. I find the whole thing intriguingly disgusting. Because he's representing one side of the issues, not both at the same time. You understand? He's always approaching it from a homosexual point of view. And therefore that's too narrow and insular. I accept all races, all creeds, all political beliefs, all sexual agendas are totally fine with me. No human being is my enemy. But a political force that tells me otherwise is always going to find me a problem. And yet, the Chinese government has analyzed my lyrics, and are fully aware of how I'm coming to China, and what I stand for, and gave me a pass with flying colors. This is a good thing for China.
Would you rather have a heavy metal moron, or Johnny Lydon? [Laughs.]
"No human being is my enemy. But a political force that tells me otherwise is always going to find me a problem."
SmBj: On a more infrastructural level, how did this opportunity come about?
JL: Oh, in a very odd and bizarre way. But the offer came up, and we knew there would be challenges, but there's all manner of intrigue and development inside of China now. It's absolutely enthralling and thrilling to me. Culturally, it's such an intriguing nation. Always will be. But it's opening up now to the modern world, and what it's allowing in when you allow Public Image in is all the people that challenge the Western way of life. So before you absorb completely a Western philosophy, we're telling you, "There are problems here." That is what you're doing really, you're analyzing the problems with the West. Don't accept the West wholesale. It offers you very many bad things. But it also offers you Public Image Ltd. Which is a very good thing.
SmBj: So in a sense you're somewhat of a counter-cultural ambassador on this trip?
JL: No, no, no. It's not like that. I'm coming as a human being. I'm not coming to tell you how to live your life. I'm coming to explain how I live my life. And that we will share.
SmBj: I meant more in the sense of seeking cultural exchange, not any kind of official capacity.
JL: Yes, totally. For me, it's going to be a complete learning experience. Total. I want to get out on the street and meet real people. I don't want to meet the mayor, or the cultural ambassador, or anything like that. I want to eat in a local restaurant, with locals. I want to visit the music stores, I want to buy weird instruments. I want to do things that matter to me as a human being. And hopefully, let the people of China see that I am indeed a human being, and not just a monstrosity of pop culture.
SmBj: Do you have any specific plans? How much time will you spend in China?
JL: We are there, and it's work, work, work. There's no time off. I don't expect to be able to get any sleep at all. But that's fine. If there's anybody that wants to talk to me, I will talk to them. I make music to communicate to fellow human beings, and that is exactly what I will be doing in China. I can sleep on the plane when I leave. [Laughs.] It's the most wonderful thing to be given the opportunity to go to China and see Beijing properly, as Beijing is, rather than as American TV reports. I don't trust Western reporting. I never have.
SmBj: That said, do you have any expectations of Beijing? Anything you've heard, if not from the media, then from other people who've visited?
JL: All I know is what I've seen from Google Maps on the internet. And that's not a lot, because it's all covered in smog. [Laughs.] I mean, it's for me enthralling. I know nothing! I'm coming to you as a completely innocent baby. So treat me well! And be my friend, you know? And welcome me into your country. It's a wonderful thing that I've got the opportunity, and I won't mess it up. And please, don't mess it up for me. Don't be negative. Let's be positive. Listen, we're PiL. We're not politicians, we are PiL. We're here for the people. Not the dinners at the American Embassy. We're not going there for that. Nothing to do with that. In fact, we wouldn't be welcome in the American Embassy. So there's PiL for you. Definitely wouldn't be welcome in the English Embassy, and seeing as I carry an Irish passport, I can guarantee the Irish Embassy wouldn't want me either! [Laughs.] I'm a complete outsider. I really am outside, truly, what in the West I call the "shit-stem." I'm a voice of independence. And my people know this. There's never any trouble or animosity in this world, except what they bring into it. We are innocent and we will remain so for the rest of our lives.
Lydon in his Pistol days
SmBj: This goes back to your comment earlier about children being able to access PiL's music because of their innocence…
JL: Yes. You must bear in mind that one of the very first jobs I ever had when I was young, even though I was thrown out of school, was looking after problem children. [That was] before I became a Sex Pistol. When the schools closed, my job was between 4pm til 8pm every night, making sure they weren't left alone, and neglected, and abandoned, and roaming the streets causing trouble. My job was to occupy their minds and make them think creatively.
The Skype call actually dropped there and I couldn't get another connection. But it's as good a point to end on as any, I'd say.
PiL plays on March 30 at Yugong Yishan. Get your pre-sale tickets HERE.