John Lydon, lead singer with Public Image Ltd chats with Kevin Cooper about his friendship with Engelbert Humperdinck, being banned by the BBC for his comments about Jimmy Saville, the release of their box set with its live film footage and their forthcoming 40th anniversary tour of the UK.

John Lydon, also known by his stage name Johnny Rotten, is an English singer, songwriter and musician. He is best known as the lead singer of the late 70s British punk band the Sex Pistols, which lasted from 1975 until 1978, and again for various revivals during the 1990s and 2000s. He is also the lead singer of post-punk band Public Image Ltd (PiL), which he founded and fronted from 1978 until 1993, and again since 2009 with a different line up.

With the Sex Pistols, he penned singles including Anarchy In The U.K., God Save The Queen, and Holidays In The Sun. The band caused a nationwide uproar in much of the media, and Lydon was seen as a figurehead of the burgeoning punk movement. Despite their controversial lyrics and style at the time, they are now regarded as one of the most influential acts in the history of popular music.

Whilst Public Image Ltd were never as controversial or commercially successful as the Sex Pistols, the band have produced eight albums and a string of singles, including Public Image, Death Disco, and Rise, before they went on hiatus in 1993, reforming in 2009. In subsequent years, Lydon has hosted television shows in the UK, America and Belgium, appeared on I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! And has also appeared in advertisements promoting a brand of British butter, written two autobiographies Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs and Anger Is An Energy and produced some solo musical work, including the album Psycho’s Path. In 2005, he released a compilation album, The Best of British £1 Notes.

Whilst busy preparing for his forthcoming tour, he took some time out to have a chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what he had to say.

Mr Lydon good morning.

Hello Kevin from Nottingham, how the devil are you?

I’m very well thank you, how are you today?

Everything considered dear boy, I couldn’t be better (laughter).

Before we move on let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.

(Laughter) I think that you should wait until we are nearly finished before you thank me; you just never know (laughter).

Exactly, exactly (laughter). Well I have to tell you that you and I have met many years ago.

Oh yes?

Yes, way back in 1977 I was a policeman here in Nottingham and I was fortunate enough to spend the day with you in the Nottingham Magistrates Court during the ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’ hearing.

Really, oh that is fantastic. Did you have a good day?

I did but not as good as yours (laughter).

That’s right, I did get a bit of a result didn’t I (laughter). You weren’t the fresh-faced fucker with a copy of the album under his arm who kept asking me for my fucking autograph were you?

Of course I was (laughter).

(Laughter) how funny; what a small world.

Very small indeed. So just how is life treating John Lydon at this moment in time?

Well what can I say, everything is good here in sunny Los Angeles. It is starting to get quite warm here. However, I have to tell you that only a few days ago it was like winter on the Norfolk Broad’s (laughter). It’s all a case of swings and roundabouts, no matter where you are.

Just taking you back to 1978 for a moment if I may, after all of the furore in relation to the album title, do you think that things here in the UK have moved on at all?

Yes it has, it most definitely has. When they started sneaking swear words onto Chanel 4 and then quickly taking them away again, it all became really childish. To me it’s like, they are just words to be used correctly or incorrectly. If they are used wrongly then it makes a fool out of the user. Let them by all means stand up and be foolish. There is no harm in a word. However, there can be a lot of harm in the implication or the use as a direct threat. Ban threatening behaviour by all means but not words.

Now we have to speak about Public Image Ltd.

Must we (laughter).

Yes we must. I have been given my instructions and that is what we must speak about.

Oh alright then (laughter).

You formed the band some forty years ago now. Did you intend it to be here for the long-haul or has it surprised you?

(Laughter) what can I say, back then when I was younger, I had no concept of longevity. To be honest with you I got held up there for fifteen years in the middle of it because of record company manipulation which was a very ugly position to find myself in. I was somehow in debt due to the contracts that originated out of the Sex Pistols era and it was very difficult to break free of them. So there was a huge hiatus, I think is the word, when it was least necessary. That kind of screwed around with my head for a while so I went into a place where I was raising my wife Nora’s grandkids. That was fun (laughter). There were lots of Parent Teacher Association meetings and then back to PiL again (laughter).

What would you say has been your favourite period of Public Image Ltd?

I would have to say that it would most probably be this period right now. The last ten years have been hyperactive, very risqué, taking all manner of chances as to whether it would sink or swim, and we are finding that it is swimming. Musically, we are as experimental as ever and we are fully prepared to go to madhouse places if that’s where our brains take us. And at the same time, we like to find the time to enable us to explore pop sensibilities. So long as we are doing our things and they are things that we believe in then this will continue. The minute it isn’t then we shall stop.

Now I have to pick your brains…

I haven’t got any (laughter)…

now that simply is not true (laughter)

…well they are in my foot so you can pick my toe (laughter)

Other than it being career–spanning what can you tell me about the forthcoming box set?

Oh well what can I say other than it is a magnificent piece of work and it is something that we all put a lot of effort into. It has got over six hours of live film footage in it, which makes it officially longer than a Grateful Dead gig (laughter). Also in there are a bunch of what I think are wonderful songs which fully explain the width, breadth and scope of Public Image Ltd.

How many tracks are on there?

A lot (laughter).

Were you solely responsible for choosing what songs made it into the collection?

Oh yes. This isn’t the record company fiddling about. We are independent now and so we can dictate our own terms.

You are going back out on the road again with The Public Image Is Rotten Tour. Does touring still excite you?

I love it, I really, really love it. If there was any problems with it, I simply wouldn’t do it. What I love the most about it is touring with this current band, the way we are and how well we know each other; it is true companionship. There is a great sense of empathy between us. This may surprise you but we are all very good friends. As you rightly point out, we are going back out on tour. We are very happy to do that because from the touring we raise the money to enable us to record. And in fact we are going to be doing some recording in the middle of this tour. The only downside to that is that there will be no days off for us. But then again, every day is full-on and I like to be on (laughter).

Being friends as well as bandmates must really make a pleasant change for you?

You are totally right, yes it does. I have always wanted a band that were friends and have always thought that a band should be friends and low and behold I picked well this time (laughter). I have known Bruce (Smith) and Lu (Edmonds) since forever really and Scotty (Scott Firth) just fits in au natural. They are all just totally regular people, but all of them are very different from myself. I think that it is that variety that makes it work. I mean if we were all the same person, oh my god, there is no way that I would go on tour with me (laughter). I’m just not having it (laughter). Imagine waking up to yourself every morning, imagine there being three of you, “how are you, I’m doing alright, how’s me” (laughter).

The tour kicks off at the O2 in Bristol on Wednesday 30th May. Will the box set be available before then?

I hope so, I really do hope so but I wouldn’t save up all my money and spend it on the two things on the first day (laughter). My message to all of the music fans out there is simple, bide your time (laughter).

You will be playing here in Nottingham at Rock City on Friday 29th June, what can we expect?

Well what can I say, I imagine that you can expect a fabulous chunk of real up close and personal, solid, hard-core music (laughter). There will be no messing about; we are the real thing. There will be absolutely no trickery involved whatsoever. You have to remember that at Rock City the audience are less than three feet away from my eyeballs (laughter).

I have been there, done that, got the t-shirt. I recently photographed you at The Copper Rooms at Warwick University and I have to say that I made the mistake of getting in your eye line and you frightened the shit out of me (laughter).

(Laughter) did I really?

Yes you did. I was the only person in the pit, you beckoned me over and whispered in my ear ‘why don’t you fuck off’ (laughter).

(Hysterical laughter) did I really say that to you, well what can I say, I’m just trying to tell it like it is young lad (laughter).

Exactly (laughter).

It’s just that I simply didn’t believe in holding back (laughter). If you are going to express a true emotion then do it as honestly as you can. Thereby it becomes the real thing. I just hope that you didn’t smell my armpits, they are lethal (laughter). Were you wearing your policeman’s helmet at the time (laughter).

(Laughter) no not at all. In fact I never wear a hat because I never want to mess my hair up, it looks bad enough at the best of times (laughter).

Well you must have been blocking someone’s view which is usually what the police and security used to do back in those days. That would always annoy me. At the same time I am sensible enough to know that you weren’t keeping the audience from the band, you were keeping the band from the audience (laughter).

Is Rock City a must play venue?

Well I don’t know about that but it’s one that we are going to (laughter). What I always love and I always do this and have done it all through the years, is play small venues. I really love that intimate atmosphere. To me it reminds me of the old music halls or social clubs, and that is the thing that I grew up with and is the place where I am most comfortable. I don’t like big stadiums, I don’t like auditoriums; I will do the occasional festival but I prefer it to be up close and personal. I like people to be able to see just how bad I really am not (laughter). When you can connect with your audience, eyeball to eyeball, fantastic things happen.

In that situation and environment, you tend to become such a proper person. There is no need for any showing-off, so much so that I leave my ego in the dressing room, and come out as naked as the day that I was born really, metaphorically speaking (laughter). I wouldn’t dare inflict nudism on anyone, they would never get over it (laughter).

Is there anyone that inspires you?

My fellow human beings and there is every reason to continue because I really do feel that we are a wonderful creation. However, there are a few buttholes in there too but you know, you can’t talk shit if you don’t have a butt (laughter).

Does being involved in the music business today still excite you?

My aspect of it, and what we are currently doing then I would have to say yes. But you have to remember that we view ourselves as being somewhat outsiders of the shit storm as we call it. We always find ourselves trying to avoid the trap. I have personally avoided those traps all of my life and I have to say that I have paid dearly for it. There have been many record company collusions, together with all manner of downfalls and pitfalls. Anyone who stands up and thinks that they have got something righteous to say, is going to get an awful lot of smack down and you know, hello, I asked for it, I’m not complaining, I just wish that it was a little more enjoyable (laughter). Hello, last man standing.

What are your views on streaming and Spotify, do you think that they are killing the business?

Oh I hate those things, very much so. In fact the whole idea of music being out there on the internet is in fact my biggest gripe. To be honest it disgusts me. It is of such a low quality so what’s the point in going to any effort to produce a wonderful piece of music, only for it to be squashed down into a postage stamp, orally speaking. I’m sorry but I like the full width, breadth and depth of music. I like my bass to be way down there in the grumbly floorboards. And I like the tops to rip my head off together with a good midrange, thank you. You are not getting that anymore; what you are getting is a two-dimensional version of something. The drop in value is appalling. How can you treat people like that? Going to see a live performance I suppose is the only real clue that youngsters get that music really is better than that.

But the problem is, in my opinion, no one goes to a gig to listen to the music anymore. They go so that they can take the odd selfie or two, go into work on Monday and say to their colleagues “look who I went to see at the weekend”. Attending a gig nowadays has almost become a badge of honour.

Yes they do, you are perfectly correct. However, thinking about it I suppose that there is that element too but you will get that in all walks of life.

Especially at U2 concerts (laughter).

Well he is the biggest poseur of the lot isn’t he (laughter). Poor old Bozo (laughter).

Has anyone ever asked you if you know the difference between God and Bono?

No, go on.

Well God doesn’t walk around all day thinking he’s Bono (laughter).

(Hysterical laughter) that’s good, really good. I know Bono quite well and we always manage to have a laugh whenever we meet. Whenever I see him I always say “why don’t you layoff that Pope stuff” (laughter). The last time I saw him I said “how can you keep kissing the Popes hand, you kind of do know where it has just been” (laughter).

How did it feel knowing that you hand single-handedly changed the face of music?

Oh god, it weren’t me officer (laughter). I was asleep at the time and I am frightened of reprisals (laughter). I always say that if things happen, then they happen. I didn’t deliberately set out to do that but good for me if I did.

What I am trying to say is that after personally witnessing the massive impact that the Sex Pistols had on music worldwide, I am still waiting for the next explosion. In my opinion nothing has come along as yet.

Well it’s not my job to do that is it (laughter). I can’t do it for every generation. But I am kind of with you on this, as I had expected the younger generations to have a bit more get up and go in them but they just seem to go nowhere. At sixteen they want to grow a beard and wear a stupid bobble hat. It’s like looking at designer wear for farmers (laughter). What’s up with everybody, if you want to go for that look then get a tractor.

Looking back at 1978, the BBC banned you for the comments that you made about the late Jimmy Saville. In light of recent events, do you feel that you were let-down badly by the establishment?

Yes I do, I feel that I was let-down extremely badly by the establishment, very badly indeed. But then again most of them were all at it themselves weren’t they. They were all on the fiddle but in the wrong way. At that time molestation was part and parcel of the business. I knew it, in fact I knew it before I joined the Sex Pistols. Every kid did but yet that was all buried, brushed over and we were viewed as the filthy ones. What a fucked up world that was.

Do you feel that you have now been vindicated in any way?

No, not in any way, shape or form because it is what it is. I’m glad that it has been noted because I do tend to speak up. I don’t talk rubbish, I do tell the truth and that is my nature. And there it is, I can’t help it, sorry officers, I’m still asleep, honest (laughter). All of those bad things eventually came to light and I was proved right about what I had said but I went through murders for that. As you rightly say, I got banned from the BBC; they wouldn’t give me any airplay whatsoever, and they were really spiteful towards me and the band which had nothing to do with the music at all. They simply didn’t want my fresh, honest, view point in there. It’s a great tragedy and that’s censorship for you. Some years later I write a song about the whole experience called Acid Drops and there is a line in there which asks “who censors the censors” and I have to say that I do that myself, I make up my own mind like anyone else.

Did you have a plan B just in case music didn’t happen for you?

No, no, nothing at all really. It is just absolutely great that I landed so well. I didn’t even have a plan A to get into music, it all came along totally out of the blue, something along the lines of ‘do you want to sing in our band’ to which I replied ‘oh okay’ (laughter). I spent all of my early life avoiding the choir because I know all about priests and what they got up to, we all did. I would deliberately sing out of tune so that I wouldn’t get picked to sing in the choir. I became the most out of tune of the lot of us (laughter). Then to be expected to suddenly be in tune it was like ‘wow’ (laughter). What a fantastic career move that I got for myself. I had to be the exact opposite.

At that point I thought ‘no I don’t want to do that’, I didn’t want to sound like all of the other singers, so I decided that I would sing in the way that I think. And there it is, I am still there with that. It has some sense of values about it. That is what I got out of all of it, good honest values. That is what maintains me and keeps me in good health.

Have you enjoyed the ride or are there things that you would do differently?

No, I don’t think that anyone should ever suffer from hindsight. Yes of course, mistakes are made all the way along in life and what you have got to do is learn from them. In moments of grief you have got to absorb them and use them to your benefit. Experience is not an unhealthy thing.

Have you ever thought about going into politics and righting the wrongs from the inside?

No, never. There are far too many liars in government. How do you right the wrongs there when the entire system, to my mind, is wrong?

I have to say that I think that the system is at present badly broken.

Yes it is, it is very badly broken and everybody knows it. We are all in the world desperately looking for an alternative to this. I don’t think that revolution is the answer; the second that you have to kill another human being then you don’t have a cause with me, at all. Passive resistance is the methodology that I prefer and I always use the late Ghandi as my example. We do not need to go around killing each other, in fact we need to do the exact opposite. Why don’t we as the first step ban lying, don’t ban the words, ban the liars.

You should know by now that it isn’t a lie it’s merely an oversight (laughter).

Oh yes, of course (laughter).

The buzz phrase of 2016, ‘I’m sorry, it was an oversight’ (laughter).

(Laughter) in that case I guess that my immune system must be down.

You last released a solo album, Psycho’s Path, back in 1997. Are there any thoughts regarding any new solo work?

No, no thoughts whatsoever. That’s not to say that it won’t happen again but for now, there are no thoughts at all. I have to say that I did enjoy making that album, very much so, but in all honesty I did actually and totally miss being with the band. I missed being with a group of fellas who were creating in a unified way. I like the energy and the vibes that I get from the other people in the mix. Whenever I’m left to my own ideas I kind of like think ‘I’m just being a bit selfish here’ and to be honest I really don’t like that. The sharing is what I missed. Having said that there were some songs on that solo album that really had to be done alone. I knew that they were outside of everybody’s agenda really (laughter). It was kind of a clearing house for me, it enabled me to get some really anxious moments dealt with in those kind of songs.

If you could change one law within the English legal system, what would you change?

Judgements (laughter). I would try to put a stop on judgements but unfortunately I think that it is the one thing, particularly the pop mag, rag end of the media is very judgmental. They are all the time putting people down through acts of jealously or whatever. I dislike that, I dislike gossip, I would like to see that banned, other than that I can’t think of anything major except of course ‘don’t be buggering the children or you will get life imprisonment’ (laughter).

I hear that you are against the smoking ban in public places, is that correct?

(Laughter) who the fuck has told you that. Yes I am, I would most definitely bring back smoking in pubs, it’s ludicrous. That is absolutely so un-English of them. What’s wrong with going to the pub and sitting there with a beer and a ciggie in hand; that to me is perfection.

I totally agree with your sentiment but the truth of the matter is that there will soon be no pubs left here in the UK.

That’s right, you are absolutely right and the same is happening to live venues. Just what will there be left; the UK will soon be left looking like socialist Poland.

Just a thought, how about we all start drinking in the House Of Commons?

Oh yes, right, because they have still got that penny a pint thing going on haven’t they and about three pounds for a bottle a whisky (laughter). First in line (laughter). Maybe politics isn’t so bad after all (laughter). Actually, I kind of like the idea of keeping the buggers drunk (laughter).

I have heard that you have a rather special relationship with another ex-pat over there in California.

(Laughter) someone is going to get fired when I find out who has been talking to you (laughter). Yes I do and you will not believe me when I tell you that I am getting on so well with Engelbert Humperdinck. I really do like that fella. He is really open, honest and funny as fuck (laughter). He is great fun to sit and drink with. We sit for hours on end just trading stories. He is legendary to me, and there he is now, right in front of my eyes. I love taking the piss out of him and start singing The Anniversary Waltz (laughter). That bloke deserves his fame because he is a standout fella. It’s great to meet people like that, unexpectedly, and to be taken by surprise and to realise their greatness. They don’t have to be famous. This could be some old codger neglected in the corner of a pub. But once you get talking to them wow, the universe unfolds before you.

On the subject of friends, are you not very good friends with Stuart Pearce, the ex-player, Captain and Manager of Nottingham Forest?

(Laughter) yes I am, he’s fine him. He’s a good giggle that one. Nottingham Forest had told him that he couldn’t go out on this particular night but being as he is, he turned up at a Pistols gig and he bought along Gareth Southgate (laughter). But it was really good of him to do that and come to the gig, I like him. I can remember when Forest were in a cup final and he called himself Stuart Rotten (laughter). He dressed up, not in punk gear but in Public Image gear. He came to the gig dressed in the clothes that I was wearing around that time. It’s odd because I seem to have a lot of friends from the football world. I recently met Gordon Strachan the ex-Scotland manager and it really is bloody brilliant meeting all of these people. Ian Wright for example, he is a bang on sort bloke (laughter).

Well I have to tell you that Stuart has now moved on to The Stereophonics.

(Laughter) well, that just goes to show that there is no accounting for taste. They were quite good when they first started, I liked them. They came along at the right time, just when the world needed a hum along (laughter).

I thought that we had Coldplay for that (laughter).

Oh no, don’t, please don’t mention Coldplay. That’s bumbling along. I just don’t understand them. It’s nothing personal; it’s just that I feel like there is nothing in there. It all seems so lifeless.

In 2015 you released your autobiography, Anger Is An Energy: My Life Uncensored. Was that something that you felt you had to do or needed to do to get things off your chest?

I felt like I had to do it. It was there inside me from my childhood, the anger issue was something that the doctors convinced and recommended to my parents that they should keep me in a frame of anger really to bring back my memories. As a youngster I had meningitis and lost all of my memories. It took me four years to remember anything at all. I was like a zombie and I didn’t even know how to pick up a knife or a fork. I couldn’t do anything at all, and it was anger that bought me back. Ever since then I have used anger as a tool in the most positive way. Anger bought my personality back to me. So yippee for anger. People misuse the term and automatically think that it immediately resorts to violence. No, quite the opposite, it leads to a peaceful conclusion.

Testing your memory, what was the first record that you bought?

Well my mum and dad were always buying music but the very first record that I ever bought was Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town…

Kenny Rogers

Yes, the very same and I bought it because I liked the colours on the sleeve, it was all sky blue and claret and before you say anything, I know that they are West Hams colours but I did say that I liked the colours, and not the team (laughter). I do love that colour combination. And I have to say that I still do buy records simply because I like the covers. The artwork for me is an important a part as the music itself. I love all of it, the whole package.

However unfortunately, at this moment in time, there are not that many singles to buy out there are there?

That’s true, well there’s the sadness. Singles are vanishing too. I suppose that everyone is busy listening to their music in internet cafes, mocha chocolate (laughter).

Who did you first see performing live?

That’s easy, it was Cliff Richard. My mum and dad took me along to see him at The Finsbury Park Astoria when it was still a theatre. I was very young at the time, probably about four years old, and I remember the screaming of the girls hurting my ears. I was absolutely terrified. I kept asking my parents “why are they all screaming” as I thought that they were all in fear (laughter). I couldn’t hear anything of Cliff, just all of these girls screaming. To be honest it was a bit of a nightmare but I have never forgotten it. It was back in the days when Cliff still had a bit of a tough boy thing about him.

Including the curled up lip?

(Laughter) oh yes, I had totally forgotten about that, the curled up lip. As you will know it was later perfected by Billy Idol and Sid Vicious (laughter). The infamous lip curl (laughter). Anyway, I wouldn’t recommend that one.

What was the last song or piece of music that made you cry?

Oh argh misses (laughter). Where the hell did that come from (laughter). That would have been the Requiem Mass In D Minor by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The version that I like the best is from the Stanley Kubrick film Barry Lyndon. I remember back when my father died, I have always had that record and I played it over and over again just to remind myself of him. There were pure tears. I think that it is probably an overly dramatic piece of music.

On that note John, let me once again thank you for speaking to me today, it’s been fantastic and I hope to be photographing you at Rock City on Friday 29th June.

Thanks Kevin that was great. Please do make sure that you come backstage and say hello. I honestly do not do these things to be a stranger. It is a necessary thing for me to be able to put a face to an interviewer and you are a member of the press so there you go. I always put on the list that they have to let anyone who has interviewed me come backstage and meet me. It is important to me.

Thanks for that John because nine out of ten simply won’t do it.

Well you know me, I’m not nine out of ten on anything am I (laughter). You take care and I will see you in Nottingham.