John Lydon is a reluctant national treasure, in fact, as he talks to us from his L.A home, it soon becomes apparent that he barely associates himself with our green and pleasant land these days.
“It’s kind of really sad for you,” he says, referring to the ‘alarming pace’ he is watching our country deteriorate. “When I first started in music in 1976, England was bad enough, but now between Thatcher, Blair and this Tory b**tard it’s a hell hole.
“It really really upsets me and nobody seems to be standing up and doing anything about it. Am I still the only voice of rebellion you have?”
It’s barely noon in tinsel town and Johnny Rotten is already grinding his axe. I tell him about the referendum to change the vote, he doubts it will be of any benefit to the general population and, while remaining detached from it, is vocal about the results of the last election.
“You got a coalition, well that was two c**ts for the price of one. I don’t understand it and I can’t grasp it – that cannot be democracy, we’re being hoodwinked.”
With the political and economic landscape bleak, 2010 was an apt time for Public Image LTD to reform after a 17-year hiatus. Parallels with the Sex Pistols formation at the time of the Three Day Week and high unemployment rates are apparent and Lydon, ever the voice of rebellion, is not without something to shout about.
But as PiL approach the second leg of their tour, kicking off at the end of the month, does Lydon think we’ll experience any cultural or musical movement come out of the unrest?
“You should do,” he says, again distancing himself from the action from his L.A home. “Music has always been the sound of and the voice of rebellion and it’s crying out for change.
“We’ve allowed record companies and really dull bands to co-opt us all into thinking the world is a very nice, bland place and it isn’t, it’s hell out there and Coldplay and Radiohead are partially responsible,” he says with a mischievous cackle.
“Bands like that can lull you into a false sense of security because their songs aren’t really about anything at all and they don’t directly challenge your perception.
“They don’t make you angry, happy, sad, they do nothing and the end result is a population that kind of listens to that backing track and does nothing. The arts, painting, clothes, music, should absolutely aggravate you at all times.
“Agitation is a very viable commodity to have, it gets the brain cells sparking and it makes people creative”.
I remind him that the youth of today, unlike in the 70s, have the internet as an outlet. Perhaps social networking and blogging have become the revolution that punk ultimately failed to be. A very nice idea, he says, but it’s not true.
“You’re not actually communicating with people,” he says. You’re communicating with people deceiving you and making you believe that they’re something more than they are. There’s no one-on-one, there’s no real meet-and-greet, so things like being able to judge a character by their eye movement and their facial expressions are all lost.
“The most important part of being a human is being able to decipher the body language of another human being and you can be on the internet as long as you like but you’re not going to be able to learn any of those natural instincts -at the same time,” he laughs, “porno on the internet is wonderful.”
Lydon goes on and as he tells me how ‘an email doesn’t replace a handwritten letter’ and how ‘a robot can never replace a secretary’ and I begin to feel less like I’m talking to the voice of a revolution and more to one of an out-of-touch generation.
When he begins talking about the internet being the root of gossip, hatred and superficiality, I get the distinct feeling my point has been missed and take the opportunity to ask him about some of that internet gossip. Will he really be forming a supergroup with Mick Jagger, Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Star to perform at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics?
“Who’s in this group?” he asks me to repeat, his howls of laughter stifling the full line-up the first time round. “Well, it’s obvious I’d be doing the singing. That’s all I have to say to that. I do quite like Ringo Star’s humour though.”
Lydon points out that he has a supergroup already, and it’s called PiL.
“We have a very special bond with our audience. There’s that sense of freeing up yourself and not feeling ashamed at letting yourself loose and dancing like a three legged donkey I suppose, but it’s all important.
“It’s almost a religious experience you’re sharing, it’s very intimate and you’re sharing those experiences with other human beings. It’s a celebration of life and that is the true essence of PiL.
We’re celebrating life, we’re not wallowing in morbid death goth rock because that’s not an alternative. I’m sorry but I don’t need to pretend to be a vampire. That’s again, being led by the system.”
Lydon’s distaste for the idea of uniformity was at the heart of PiL’s initial formation. Being part of the Sex Pistols, Lydon felt that punk very quickly became about little more than one look of the studded leather jacket and one sound. PiL, in contrast, with its ever changing line-up have been ferociously inventive with their sound and image.
“We don’t believe in the limitations of structure. It happens naturally and instinctively because the more you learn, the more you unlearn and that’s a good point of focus,” he says.
“A lot of alleged punks had a problem with me for thinking in a large broader spectrum with much more of a sense of variety, but that’s their problem because these people that back chat and bad mouth me have not done anything like I’ve done.”
Lydon believes in 2011, he is the only artist truly representing the essence of punk through his music.
“Punk is not negative and never has been and PiL is a progressive exploration of those themes. It’s a place where anything is possible. Where musical formats can be played with or thrown out of the window at will.
“We don’t have to fit a systematic idea of what punk is. Punk is freeform, it can be anything you like, so long as it’s honest and demands integrity and respect because of that.”
Lydon is the only consistent thing in Public Image LTD, a band that had seen some 49 different members.
“For me that means 49 careers launched through PiL and that can only surely be to the betterment of music, and mankind,” he says without irony.
It also means 49 pay packets to fill for Lydon, who is self-funding the band, raising money from the tour to pay for studio time to record the album, which he says will be his best to date.
Having to raise the funds for his passion explains Lydon’s incurable zest for one butter brand in particular. Amazingly however he seems genuinely proud of the Country Life ads.
“I loved the sheer anarchy of the idea and I genuinely liked the people that approached me. They gave me pretty much a free hand so we went at it like we wanted to make entertaining little short movies. It was basically experimental theatre and very very enjoyable.
“It hurt no one, people were entertained and Public Image was funded. The only thing I put in my back pocket, was a pound of butter.”
Because PiL haven’t recorded the new material yet, Lydon says the tour won’t showcase all their new material, not until he gets some copyright control.
“PiL is a band that’s been copied so often by so many that I don’t want to give them the song before it hits a record. I’m wary of that but it will happen, because it’s just the way we are.
Imitation,” says Lydon, is not a form of flattery but an expression of thievery and says the bands that have taken ‘inspiration’ from PiL are those that sound nothing like them but have learnt from their ethos of individuality.
Not only will he not be showing us the album material on the tour, Lydon can’t explain what it sounds like either.
“I couldn’t tell you what any PiL song really sounds like, other than it’s trying it’s hardest to sound exactly like the emotion it’s trying to convey. It’s a magnificent blend of literature and noise.
“Some of our songs are highly structured and others are completely unmusical and I think that’s an accolade. They all get down into the root core of how your brain functions they use tone correctly. We go beyond intellectual, we go into a world of emotion and instinct.”
The reformation of PiL came off the back of a highly emotional time for Lydon, who last year lost his stepdaughter, the year before lost his father and whose brother is in remission from throat cancer.
The list of friends he has lost too, Lydon says, is endless. Amongst them was Malcom McLaren, the former Sex Pistols manager who died 12 months ago, and with whom Lydon had an ongoing feud.
“Me and Malcom didn’t resolve things,” he admits without regret. “Why should we?” he laughs. “That’s what kept the pot boiling and that’s what made it entertaining.”
Before we say goodbye, there is just one more question I’m itching to ask the infamous anarchist. Did he watch the royal wedding? He did, and watching the Lancaster Bomber, the Spitfire and the Hurricane, for him made it worth it.
“That’s the only times my heart went a flutter,” he explains, “because it was harking back to World War II. They were bitter times but oddly enough, better times because there was a sense of unity in the population.
“England is dissipated, divided, fractured and rather stupid, a place where alcohol binging is the only real energy expended at the weekend.
“You’ve got a social system there that’s taken all the best drugs off you and they’ve left you with wine coolers. They’re just selling you cack to keep you all drunk and stupid.”
36-years on from his initiation into the music industry and the formation of the Sex Pistols, Lydon still believes music is the best form for communicating this dissatisfaction.
“You have to relate immediately to your environment and that’s what I do, that’s what the Sex Pistols is/was/will be, and that’s what Public Image most defiantly is.”
Words: Antonia Charlesworth
Listen to Public Image Limited here
PiL Northern Tour Dates
Middlesbrough Empire – June 1st
Sheffield Corporation – June 6th
Preston 53 Degrees – June 7th
Words: Antonia Charlesworth