John Lydon: Still Rotten
The Former Sex Pistols Frontman Celebrates 40 Years of Public Image Limited

By Lee Valentine Smith

Of the many bands celebrating groundbreaking anniversaries this year, the 40th anniversary of Public Image Limited may be one of the most important of the batch.

Formed in 1978 by John Lydon in the aftermath of the Sex Pistols' demolition, the group started life as a self-described anti-rock "company." Film soundtracks and video productions were among the groups' intended projects, but their main output has been ten highly-influential albums of abrasive, confrontational multi-genre music.

Pontificating by phone from the West Coast, the former Johnny Rotten was as brash and verbose as ever during a long conversation tempered with shrewd sarcasm, punk wisdom and frequent laughter.

For the anniversary, you have a full slate of activities planned. A big tour, comprehensive box set and a great documentary ["The Public Image Is Rotten"].

Yeah, well it's the 40th anniversary. It's all a bit of an overload, if you know what I mean. We didn't know how overwhelming it would all be. Unlike the Pistols, Public Image Limited has actually been making music for 40 years, so it's a different approach for us.

You've always had a different approach for PiL, famously saying on the Tomorrow show that it's not a band, it's a company.

Yeah we were cooperating with each other, rather than corporate thinking, a'right? I know I'm beginning to sound like a politician, but I knew at the time I wanted to dive into that area because I could see that corporations were taking over the world. But that line of thinking can be user-friendly, so we're not all just victims of it.

You've always taken the stance against the corporate mindset.

Well yeah! What's the point of calling yourself an anarchist when you're taking flights and you're wearing Dr. Marten's corporate shoes and designer rug sacks and staying at nice hotels? That's not anarchy, is it?

No, that's the worst kind of compliance.

Right, it's all dot org - and that's the lot that hate me. But I've never declared myself an anarchist, really. It was a song and the ideology in the song that I tear apart. It's like now with politics, a'right? Along comes this business bod and he's making them all look foolish. I've always said I don't see big business as the alternative to politicians. I think this will prove me right, sadly. You cannot run the world like a business, because a business is about selfishness. It's sad, it's confusing, but it is change. And change can lead to good things. Bad things too, but don't be despondent. Make your enemy your friend, because there's worse enemies around the corner.

You've always been an agent of change.

Well, an accidental agent. It just seems to attract that rebellious thing in me. As they used to say to me in school, you're repulsing. Little did they know!

The new documentary opens with a great quote from you, saying you're one of the few people in pop music history who just won't go away.

Well why should I? I've something that I'm good at and people respect me and expect me to be good at it. That's an unsafe safe place for me; I'm living my life on a knife edge, really. There's always compromises offered to me, or the easy way out, or the easy money. They say, how many times can you reject that? Well, ad infinitum, apparently! I've never followed the Pete Townshend concept of I hope I die before I get old. That's nonsense to me, so I call us a folk band because age doesn't come into it.

Yet you've stayed true to the real punk mindset.

That's whole point of punk from day one! Don't adhere rigidly to any system. Understand that rules are for fools. Learn them, know what they are and then completely disregard them. That way, when you achieve any kind of success at all, you're getting the full reward because you know what you just dissed.

It's served you well for all these years.

A good set of values, I have. Not morals, I always say, because morals implies a sort of religious sensibility, which I definitely do not have. That's one of the worst things you can have, it's the precursor to politics. Mass manipulation. You know, you have that period in your life where you think people will wake up? Generally speaking about 90 percent of the people are in some kind of a deep sleep. They're in a flock and they expect somebody else to do their thinking for them. Look at the trouble that leads to! It's the indifferent that really cause wars.

When you formed PiL after the Pistols, were you looking for a way to leave the Johnny Rotten persona or expand it?

Well, I never agreed with the situation that Malcom was trying to pretend existed. It was more like, let's throw all the ideas out in a shared experience, of doing things in unison. But that doesn't always work, particularly when the record labels are handling the purse strings. It damaged me there, somewhere in the middle of PiL to the point where I had to actually go outside of music to come back in and basically buy my way out of the record deals and start completely afresh. That's what we did. Our own label, our own everything. And because of that, I've finally found continuity.

And artistic freedom.

Exactly. Which is not a frightening thing at all. So there it goes. I grew up facing adversity and found a way out of that. Probably by being adversarial.

But it worked.

It worked! If you're in a trap, make the best ya can of it, but don't saw yer foot off, just to get out of it. Patience. Just out-wait them. One way or another, you'll free yourself up.

With all the newfound freedoms, does it make touring easier?

Well PiL is always on tour. It's how we make the money to be able to record. And in the middle of this tour, we're actually recording as well. We made quite a few tracks in England during a short little gap that most bands would call rest and relaxation. But not us. It's straight into the studio. It's non-stop and it's hard work. They say hard work doesn't kill ya, but it bloody well tries to, though! So it goes on and on. I like it like that. The ideas flow when we're under stress. Right now I'm working with people I respect and I know respect me, which is quite different than having to just endure.

The current line-up of PiL seems to be the most solid one yet.

Ever! Historical, really. Two albums and a new one on the way, all with the same people. Wow! It's a good position to be in, but it's not cozy. We're so open with each other it can lead to ferocious situations. But there's none of that 'I'm leaving.' None of that sort of spite is there. Everybody feels solid about their position in all of this.

No egos?

No egos. And that takes years, really, to perfect. It's not to do with musicianship, it's to do with the blend of personalities. When I pick people to work with, it's really about how they are as human beings.

You seem a bit more tolerant than in the past. Does that come with age?

It's wisdom, really. The longer you've lived, the more integrity you should be developing. I think like a fine wine, I'm maturing with age.

Public Image Limited plays Wednesday, October 10 at Variety Playhouse. Showtime is 8:30. For more information, please visit variety-playhouse.com.

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