Tim Stegall is a music writer and singer from Austin based punk band The Hormones. He has interviewed John Lydon several times and gets closer to the punk icon than most interviews. Photo by Melanie Smith.
Letter From America
By Tim Stegall
John Lydon: “I was half-expected to be rude and blatantly stupid, which are two things I don’t think I am.”
John Lydon and I spoke by phone 20 September, 2018. He was doing a round of press for the just-released PiL documentary and box set, both entitled The Public Image Is Rotten. A week after this conversation, Lydon was photographed wearing a “Make America Great Again” campaign t-shirt for Donald Trump – not the first time he indicated support for the US’ reality TV star President*. It’s worth noting his disclaimer to Newsweek two weeks before our chat that he was not a Trump fan, but not a Trump hater either. It also pays to remember the man has been a champion windup artist since he was Johnny Rotten, and contrary to the bone. This marked my 4th interview with him over the years. You will note he is more open here than he is in most interviews. I will take the man’s disavowal of all politicians and keen interest in Texas darkhorse Congressional candidate Beto O’Rourke herein to be closer to his true views. Portions of this appeared on The Austin Chronicle website.
John Lydon: ‘Allo! Fancy meeting you ‘ere! [laughs]
Tim Stegall: Good to see you again. This is our fourth time. Last time was 2 hours before the producers of that “Jesus Christ Superstar” revival you’d been cast for announced they’d pulled out.
JL: Wow! Wow! What a spectacular meltdown! [laughs]
TS: Yeah, we were having a great time. It was a spectacular interview. I was looking forward to running it. Then two hours later? Bam! Got the word they’d pulled the plug.
JL: Yes, more or less the same time as me. I mean, really unprofessional. What are these assholes doing?
TS: Yeah, that was certainly amateur hour….
JL: A lot of people got hurt that way, financially, including meself. These stick-in-the-mud/nose-in-the-air diehard types, they all behave like that.
TS: Well, it’s great to talk to you again. How are you doing?
JL: Alive and kicking. [laughs] It’s quite amazing, because so many things have piled on us this year. I may have taken the words “40th anniversary celebration” a little too seriously! [laughs]
TS: You’re entitled. I mean, honestly – did you believe that 40 years later, you’d still be fronting Public Image Ltd.?
JL: No! No! I mean, that shows that the endeavor is something that I truly believe in. I’m consistent with things that I know are right, and will continue to do so. It’s the greatest band in the world, right now. It’s with real friends, and we stand by each other, which is phenomenal for a band, really. Especially after this length of time. Although they are not all the originals, but I am, and that’s all that matters. [laughs]
TS: It became apparent – and I have made this joke before – after you fired the original board of directors from your corporation –
JL: – Ah, yes! [laughs]
TS: – that what matters is the Chairman of the Board and CEO is up front.
JL: Hmmm. Well, I put it together. It was my efforts, my own endeavors. It’s not the fault of any one member that they had to drift off. Record labels, as I’ve said time and time again, really made life hard. When indifferent strangers are controlling the purse strings, it makes it really hard to break that…well, it’s a ball and chain! And exciting new talentless members really can’t be bothered with that. They drift off to parts anew too quickly because the temptations are there, you see. To get down and hunker in is what I think is a typically British attitude. But it’s sadly lacking in lots of them. [laughs]
TS: To detour briefly to your former band, the Sex Pistols: I am surprised that in that brief moment that you had reformed the band, that you were not interested in doing new material.
JL: No, absolutely not. I’d moved on from that period in my life, and as a band, they belonged in memory, not anything new. And I knew that going into it, that this was going to be my attitude. Because it was the same kind of arguments that we’d have all over again! It just felt useless. It was good that we came together again as friends, but that dissipated very quickly. All the animosities from the old times we there, so why waste a good song on that? When I have people who can really get to grips with the ideas that I have. It’s six of one, half a dozen of the other. But they’re still mates to me. I’ve got to say the drummer [Paul Cook] is a very good friend. Now that we’re not working together, we get along really well! And I’d trade that any day of the week.
TS: Do you think you’d work with Cookie in some other context in the future?
JL: I don’t need to! I’ve got PiL’s drummer [Bruce Smith]. Why would I do that? It would be rude.
TS: I understand that. I just wondered if that’s a possibility for something in the future?
JL: Well, that’s what it is, and I don’t know what the future holds. None of us do. Fortunately, or we wouldn’t have one. We would just be filling in the advance diary.
TS: It is a little hard to plan things like that. You can plan a tour….
JL: Yes. But it was important, as Sex Pistols, that we end it properly, our way. And not according to the whims of bad management. We made it clear that we were the independent and true force, and not the shenanigans that were wrapping around us. Unfortunately, some of the managerial moves led to a cottage industry based on lies. That kinda just kept on propagating. It made the whole thing very ugly. I thought we’d removed a lot of the ugliness. But it’s still there – lots of preposterous fake claims to the ownership of this, that, and the other. It’s damned ludicrous.
TS: You brought up your previous mismanager [Malcolm McLaren]. You’ve been working with your friend John “Rambo” Stevens for some time now.
JL: Oh, yeah. Better friends you’ve known a long, long time than strangers and all the alleged “expert managers” that are out there. I find them all a bit dodgy, a bit fake, and a bit preposterous. In some weird way, they are cowtowing to the form. I suppose it’s the same with all these politicians at the moment. They’re all doing predictably the most awful thing you can think of. So, why go with that? You need fresh blood in everything, in all areas, in order for it to improve. And improve it did, because Mr. Rambo took to it like a duck to water. So, all these rules are for fools – next! [chuckles]
TS: Perhaps he’s perfect for you because he is not a typical music business type?
JL: That’s right. Yes, yes, yes! There wasn’t any entrapment. He wasn’t networked to death before he began.
TS: That’s the very problem with politics: These characters aren’t human – they’re politicians! So no wonder we have problems with them!
JL: [laughs] Oh, yes! I despise all of them. I can’t find any good in any of them now. More so than ever. Now when we need them to start coming forth with very good ideas, we finally don’t have any! If a bird needs two wings to fly, which it does – the left one and the right one – well, hello! Someone’s clipped the feathers here! There’s just a fat turkey in the middle! [laughs]
TS: Y’know, here in Texas, there’s an ex-punk musician named Beto O’Rourke running against Ted Cruz right now.
JL: [enthusiastically] Is he?! Wow!! Wow!!
TS: He’s very much running his campaign as if it were an indie punk van tour! He is refusing to take money from PACs!
JL: Yep! A better kind of feather!
TS: Yes! You should take a look at this guy sometime – it’s really impressive what he’s doing!
JL: Oh, wow! Alright! O’Rourke – yes, I will keep him in mind! They don’t bother mentioning these things on any of the alleged news programs, do they? But they do love to show pictures of Teddy! [chuckles]
TS: First time I laid eyes on Ted Cruz, I thought, “Oh, my! It’s Mr. Haney from the ‘Green Acres’ TV series!”
JL: [laughing hysterically] Now I’m trying to remember that one! I remember it being very annoying! It had one of the Gabors, didn’t it?
TS: Yes, Eva.
JL: [chuckles] There ya go. Not the mouthier one.
TS: You’ve got this wonderful documentary out, The Public Image Is Rotten. I’m impressed. I loved how at the beginning, there’s this clip of 21-year-old Johnny Rotten telling an interviewer, [affects Johnny Rotten voice]”I don’t give a shit wot you fink!” Then it cuts to you now, laughing and talking about what hard work it was playing Johnny Rotten!
JL: [laughs] In them early days, I was half-expected to be rude and blatantly stupid, which are two things I don’t think I am. If I feel like I’m being battered down or badgered, well then I’ll let rip in any way I feel necessary. I think what I have to say is poignant and important. I won’t have that reduced to the “rantings and ravings,” which is the phrase they use for me. I won’t adhere to that – I have to change that. I have to shape-shift that back to reality. That’s kinda boring, because after 40 years, I still have to do it. There’s still people out there that will just go along with the flow. Unfortunately for me, the flow is coming out of a sewer. I’ve got really good fishing waders, so I won’t get too soiled or weighed down by this constant delving into my past without really understanding what we did then. I did excellent work, I think. That was my first rung on the ladder, the Sex Pistols, so I absolutely wanted it to be done right. I can write, and I never found an outlet for writing. I knew when it combined with Steve [Jones, Sex Pistols guitarist] and everyone else learning, and me learning, it came into that amazing landscape, that tapestry that just hit it right on the head accurately for the time. And you can’t go back and repeat that, because you’d be faking it. That’s why no new songs – it happened au naturale.
TS: Well, yeah. You have to take whatever you have learned and grow with it, in any artistic endeavor.
JL: And I’ve done that. I’ve not moved away, but I’ve gone forward. Unfortunately, a lot of the punk movement was incapable of understanding we had to go forward, or all of this would very quickly become a cliche. And horribly so, when I look at Green Day. Yes, they’re younger people, but what are they representing, really? They’re trying to repeat a previous lifestyle that they don’t belong to. They’re not showing me what it is to be them. Until they do that, I’ll show a negative interest in them.
TS: What did you think of Manic Street Preachers when they first came along.
JL: Oh, very excellent.
TS: I’m glad to hear that.
JL: Yeah, all those bands. They all had different approaches – an honest approach, as I would call it. If it’s horrible to listen to, it’s still listenable to me. Because it’s from the heart, and I can hear that and feel that in the music and the words. When I don’t hear that, then I have to be quite honest and wonder why they’re wasting our time.
TS: I loved the fact that they were combining what bands like the Pistols and The Clash did with earlier glam rock roots. They literally looked like Johnny Thunders joining The Clash.
JL: Yeah, but that’s exactly what they grew up with. See? And that’s their landscape on which they planted their flowers.
TS: Yes – the flowers in the dustbin!
JL: [laughs at the “God Save The Queen” quote] Yes! And to me, that’s an enjoyable thing to see.
TS: There was a lot of joy in what they did. I was actually the first American journalist to interview Richey as they recorded the first album. He was the most passionate, erudite, intelligent musician I had talked to, up to that point.
JL: There ya go, see? Now you understand why I like it. That’s the kind of things that appeal to me. All those words, when they’re used accurately, really summarize my interest in music.
TS: I loved the first Public Image Ltd. single, the song “Public Image.” I could see you saying, “Let’s take the basic Sex Pistols sound and build on it, then destroy it immediately afterwards.”
JL: [laughs] Nice idea, but no! It happened by accident. I booked the rehearsal studio. We got it cheap. We set things up, and we all glared at each other from different corners, not quite knowing what to do. Everybody was just trying out their loose bits and ideas, and we just kinda fell accidentally into “Public Image.” That was the very first thing we rehearsed. That’s how we began, based on that song. It just fell together wonderfully, and I didn’t have to strive too diligently for a new voice. I found the music gave me that voice, warts and all. We were on a learning curve, but that’s where I love it at its best. It doesn’t always work. But when it does? By God, you know. Because the hairs on the back of your head stand up, and you say, “There’s something dead right! It belongs here! Nature intended this.”
TS: Absolutely. And I will say, as much as I love a lot of what you have done since then, that first single will always be my favorite. There’s something really special about that.
JL: Yeah. It’s just a really odd way to approach pop music. But it was our odd, because we didn’t know any better! [laughs] And we didn’t need to. It’s why I say the essence of PiL is pop music, because it’s the most direct. You don’t need to overelaborate on the words. You just keep it short, sharp, succinct and to-the-point, and there it is. Let the audience unravel it deeper. Which they will or won’t, according to their personal whims. But keep everything almost underplayed, rather than over, and you create far more information. That’s why I love pop music.
TS: It set out the stall in so many ways. You had Jah Wobble over there with his immense dub reggae bass sound –
JL: HE says it’s dub reggae! But if you really listen to it, it isn’t! [laughs] I know, he’s gone on about that ever since. But that’s really not where he was at, at all!
TS: Then you had Keith Levine with that huge, ringing guitar sound. Every post-punk guitarist ran with that. The Edge certainly built a career on it!
JL: We knew when we discussed it that we weren’t going to have no lead guitar solos in this outfit. It wasn’t going to be like that, so he naturally tried rhythm guitar. Keith had some experience roadying for – I think it was Wishbone Ash. And Yes. He did several of them bands, just a little work here and there. But he did it enough to get the idea that it didn’t have to be a thousand thunderous notes and crotch rock.
TS: You can just about hear on those records Keith thinking, “No 12 bars, no wanky guitar solos….”
JL: None of that. In fact, it was deliberately the opposite. Then you had a drummer like [Jim] Walker, who had this hard, just slightly out-of-time high-hat thing going one way or the other. It absolutely transfixed me. It was just wonderful, this beautiful bedrock of music between the three of them. Sad that couldn’t continue, but there were problems in the band. Wobble and the drummer were feuding, and I didn’t know about it until too late. The feud continued, and it lost us a drummer and eventually it lost us the bass player.
[laughs] Can I give you a laugh? We played the Isle Of Wight as the Pistols, when we reunified for that tour. I wanted to do a country and western version of “Pretty Vacant!” [affects redneck accent] “Don’t ask us not a thing ‘cuz we’re not all there/Don’t pretend, ‘cuz ah don’t care!” And the fucking band let me down! They would go along with that! I wanted to start the set with that! I knew the audience wouldn’t go along with that, but hello!
It wouldn’t have been disrespectful at all, but it’s why I can’t write new stuff with the Pistols. It’s important that you understand that they don’t get the bigger issue in anything! Everything is surface level with them, and that bloody annoys me. It would have been a parody of sorts, but it would have been most excellent. Because I always say you can transfer any song into any genre you like, if it’s good enough. You’ll see it will fit.
TS: Did you ever hear a band that came out of Nashville in the Eighties called Jason And The Scorchers?
TS: They took your same idea, but in the opposite direction – they played Hank Williams songs as if they were the Sex Pistols!
JL: Yes! Fantastic! Why not? Hank Williams and Johnny Cash are firmly embedded in my musical history. I see those kinda people as absolutely stand-up rebels, and part of the detail that goes into the making of someone like me. I listened to their stuff when I was very young. And I got to say I absolutely melt when I hear Dolly [Parton]. The tones in her voice! Oh, my God! I wish she’d sing pure country and not the pop stuff! Wow! Wow! There’s heart and soul that tears into the Paddy in me, the Irishness.
TS: She’s got an incredible voice, she knows how to use it, and she’s a great songwriter.
JL: Yeah! So why would I be a fool and not listen to and absorb all of that? This the trouble with categories. I think it was Caroline Coon who called us punks, and called me “King Of The Punks.” I actually didn’t know what that term meant. But it caught on. It shouldn’t have, because it limited the potential in everybody for the future. Too many just wanted to hide under that umbrella and stay there. The world is far more expansive, and I wanted MUCH more of it, in my mind. Not just a narrow little road – I wanted an eight lane freeway, please.
If I mention “Yee-haw,” that means country and rap – that means Crap! [laughs] That line got Chris Isaac. We were both on a pop show, and he couldn’t believe I said it! He almost fell out of the chair laughing. Now we’re friendly when we run into each other. I like him. By the way, he’s one of my favorite singers, too – him and Roy Orbison. And Horace Andy, the reggae singer.
Please mention the box set we went to great efforts to release. It’s a very, very stunning and interesting combination of things. There’s three hours of footage on that. I don’t think many people have seen that. There’s also unreleased songs. It’s a very interesting slice of PiL life.
Next time: Texas’ punk rock politician, Beto O’Rourke. Soundtrack for this column: RPM’s All The Young Droogs junkshop glam box set, since I have review of the triple-CD treat due at Ugly Things later today – more fun than a fistful of vintage K-Tel compilations! Cheers!
Tim Stegall has been writing about punk and other loud, aggressive rock ‘n’ roll music since 1985, mostly for The Austin Chronicle. He has also led old school punk outfit The Hormones just as long. He is currently writing a novel and a history of Austin, TX’s punk scene. The Hormones’ first new studio recordings since the ’90s, Sing!, will be out late this spring on Australia’s Dirtyflair Records, who issued the band’s Legendary Junk anthology in 2017.