INTERVIEW: John Lydon, Public Image Ltd

If ever there was a man whose reputation precedes him it's John Lydon.

For the last three decades he's been – metaphorically – jabbing a stick in the ribs of the British establishment through music, films, interviews and even I'm a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here.

Yet the John Lydon on the end of the phone from Los Angeles is anything other than 'The Filth and the Fury!' caricature. Affable, articulate and self-deprecating, the 53-year-old is honest enough to admit that he wants to get "bums on seats" for his first UK tour with Public Image Ltd in 17 years – and his first visit to Leeds in since November 1983.

"What's Leeds like these days? Is it a bit run-down?" he asks out of curiosity at one point, at another he talks of his astonishment at seeing Leeds United in the English third division.

But first to PiL, the band he founded after leaving the Sex Pistols in 1978 and in whom he's been the only constant member in the last 31 years. Speculation has been rife for some time that he might reactivate the group but why this particular moment? "I was gagging at the bit, so to speak," he says.

"There were billions, thousands of reasons for and billions, thousands of reasons not. Mostly there's a lack of financial support from the record label. Everything I do I have got to scrape the pennies together to get going – so thank you very much, Country Life!" he laughs, praising the dairy firm for whom he recorded the famous "It's not about Great Britain, it's about great butter" TV commercial last year.

"I really enjoyed working with them," he says. "They treated me with respect – more than the industry I'm supposed to be thriving in."

There was also a deeper motivation: the spectre of mortality. "The death of my father really did upset me last year," Lydon says. "Death Disco (the PiL song about the loss of his mother) was playing in my head. And there were some serious illnesses in the family and various calamities. I thought, 'I've got to get back to playing.'"

PiL, he explains, is "perfect for an emotional outlet", adding wryly: "I ain't half bad on stage either."

The new PiL line-up will feature Lu Edmonds (once guitarist in Leeds punk band the Mekons), drummer Bruce Smith and multi-instrumentalist Scott Firth. "There have been 37 people that I've worked with in PiL," says Lydon. "I think by now I know the best combination for this current event."

The tour coincides with the 30th anniversary of the release of PiL's second album Metal Box, a groundbreaking record that on its original release came out on three 12inch singles housed inside a film canister. It's an event that seems to have passed Virgin, his record company, by, says Lydon, "but hopefully they will have pressed some copies by this tour".

The set list, however, will not be exclusively devoted to one album. "No, why should it be? It will be exclusively from the PiL years.

"There are certain aspects of Metal Box which shine like a beacon but it's hard to do the whole of it live. Some of it would be impossible but there's many parts that blend well.

"It will be the full gamut of PiL, every emotion possible. It's a seriously solid show; it's a good two hours. It will be an agonising treat for the old vocal cords. There's some serious challenges to musical perspective going on. I'm tempted to drag my violin and saxophone on stage but I don't know if I've got the wind.

"It's a real effort on the body, a PiL set," he adds, "but the emotional release is stunning."

Not wishing to be musically pigeonholed, he suggests there could even be elements of jazz "though it could just as easily turn into country and western". "I like all formats (of music)," he says. "It's against my nature to say, 'This is music and this is not'. Why deny yourself entertainment on any level or on anything? Except pretentious gits. There'll be no Radiohead or Coldplay here."

Despite its status as the finest of PiL's 10 albums, Lydon says Metal Box is not his personal favourite. "No. I think just about every one of them and for different reasons – different subjects, different types that require different approaches. You can't say, 'That's a PiL sound'. Well, you can't say it's a total PiL sound. Though if you look at the top albums from the last 30 years you could say a lot of it is a PiL sound.

"A lot of respect has been taken off us. It's not right. I don't think the music industry has ever been right. It seems to uphold the highest thief.

"It's an uphill battle all the time…but no sense of martyrdom or self-pity here."

He doesn't subscribe to the view that the PiL allowed him the creative freedom denied him by the Sex Pistols. "No, the Pistols gave me plenty of freedom. But times change and the politics, not from inside the band...(it was) the balance between band and management (that) caused all sorts of strife and tensions, no-one knew who to believe any more."

It's only in the last decade or so Lydon has managed "to take away the silliness" that separated himself from former bandmates Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock. "I love working with the Pistols but that's not all there is, there's more that needs to be released," he says. "The Pistols were more like outward attacking of social problems but PiL is inner demons…with a danceability if you've got three legs – and of course I do."

He says he never felt stifled by the Johnny Rotten caricature that the Pistols' former manager liked to put across to media. "Malcolm (McLaren) claimed he created everything; in the end he had no control at all. I would sit back at say, 'It was me that did that'. Here was an old man playing these schoolgirl games with us. It was impossible to cope with. As for protection from bad press? Nothing. That was what he was like."

"I must be something of a survivalist," he adds, remembering friends like the late Sid Vicious who resorted to hard drugs to assuage their personal demons. "I'm not going to use the drug route; I'm not going to go that way… (Sardonically) Though I seem to seem to be profiteering from them."

Irony's not lost on Lydon. "I love it," he says, "though it's sadly lacking in American culture." (Lydon's been living in California since the early 1980s). "Slowly but surely" he's introducing it to his adopted homeland.

"I keep ending up in law courts an awful lot," he laughs. "Things can get so badly misinterpreted." By way of example, he talks about the Sex Pistols' song Bodies which a Republican website took to be anti-abortion. "The lyrics state both cases. I agree with both sides at the same time – not for religious reasons," he says, but for "humane ones".

"I'm constantly at war with the world," he admits, "because it does not allow us freedoms, personal choices."

In his autobiography Lydon suggests his contentiousness, his "sense of devilry", emerged at an early age. It seems that as the eldest of three boys, born in hardship in North London to working-class Irish immigrant parents, he had much to kick against. "I don't suppose much more than anyone else around where I lived," he says. "I'm extremely lucky to have grasped any opportunity to get out of it."

"I'm not hard on people that have to scrimp and scrape for a living by any means," he stresses. "I understand their dilemma, the entrapment of the council house way of life." Nor, he says, is he "anti-middle class". For Lydon, life now is very much "mix and match".

As for whether he feels he's been misunderstood by a lot of people, "yes, I do," he says. "But a lot do get it very well and there are quite a few people out there experimenting in their own worlds or their own ways that don't sound or seem to relate to us in any way but they are the ways I respect the most. We've all got to build our own roads but hopefully we'll end up in the same place."

Despite being ostracised by the musical establishment, PiL's fiercely independent ethic has also been widely influential. From the start the band treated themselves like a business (indeed they were originally called Public Image, after the Muriel Spark novel before Lydon added the 'Ltd'). Their accountant and video-maker were even accorded member status. In the digital age, many other musicians are following their example. "It's a good model, it's a sane model," Lydon says. "It's true to the inner feel, I don't suppose with music there's any other way. We were taking things back to the fundamentals of folk music.

"I've always said Public Image is a folk band," he contends, somewhat surprisingly. "There's nothing contrived in us, no 'Let's sit down and write a pop song'. The closest I've ever come to that is This is Not a Love Song. Shortly afterwards Paul McCartney put out a similar thing.

"I've met Paul," he says by way of an aside. "I liked him. You shouldn't let institutions put you off. There are many decent people out there struggling in their own ways."

It's 26 years since PiL last played in Leeds, though not by design, says Lydon. "In the early days with PiL it was mad, this strange, wacky bunch of people. As the years went by it got harder to get into places. It was the way the halls were run, the promoters and not having the venues. It's terrible, you've been starved of your PiL," he laughs. "Now you can overdose on PiL. It's coming!"

The gig that's passed into local legend, though, is the Sex Pistols' trip to Leeds Polytechnic in December 1976. "I remember it as if it was yesterday," Lydon says, jokingly affecting a Yorkshire accent. "What happened?"

I remind him it was, by accident, the start of the Anarchy in the UK tour after other dates were cancelled following the furore over the Pistols swearing on Bill Grundy's TV show. "It was mad and wacky," he recalls. "It was so strange. We had an audience that was not quite clued in. There was this comprehensive lunacy that was attacking us on all fronts. But I've got to say it was a great learning curve to begin a career. It can only get better.

"You know what?" he chuckles. "It didn't. It's about the same. Nothing ever seems to fall into place at the right time – except for the opportunity of these gigs now."

He talks about having new material to perform, if he's allowed the chance. It seems there are copyright issues to iron out with Virgin first. "They do tend to drag their heels with us," he notes. "Virgin is not a record company any more; it's a warehouse run by accountants. The few friends that I know who work there they are under the shovel all the time. Everything is a problem.

"It's difficult but somehow it seems to be worth it once you get on stage," he reflects. "That's all you can hope for. I know I will be in a quagmire before I go on and after but during it's full fire. There are no party tricks. It's just full-on, reminding people how it's done. We have got the principle together but a lot will be to do with the mood of the audience. If they help us to swing, we will swing…And not from the rafters – although there are many who would like us to!

"You've got to approach life with a sense of fun," he continues. "Those Paddy roots are in me. I can find depression entertaining. You've got to look at as though this is all you've got: life. As bad as it gets, you've got to say, 'F*** my luck', not 'woe is me, misery'.

"In (the PiL song] Theme I'm screaming, 'I wish I could die and I will survive'. It's not a hopeless scream, unless anybody needs reminding."

Though he's lived in Los Angeles with his partner Nora Forster for nigh on 30 years, Lydon is very British at heart. "It's fun to put Blighty down," he says. "I'm as British as they come, I can't help it. It does not matter where I live." His exile, he says, "had a lot to do with police harassment".

"It was pretty unbearable, all those stupid raids on my house. Once they thought IRA terrorism might be going on there. Someone said I had an Irish flag in the window; it was an Italian flag. They got things wrong but they knew what they were getting up to. In those days PC Plod was a nasty piece of work. He homed in on my life as much as possible."

Lydon has hinted that this tour might be a new beginning for PiL. "We start rehearsals in November. I have a pool of material to fling into this," he says. "Once I expose that to the chaps we can spend many a happy hour exploring those musical terrains.

"A lot of what we do is tuneless," he jokes. "Why miss out on a sound because somebody has laid down a rule book? In music, respecting rules is for fools. Though it's nice to remember the basic gist of a tune."

So does this mean that after the various Pistols reunion tours over the past decade, he's finally put that old scourge of the establishment to bed? "No," he says bluntly. "They won't go! They want to stay up late and watch the horror shows. They have too much life in them; to turn and extinguish the film would be dumb as a doorbell.

"As long you keep the (Pistols and PiL) separate they can go on; if they merge, no. They mustn't clutter or contaminate. It's a lack of conceit that's allowed that to happen, although I've been accused of planning it all, if people want to think I'm that clever.

"Things are a lot to do with how you land," he reflects. "It making sure you've got your feet ready."

PiL play at the O2 Academy Leeds on December 16. Tickets are available in advance from Jumbo and Crash Records or from www.seetickets.com.

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