The boy looked at Johnny

John Lydon talks to Dave Woodhall about past, present, future and not taking anything seriously, ever.

“HELLOOOO BIRRRMINGUUUMMM!!!!” The fake accent was as cliched as can be but the cackling voice behind it was unmistakable. John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, the man who launched a thousand tabloid headlines in ways that the young ‘uns nowadays can only dream of, was on the line. The next few minutes promised to be memorable.

You said recently that the upcoming tour will be a collection of pub meets. Does that means you’re turning into a pub rocker at last?

“I didn’t say that at all. It was lost in translation somehow. What I said was live performances these days have very social interaction with the band, in a friendly environment. That’s the give and take of it in a sharing of hearts and minds.

“But a pub rocker? I never was a pub rocker. I was under age. I wasn’t allowed in pubs, I wasn’t old enough to drink.”

And you would never break the law…

“Absolutely not, officer.”

Some of the places you’re playing – Dundee, Frome, Norwich, aren’t the usual sort of venues we might expect. I suppose by now you can do pretty much whatever you like.

“Not really, it all depends on availability but I want to play these intimate places because one, they’re off the beaten track and two, they shouldn’t be. It’d be easier to go out and trot through the large venues, to be indifferent and earn lots of money and not mean a thing to anybody. I’d much rather do it this way, in a kind of a folky way. Folk, playing folk music written by the folk for the folk about the folk.”

Is Public Image an ongoing thing, or is it something you now dip into every so often, as the mood takes?

“No, there was a large problem that the record labels swung on me for nearly a decade and a half and that was very hard to get through. It was called bankruptcy and until I raised enough money to get out of that hole I wasn’t able to go out and tour or anything. I ended up with a butter campaign that allowed me to offset that dent and we restarted Public Image but not only that, buy me out of them labels. I could form my own label and the independence for the last ten years they’ve shown continuity with us. The membership of the band is not a revolving door because we can guarantee a decent wage for each other.”

Does that mean there will be some new material?

“There will be. We’re planning on recording – it’s a very, very, very long tour but we’ve left enough time in there to be recording new material, which is our favourite thing to do.”

One question I’ve always wanted to ask you – when did you realise that your first band had exploded out of all proportion, and it was lot more than just about singing and the music?

“Er. Maybe I was too young to gather all of that and see what it was going to be eventually but it did seem that the audience was ten years behind the event. All the way through that was an endurance course of the first order. Some of us went mental because of it and some of us learned from it. Mentioning no names but some of us did both of those things.

“There was a lot of pressures and the thing that I would notice mostly would be the animosity and the hatred. I always felt it more because I never felt part of the band, people wouldn’t let me in that chummy friendly way.”

You’ve now had more than forty years of being absolute public property.

“It’s the only thing I know. I’ve never known anything else, I’ve done everything to get away from it but it’s given me the opportunity to be honest and to write the kind of songs that affects not only me but also a large number of people in a very personal way.”

After all that you must get pissed off with the number of times you’re asked about the royal family.

“Not half as much as they would if they were asked about me.”

You always seem to get asked your opinion on some weighty political and philosophical matters, more than any other singer or musician, yet there are others who have been far more political.

“I think I’m privileged to be asked. That’s an achievement of some kind isn’t it? It’s challenging, too. I didn’t expect life to be an easy journey and it hasn’t been. Plenty of obstacles have been put in my way but I’ve always gone my own way.”

Which leads to another obvious question. Are the Sex Pistols gone for good now?

“Oooh, that one’s dead. I had a very good conversation with Paul and we’d rather be friends than work together. I’d rather get on with ex-band members as friends than deal with all that animosity that keeps coming up.”

Do you have any affinity with punk at all now, or indeed have you had at any time since about 1978?

“This is a label that was stuck onto me by the media, and it’s all well and fine. If punk meant to stay rigidly and be trapped in a uniform going not one step further then no, I don’t want anything to do with that, but the true ideology of punk is it’s ever expanding its universe and ever trying to improve the world we live in, altering to the situation you find yourself in. You’ll find that the music has to alter to accommodate these emotions, the older you get the more you must learn to share that experience otherwise you’re a pop zombie. And there’s more than enough of them already.”

You’re playing the Rebellion festival this year, with all those uniforms.

“It’s hilarious, that place. And it’s a challenge for the audience, they won’t know whether to hate me or love me. They don’t understand the accusation of sell out. What does that mean? I haven’t sold out anything, except venues. I’ve been consistently faithful to myself, my friends, my culture, my community, and definitely the whole planet.”

You’ve always been the best at playing the media, the best wind-up merchant in the business?

“Well, being hospitalised for a year and losing my memory when I was young, then having to re-educate myself did that. I’m not one to let other people play cheeky buggers with me. I don’t believe in violence, Gandhi’s my hero, but my words very quickly became my bullets. And a great sense of humour too. I find you tell the truth better when you’re joking, you must laugh at funerals and cry at weddings.

“I feel as a human being that I’ve not done anything near good enough. Forty years, that’s an achievement but doing it another forty years will be even more of an achievement.”

Another forty years of Public Image. It’s an interesting thought.

“This is my heart and soul. It’s the best platform for telling it like it is. These are my best friends ever in any musical set up. We’ve now found consistency because we’re responsible only to ourselves, the purse strings are not handled by corporate thinking and everyone has a sense of unity. I’m not predicting infinity, if you’re running out of ideas in the workplace then you change the workplace. I’ve never been shy at taking gambles.”

Unless of course we’ve all been blown up by then.

“Woooooooooaahhh, per-lease…don’t bring politics into it….”

How about football then? Who should get the Arsenal job?

“No, for God’s sake that’s worse. How would I know? It’s my team and that’s that. Players, managers, owners come and go.

“But we’re putting out a box set this year. In it there’s a big chunk of work, a lot of unreleased material and six hours of film footage that anyone with an interest in the band will find interesting. I’m proud of that, it’s a very hard thing to put together, with licensing deals and publishing agreements. Then there’s a documentary we’re hoping to show near the venues where we’re playing live. I want people to see this and I want them to see the ex-members having their say. It’s not just all about Johnny, Johnny, Johnny, although quite frankly that’s all there is.

“I joke, of course I do. You have to be able to laugh at yourself and you have to be able to understand that arrogance is a delicious comedic tool that’s been my suit of armour for many years. That’s not really what I’m like at all and I think people who come to our gigs know that. That’s what Public Image is, I’m completely vulnerable up on that stage and I think that’s the best thing I’ve ever achieved, to open up and tell it like it is.

“Peace, and if you don’t believe in peace you can peace off.”

Public Image Ltd play the Copper Rooms, Coventry on Monday 4th June. Tickets