Former Sex Pistol, punk icon, and butter salesman John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) has a new record. Titled This Is PiL, it’s the first studio album from Lydon’s seminal post-punk outfit, Public Image Ltd., in 20 years. During the intervening two decades, Lydon released a solo record (1997’s Psycho’s Path), appeared on Judge Judy to settle a dispute with former touring drummer Robert Williams, been the star of a short-lived VH1 commentary program (Rotten TV), and drew flak for performing in Tel Aviv with the reformed PiL in 2010, while other artists were holding fast on an Israeli boycott. He’s as controversial and combative as ever, which in a way proves refreshing for someone who practically minted the archetype of the sneering British punk wagging a middle finger at government, religion, and anything else daft enough to cross his path. The A.V. Club called Lydon in Los Angeles (where he currently lives) to talk about This Is PiL, the re-release of Sex Pistols’ “God Save The Queen” single, the time he assaulted a Goofy at Disneyland, and what a “PiL zone” is.
The A.V. Club: The new record opens with the title track, “This is PiL.” In it, you say, “You’re now entering a PiL zone.” Is this meant to be a warning?
John Lydon: It’s not a warning at all. A PiL zone is a very friendly area. Live crowds understand it completely. A PiL audience is a varied audience—all ages, colors, creeds. It’s a good place to be, the PiL zone. So it’s not a warning at all. It’s more, “Welcome home, fellas and girls!”
AVC: So it’s more of a welcome back to the PiL zone, after 20 years?
JL: Well, we’ve been touring for almost two years, solidly. It’s a “thank you” to the fans who have attended the gigs for the past two years. We’ve toured all over Europe, continuously. That’s how we got the money to record.
AVC: It’s been two decades since you last put out a PiL album. Was the chemistry on these recent tours just that good? Or was there something in particular you wanted to put across to the PiL audience on a record?
JL: I wanted to express respect and honesty toward my fellow human beings. In other words, a continuation… With Bruce [Smith] and Lu [Edmonds], who I’ve known for 30 years and brought back in to work with me, it’s been the smartest move ever. I feel it’s the best thing I’ve ever done. And with the new bass player, Scott [Firth], it’s like he’s always been here, like he’s always belonged.
It’s a great feeling of home. I can trust what they tell me. They know they can trust me. There are no lies going on. No greed, no avaricious behavior. It’s just a really good bond, a trust, and enjoyment of what we got up to musically, which is to break outside of the ever-restricting walls of the music system.
AVC: How do you feel about those walls? When you were releasing PiL albums 20, 25 years ago, things were restrictive, but do you find it more so now?
JL: Well, we broke a lot of new ground. And created a lot of new soundscapes for people to copy and imitate and fit into. The entire time, the record company was putting me further and further into debt, to the point where I could no longer function. So for the last 20 years, I’ve had to stand back and wait for the contracts to expire, before I could continue. I had to find the finances to start up PiL again. Luckily, that came in the form of a butter campaign in Britain, where I promoted British butter for British people. With that, we could start rehearsals. After rehearsals, we started touring, and with the money from the tour, we set up our own label. We found that really, nobody wanted us.
AVC: You caught a bit of flak for those Country Life Butter commercials. Was the idea when you signed on always that the money would go back into PiL?
JL: Yes, it was. I did it for no personal gain. I did it to get PiL back on the road again. Bear in mind the record labels told me they couldn’t promote me and that I was unsellable because of the music I made. Somehow, when I did the butter campaign, sales rose by 87 percent! And if I can sell butter, I can certainly sell music! [Laughs.] That irony finally brought to an end the binding restrictions of record contracts. They just had to let me go, and that was that.
AVC: Was the only solution to form your own label?
JL: First we shopped around. It was the same kind of shock and horror. We even took this to EMI, just to see what they would think of it. We’re still waiting for a proper response! [Laughs.] It’s laughable! For me, this is a damn fine piece of music. I’m sorry this doesn’t sell like everybody else. But then PiL is never going to do that, is it?
AVC: No, you never have. Why start now?
JL: Exactly. I never take two steps backward.
AVC: This Is PiL is being released the same day as the “God Save The Queen” re-release. Is that intentional?
JL: Isn’t that a horrible coincidence? What does Universal Records think they’re doing by that, you know? We had our date penciled in last year!
AVC: Well it’s supposed to be timed with the—
JL: No, no, listen: what Universal has done is—and they haven’t had any conversation with us—they’ve put me in direct competition with myself! Only a major label would come up that. But, hello! It’s all me!
AVC: You win either way.
JL: Not really. I wish people were allowed access to a PiL album now without being contaminated by all that other stuff. I mean, I like people to know where I come from, but the newer stuff is more important, and certainly more relevant.
AVC: There’s a big movement in the UK to get the “God Save The Queen” re-release to the top of the charts, as a way of protesting the queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
JL: Yes, and that’s against any philosophy [Sex Pistols] ever had. We never did anything for a chart position. And so that alone is making me insane! Don’t they realize they’re making themselves look sillier and sillier?
AVC: Nobody really seems as mobilized against the monarchy as they were 30 or 35 years ago anymore, either.
JL: Nobody was then, mate! It was just me! All I was expressing was an alternative viewpoint, which is what I’ve been doing constantly. And it certainly doesn’t need any record-company nonsense, like what they’re doing now. It really seems stupid! I mean, the album was called Never Mind The Bollocks, but they just cut the bollocks off it!
AVC: It all seems very anti-punk.
JL: [The label] should just be proud of the music it signed. Let the record do the talking for itself. You don’t need gimmickry. The Sex Pistols weren’t a gimmick! So let’s move away from that, shall we? ’Cause this is PiL.
AVC: Right. We’re in the PiL zone. Another song that stands out on This Is PiL is “Lollipop Opera.” Is this a modern example of the flowing, stream-of-consciousness lyricism that’s always been part of PiL?
JL: There are a lot of elements. We had lots of influences in our early lives, and the song is a joyous romp and celebration of that. No matter how many times you listen to that song, you’ll never figure it out. Because you’re not supposed to! Just be happy. Stop analyzing it. Turn that part of your industrious brain off, and just go with the flow, because you’re now entering a PiL zone!
AVC: Everything gets back to the PiL zone!
JL: Why not?
AVC: But it’s one of those phrases, “lollipop opera,” like “cellar doors,” that just seems fun to say.
JL: It’s also a reference to, what’s her name? The Jamaican… it’s a record, actually, that Chris Blackwell produced, who started the Island label? Anyway, the song was called “My Boy Lollipop,” and I remember it quite well from the ’60s. It was like a reggae thing. See? I have good memories of all these things. I fondly refer to them.
AVC: You say on this album, “we are teenagers.” That seems to be the place where we establish our taste in music and other things.
JL: Yes, and we all want the same things. “We are the ageless.” We’re all the same. The revolution will not be censored or stopped. And the worst thing anyone can say to me is “act your age.” That should make your blood boil. The word “act” alone is infuriating.
AVC: Right, it suggests that you’re just pretending in the first place.
JL: Sorry. I’m not going to grow old and miserable, whatever that means.
AVC: At the risk of making you miserable, how did you feel when you found out Jah Wobble and Keith Levene were playing the PiL album Metal Box live without you?
JL: Well, that was very sad and disappointing to me. I knew these people as my friends. I had talked to Wobble, and everything seemed fine. There was a campaign to re-release Metal Box, and he had hooked himself onto that. What he didn’t understand is that PiL is a bigger picture than just one album. He turned us down [for the reunion] because he demanded a ridiculous wage packet. He really acted like a superstar, which is annoying, because I launched his career for him. For me, that’s like a baby turning bad. It’s very upsetting. I’ll always love him as a friend, but he’s being very silly.
Performing Metal Box as a dub album is really missing the point. It says he never fully understood the band. And the reason we got rid of him in the first place was because of his bad behavior. There are some tales to be told about that boy, but I’ve been decent enough to keep them quiet over the years. I don’t believe in being vindictive. But he’s putting some real childish filth out there. And if he’s not careful, he’s going to get hurt. So let’s move on from that! Because you’re now entering a PiL zone!
AVC: So you’re getting along better with the guys in the current lineup?
JL: Yeah, ’cause it’s none of that nonsense, none of that wicked selfishness, going on. We all know we’re in this stuff equally. There’s no tomfoolery of a bass player who thinks of himself self-importantly. You’ve got to bear in mind that that boy [Jah Wobble] was really learning how play in PiL. The record company was furious that I brought him in! He’s not showing the slightest respect. He’s not allowed to use the name Public Image Ltd. because he’s not a member anymore. I don’t understand it, and I’m very, very, upset with him. One of these days he’ll have to realize this.
AVC: Let’s talk about how PiL has shaped music over the past 20 or 30 years. You were one of the first pop, or punk, or post-punk, bands to introduce dub—
JL: Ah, no.
AVC: That’s not correct?
JL: No, it was part of the musical landscape. Dub is a studio technique, and PiL has never been one for big production trickery. We’re beyond that. That’s when you’re really not too sure of the song you wrote, so you go back to the original and remaster it, and therefore you’re dubbing it. That’s not really what we do.
AVC: Well, “dub” in the sense of being influenced by the dub style of reggae of the ’60s, especially with the basslines and rhythm section.
JL: These are all natural landscapes for me. I was brought up with that music. Everything from Greek folk music and Turkish folk music; this is the continual background of music that was played in Finsbury Park, where I grew up. I’ll listen to anything that’s ever been made. I applaud the effort it takes to put a record together.
AVC: Was putting this record together an easier process on your own label?
JL: We tried to get it to sound as live as possible. If we could record songs we completely loved, then we did, and some of them reflect that. I think “Deeper Water” was recorded all in one take: vocal, instrumental, all at once. And we love it for that. That’s how you achieve that wonderful atmosphere, which is much better than any studio trickery.
AVC: Going through the PiL back catalog, the albums seem to progress from being more abstract and experimental to a bit more pop-focused. Did you feel you had to pick up anywhere on this progression with the new record?
JL: All of these elements are running continuously. You will never understand PiL until all of the pieces of this jigsaw fit together. It’s an ongoing experiment. We’ve tried to be honest and open and to enjoy all aspects of music, to follow no rulebook. And to have a true set of values about why we’re doing this. More than anything, clearly, not looking at a No. 1 chart position. I wouldn’t know what to do with that!
AVC: You did have a pretty big hit in the mid-’80s, with “Rise,” though.
JL: Well this is the thing: By being so out-there, we’ve actually managed to have quite a few hits.
AVC: What do you attribute this to, the idea that PiL seems to appeal to everybody?
JL: Well, pop music is a great thing. It’s something PiL has never thrown aside; we love it very much. We don’t do the verse-chorus format, but we still fit, loosely, in the genre of pop. Pop is a message that comes across in a seemingly simple way, but really requires a lot of work. We enjoy the intellectual skill that goes into putting that together.
AVC: Are there plans for future PiL albums, or is it too early to say?
JL: Oh yes. We intend to work as long as possible, and to get ourselves into a financial situation where we can record new material. We make albums so we can go tour. And making an album is a reward for that tour. We reward ourselves, and hopefully, the listener. And it gives us something new to perform on tour. Every time we perform this new album live, it will be an improvement on it… the songs uncomplicate themselves.
AVC: What do you mean by that?
JL: Just by playing it, it becomes part of your nature. It’s a collective. We’re a collective of thoughts. We learn all the chords, all the notes, all the musical structures, and then we throw them all away. And the fun of doing that is that you know why you’re doing the new stuff. You need the past as a guideline. The history of music is a good basis, but to escape that stuff, that tortuous rulebook, you have to learn it first. It’s kind of like religion—once you’ve written the Bible, that’s it, move on.
AVC: You’ve lived in Los Angeles for a long time. You’re vocally anti-government—how do you feel about L.A.’s government?
JL: I’m running out of places in the world where I will feel comfortable. Quite frankly, there’s less police harassment for me, here, than there was in Britain. An awful lot less. The police raids were beginning to really hurt. It became very clear to me that sooner or later, they’d become frustrated with finding nothing to arrest me for, so I moved to New York, and later I moved to Los Angeles. It’s a natural progression. [Los Angeles] just struck me as the oddest place on Earth. I thought, “I could never cope with that place.” And because of that, I’ve found it very enjoyable. Now, I consider myself a Californian.
AVC: For some people it might be an odd image, you in the sun of California, taking the family to Disneyland.
JL: I almost got arrested.
AVC: At Disneyland?
JL: This was years ago. There was this idiot in a Goofy outfit, and I had my grandchildren there, and he frightened the kids. He wouldn’t stop his performance, so I had to chase him off. And that got us thrown out.
AVC: And you haven’t been back?
JL: No. It was ludicrous. They’re supposed to be doing that kind of thing to please children, but they’re actually frightening them. You have to stand up and say something. But that’s the way the world is, isn’t it? Full of fools.
AVC: It’s a bit of a change of pace, moving from police harassment in the UK to Goofy harassment in L.A.
JL: I was aware, too, if I got arrested for that, how ludicrous my life would look. Luckily, nothing happened. Goofy apparently ran away. So the police couldn’t interview him.
AVC: As far as other things you’ve gotten some attention for recently, there was a bit of an outcry when PiL performed in Israel while other artists were boycotting it. Do you stand by this?
JL: Why would I not? I don’t support any government anywhere in the entire world. I play to people. Not the police, not governments. People. Human beings. And whether other people in the world realize it, Jews are people too. As are Arabs, and anyone else in the human race. For that reason alone, I insisted on going there. There was this foolish demonstration.
One thing I did when I played there that I’m very proud of—in front of a very mixed audience—I played the song “Four Enclosed Walls.” That song has the beautiful refrain, “Allah,” which I sing over and over again. If I can get 6,000 Jews and Arabs in Tel Aviv to sing “Allah,” surely I’ve done more for world peace than any bunch of assholes running up and down a street waving placards. After all these years, why don’t I ever end up with the benefit of the doubt? Why is this nonsense the first thing people want to believe? Am I not good for my word? I think I am. I am an honest, upright person, and I don’t do anything to hurt anyone. I’m not greedy. I’m not selfish.
AVC: It might be that over the years you’ve acquired a bit of reputation as being confrontational.
JL: If you’re honest, you’ll find that people will find you hard to deal with. If anybody tells me anything, I expect that what they tell me is true. When I find out it’s not, then they have to leave PiL.
AVC: And that’s when you become hard to deal with?
JL: That’s right. Always be wary of messengers spreading red herrings!
AVC: There’s a sense, too, that you have a Jekyll and Hyde persona. There’s John Lydon, and then there’s Johnny Rotten.
JL: I think that’s because people are frightened to take me on in verbal battles. Over the years, during television interviews, whenever the host or the reviewer or whoever gets cynical and nasty with me, I will behave accordingly. I will defend myself. I come from good, solid reasoning and logic in my life. I have a sensible set of values that tell me to never lie. So you cannot fault me. And you cannot beat me in an argument. Just because of those basic principles.
Now, I do this because I love my fellow human beings. I feel this all the time. The things we’ve created, and can do, and the possibilities we have. Yet we’re constantly reduced to lying and gossip. I want to go back to the Garden of Eden. That’s a much nicer place to be. And I’m not very happy with the God that took us out of there.
AVC: So the PiL zone is this place that exists before original sin?
JL: It’s purity. It’s away from original sin. We don’t believe there is such a thing. We will not feel guilt. We will not feel guilt!