The erstwhile Johnny Rotten sounds off on hating Radiohead, loving Donna Summer, and having his song played for the Queen of England.
Doing an ad for butter can help a punk legend’s career.
Despite having served as lead singer and chief songwriter in two of the most influential bands of all time, John Lydon (The Artist Formerly Known as Johnny Rotten) fell off the musical radar during the past decade. Due to financial hassles with Virgin—the label that distributed most of the Sex Pistols’ product and all of Lydon’s subsequent post-punk albums with Public Image Ltd—he was reduced to appearing on British reality-TV tripe like I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! But Lydon took the money he made from appearing in a series of ads for Country Life butter in 2008 and 2009 and resuscitated PiL as a live act. Now, hitting the road in support of his first new album in 20 years (This is PiL, on his own label), the famous contrarian appears to be happier than ever. “I’m John and I never let the bastards grind me down,” he says, “no matter what insurmountable problems the record label or anybody else puts in front of me. And that’s always been the case.”
It’s tough to be modest, and even tougher to resist criticizing Radiohead.
Modesty has never been one of Lydon’s dominant personality traits, but nevertheless, PiL were pioneers in combining post-punk, dub, electronic, and dance music, a recipe that’s been reheated countless times. “An awful lot of today’s music really does owe a lot of its sequences, notes, intonations, and set patterns to PiL,” he says. “And that goes right across the board on all the dance stuff. They’re using our ideas, and sometimes not properly.” Lydon and his PiL-mates still place a premium on live performance. “It’s our philosophy that if you can’t play it live, why the hell are you bothering to record it? This isn’t like a Radiohead album, all fucking blocked up in electronic trickery. We’re real players—a perfect combination of electronica meets acoustic.”
The Olympics can be really entertaining, even if you don’t care about track and field.
During the opening of the London Olympics, a dozen dancers or so took centre stage and started pogoing to a Sex Pistols track. It turns out that Lydon gave his blessing to event planner Danny Boyle to use the music, because the director “wanted to approach the ceremony from a working-class British point of view.” Of course, this meant that some unlikely spectators witnessed the punk performance: “At the opening ceremony there was the entire Royal Family, all of them in the stadium,” Lydon recalls. “And they’re facing an enormous screen and it’s my face on it for a minute and 30 seconds, screaming ‘Pretty Vacant.’ Listen, that’s a most excellent thing. If you want to understand British culture, there it is—that juxtaposition, all in one building.”
Apparently, disco doesn’t suck.
Although punk and disco were both born in the ’70s and shared a mutual contempt for the hippie movement of the previous decade, proponents of the two genres barely tolerated each other at the time. Back in 1977, it would’ve been shocking to discover that the man who snarled “Anarchy in the U.K.” was a massive fan of Donna Summer—but that was indeed the case. “I loved her,” Lydon confesses. “I got very emotional when she died [in May of this year], because I loved her records when I was young. Those songs are powerful anthems. They affected many different walks of life. They brought couples together on the dance floor; the gay movement used them as the backbeat to get out of their doldrums. She did wonders for black music, period. She shall be missed. Rebellion doesn’t always have to come with a fist.”
Public Image Ltd play The Opera House (735 Queen St. E.) on Oct. 18. 416-466-0313, theoperahousetoronto.com.