From Sex Pistols to Country Life gent, John Lydon tells us why honesty is the best policy
He’s taken the road less travelled. There were no way-markers on the journey that led from being Public Enemy Number One to Butter Salesman. And, d’you know what, he doesn’t regret a single second of it.
He was the original punk rocker. He sneered and spat, creating an antichrist persona who wanted to bring Anarchy to the UK. He became one of the most influential and iconic figures of the late 20th century, not to mention one of the most hated.
And then, just when we thought it was all over, when he’d turned down an MBE, reformed the Sex Pistols for the money on their Filthy Lucre tour, when Public Image Limited (PiL) had seemed to run aground; he resurfaced. There was Rotten TV on VH1, he appeared in the jungle on ITV’s I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here, in which he called the show’s viewers – actually, we can’t repeat what he said. We can’t even use the first letter of the word, followed by asterisks. Suffice to say, he showed he still has the capacity to shock.
He advertised butter, unashamedly featuring as the voice of Country Life. He didn’t care whether people thought he’d sold out, or not. He wanted to raise enough money to record a new PiL record, which he did. And more recently, he was asked to play the role of King Herod in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar for an American tour. He said yes, then the tour was cancelled. Funny, that.
Tonight, he’s on the blower. He’s talking from his American home about a forthcoming appearance at the Adrian Boult Hall, in Birmingham, on Tuesday. He’ll be in conversation with the BBC Radio 6 Music presenter Matt Everitt. It’s one of only three theatre dates in the UK from the notoriously recalcitrant punk.
He’ll be talking about his second volume of memoir: Anger Is An Energy. It’s the follow-up to his incredible first volume of autobiography, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, which was published back in 1993. The book is remarkable, It explains why Lydon – or, in his former incarnation, Rotten – was the world’s angriest man.
Lydon describes himself as having come from ‘the dustbin’. “I could read and write at the age of four or five. My mum taught me, but after I got meningitis aged seven, I lost everything – all my memory, including who my mum and dad were. It took a long time to come back. I’d go to the library after school and just sit there and read until the place closed. Mum and dad were very good, they trusted me that I’d find my way home, even though many a time I couldn’t – I’d literally forgotten where I lived.”
That training came in handy when he joined the Sex Pistols: “Within a year or two, however, a couple of the first things I wrote – Anarchy In The UK and God Save The Queen – really hit their target. I’d like to thank the British public library system: that was my training ground, that’s where I learned to throw those verbal grenades. I wasn’t just throwing bricks through shop windows as a voice of rebellion, I was throwing words where they really mattered. Words count.”
Tonight, he’s in fine form.
He describes his autobiography as a journey back to the source – it wasn’t easy to write.
“I put a first book out there a few years back, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs. It only dealt with the Pistols onwards. I wanted to correct the rubbish that had been written about me and about the band. Nobody knew what it was I came from, apart from snippets in interviews. When the offer came in we jumped at it.
“You have to look deep inside yourself and tear the curtains away and tear the four walls down. All those natural defences you have, particularly when you have been in the public eye, they have to come down.
“You have to put your head on the chopping block. I tried to sit down and write it and that don’t work at all. My brain thinks faster than the pen can carry the words. So we turned it into a monologue. No typewriters were injured in the making of my book.”
It’s written the way Lydon speaks, which is to say: it ain’t in the Queen’s English. “There was a lot of debate with the editing department of the publishing house and I wanted it to be the way I talk, they tried to edit things out and I think in the long run they were wrong and I am right. In six months time they will take the credit for the decision. It’s the same with record companies, they work like that. but I don’t like them knocking us all down.”
He doesn’t care what people think of it. That’s not to denigrate the public; it’s simply to say that as long as he’s true to himself and maintains his integrity, he doesn’t care whether people love him or loathe him: “I have no idea what people will make of the book. I just tended to shy away from it. I’m not very interested in the public persona. I tell it as honestly as I can and hopefully that’s good enough. Anything I do won’t sound or read like anything else you’ve got nothing.”
He sets the record straight on the Pistols: “There was never any sit-down discussion of direction with the band, or Malcolm(McClaren), or anything like that. We were just shoved into a room, and bang, crash, wallop.”
He is unrepentant about the Country Life ads. In Anger Is An Energy, he writes: “That’s when the advert for Country Life butter came along, for British TV. I understood all the pitfalls in it, and hummed and ahhed about taking it on – it just seemed so nutty. It was a case of, ‘What? They’re prepared to put their faith in me to help sell their butter?’ From the first meeting, the respect coming from the ad company, and from Country Life themselves, was almost overwhelming.
“They were taking a real risk with me, and were going to give me pretty much a free hand to be myself, without much tedious scripting. They were really upright and correct and professional with me, unlike anything I’d experienced from a record label. There was no dishonesty, or bribing you, or forcing you into situations you didn’t like. No trickery in the contract wording. So refreshing. Then I began to see it from their point of view, and saw the fun in it. It began to seem so perfect, so utterly, mindblowingly right – the most anarchistic thing I’ve ever been presented with – a butter campaign! Wow, what a challenge!”
The fact he took the Country Life shilling, however, shouldn’t lead us to confuse him for being a ‘sell-out’ or ‘bread-head’.
“There’s always been opportunities to make great money and I’ve shied away from it because you have to give up your artistic freedom and I’m not prepared to do that. I’ve only got one life to live and I won’t try to emulate another person. I was born to do this and I’m going to do it properly. Too few people in music want to do that.”
He pokes barbs at the X Factor generation; the kids who are in it for the fame and celebrity, rather than because they’ve got something to say.
“I don’t need no accolades or medals. That’s how it should be. When I buy books, I want them to be honest, the same with music. I don’t want to be force-fed nonsense. People are welcome to buy it and there are more than enough people and companies offering to sell it them. There’s plenty of it out there.”
But The Pistols, PiL and Anger Is An Energy have never fallen into that category. Excoriatingly honest and fiercesomely direct; Lydon’s voice remains one of the most important of all.
- John Lydon appears at Adrian Boult Hall on Tuesday and tickets, priced £22.50, are available at www.thsh.co.uk.
- His book, Anger Is An Energy, is published by Simon and Schuster and available, priced £20, from October 20.