Public Image Ltd: The John Lydon Interview

“Who the fuck’s telling me what the rules are? Live and learn Mr Pepys, live and learn!”

LTW is written mainly by enthusiastic amateurs so when Mintsouth webzine (Music IN The SOUTH) arranged for Ged Babey, fanzine writer and fan since before his teens, to have an audience with his hero John Lydon”¦(now a pantomime villain and boorish contrarian according to some) the result was always going to be interesting”¦.

“ I don’t ”Ëœave any ”Ëœeroes. They’re all useless” – Johnny Rotten 1977

I’m only huu-maan”¦. Human PIL 2012

Namedropping again, it was Chumbawamba’s Alice Nutter who said to me (when I asked her how an fervent anarchist could also be a massive fan of Coronation Street).

“It’s the seemingly inherent contradictions that make you the unique person you are.”

(Actually what she said was “It’s the contradictions that make you YOU!” but my version sounds better.)

John Lydon contradicts himself all the time. Everything about him is a contradiction of sorts, but its part of him, its how he is, so it doesn’t really matter.

I come to praise Johnny, not bury him for he is an honourable man (Julius Ceasar) .

That first quote, about heroes, was from a TV interview, now a classic bit of punk rock footage that’s been re-played again and again. It’s brilliant. Don’t have heroes, they’ll only let you down. They’ll bring out crap records, they’ll become caricatures of themselves, they’ll end up doing adverts and living in America”¦.

A mate called Steve said recently on Facebook:

“John Lydon is totally deluded, a comic book character struggling with truth and reality.” Rather than disagree, which I did, I just said “Yeah but so am I”.

I’ve always stood up for Lydon when others have slated him, right back to when many a punk-mate declared Pil ”Ëœcrap, not as good as the Pistols’. Even when he released the awful ‘This Is Not A Love Song’, he still made for an entertaining interviewee on the odd TV show and in print. The Celebrity Jungle and the Butter ad ”“ yeah, so what, he can do what he likes, he’s still John ”“ the man that changed the way we dressed, spoke and thought about the world. His very existence justified our behaviour. We weren’t bad kids, hooligans, slobs any more we were punks”¦

Weirdly I have always prefered ”Ëœ’First Edition’ to Metal Box and even, if pushed, to Never Mind the Bollocks, its total intensity and complete originality blew me away. Simple basslines, searing screes of guitar-noise, Lydons agonised vocals, I’d heard nothing like it before and it soundtracked the year my mother died, thus securing itself a place in my psyche.

This is PIL”¦ the first album for twenty years is my soundtrack to the rain-soaked summer of 2012 ”“ my son reaching 16, the UK in terminal decline, a friend attempting suicide and my sanity being tested by life in general.

Public Image 2012, John, the Rasputin-like Lu, the Pop Groups Bruce Smith and the Spice Girls bass-player have brought out an inspirring, varied, thoroughly enjoyable album This Is Pil. Probably PiL’s strongest work since Metal Box. The gigs they’ve played have been magnificent by all accounts and in interviews Lydon has clawed back his artistic credibility.

A fan of the man, his music, his look, his ideas, his honesty and integrity for 35 years it was a huge thrill to be chosen to interview him (a phoner, he’s back in the States). I had a million questions but they didn’t form an orderly queue in my mind ”¦. I wanted to get behind the ”ËœPublic Image’ maybe to try and get a glimpse of what Lydon-the man was like. Not Johnny Rotten ”“ the myth, the icon(oclast). I was fully prepared to “blow smoke up his ass” and be a little sycophantic to get my foot-in-the-door but I do genuinely love the new LP and felt genuine shock and loss when his step-daughter (known to us as the Slits Ari-Up) died of a simillar disease to the one I had at the time. I wanted to engage with John. I wanted him to like me and thank me for being a lifelong devotee and consumer of his work (That’s an arrogant, I-pay-your-wages fan-atitude that I’m not proud of!) and I would thank him for what he has done as an inspirational artist, human being and ”Ëœentertainer’. He would probably offer to fly me over to Cali for a pint and a natter.

Back on Planet Earth, Lydon is probably bored shitless with doing promotional chores; talking to literally dozens of nervous, clueless and the odd competent journalist from every corner of the world. They’ll all go over the same old ground- ’77 Punk, Sid, the Queen, God Save, MCClaren, Wobble, Metal Box, Butter”¦.

After a half an hour on the phone with John in LA (“How much is that gonna cost us? I hope Mintsouth or John Robb are gonna pay you back remarked the Mrs) I was deflated. He was John Lydon, on form ”“ not particularly pissed off or not overly cheerful ”“ just in non-stop this-is-how-it is free-flowing not-listening, don’t-disagree-with-me mode.. Not leaving any gaps for questions ”“ and when I did ask something dismissing it and continuing where he left off. It’s rude to talk over someone but it was a one-way conversation ”“ a soliloquy almost. Quite possibly it was my fault for not sounding confident enough or matching him bluster-for bluster. It was as if Lydon doesn’t want any criticism and prying – just a yes-man. This is the impression many have of him anyway. As a dictatorial egomaniac who you have to work with and deal with on his terms.

Its not as if I’m the eNeMEy. I’m a fan(zine writer) fully prepared to give him my support, as I love his work. I wanted to know about the whole Ladbroke Grove era ”“ the Slits, New Age Steppers and Pil were loosely allied, I wanted to know why he won’t talk to Wobble face to face, I wanted to talk about his contemporaries, Mark Stewart, Nightingales, and about the Rebellion Festival which PiL headline in August; where I think he’ll divide the audience and maybe not get the reception he thinks. (It’s more of a Pistols audience than a PiL one in my opinion”¦)

Anyway, enough wittering, the new album is fantastic, one of the best of the year; veering from being playful and silly to being purposeful and profound. It’s alt-rock-mutant-disco music unlike anyone else; a natural waywardness with semi improvised lyrics by JL in a variety of voices.

The July and August 2012 dates (below) will quite possibly be the last time you’ll see Lydon and PIL on such good form.

So here it is the Ged Babey – John Lydon interview (now that’s a sentence I never thought I’d be writing ”¦)

The ringing stops and a famillar voice answers. It asks me to hang on a minute or so and instead of saying ”ËœThanks’ says ”ËœPeace’. It’s unmistakably John Lydon but somehow a bit more Kenneth Williamsy and camp than I’d expected. I wait and wait. Finally”¦

(Laughing) ”ËœUllo?

Sorry am I interrupting something

Hello, God”¦ All the crap TV you’re helping me miss. (Laughs). I’m in California right now and it’s that early morning chat show rubbish. I love it because its such a lot of nonsense How to Avoid the real world issues. This is supposed to be the greatest nation on earth but somehow art and culture are definitely missing.

Why don’t you move back to the UK?

Well I’ve spent most of the last year there, because that’s where we recorded the album and we found that it all very entertaining and good, but I’ve kinda settled here in LA. My original reason for coming here was all the police harassment I was getting and I don’t ever want to get back in that situation not ever again.

But you’re a respected elder statesman now..

Right! Is that why I’m not allowed in half the clubs in London, yes, still, to this day. There’s no way any of those pompous swine-bars would ever let me gain entry. Fantastic innit?

You must be very pleased with the new album? I love it, best thing you’ve done for a long time”¦

Cor Yeah, I read a review out here and it was typical. It said about how long it is. “Isn’t Twelve Songs too much? What do they expect of the listener? For Gods sake! You don’t have to listen to it all at once! Since when has value for money been a problem? – That’s what magazine culture has created -the short attention span.

I’ve been very nervous about speaking to you ”“ the person that changed my, and a lot of peoples lives?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Look, I’m only human.

Do you read all your press and what people say about you on the net?

Very little, it can create a disturbing agenda inside your head, which when you start reacting to things”¦The more favourable the remarks the more damage they can cause, as it can allow conceit to creep in, and I’m very wary of that.. I do take great pleasure reading the absolute spite mongers though”¦ that cottage industry is alive and kicking

I was a bit surprised to find PIL playing the Rebellion festival in Blackpool. Its more of a Pistols type audience and somehow I think you’re going to divide the audience ”“ half will love it the other half will hate you?

Hello??? But I’m John, I’m the “King of Punk”. Who the fuck’s telling me what the rules are? Live and learn Mr Pepys, live and learn. Don’t lets the wheels of industry poison you against those that done you nothing but favours in your life. . I’m John I’ve hurt no-one, I’ve stolen from no-one, I haven’t told a lie and I don’t intend to. There’s nothing wrong with me, no corruption”¦

All I’m saying is some of the Rebellion audience include a lot of punks who, now you live in America, do TV ads and so on, may well regard you as ”Ëœthe enemy’.

Well that’s rather silly of them. Besides, lets not talk about imponderables like THEM!. I don’t know if THEY actually exist. I can’t be held responsible for peoples thought processes. I’m not here to make enemies of anyone or anything, with the exception of corporate institutions and governments”¦

Are you turning into a bit of a hippy John?

Haaardly. One thing I despise about the Hippy generation is that it was fake, corrupt and a lie. It dealt with victimisation really, with its concept of free love and there wasn’t really a voice of womanhood ”¦ and along we came with the wonderful world of punk and women were on an equal playing field. We took that idea further with PiL with self-analysis being a vital part of character-development. And if there are folk out there who don’t believe in finding fault with themselves then its tough tits.for them.

Of your contemporaries I only remember you ever saying positive things about bands like the Raincoats and X-Ray Spex rather than the male counterparts.

That’s because they were all so extremely different to each other and I had nothing but love for them. And in those early days they were put through the wringer too. It was a very exciting universe and the idea was to be open-minded but punk ended up becoming something very narrow-minded indeed.

”¦and of course the Slits. I just wanted to say about Arianna

We were hugely affected by her death, A mother should never have to lose a child”¦ I don’t attend magazine award ceremonies but I went to the NME one to use it as a platform to speak about her and how much we miss her, cos no one else was even thinking about her.

Me and various friends from all over the country all loved Arianna, she was a real inspiration. I only ever met her for five minutes after a gig but she had a personality that could fill a room. If it helps tell Nora she was loved by and inspired a lot of us.

Yippee. My kind of people.

(This sounds sarcastic in print but was not meant or taken that way ”“ he was very quiet and serious at this point)

Sorry but I have to ask about the Butter ad, are you going to do any more?

Well the plain and simple message is, who else is offering any made in Britain to the British? Huh? It’s like you’re all ashamed of your own country, of your own flag. You’re all running away from anything which is generated on home turf! I tell you. When I’m in Britain I don’t want to eat Lurpak. Lurpak belongs in Lurpakland. (laughs)

I’m very careful and wary of that universe ”“having only ever worked in the music business where everyone is deceitful and narrow and its run by accountants. But I found the advertising people very honest and open. They gave me free reign, it was highly entertaining and the money enabled me to get out of quagmire and get Pil back on the road. Its expensive to re-start a band it really is.

Was the album recorded live in the studio?

It was done in a barn in the Cotswolds, not all live but very little post-production. If you record clear signals you don’t need to tamper with it. There’s no point in burying it in technology. Then miming and having forty dancers”¦

I dunno the John Lydon Dancers might be a good idea”¦

No It Would Not! I don’t want forty ballet dancers behind me in hob-nailed boots ”“ it’d be very distracting.

I’d say that the album is the perfect blend of analogue and digital, acoustics and technology and basically leave the voice alone, un-gadgetize it. The closest you can get to nature and humanity in music is the human voice.

Did you ever think about getting Adrian Sherwood to produce it?

No. We know each other too well and are off on our own different tangents.

Were you in the background in some of the early On-U records though ”“ New Age Steppers and Vivien Goldmans Private Armies EP?

We were all inter-connected and if I was, then I couldn’t be credited or it would’ve caused all sorts of contractual problems.

Leftfield for example was great fun and the major labels rejected it, as they couldn’t see any potential in it.

Timezone was pretty much the same thing really. I’d met Bambatta in New York and we both loved Parliament and the whole funk movement as well as Kraftwerk and the whole Germanic thing and all the craziness in between.

I’ve also made quite a few rave records but have had to keep me name off them. I love me dance music.

The song Fool off the new LP is a piss take isn’t it with its blues style bass line?

Certainly not! It came about in the most natural way possible. We were sitting around having a few ales, as you do and talking about the problems with domesticity one evening and the next day we recorded the song using the blues as a kind of backdrop. PIL go everywhere musically and if that gives you a giggle so be it.

Who is Reggie in the Reggie Song?

Reginald. A friend of ours you’re a-typical. Working class, Finsbury Park per-son. Who has to struggle to get by and wants to be away from the world of liars and shine like a beacon in the Garden of Eden.

We have no time for liars, we stick together”¦

There’s an old friend who I hesitate to bring up, who you don’t keep in touch with Mr Wobble.

Listen! This is so-oo long ago and I’m getting fed up with it, I’ve worked with forty-nine different musicians in Public Image since we started. Given 49 people a start in the music business. After the Pistols split I had to fight to get Virgin to accept my band of complete unknowns, they were unconvinced it would amount to anything. He was a selfish. greedy man with no conception of a lot of the PIL back catalogue. Yes he was a good friend but he was greedy.

What people don’t seem to understand is that each and every PiL album is completely different to the last and they have to be viewed that way. It’s like a jigsaw that makes up the full picture”¦
And that’s where the digi-tape ran out.

I asked him about Deeper Water a song on the new album that I felt was somehow a follow up to the Pistols Submission

Not At ALL! Though that was the one Pistols song that could have translated into a PiL format.

I told him I looked forward to seeing him in Bournemouth ”“ complete with a knotted hanky on his head – he could go for a paddle in the sea. He laughed at this, “I love all that” he said, meaning the image of old England, day-trip holidays to the beach in the Seventies. There are couple of songs with similar 70’s childhood imagery on the album.

Come back to England John. Your Country Needs You. Contrary Sod you may be, but there will never be another John Lydon.

Il’s Official website is here.

Tour Dates
Music Event One, Rochester Castle Grounds, Rochester, UK, July 28th
(tickets on sale now)
Dublin, Button Factory, Ireland, July 29th 2012
(tickets on sale now)
Bournemouth, O2 Academy, UK, July 31st 2012
(tickets on sale now)
Reading, Sub 89, UK, August 1st 2012
Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall, UK 3rd August 2012
(tickets on sale now)
Blackpool, Rebellion Festival, Empress Ballroom, Wintergardens, UK, August 4th 2012
(tickets on sale now)
Newcastle, O2 Academy, UK, August 6th 2012
(tickets on sale now)
Manchester, HMV Ritz, UK, August 7th 2012
(tickets on sale now)
Lokerse Feesten, Lokeren, Belgium, August 9th 2012
(tickets on sale now)
London, HMV Forum, UK, August 11th 2012
(tickets on sale now)
Hertfordshire, Forum, Hatfield University, UK August 12th 2012
(tickets on sale now)
Bristol, O2 Academy, UK, August 13th 2012
(tickets on sale now)
Brighton, Concorde 2, UK, August 15th 2012
Brighton, Concorde 2, UK, August 16th 2012
Beautiful Days Festival, Escot Park, Devon, UK, August 18th 2012
Summer Sundae, Leicester, De Montfort Hall and Gardens, UK, August 19th 2012
(tickets on sale now)
Thanks to Jodie at Mintsouth for arranging the interview and sharing with LTW

All words Ged Babey. More by Ged can be read here.

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Ged Babey is 56. from Southampton, has written since 1985 for Sound Info, Due South, various fanzines and websites, contributed to Record Collector magazine and was sole author of 'Punk Throwback' fanzine -the name of which was taken from an insult hurled at him by the singer with a young band he managed for a while. Ged believes that all good music and art has a connection with punk rock.


  1. I also prefer the much under-rated ‘First Edition’ to the much over-rated ‘Metal Box’. Lydon saying Wobble ‘was a selfish. greedy man’ seems like the height of hypocrisy to me. Wobble has continued to make new and interesting music since his PIL days whereas Lydon has done nothing of worth for nearly 30 years. I’ve seen both the Pistols and PIL in recent years and came away feeling cheated by Lydon at both gigs. Never again. I have no problem that he’s contradictory as we all are – he’s just so mind-crushingly dull!….

  2. I too was very surprised to hear that PiL were appearing at Rebellion, very pleased as well I should add, I’ve been a fan for too long now to abandon the old goat. I don’t think it’s PiL as a band that will divide opinion at Rebellion, I reckon it’s John himself, many people have a real problem with his celebrity escapades & those butter ads & some punters might go along just to show their disapproval. Me? well if I was forced to come down on one side or the other I’d probably say I’d rather he hadn’t done them but I can’t say that I’m bothered greatly about it. I’ll be going along to watch them, it could prove to be a bit on the edgy side. I can see it now, Johnny walking on stage only to be greeted by a barrage of individual butter portions purloined that very morning from the breakfast rooms of small hotels all over Blackpool…

  3. To all those who now berate John………….You NEVER GOT PUNK and never will, your understanding of true anarchy goes no further than the badge you wear as a fashion accessory.
    The fact that he still does things which offend YOU means he has not lost anything. Did he ever promise anything to anyone of you who were once ‘fans’ and now berate him?
    Im glad that my 82 year old uncle who hated Johnny Rotten in 77 absolutely loved him on the celebrity jungle programme and admitted he was wrong to judge him just by what the media portrayed, yes, John can move people of all generations into realising something about themselves and the world they live in. To those armchair revolutionaries who now make fun and cry ‘sellout!”………”You never listened to a word that he said, You only saw him for the clothes that he wore!”…….his longevity will outlive all of the so called anarcho-post punk hypocrites that followed in his footsteps (yes, check out Crass and their latest complaints to mediafire about pirated music).Unlike them, Lydon promised NOTHING but JUST DO IT, and so he does. may he continue getting on peoples wicks for a very long time!

  4. Have you chopped his answers here? Only I interviewed him recently as well and he never bloody shut up! Every question brought at least a five-minute response from him, and I don’t think you can get a proper sense of the man if you edit him. Also, without wishing to sound like an arse, I can’t understand why, after you’d acknowledged that he was probably sick of being asked questions about things like butter and Wobble by that point, you then proceeded to ask him them. Stock questions get stock replies, innit.

    • The only editing was when what he said was inaudible on the tape as my voice came out louder on the recording. I think the proper sense of the man comes over and point taken.


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