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Nothing rotten now about Johnny
7:00am Saturday 30th June 2012 in NewsXtra
John Lydon is back with a new Public Image Ltd album (their first since 1992), festival dates and a full UK tour. Andy Welch talks to the one-time Sex Pistol and lifetime provocateur about the band's reformation, future plans and much, much more.
By Andy Welch.
You don't go into conversation with John Lydon lightly.
Notoriously quick-witted, sharp and contrary, at least judging by his public persona, it's difficult to know what to expect from 'Johnny Rotten' beforehand.
But then what is that opinion based on? Do we still expect the punk pioneer to be as antagonistic as he was in 1976? A time when he, then the Sex Pistols singer, and bandmate Sid Vicious caused a public outcry by swearing on Bill Grundy's TV chat show.
It turns out that Lydon, now 56, is as charming a conversationalist as you could wish to meet: funny, engaging, open and interested. And he doesn't swear once.
Today, he's not feeling too well, having tried his hand at making his beloved French onion soup for the first time the night before.
"I used too much sherry," he says. "I've been on the toilet all morning. I'm like a burst sewer pipe. I won't be cooking that again in a hurry."
For all his good humour, Lydon knows all too well what some people think of him and where - or perhaps when - those opinions come from.
"It doesn't bother me at all," he says, defiantly. "I've never tried to escape any of that, either. Why would I? I'm proud as punch. What a wonderful start in life for me that was, and not one wrong step since then.
"That set me up, set me up proper, the Sex Pistols. I came out of the block screaming in the most correct way and I haven't stopped since."
If there is a price to pay for that notoriety, it's that people listening to the new music Lydon has made as part of Public Image Ltd still draw upon a depiction of the singer that's 35 years old.
"There is that, but I smile in the face of adversity," he replies. "I don't need critical acclaim because I don't do this to be patted on the back by others' opinions, or indeed stabbed in the back, as the case may be.
"The songs speak for themselves and my work ethic is 100%. Many people don't focus on that and what they are actually listening to. It's all about my past so they come in with pre-judgments.
"I don't let that bother me, though. I can't afford to take notice of what people write. It affects you too much. It's upsetting if it's spiteful and childish or makes you big-headed and conceited if there's high praise floating around, and there are two options I'd rather not be dealing with."
He'd better avoid reviews of Public Image Ltd's new album, This Is PiL, then. Almost all have been wildly positive.
It's their first album in 20 years (after 1992's uninspiring That What Is Not) and reaches the heights of the band's most widely acclaimed works, 1979's Metal Box and The Flowers Of Romance, which followed in 1981.
If you're familiar with PiL's sound, there's nothing here to shock. It's sparse post-punk, with hints of reggae and dub in places, and Lydon's unmistakable half-spoken delivery over the top.
There are stories on the album, many lyrics harking back to the singer's childhood in Finsbury Park.
"I miss those English roses. Cotton dresses skipping across the lawn. Happy faces when football was not a yawn. Playing on bombsites, all the days were long," he sings on Human, one of the album's best songs.
It's a heartening image, and given that Lydon lives in Los Angeles - "in a house paid for by those butter adverts" - for most of the year, it's perhaps understandable he occasionally longs for his homeland.
But coming from the man who, on the Sex Pistols' most famous song, God Save The Queen, sang "There is no future in England's dreaming", you could argue it's oddly jarring.
"Do people understand irony?" he asks. "When I was in the Pistols I also sang Pretty Vacant. Well I'm not pretty, and I sure ain't vacant.
"To compare the two lyrics misses the point, and I'm not telling stories on this album, I'm just referencing. I'm making it clear where I come from, from teenage angst in Finsbury Park to now. There's a continuation in everything I've done throughout these periods. I've evolved, but I'm still solid.
"I'm not nostalgic, I don't believe in looking back with rose-tinted glasses and thinking everything in the past was great. But I am practical, and can see that some things have been made worse - MP3 downloads, which aren't as good as vinyl records.
"That's not about romance and nostalgia, but reality. I apply the same logic to everything."
And does he miss the UK? "No, I don't because it's there whenever I want it. At the moment I'm in the UK every three months or so, and I'm only in LA for specific reasons, police harassment being one of them. I do miss British pubs, though."
He got to spend plenty of time in the pub when PiL were recording their album in what had previously been their rehearsal space in the Cotswolds. Lydon and bandmates Bruce Smith, Lu Edmonds and Scott Firth decided to record the album there in order to capture as near a live sound as possible. The evenings were spent in the local, chatting to regulars.
"It was absolutely thrilling," he says. "There's an odd combination of people who inhabit that part of the world: super-toff and super farm labourer. Quite a sprawl of characters. I fitted in somewhere in the middle. Not meaning to stir, not me sir, but I did love talking of class war and ethics over a pint of cider while in the pubs with the locals.
"I can still mix it, but I love all walks of life, me. I'm fascinated by humans and the experience of being alive. I want to hear everyone's story. I've been like it since I was young. I used to love going into pubs, my dad would sneak us in.
"I loved listening to adults and the way they talked, it was so exciting. That's what I love about British pubs, they're such good meeting places, where you can learn great values in life, oddly enough. There are crazy drunks, they're everywhere - half of them are in Parliament - but I love places where you can see everyone altogether.
"It's a danger that they're dying out, and that sense of differing values all communicating is what successive British governments have been trying to erode. That's where I come from, that diversity, and I don't want to see it taken away from us."
The nearest comparison he can think of in LA is the beach culture, which enables him to spend time talking to strangers, hearing their stories and absorbing what he can.
"I like passing these stories on, too. I suppose, when it comes down to it, I'm just a bit of a minstrel."
Extra time - Public image ltd :: After the break-up of Sex Pistols in 1978, Lydon spent several weeks in the Caribbean with Richard Branson, then head of Virgin Records, scouting reggae musicians to form a band.
:: He returned to London where he drafted in old friend Jah Wobble (real name John Wardle) and Keith Levene.
:: They took their name from the Muriel Spark novel The Public Image, adding the Ltd later, and released their debut First Issue in 1978.
:: Around 15 musicians have come and gone as part of the PiL line-up. Lydon remains the only constant.
:: They have, to date, released nine studio albums, with Lydon promising more in the near future.
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