Johnny Rotten, the sneering face of the U.K. punk explosion and — with guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook, and bassist Glen Matlock — the force behind 1977’s Never Mind the Bollocks Here’s the Sex Pistols, suffers fools badly. Ask an ill-informed question or project a preconception, and you’re guaranteed a withering response. But it’s also true that he’s capable of more brutal frankness and ferocious humor than a dozen Noel Gallaghers. Indeed, it’s an ebullient Rotten (born John Lydon 51 years ago) I encounter in a Culver City, California photo studio. (He lives nearby with wife Nora Forster.) Though he still records, he hasn’t released an album since 1997’s solo Psycho’s Path, shortly after he disbanded Public Image Ltd.; his passion of late has been hosting nature shows for TV. “I like many, many things, and I don’t like to be pigeonholed. The whole punk ethos became that way when people thought they understood what punk was,” he says. “Journey is one of my favorite bands.”
Thirty years on, how do you think the Sex Pistols fit into the punk explosion?
We never considered ourselves punk. It was a moniker put on us. The Sex Pistols were directly related to our culture in England — the message of Yeah, you can do it yourself. I didn’t see that too much out of that New York scene. I saw a lot of self-love and fanciful poetic leanings, all that Rimbaud stuff, Patti Smith, pretending that there was some wonderful, beautiful artistic reasoning behind it. None of them had any street sense of This is all fucked up, let’s change it. The Ramones to me were never punk; they were closer to [English boogie rockers] Status Quo.
For 20 years, rock had largely been just entertainment.
Right, without real social implications. Except in England, where there was this working-class element lurking around. John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” — not a great song, but poignant. And as a working-class person, born and raised, this is an important song for us: “My God, we do count in the world. It isn’t all just the sons and daughters of wealthy parents.” The school system for working-class kids is complete victimization — just stifle you, promise you no rewards, and hope that you just don’t bother. And very many of us don’t.
The Sex Pistols also had a satiric edge. Did people miss the joke?
No! The joke was the dead hatred against us. It was the funniest thing you’ve ever seen: to create such animosity in people that you know should know better. That’s a reward! [Laughs] I’ve never needed a publicist. What for? There’s enough people that hate me to keep my name in the papers.
My favorite reaction to the Pistols came from British politician Bernard Brook-Partridge. He said your band “would be vastly improved by sudden death….I’d like to see someone dig a huge hole and bury the lot of ’em in it.”
Yeah. And this is all in Parliament! [Laughs] I hit on a few home truths, I did. And of course, I delivered them with my usual sense of fun. “God Save the Queen” is a very valiant record. But you’re under the powers that be; you’re supposed to just roll over and salute the very forms that make you cannon fodder. Like, what the fuck is anybody doing here about Bush? How can a fascist dictator like that run this country, and there seems to be nothing, no matter who you vote in, that can stop him doing what he wants? I don’t see any demonstrations, any student riots. Because sending young boys over there to get murdered for nothing is unacceptable to me.
When you were attacked in London in June of ’77, tendons in your arm were damaged. You were a left-handed guitarist, right?
I’m not a guitarist at all, now! I’m more like a clitoris these days because of that. It was a knife attack, but this shit does happen.
You’ve said you had a machete stuck in your kneecap in an alley once, too.
When we first came to America [in January 1978], they were pulling guns on us down in the South. It was an act of choice to tour there, but it was also a bit crazy. It was dangerous. The record company wanted to shove us into that CBGB’s world of New York, but that’s a world of foolishness.
When you recorded Never Mind the Bollocks, did you ever imagine the album would have the world-changing impact it did?
No! How could you? And it did change the world. It was an enjoyable record to make, from start to finish, ’cause I loved our songs so much. And we put so much energy into it. [The Stooges’] Fun House had a stunning Side One — it’s a sense of energy; it sounds like one big glorious attack.
Like old Little Richard records.
Absolutely! Crazy-ass lunatic, but Little Richard records were stunning. It’s hard, because the record industry does push you out if you’re too different from their long-term perspectives on future marketing strategies. Nirvana was peculiar. That was kind of a record company ploy, to rephrase punk in a more manufacturable way.
Some people have compared Nevermind to Bollocks. Do you think that holds up?
Well, I’ve seen it like this: Nevermind Without the Bollocks. But “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was stunning. I never liked any of the Clash stuff, though. And I never considered the Clash punk. Joe [Strummer] was all right. He was very sweet-natured. But he came from a different music background. He’d already tried the pub-band circuit, and so he hopped onto punk.
That was after the Sex Pistols opened for his earlier band, the 101ers.
Yeah, but that was all right! No resentment about that. And he’s dead now, so bless him. But tell it like it is. I’m trying to phrase this nicely, because I miss Joe. You’ve got to get that. I know them as people.
The Buzzcocks were another band you’re directly responsible for.
Pete Shelley writes a fantastic pop song. Whatever the umbrella of punk was, its diversity was extreme, but not in New York. They looked down at us, and they shouldn’t have. We looked up at them, because they were older.
Steve Jones has said he borrowed from New York Doll Johnny Thunders’ playing.
Yeah, because Thunders would be playing with three strings and a bit of elephant rope. [Laughs] Anything that was available — that was a punk ethos. We came from something. We’re not just impossibly out of thin air.
Of course, you wrote “New York,” the funniest song ever written about Johnny Thunders.
Yeah. Done in the greatest possible taste! [Laughs] It’s a fun song, but it was taken as a bitter retort — it was far from it. It was accolades, is what it was! “God Save the Queen,” they say, is a bitter retort against the royal family. Well, I quite like the royal family — the pageantry and the flag-waving and the clothing. It’s good fun and sweet and innocent. But when you’re living in a repressive society, and that’s the only highlight in your life, it becomes quite a different scenario. And New York became oppressive to me. And I’d never even been there!
Didn’t you stay in New York after the Pistols’ final show in San Francisco, in January 1978?
I lived with Joe Stevens, a friend of Malcolm’s [McLaren, the Pistols’ manager]. Thank God, because I would’ve been left stranded in America with no money, nowhere to stay, and no plane ticket. Malcolm and them had buggered off and left me. Par for the course. I’ve got no bitterness about it. Much! Not. [Laughs] But I made quite a lot of money on that stage in San Francisco. You know [to an imaginary crowd]: “Give me some money.” And they did! People threw so many dollar bills; it was brilliant!
Good thing, because I read your band only got $67 for the show. At 5,000 people, that comes down to how much per head?
It doesn’t come down to good management. [Laughs] That’s the politest way I could look at that. Which was to our benefit, actually. As a band, we wouldn’t have stayed together as long if we’d had serious management. We’re too volatile with each other for anybody else.
What if McLaren had paid you fairly and you didn’t have to sleep in the subway?
It wouldn’t have been of interest to me. I had no responsibilities. What would I want money for?
Well, how about for a cab ride home when 18 people are trying to jump you?
That would be nice! But you would need a home to go to first, and I didn’t have one.
Which explains 1996’s Filthy Lucre reunion tour.
We did it because it would be the first time we’d ever been paid. It was a novel idea.
Then it all broke down again.
All the old problems crept in, all the animosity between us. But in weird ways, that’s what made the songs, that tension. I was shy as fuck. I still am. I do not like to rehearse. I squeak in the corner and hope no one’s hearing.
If you knew then what you know now, what would you have done differently?
I don’t feel ashamed of anything I’ve done. The endless physical attacks, nowhere to live, no money — but I liked it. Life’s a learning process. You’re not always gonna get it right.
Indeed, the most poignant parts of the Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury are your regrets about Sid Vicious.
Oh my God. I’ve known quite a few stupid rock deaths; none of them are tolerable. It’s not sentimental, but I really miss people living. Life is a fantastic thing, and to see that taken away from someone is really hard to come to grips with. I don’t have no vision of heaven or all of that. I think heaven is on this earth and what we do with it.
Were you doing what you could to keep him off drugs?
No. He’s dead, so therefore I feel responsible, and I’m like that about so many damn things. I feel responsible for being bitter and catty about my own band when I shouldn’t be. We really do like each other, but don’t tell anyone. It won’t get us anywhere. [Laughs] I think the world of them. I couldn’t have gone on to whatever I went on to without that. But I’m fucking too hard to live with. Too hard to live without!
You’ve said that McLaren turned you against Glen Matlock, and Glen was turned against you.
Yeah, there were management shenanigans that went on there. But when it comes down to it, me and Glen don’t like each other. [Laughs] But that doesn’t mean I don’t respect him, ’cause I do. He’s been saying that all this swearing should stop. I understand he’s a father and doesn’t want his son to have to hear “foul language.” But to me there is no such thing. I wrote in “Bodies,” “Fuck this and fuck that / Fuck it all, and fuck the fucking brat,” and I don’t think there’s a clearer song about the pain of abortion. The juxtaposition of all those different psychic things in your head and all the confusion, the anger, the frustration, you have to capture in those words. I don’t want to go on about Glen, because he’s so good in many other ways — I can’t remember any of them, of course. [Laughs]
One of the unique things about your book Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs is that you let everyone else contradict you. That’s unusual for an autobiography.
That is my proudest achievement! Chrissie [Hynde], Billy [Idol] — we have different points of view on the same situations. It’s important to include that.
That’s your proudest achievement?
Oh, come on. You’re supposed to put a book out and just overswim in your own self-praise? [Laughs] That would be very unappealing to me.
Why don’t you guys allow Rhino/Warner Bros.to use your songs for things like No Thanks! The ’70s Punk Rebellion box set?
Warner Bros. doesn’t seem particularly interested in helping us in our wonderful career — and they’re still refusing to [re]release Bollocks, so fuck them. And I don’t like compilations, usually, because I don’t want to see my stuff backing up a load of turgid crap. Unless we’re involved with who picks the songs, then fuck off. Because it’s down to why we wrote these songs. They’re not to be confused in a pile of people that call themselves punk who really aren’t.
Who were the “punk” artists that you thought were significant? Heaps! I’m an avid music buyer of all genres. The Adverts. I loved X-Ray Spex. Very young.
You yourself were 20 in 1976.
I’ve got this wrong on so many different occasions. I thought I was 17, but apparently, I wasn’t! That might have been the amphetamine — it played a great part, and the years just whizzed by.
“I don’t work, I just speed / That’s all I need” — another of your lyrics [from “Seventeen”].
I did like amphetamine. But [to] George Bush and [his] government, particularly you, Dick Cheney, who really runs the country: I learned the lesson of drugs. I learned not to talk about them, and never to share that information with the general public.
We’ll put you down as straight-edge, then. “Doesn’t drink, smoke, or take drugs.”
Yes, completely. I do not. [He swigs his beer and puffs his cigarette.] And I’ve never had sex, ever!
Isn’t sex, as you have said, just “two minutes and 52 seconds of squelching noises,” anyway?
That’s right! I got it up to three minutes, though, once. Never finished it. It’s like “I didn’t inhale.” I didn’t come. [Laughs]
Recently, you’ve been making nature documentaries for television.
I just did two astounding shows in Africa, one on gorillas and one on great white sharks. They’re not shown here in [the U.S.], but we’ll change that, won’t we? I love being in those environments. My favorite, though, was the great whites — to be learning to dive with these 17-foot things swimming around you. ‘Cause you need the diving lessons first, in Cape Town, South Africa.
That’s where the great whites kill seals in midair, out of the water.
That’s it! That’s where I was! It’s something I’ve studied all my life. You couldn’t have made me happier, although the fear was overwhelming at times. But I like that. I view it the same way as I do writing songs. It’s risky business.
After refusing to appear at the Pistols’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you recently ended up there for a TV show.
Right, unfortunately, because of [being a judge on Fuse’s] Bodog Music Battle of the Bands in Cleveland. The irony was not lost on me; but in a weird way, it was delicious: They were bringing new bands that don’t have recording contracts to play live in this museum I’d already rejected.
You were often surprisingly supportive and encouraging of the bands during the competition. Do you think people expected you to be a hatchet man?
Well, that would be very stupid, and it would show not much insight into what I’ve been doing these 30 years, which is to open doors, not just shut them in people’s faces. Well, there are some I’d love to slam it on. [Laughs]
Speaking of your TV work, ten years ago, you went on Judge Judy. Not willingly! I was accused of assaulting [touring] drummer [Robert Williams], a kung fu expert. [Laughs] And he’s doing me for assault, this black-belt fucking judo boy? But I’m not going to say a word. It took a long time to get to court.
Don’t you think these TV appearances — as well as the one on the U.K. version of I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! — are contradictory, considering you made your career skewering pop fluff?
You’d think so! But the point of I’m a Celebrity was to spend three weeks in the Australian forest and try to deal with nature with minimal food supplies. Fucking great fun, out there fighting monitor lizards. Nature likes me. I never knew this. But I can sit in incredibly dangerous situations with wild beasts, and they like me. I can get closer to them. But I’m not stupid, either, and I don’t take idiot risks.
Would this be the most surprising thing for people to discover about you?
It shouldn’t be, if they listen to my music. I have the utmost respect for the living and an incredible remorse about the death of anything. I have two problems, though: flies and mosquitoes. In [Megabugs,] the [Discovery] insect series, I went in a cage with 6,000 of the damn buggers released on me — punctured my eardrum, and I couldn’t walk for a week.
What is your most misunderstood quality? I’m not evil, I’m not nasty, I’m not spiteful, I’m not jealous. I just like people to get me right. Any act of violence that comes from me is in direct retaliation. I’m Gandhi up to a point.
When you look back at what you did in 1977, do your ideas and lyrics still feel relevant?
What we did was as relevant then as it is now, because we did not lie. Period. I find it astounding that I live in a world where lying is conceived as the standard form. My songwriting is always about the things that directly affect me, and I’m constantly looking for an answer — like, “Problem” is about finding a solution. Don’t run away from things. But you also want to be able to waffle like the Bee Gees. I love the Bee Gees, but not “Stayin’ Alive.” I love their ’60s stuff. [Rapturously] I swoon in it.
Do you feel that the fashion element of 1977 may have overshadowed some of the substance?
It ain’t what was made; it’s the way it was worn. Look at me. This [outfit] is fucking five dollars’ worth. And look, I’m wearing goldfish on my socks, and I’m quite happy. They’re little fishies, having fun swimming around my ankles. Am I supposed to not like that kind of stuff because I should be into skull and crossbones? Fuck off.
You’ve called contemporary punks “coat hangers.” I think it’s about the clothes. And once you get into that — the uniform — you’ve missed the point. It ain’t nothing to do at all with what you wear. What punk has become is such “a fascist regime.” “Ooh, punks don’t wear this, punks don’t listen to that.” Bollocks!
Ultimately, what do you think is the Sex Pistols’ legacy?
Our album. Why the bloody hell haven’t we made another? I don’t want to. We said enough. We’ve done enough. There’s no point. But it’s worth remembering, because we did it well, and that’s something too few people do.