He may be turning 60 soon, but with a new PiL album on the way, John Lydon is as irrepressible as ever, writes Andy Welch
IT’S UNLIKELY you could find a subject on which John Lydon doesn’t hold an opinion. In the first few minutes of opening his mouth today, he covers plumbing, Scottish independence, living in LA, occasional arguments with wife Nora, Clash Of Clans (his favourite iPad game), and his appearance on BBC’s Question Time back in 2012.
“I haven’t been invited back on, but I did enjoy it,” he says of his time on the panel.
“‘What kind of a set-up is this?’ I thought, and I wouldn’t saddle up with the Labour MP like I was probably supposed to. No way. You know what I mean? You don’t buy my loyalty, you have to earn it, and I always thought he was a wrong ’un.”
He was proud to have voted in the UK general election in May, but he’s rather more excited about the prospect of voting in the US, where’s he’s a citizen, in November’s presidential election, “where it really matters”.
“I haven’t given up nothing,” he says, when asked if he’s swapped his British passport for an American one. “I’ve just added another to my wad of passports. UK, Irish and US, now. I’m disliked equally in three different countries.”
Of course, Lydon isn’t disliked anywhere, really. In the UK, at least, he’s become something of a national treasure, peculiarly for someone who spent so long preaching anarchy.
He even managed to get away with those Country Life butter adverts and an appearance on I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here! in 2004, maintaining a hint of his punk credentials by calling viewers some rude words (worse than those that got Sex Pistols into all that trouble with Bill Grundy after their expletive-ridden interview on the Today programme back in 1976) and eventually storming out of the jungle.
He also has long associations with Ireland, from childhood holidays in East Cork to a stint in Mountjoy in the 1970s.
All these assorted topics aside, the thing he really wants to talk about is, of course, himself, and What The World Needs Now..., Public Image Ltd’s forthcoming 10th album.
“It ends in an ellipsis. You fill in the dots,” he says. “It’s a question more than an exclamation. It’s so typical of me.”
As you might expect, he says the new record is “excellent” and, to his mind, the best thing the band’s ever done.
Exploding in a fusion of rock, dub, reggae and jazz, after the demise of Lydon’s former band Sex Pistols, PiL, as they’re known, were perhaps the first post-rock band, and while not as well known as Sex Pistols, they might be more enjoyable to listen to.
“What PiL does is timeless,” says Lydon. “I don’t do that fashion-of-the-moment thing, I am ahead of the pack at all times, so I never fall behind. And I don’t want to sound like anybody else. That’s the key to my success.
“I gave up trying to sound like other people years ago. I knew damn well that I couldn’t mimic anybody else very well. I don’t do karaoke.”
The starting point for the album, the band’s second since reforming in 2009 after a 17-year break, was Lydon’s recent autobiography, Anger Is An Energy.
Released in 2014, it was his second book after his 1993 tome Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, about his tough upbringing as the son of Irish immigrants in London’s Finsbury Park.
While researching Anger Is An Energy, which takes its title from a line in PiL’s 1986 hit ‘Rise’, Lydon focused on his childhood again, but this time looking back on how contracting spinal meningitis as a youngster, and being hospitalised for a year, shaped his life.
“I was putting the book together, and in a bit of spare time, we said we’d do an album,” he explains. “There was a danger of it all turning into psychobabble, but talent will prevail. And thank God I do have a sense of humour about life, because that’s what got me through.
“It’s quite depressing, analysing yourself, but I was writing a book so had to, and I found answers to myself. Some of the songs accompany the book quite well. They work very well together.”
There’s a song on the album called ‘C’est La Vie’, which might give the impression Lydon is softening in his old age, or in a conciliatory mood.
“Aren’t you in for a surprise?” is his response to that, adding that some of the songs are as direct as it’s humanly possible to be.
The lyrics, meanwhile, come relatively easily to him — and “as long as I have a mouth and can formulate a sentence and express what I’m feeling, they will do, too”.
Lydon, who’ll turn 60 in January, claims not to be outspoken, and that it’s his need to comment when he sees something is wrong that’s mistaken for being attention-seeking.
“I’m not opinionated, really, but I do have opinions based on study. I’m an avid reader, I will read anything, written by anybody, on any subject. Even the internet, but that’s hard because you have to glean the truth and read between the lines and know who it is you’re reading.”
The album was recorded in a converted barn belonging to Steve Winwood in the Cotswolds. Lydon says it has only the most basic recording equipment, but the atmosphere more than makes up for it, while the nearest pub is a far enough walk away that he would rather spend his time working than boozing.
“I like to wallow in the work, like some sort of hippo.
“The main thing is, we’re a great bunch of people that really do like each other, and that helps,” he says. “I’ve worked in environments where we’ve not liked each other and that helps too, but this is a completely different side of life.
“I always thought being in a band meant animosity was the driving force, but that turns out not to be true, and it’s a great learning experience for me,” Lydon adds. “Fascinating. I truly enjoy my work.”
Public Image Ltd release their new album What The Worlds Needs Now... on September 4
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