“To me the Pistols were the last rock ’n’ roll band. They weren’t the beginning of anything. Whereas PiL really felt like the start of something new.” So says guitarist Keith Levene, the original guitarist of Public Image Ltd., in Simon Reynolds’ post-punk chronicle, Rip It Up And Start Again. Granted, Levene has a bias—one that John Lydon, the incendiary frontman of both bands, seems to share. After quitting the Sex Pistols, Lydon ditched the Johnny Rotten moniker and formed PiL in 1978 alongside Levene, a former member of The Clash, and bassist Jah Wobble; from there, the group released a string of abrasive, dub-propelled records that reengineered rock’s DNA and instigated the post-punk movement. By the mid-’80s, though, Lydon had replaced Levene and Wobble with a rotating cast of players that included everyone from Ginger Baker and Steve Vai to Smiths drummer Mike Joyce and Siouxsie And The Banshees guitarist John McGeoch. The resultant albums lacked the slashing experimentalism of PiL’s early output, but they embraced a melodic—and at times anthemic—sound that was totally in tune with the emerging alternative rock scene.
The constant was Lydon’s voice, a dental-drill whine that often obscured a body of clever, evocative, and even emotionally compelling lyrics. When PiL dissolved in 1992, electronica act Leftfield put that voice to use on its 1993 single “Open Up,” and Lydon himself released a 1997 solo album titled Psycho’s Path. And then his voice pretty much disappeared—that is, unless you turned on the TV, where he become a commodity on both sides of the Atlantic. In spite of his public loathing of the Sex Pistols over the years, Lydon reformed the band in 2007 (a brief reunion took place in 1996), then announced a PiL reunion last year—one that culminated in a string of well-received shows in London. With PiL alumni Lu Edmonds (formerly of The Damned) on guitar and Bruce Smith (formerly of The Slits and The Pop Group) on drums, Lydon is taking the band on its first U.S. tour in 18 years, including a slot at Coachella. Still full of piss, vinegar, and wit, Lydon recently spoke with The A.V. Club about the PiL reunion, his connection to The Spice Girls, and his calming effect on the universe.
The A.V. Club: During the years PiL was inactive, how often did you go back and listen to those albums?
John Lydon: Uh, I kind of don’t like the way you’re misappropriating my life there. I don’t go back and listen to the band’s back catalog. PiL to me is a living, creative entity. Periods of inactivity, I don’t know such things. I’m consistently writing. My life is busy. It always is. There are hardly any moments for self-indulgent laziness.
AVC: Right. But PiL hasn’t released anything in 18 years.
JL: Well, if I’m not working on one thing, I’m working on another. It’s all for the greater good, I suppose.
AVC: The PiL reunion is what you’re currently working on, though.
JL: Yes. I love my PiL. I always will.
AVC: But you’re saying you don’t ever revisit that music?
JL: I’m aware of my songs. I’m aware of them because they’re about true emotions, true feelings, things that matter. And you don’t ever forget grief or joy, do you? They’re the constant companions of a human being. If you can coin them accurately enough, they will always be there. I don’t believe in false memories, like I don’t believe in false songs.
AVC: At the same time, PiL has been considered an art band throughout its existence.
JL: Well, in many ways, that would be a compliment. But in many other ways, it wouldn’t. It depends on what you mean by the word “art.” Art as in craftily manufactured? Art as a commodity to be purchased? No.
AVC: Sure, the term can be derogatory.
JL: Yeah, but either way, it’s unexceptional. I don’t like the monikers, and I don’t like being pigeonholed. You know, I’m a human being. As time goes by, I change. Things change. But there are certain constants, and grief is one of them. It’s just one of many. You have moments of grief in life, and if you can put pen to paper and capture that, that’s something wonderful. I can revisit actual songs about past deaths, and I know that emotion is as true now as it was then.
AVC: Songs like “Death Disco”?
JL: Yes, “Death Disco” being an example. It’s a scream of pain.
AVC: What about some of the later PiL material, songs like “Seattle” or “Disappointed”? They also seem to be coming from a very personal place.
JL: They all are. All of them. They’re how I deal with the world, you know? Before I go out to correct anyone’s motivation or action, I think firstly and foremostly, I must analyze myself. And by putting that to vinyl, I’m sharing that. But it’s not an education for anyone. It’s not like I expect you all to be exactly like me, ’cause I don’t. The difference is how I improve. I think there are clearer ways of thinking, and that helps. Sometimes clutter and chaos, those can also help. Everything is a learning process, and frankly, I’m quite pleased to be alive. I hope that shows in the songs. It’s hard, I know, but grief to me can be just as valuable as anything else.
AVC: When you were figuring out what songs to play for the PiL reunion, did you hear any of them in a different way?
JL: No. Yes and no. I mean, you always tweak and fine-tune the thing, but the basic emotions are there. They never go away. They never leave you. It’s quite an accurate way, really, of describing your life. That’s what music is for me.
AVC: If PiL is a chronicle of your life, do you have a favorite period?
JL: Each album is an entire separate entity unto itself. I’m dealing with a different kind of topic, a different approach. It’s not studious on my behalf. I find it essential to deal with the subject matter properly. Some song ideas absolutely require a kind of rigid discipline, and others require absolute chaotic abandon. The form is only valid if you know how to un-form it. I don’t mean to sound like an intellectual here! [Laughs.] I’m trying to be basic with you. It’s really, really hard.
AVC: When you look at all the incarnations and sounds PiL has gone through over the years, is there any one you feel best represents you?
JL: That album has yet to be made. That’s how I view my life. I have yet to make the perfect album. It’s an ongoing quest, I suppose, but it’s not the end-all, be-all of it. Sometimes I’ll favor one particular song on a moody evening. On a happy evening, it’ll be another.
AVC: So you do listen to your own music.
JL: I generally don’t sit down and analyze something once I’ve finished it. But I do use my music to entertain myself, as indeed I use other people’s music. If I’m having an evening of joyous drunkenness, and I’m playing all the records I’ve loved over the years, I’ll occasionally slip one of my own tunes in there.
AVC: What would be your No. 1 drunken party song?
JL: It isn’t like that. I couldn’t do it like that. It’s a spur-of-the-moment thing. I’ve been asked over the years to compile a list of desert-island discs. I couldn’t do that. If I was trapped on a desert island, I don’t think I’d want 10 songs to bring with me.
AVC: You’d rather make some up while you were there?
JL: Yeah! [Laughs.] You have to. You have to adapt to your environment, otherwise you’re contaminating a pristine existence. I went to visit Alcatraz years ago when I was on tour with the Pistols, and I really liked the atmosphere of the place. I genuinely, really, thoroughly enjoyed the whole morning there. I just liked the quietness and stillness of what is basically a cruel prison complex. I still found some kind of joy in that. That’s how I am. I’m predisposed to finding the best and making the best out of whatever there is.
AVC: So instead of asking you what your desert-island discs would be, I should ask you what your Alcatraz discs would be.
JL: No! I would just adapt to the scenery. Although I can’t say I enjoyed the bouts of being in jail that I’ve had to endure from time to time. I don’t wallow in it as a self-pity thing, either. I take a note of learning from those experiences, you know? When you’re locked up, you’re really in survival mode.
AVC: How long has it been since you’ve been in jail for anything?
JL: Uh, sometimes if I’m doing house repairs, it feels very similar. [Laughs.] We just had some very bad rains here in California, so I had to go out and repair the roof. I really resented it, but I did it, and I ended up finding it enjoyable. I’ve never understood Japanese rock gardens, though, the culture of it. I was watching this really neat little program about it on TV, and they were explaining the Zen philosophy of their gardening, and I found that novel. But I still find it repulsive to see three rocks in a field of sand. I just can’t grasp how they think that’s adoring nature. There’s nothing living to look at.
AVC: A minute ago, you mentioned the perfect album you had yet to make. Is there any new PiL material in the works?
JL: The lack of record-company involvement is always a problem. It’s always a problem to finance these kinds of tours. And it’s always going to be a problem getting the money to make any kind of recordings. I mean, we live basically on a shoestring.
AVC: Does that kind of limitation fuel you at all?
JL: It does make for good art. [Laughs.] We’re back to that word again, aren’t we? If we’re lucky, though, we’ll make enough off this tour to get ourselves into a recording facility of some kind. That is the genuine purpose of the tour. Of all the people I’ve worked with in PiL, Bruce Smith and Lu Edmonds are two I really enjoy working with. They’re really peaceable chappies. We’re instinctively in tune with each other. It makes the work not so much work. And like me, they’re more than capable of handling the full range of PiL. Very few people would be.
AVC: How’s your new bass player?
JL: Scott has done incredibly well. I think that’s because he has to be, really, to exist in a band like this. On his résumé he had everything from Stevie Winwood to The Spice Girls. That thrilled me to no end.
AVC: That he played with The Spice Girls?
JL: Yes, his lack of shame about The Spice Girls really, really pleased me. [Laughs.] It just shows his dexterity and love of all things musical, to not see that as derogatory, but as beneficial. That’s exactly how I approach things. Pop music is just as valid as any other intellectual process. It all requires effort.
AVC: PiL has released a lot of singles that could definitely be called pop.
JL: I love pop music. It’s not easy to write a good pop song. It may be easier to put out a fake jazz album, as Sting does from time to time.
AVC: PiL’s early albums saw a lot of renewed interest over the past few years. Do you think the band’s later output gets its due?
JL: Oh, I don’t know. If you want to use the word “hits,” the biggest hits I’ve ever had, like “Rise,” came later. We recently did seven concerts in nine days in Britain, and I played for two and a half hours every night. It’s a pretty exhausting résumé. I wanted to throw myself into the deep end and really push my tonsils that far. That is true physical exertion. I’m somewhat fit enough now to be able to do that, although I think we’ll play slightly less during these Stateside gigs. We’ll fine-tune it, eliminate some of the more problematic songs. Some just do not work live.
AVC: Which songs have you dropped from the set?
JL: Uh, “Banging The Door” is one. “Careering” is another. The song “Flowers Of Romance” works brilliantly live, though, as does “4 Enclosed Walls.” Bruce has played in everything from The Pop Group to The Slits, and Lu started in The Damned. He’s ended up as some kind of cultural attaché to the Russian government, reintroducing traditional instruments to Siberian folk. We’re not short on brain cells in our band.
AVC: Have you kept count of how many musicians have passed through PiL?
JL: I think there’s been 39 of them.
AVC: Why so many?
JL: Well, you know, you help someone along to a certain point, and they might just decide to go off in their own direction. That’s perfectly fine. But it’s very hard for them to come back and pick up the pieces, the bits they missed out on. Sometimes they’re not actually capable of that. But it’s really down to personalities, mostly. I don’t want any volatile personalities on tour. Too often they’re off in their own universes, not really of a caring and sharing nature. I do this because I somehow hope—naïve though I may be, utopian, possibly—that my music has some kind of calming effect on the universe, that it’s somehow beneficial to people.
AVC: Beneficial how?
JL: Well, you know, people mistook the Pistols as being all about aggression. Indeed it wasn’t. It was a problem-solving band.
AVC: What problems did the Sex Pistols solve?
JL: Royalty. [Laughs.] Any problem that’s stifling and contaminating you. You have to open the attack or at least discuss it, and then it becomes not a problem. Keeping things held within, festering hate, this is all negative. The Pistols worked in many ways, just not quite as in-depth as PiL does.
AVC: When you formed PiL, what did you hope to accomplish?
JL: I wanted it to be an absolutely soul-searching kind of thing. It had a much deeper intent than the Pistols ever did. The Pistols were a much more boisterously flamboyant outfit. PiL is the deeper, darker set. It’s a broader expanse.
AVC: With all the sounds and approaches you’ve explored with PiL, what’s the unifying idea that’s run through it all?
JL: Me. [Laughs.] When I sit down to write, it’s never been, “Oh, I’m going to make this sound like this.” The music—or lack thereof, according to the personal taste of the listener—is what’s appropriate to the subject matter. One goes hand-in-glove with the other. A song like “Albatross” is about the confusion of things. It’s about the [antiwar] riots outside the American Embassy [in London] in 1968. It’s really about nothing. The song really tries to capture that, the confusion of that moment. You can’t really sum up a riot in a verse-chorus format. It’s a slow, grinding, deliberate, purposeful examination.
AVC: If you’re able to take the band into the studio after this tour, what might the result sound like?
JL: I can’t describe it until I actually do it, but I’ve been writing a lot for PiL. I’m not short of material. I’d say it’s more personal. The Pistols are more flamboyant, but I don’t need to go that way with PiL. I can analyze a problem or a situation or a burst of joy or the love of a thing, and I can go into it in a much more serious way. I don’t need 40,000 skinheads to back up any PiL song. [Laughs.] Although that can be enjoyable, too.
AVC: So you intend to remain active with both the Pistols and PiL from here on out?
JL: Yeah. I want a full life of experiences, both the yin and the yang. And in some ways I suppose that’s what the two bands are for me. One can’t exist without the other, really. And no, that doesn’t mean I’m bipolar. [Laughs.]