Discover more from Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins
Johnny Rotten Signs the Autographs
John Lydon Signs The Checks As 'Chief Executioner' of Public Image Ltd.
The Sex Pistols have been trending all month because this month has been the 44th anniversary of the Sex Pistols' brief and ramshackle American tour in January, 1978. Why would the 44th garner so much attention? Already, the collective consciousness is filling with false memories. A few years ago, in an Atlanta Magazine feature called "19 Things You Didn't Know About Atlanta's Past," one of the items was accurately, "The Sex Pistols Made Their American Debut in a Piedmont Road Shopping Center." I was at the concert, at the Great Southeast Music Hall, January 5, 1978. I stayed where the band stayed, at the Peachtree Plaza Hotel, where I rode an atrium elevator with Sid Vicious and a Warner Brothers publicist. The PR man, a gentleman I had known for some time, tried to introduce us. Did he think Sid would reach out his hand and say, "Hi Wayne, nice to meet ya?" Sid could only sneer: "I hate your trousers." I said, "Why?" He said, "They're flares." I didn't know they had a name: They were slacks that were fitted at the rear and thigh and calf, and flared out at the bottom. Sort of like bell bottoms without the cultural baggage, or so I thought.
But Atlanta Magazine's assertion that "500 leather-clad, Mohawked fans lined up to see the sneering, spitting British punk band" was completely untrue. Among the 500 there were perhaps five in punk regalia, and the leather jackets were mostly worn by members of the national press there to cover the event. No, it was mostly college students, preppies, longhairs, and curiosity seekers: The circus was in town. The seven-show tour was routed for maximum confrontational impact through southern and southwest cities with low punk density: Memphis, San Antonio, Baton Rouge, Dallas, and Tulsa, followed by the spectacular self-sabotaging flameout in San Francisco (January 14). That night, the Sex Pistols were finished as a band.
But restless Johnny Rotten pressed on, using the name John Lydon with the band and brand Public Image Ltd. (PIL). In March, 1986, Lydon and I got together for an interview at Elektra Records' New York office. The occasion was the recent release of PIL's best album, called Album (or Cassette, or Compact Disc, depending on format). The record was anything but generic. Lydon put himself in the hands of the versatile Bill Laswell as bassist and producer. Laswell hired some star, and possibly startling, musicians, who recorded their tracks one by one, with Lydon finishing the vocals. The musicians included drummers Ginger Baker, from Cream, and Tony Williams, the jazz great. The guitarist was the famously non-punk shredder Steve Vai. And Ryuchi Sakamoto was on the early digital synthesizer, the Fairlight CMI (computer musical instrument). Bernie Worrell of P-Funk and Talking Heads dropped in. In other words, Album could have been a cross between a David Byrne and King Crimson album. But Lydon's unmistakeable yowls, chants, and aggressive attitude give it its grace. With some editing and deletions of redundancies, what follows is the discussion in pretty much the chronological order of the conversation. Even though Lydon is contentious--I mean, that's what he does, that's his job--it was a really enjoyable hour.
JL: I've made an outrageously good album, and I want it to be treated as such, and I want it to be heard.
WR: IT'S THE MOST ROCK AND ROLL THING YOUVE DONE UNDER THE PIL RUBRIC
JL: It's not rock and roll, though.
SOME OF IT IS.
No, rock and roll is corrupt music. Rock and roll is a corrupt musical piece of trash. Dokken is rock and roll. I'm nothing like that. Rock and roll is surely packaging. Isn't that what it's all about?
ALBUM's PACKAGING IS VERY MINIMALIST...
The whole album cover art work nonsense should be reevaluted. I find it really annoying to have lists of credits to who did what written all over the damn thing. To have pretty pictures with you all [the band] looking like a bunch of tarts. I find that too boring, too typical. All that matters to me, sure, is the content. That's all. Gosh I'm such a romantic! (laughs).
SINCE YOU DON'T ACCEPT ROCK AND ROLL TO DESCRIBE THE MUSIC...
"Music" will do quite nicely, thank you. See, I don't see any threat in my record being put next to Mantovani, Cliff Richards, or Dokken. I just like everything jumbled up. Just call it music, work out the bits you like, and the bits you don't like, I don't go along with this categorization of stuff. This stance: "I onIy listen to heavy-metal." That's just too narrow. I'm sorry, life's pretty hard, I don't need to cut out huge parts of entertainment. It's dismal enough as it is.
ALBUM INCLUDES MANY STREAMS AND STYLES. . .
It's very good isn't it? (laughs). It's the most musical I've been in some time, I wanted it to be that way, and I worked bloody hard to achieve that.
HOW DID WORKING WITH LASWELL HELP SHAPE THE SOUND?
I've worked with Bill before. He Iikes exactly the same things I like: Big drum sound. Lyrical passages. Chants. High energy dynamics, all the other things I suffer from. We got on really well together in the studio. Very well. No messing about. He'sa very good professional. So am I.
THE CREDITS OF THE MUSICIANS SEEMS LIKE THE UNITED NATIONS.
Ha ha ha! (laughs). Well! I know. It's not exactly names out of a hat, is it? It's not what you'd expect, and they're all bloody untrendy names. Ginger Baker wanted to work with me, I wanted to work with him. We've both been curious about each other. Nobody beats a drum kit to death quite like him. He's not doing all the drums. The madder tracks are Ginger. Others are Tony Williams.
HAD YOU AND BAKER EVER MET BEFORE?
I didn't think we had, but he said he remembered me. 'Sarcastic little bleeder' is the way he described me. Laswell on bass, jolly good. An African on stand up bass. A geezer called Shankar on violin, and Steve Vai on guitar.
WHAT WERE YOUR IMPRESSIONS OF GINGER BAKER?
He's not the burned-out acid casualty everbody would believe. He goes on, you tell him what you want, and he does it straightaway, no fucking about. This man knows what he's doing. One take is the general rule for everything. Drums done first, then the bass would go on, then guitar, then keyboards, then vocal.
THERES A REAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THAT AND THE WAY THE ROLLING STONES RECORDED THEIR NEW ALBUM (DIRTY WORK, ALSO 1986)
Eight, nine months. Why bother to do it in the first place? Who cares? "Harlem Shuffle." Now there something for rebellious youth. Something yeah, you can really get your teeth into that?
DO YOU THINK YOUR AUDIENCE NOW IS ''REBELLIOUS YOUTH"?
Some of them are, yeah. Not all. Theres a great deal of variety in my crowds, there should be.
PIL HAS HAD A VARIETY OF MEMBERS AT DIFFERENT TIMES . . .
It's a company that hires people. It's my company, I hire and fire people. I'm Chairman of the Board.
CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER?
Chief executioner, in certain situations. I started PIL because I thought it was the best way to work. Just keep changing things. It's much more fun. You get a great deal of variety that way. Otherwise you get sterile. I don't like these bands that keep releasing the same album over and over and over again. It gets so boring.
ALBUM IS MORE IMMEDIATELY ACCESSIBLE THAN OTHER PIL ALBUMS
I wouldn't have thought so when I was making it. Quite the opposite, I thought if anything, it was commercial suicide. I think I've done much more accessible things in the past. It's so high energy, so attack, attack, it doesnt let up for a minute. It's a very hard album to take. It does leave you breathless.
(LYDON SAID HE'S HIRED A NEW BAND TO TOUR WITH.)
They're all young, but not that young. Not hippies. Names will be announced with dates shortly. Y'all come. Bring your mom and dad. Family entertainment, Rotten style.
SPIN HAD A TENTH ANNIVERSARY OF PUNK ISSUE. ANY RUMINATIONS ABOUT THE AGING OF THAT CHILD?
Yes, they've got it all wrong haven’t they? In less than 10 years, they've managed to warp history out of all recognition.
I don't honestly see it, I don’t recognize myself in the way they put it across. I 'm sure you can read about all this in my new wonderful book, "The Truth at Last?" [This seems to be a joke.] I've been forced into it, havent I? I'm sick to death of the lies.
TELL ME ONE OR TWO THINGS YOU'D LIKE STRAIGHTENED OUT?
No, not yet. I'll sort them all out, get them all together. I'm not gonna cut my [book] sales.
SO YOU WANT THIS ARTICLE TO BE THE USUAL JUMBLE OF HALF TRUTHS AND INNUENDOS?
That's up to you. I'm sure what I want won't be considered.
NOW THAT IS NOT TRUE AT ALL.
That's what you all say.
THIS IS NOT NME HERE.
Please don't mention that rag. What an evil publication that's becomes bitter and twisted and hateful! And jealous, so resentful. They propagate that nonsense that America is Babylon and evil . . .
I HEAR YOU HAD A RUN OF GOOD LUCK IN BRITISH COURTS?
Not good luck, I had a run of justice.
FOR ROYALTIES OWED?
Yes. Royalties owed and everything owed. Forever our money's been mishandled and misappropriated. That's been cleared. It should set a precedent: managers, you can't keep ripping off the bands. It can't go on.
HOW DO YOU OCCUPY YOURSELF BETWEEN WORK PROJECTS?
I don't have a spare minutes for quite some time, ever since the court case started, the tax man is more than interested in us now.
WHAT ABOUT ROMANCE?
I've been married for a long time. [Lydon has been married to Nora Forster, a former German model, since 1979; she is now suffering from Alzheimer's.] That's my private life and must remain so. I'd have kept it a secret forever if it hadn't come out, the British being what they are, so damned nosy.
WHEN YOU WERE JOHNNY ROTTEN, DID SHE CALL HERSELF MRS. ROTTEN?
WHAT DO YOU THINK WHEN PEOPLE REFER TO YOU AS JOHN LYDON, AKA 'JOHNNY ROTTEN' OR 'THE FORMER JOHNNY ROTTEN'? THIS PERMANENT IDENTIFYING MARK.
I sign checks J. Lydon; autographs are Rotten. That's how I keep the two apart. Other than that I couldn't care less what you call me. It's irrelevant. I've been called some of the worst things known to verbalization. I've been put down, man, quite a lot. But equally bad is that I’ve been put on this ridiculous pedestal, which is equally contemptible. I dont think i deserve either.
NEITHER SAINTHOOD NOR ETERNAL DAMNATION.
No. Things like that only get in the way, to be judged by that kind of Personification.
HOW WOULD YOU LIKED TO BE PERCEIVED?
Wonderful human being. Kind? Considerate. (laughs). I'd rather it was no interest to anybody, and the work I do be all that mattered. That's commercial suicide because record companies love images. I've been working very hard at not giving you one for a long time. Which, in its own queer way, has turned out to be an image. (laughs). A very confusing one, which is fine. Let it continue to be so.
[LYDON SAID HE WAS NOT INTERESTED IN MONEY FOR THE SAKE OF MAKING MONEY] IF YOU WERE, WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE DONE?
I would've flogged that naff idea of the Sex Pistols right into the ground. But I like variety, and I like change, and I won't be limited to one particular thing, that’s all. And it's very difficult to get an audience to follow you through those phases. Also, I don't believe in fans. I think you should buy records because you either like them or you don't like them, not because you slavishly follow a particular artist's career.
Critical Conditions by Wayne Robins is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.