Interview: John Lydon on 40 years of Public Image Ltd

SPECIAL YEAR: PiL, who are celebrating their 40th anniversary, appear in Sheffield and Hull in June.
SPECIAL YEAR: PiL, who are celebrating their 40th anniversary, appear in Sheffield and Hull in June.
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Public Image Ltd are marking their 40th anniversary with a UK tour. Founder John Lydon spoke to Duncan Seaman.

PUBLIC IMAGE LTD might be about to celebrate their 40th anniversary but founder John Lydon seems to shudder at the idea of a step by step amble through the band’s past.

“That would be more like a requiem than a celebration,” he says, roaring with laughter, and instead offering his own potted history.

“There was the hope in the beginning and then there was the reality of the record label and them what pay the money and then of course a rolling door of transients for quite some time.

“Then almost 18 years of being outright decapitated musically because I owed so much money they wouldn’t even loan me [more] to start a tour or make a record in order to re-pay. Catch-22, really, with a vengeance.

“I managed to recover from that by admitting my love for all things butter. It never settled the debt but it was a large chunk of ice that was broken off that ’berg and approaching ever since consistency, which is always what I was seeking in the first place but we’re free, we’re responsible to ourselves, we don’t have to go cap in hand to an institution and we manage to survive quite well without the s***-stem there to dictate what clothes we’re wearing this season.”

John Lydon

John Lydon

In his autobiography, Anger Is An Energy, Lydon described his founding vision for PiL as “a consortium of like-minded loonies prepared to jump into the next universe without any tools”. The former Sex Pistols singer says he saw such an approach as the only way forward at a time when so many punk bands were “adopting uniforms”.

“Finding a snug fit inside categories has never been my way,” says the 62-year-old. “You can spoil me all you like and throw all the money you like at me from a record company point of view, but guess what? It’s not going to make me happy. I see life as a bit of a struggle and a bit of a strife. Without those things I’ll create them anyway.”

His “Utopian idea” that the initial line-up of Jah Wobble, Keith Levene and Jim Walker would get along was quickly shattered – “I found out that I was playing the role of ambassador between the warring elements inside the band, it was foolish,” he says – but the “enormous” friction” between them fed the music they made.

“I’m the kind of person that will push for that,” Lydon explains. “I grew up thinking from my first band onwards that animosity was a useful tool.

There had been a constant niggle of me being in it for a laugh or talentless. The contant put-downs, they do wear you down at some point, so that album was smacking the self-doubt right out of me.

John Lydon

“In life you work with the cards you’re dealt, it’s all a poker game and there it is. You can fold and wallow in self-pity or you can fight it out and survive. Longevity is the answer to every problem. Strength of mind and strength of character. Everybody has that potential but some people’s strength of character is absorbing the worser elements of life, they want stardom. It’s very hard to cope with band members that go that way because PiL isn’t the kind of band to be doing that in.

“I don’t mind people using it as a ladder, because life is a game of snakes and ladders, you get up as many rungs as you can. In that respect PiL has been like a college of music – or anti-music – it’s an arbitrary term. And college could quite easily be turned into collage. The key to it all is to not take it too serious and not to allow self-pity and whinging to creep in. When you smell that among members you’ve got to move away from them because it’s a poisonous drug.”

Lydon collaborated with the designer Dennis Morris on the original PiL logo, which was a play on the ICI brand. The singer’s idea “was to set Public Image up in direct opposition to corporations and corporate thinking”.

“I wanted to use a corporate-type label. ICI came to mind at the time and many other things that use three-letter words. It’s a symbol of their greed. I wanted to turn that upside down so PiL was a symbol of our non-greed, a needle in the haystack.”

Resentment of the band came on three levels in the early days. “One, for being different; two, for not being the Pistols and three, for wanting to attack the Pistols thing,” Lydon wrote in his book.

“All of those elements you have to be well aware of at all times,” he elaborates today. “And that goes on at the same time as wanting to be new, wanting to be creative, wanting to explore areas that pop music’s never been into before, and generally trying to understand not only ourselves to ourselves but what we meant to other people, and how all that can get lost in translation.

“Ultimately for me that has turned PiL into an exploration of human emotions – and that includes the seven deadly sins which unfortunately always resolves around jealousy. Whether you like it or not, all of us are capable of that.”

Remembering when he was young that he was “very jealous of Roy Orbison – I loved that voice, I just couldn’t understand why I couldn’t sing like that” prompts a digression about the TV talent show American Idol.

“I only watch the initial auditions,” he says. “The ones I like the most are the ones that absolutely ain’t got it by any stretch of the imagination but totally insist they do. You can smell the self-doubt because sometimes confidence can win you through, so when I watch that it’s a character analysis for me, those auditions, beyond then it’s looking for singer to sing on cruise ships.

“It’s a shame because I’ve always liked the idea of having a luxury suite on the QE2, but having to sing for it? Urgh!”

While PiL were making their second album, Metal Box, Lydon found himself embroiled in a legal battle with the Sex Pistols’ former manager Malcolm McLaren and his mother was dying of cancer. At the same time there was pressure from his label, Virgin, “to fold and put out an atypical punk album”.

He doesn’t however see the lyrics on that record as among his most personal. “I would say towards the last two albums, very personal,” he says. “It was as personal as I could be at that age.

“I’ve always in this way viewed myself as my own worst enemy because I’m fully capable of criticising myself to an extreme extent and will do so often because I find it refreshing and healthy. I’m one of these kind of people, I want to get it right and not carry on being wrong. So yes, I’m capable of change – and a smarter word would be improvement and I don’t know if I’ve reached that yet.”

By the time PiL came to make Flowers of Romance, Levene had “lost interest in everything but his extra-curricular activities” – a well-documented drug addiction.

It was, says Lydon, “a shame because that boy has talent – I hate the term ‘had’ because you know that’s not true – if it was there at any time in your life it’s always there. He’s capable of opening his Pandora box.”

Lydon moved to New York and pieced together much of the album with studio engineer Nick Launay. New York was, he says, was “the only place where we could get any work and gigs; it was impossible to convince the British promoters at that time that we were viable, always we were viewed as an insurance nightmare”.

A gig at the Ritz in New York – where the band performed behind a screen onto which Jeanette Lee projected cut-up images – did little to shake that reputation.

“We shifted to New York and the night we arrived all hell broke loose,” Lydon laughs. “[But] it was the softest riot I’d ever experienced. It was hilarious, it was an act of comedy on the audience’s part and I really appreciated it, it was harmless and everybody was feeling the same as us in the hall: it was time for change.”

By 1983 record company pressure for a hit was increasing. Lydon’s response was This Is Not a Love Song, which ironically shot to Number Five in the UK charts. “It was just constant: ‘Why can’t you write a love song?’,” he says. “OK, I fully admit I can’t, but here’s a non-attempt at it, which oddly enough turned into Paul McCartney’s Silly Love Songs a year later.

“I had a laugh with him on that. I never thought I’d get on with Paul McCartney, but I did. You’ve got to give room and space everybody because everybody has their touch of genius in conversation, which is what matters most.”

A short-lived ‘Holiday Inn’ version of PiL, with musicians picked up in the US, was followed by another change of line-up for the album This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get. Lydon says that record was “about trying to form a relationship musically with Martin Atkins and just trying to find ways to go”.

“He wasn’t too interested in resolving around the Flowers of Romance theory because he never actually really played on that. What he did was he laid down a bunch of drum tracks and I just meddled with them because he was off on a Brian Brain tour.”

If the “minimalist” Flowers had largely been constructed from “extending loops to ridiculous proportions, stretching them 50 yards wide”, the next record, Album, was the very opposite.

Produced by Bill Laswell, it featured a top-notch cast of musicians including Ginger Baker, Steve Vai, Tony Williams, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Ornette Coleman. “I had a very young band in LA and they couldn’t cope with the studio, the pressure was too much for them so I had to immediately look for substitutes.

“I was horrified at the prospect, because I didn’t want to make anything like Band Aid, I didn’t want that approach to be going on, ‘here’s John with his superstar friends’. But I was shocked by the quality of people and the dexterity of them too that wanted to work with me. It just snapped and clicked so well.”

He admits that at that point in his career he “was having really serious self-doubts”. “There had been a constant niggle of me being in it for a laugh or talentless. The contant put-downs, they do wear you down at some point, so that album was smacking the self-doubt right out of me. And no one really cared about their name being on the record either.

“That was fantastic, so we left it completely generic and presented it to Elektra. It went straight into the charts. I think it reached No80 in the first week [in the US] and then they pulled it because they didn’t know who was playing on it and they didn’t want to support that kind of thing. Well, the no-nos they sacked it was a bunch of major people and all rebels in their own way.”

For the next albums, Happy? and 9, Lydon recruited a new band of John McGeoch, Bruce Smith and Allan Dias. “I’d known Bruce for ever and ever and it was about time we worked together,” Lydon recalls. “It was difficult dealing with John McGeoch because he had a lot of anxiety issues and he allowed them to take over.

“That was soul-destroying to see him prefer alcohol to performance. You tolerate that but only for so long. We’ve all been through it, we all know what the chemicals do and when they take over and how to rein it back in but he wouldn’t do that and that became very uncomfortable.

“A lot of the time Lu Edmonds was the second guitarist/keyboards and he had to take over in live performances, so I became very connected with Lu.”

In the late 80s and early 90s PiL’s relentless touring schedule became too much. “It wore me out,” Lydon admits. That, and problems with producer Dave Jerden while making the 1992 That What Is Not (“I was expecting great exotic things and he was just this bog-standard country and western producer, to my way of thinking, and we didn’t see eye-to-eye”), was followed by a long hiatus.

Lydon sees the period as “getting rid of the debris” but the financial restraints imposed upon him by his label proved difficult to shift. “Chastised would be a polite term but ostracised would be the more important aspect of it,” he says.

It took an appearance in the ITV show I’m a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here and a commercial for Country Life butter to change things. In 2009 Lydon announced he was restarting PiL, with Smith, Edmonds and Scott Firth. He says their friendship has made the current line-up PiL’s most durable.

“We’re friends genuinely and because of that can have arguments that don’t result in people storming out or if they do they go out one door and come in the other going ‘Yes, ah...’ it’s controlled tension which is very important because you’re bearing in mind this is four people with very different musical outlooks and we’re trying to combine them into reflecting the emotions we’re investigating here.

“It’s not compromise either, like politicians do. This is what is best for the purpose of this particular song and that means dropping egos. That’s a hard thing to tell a lead singer,” he laughs. “But that for me is the most comfortable environment where people appreciate and know what you can and cannot do and not to ask the impossible and not try to shape-shift it around their particular egos, which never works. I don’t know, what would you call us? Socialism?”

Surprisingly Lydon admits to still feeling nerves before each gig. “The tension and stress beforehand and that fear of letting people down, that’s never going to go away.

“I found that almost crazily enjoyable now and once I’m on, I’m on. I deliberately leave the ego in the dressing room. I’ve just wrestled with that one and then I’m completely open, naked, exposed. Then it’s sink or swim by whatever talents you’ve over-addressed yourself with.”

PiL release Live at Brixton Academy 1986 on Record Store Day, April 21. They play at O2 Academy Sheffield on June 15, Hull University Asylum on June 18 and Bingley Music Live, which runs between August 31 and September 2. The Public Image is Rotten box set is due out the same month. www.pilofficial.com

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