In 1975, London teen-ager John Lydon took the name Johnny Rotten, unleashed himself on an unsuspecting world, and as lead singer of the Sex Pistols became the figurehead of a glorious eruption in pop culture known as punk rock. To the surprise of no one, this crash-and-burn school of music went down in flames in rather short order, and most of the original punks have been picking through the ashes in a daze ever since. Lydon, however, immediately formed a new group--Public Image Ltd.--and he’s now a seasoned veteran with a slew of albums under his belt.
Talking with Lydon in a posh Beverly Hills restaurant on the eve of the release of his new album, “9,” one is struck by how very different this notorious man is from his volatile image. Now 33, Lydon has been happily married for several years and has no interest whatsoever is leading anybody’s revolution. An autodidactic student of marine biology, he’s something of a clotheshorse, is obviously accustomed to pricey diners, and is reasonably well mannered--rather shy, in fact. This is not to say, however, that there are no traces of Lydon’s rough and rowdy roots left to be seen. Pausing midway through his meal to squeeze a pimple on his chin, he remains a defiantly opinionated man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
Herewith, the news of the world according to Lydon:
ON THE CLASS OF ’77: Very few of the first punk generation have gone on to do anything worthwhile. This might sound odd coming from me, but Ariana, formerly with the Slits--and my wife’s daughter--moved to Jamaica and became a reggae star and her work is very good. It’s the genuine article--it’s not just some white girl being trendy.
Joe Strummer’s joined this ridiculous society in England called Rock Against the Rich--an absurd move considering that Joe’s far from poor. And musically I don’t understand what the hell he’s doing. I thought that the “Love Kills” song he wrote for the “Sid & Nancy” movie was diabolical. I never liked Elvis Costello, and despite his punk image I put him in the same bag as Springsteen. They sing in the same silly way: “Oh, oh, woke up, headache, got in my Chevy and drove. . . . “ON PUNK’S LEGACY: Punk is just a label, and if the word means anything, it stands for individuality. Society always has its faction of rebels and individuals but at the moment I don’t see any collective uprising of individuality the way there was in music in the mid-'70s--and that suits me fine. We don’t need unified fronts.
ON RAP: Rap music is very tired and boring. When it began, it was interesting but it hasn’t progressed. Early on I liked the occasional rap record--I thought (Grandmaster Flash’s) “The Message” was excellent--but there’s nothing with that lyrical content anymore. They all use the same rhythms and rhymes now, and if I hear one more wicki-wicki scratch on a rap record I shall puke. A lot of people claim that rap is part of the tradition of black protest music, but I think it’s more in the tradition of rock ‘n’ roll. It’s too formalized to be genuinely rebellious and it’s popular because it’s easy to understand. The parameters of rap are clearly set and nobody challenges them.
ON TRACY CHAPMAN: I don’t think Tracy Chapman or any of these new female performers are forging a new road for women in music. I’d say Joni Mitchell forged a much better road way back when because she had guts. I liked Tracy Chapman’s single, but I thought her album was too limited. A woman with an acoustic guitar really isn’t all that enticing, yet she’s the toast of the town because her music’s “serious,” and that enables the people who like it to feel good about themselves for liking it.
ON ROCK ‘N’ ROLL FUND RAISING: Once again, the elite gather together on stage, refusing to share the stage with anyone less popular than they--you’ll notice it’s the same old motley crew at every one of these events. They’ve found a new way to make themselves feel important, which of course they’re not. These are compulsively greedy people who hog every spotlight they can find. Who am I referring to here? Sting, Springsteen--that lot. And, I’m sorry to say, Peter Gabriel, who used to genuinely care but now has gone completely show-biz. Their relentless flag waving and charity sloganeering annoys me deeply because I consider charity a bit of an insult. I don’t like free handouts. Beyond that, nobody really knows where all these charity funds go.
ON NATIONALISM: National pride is nothing more than a form of elitism and it must cease if this planet is going to survive. I used to think there was something particularly English about me, but I’ve been about a bit and come to realize that’s not true. Human beings are the same the world over, and I consider myself a part of this planet rather than any particular country. People cling to nationalism for the same reasons they cling to religion--fear, and the fact that they’re too lazy to think for themselves. They prefer to have politicians and priests make their decisions for them.
ON THE ABSTINENT ‘80s: If people don’t want to drink anymore that’s well and fine, but they shouldn’t do it out of fashion--and it is very much a fashion in America right now. It’s just another trend for people to follow, the sheep-like mentality running rampant in a new way.
ON POP CULTURE: Pop culture gives people false expectations of life, covers up the wrongs of society and lulls people into a false sense of security. A Madonna record will not save you from anything. As long as you’re aware of that then go ahead and enjoy it.
ON IDOL WORSHIP: Musicians have been elevated to an exalted place in society because they obviously fill a neurotic need. Perhaps it’s a symptom of the religious crisis of the Western world, but something tells me it all comes down to financial clout.
There’s quite a bit of money being spent to convince people that they need to go out and purchase certain products. It’s very hard to combat the constant drilling they subject us to, and the music business can sell literally anything they decide to get behind and sell. People like Madonna and Michael Jackson have the wheels of the industry behind them so it would be hard for them not to be successful with that kind of muscle behind them.
Jackson’s success is, of course, partly attributable to the fact that he’s an interesting person who wins on many levels, and his eccentricity is intriguing. I’ve no interest in Madonna whatsoever--that one I can’t explain.
ON GREED: Most people are motivated by greed. I am one of the few who are not, although there are a few others. Talking Heads seem to have other things on their minds than the pursuit of the dollar. David Byrne is a shrewd businessman, but why shouldn’t he be? That doesn’t diminish the fact that he makes an effort to do more than just glorify a persona.
ON JOHN’S ROTTEN IMAGE: The most widely held misconception about me is that I’m nasty. That image has been a protective device for me for years, but it can’t work forever. It’s getting tedious both for me and the viewer, and has become a form of play acting. I can be as jovial as the next guy.
ON APOCALYPSE NOW: People have become more aware of the crisis with the ozone layer and things like that, but it might just be too late. I don’t think anybody will be able to stop corporate greed and the oil spill in Alaska proves that.
Who benefited from that disaster? The oil companies. They’ve raised the price on everything, including current stocks since their little mishap up north, and nobody seems eager to punish them. There will be a few small fines and promises of a clean-up campaign and that will be it.
Everybody--including myself--seems to be going on about the end of the world, but I don’t see that as a bad thing. Good riddance to the bad rubbish known as the human race. So, if we’ve got to go we should go in style. Lets not be morbid about it.
ON AN OBSOLETE DREAM: I’ve given up trying to change the world. It’s too grandiose a task and I’m really not capable of such a thing. No one individual is.