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The Agonies and Ecstasy of John Lydon

The former Sex Pistols frontman is back with a sophisticated new Public Image Ltd album, ‘End of World,’ while mourning his wife and recently going to war with his former Pistols bandmates
John Lydon
(Credit: Duncan Bryceland)

John Lydon made history twice before he was 23. The first time was as the snarling, euphoric singer for the Sex Pistols, landing with an explosion of public outrage and anarchy to help ignite the original ’70s punk movement. Then, from the ashes of the Pistols came his much longer-lasting Public Image Ltd, pushing the musical evolution further with a deeply influential postpunk sound of frayed guitars and dub textures. PiL has remained Lydon’s musical venue of choice ever since, with a series of career-defining tracks, from the self-titled debut “Public Image” to the later radio hit “Rise.”

After a very prolific period of just over a dozen years, the band went on hiatus in 1992, just as a new wave of punk/postpunk/alternative artists directly inspired by Lydon’s work hit the mainstream. The band seemed to have run its course, and beyond a single solo album in 1997, Lydon turned his attention to television, from hosting the hilariously confrontational but short-lived Rotten TV on VH1 to joining the far more ridiculous UK series I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! in 2004, and later, an ad for Country Life butter. 

In 2012, Lydon brought PiL back into action with This Is PiL and 2015’s What the World Needs Now…, reintroducing the band with an immediately recognizable sound and texture, but also an update in growing sophistication and outlook, as played by guitarist Lu Edmonds, drummer Bruce Smith and bassist Scott Firth. The band’s new album, End of World, is a continuation on that path, recorded in the English countryside at a small studio in Chelmsford, England.

The first sign of new music from PiL came in the form of the romantic “Hawaii,” a song written for his wife Nora Forster, then ailing from Alzheimer’s disease. He entered it into this year’s annual Eurovision song competition, vying to represent Ireland. PiL performed “Hawaii” on camera for the world in February, Lydon dressed in a pink suit his wife picked for him online. The deeply emotional song, Lydon said in a statement that week, was “dedicated to everyone going through tough times on the journey of life, with the person they care for the most.” Forster died in April.

Sitting for a Zoom interview last week, the singer was in an office at his home in Malibu, where he and Forster lived for decades. The sides of his head were shaved, leaving a flamelike tuft of thick hair on top. On the wall behind him was one of Lydon’s paintings, a large splash of color and raw brush strokes. During his wife’s illness, his few public appearances showed the physical strain on the singer, but on Zoom now he appears much as he has since the return of PiL, as ready with a laugh or to pause for a moment of sad contemplation, as he mourns Forster.

On the new album, he sounds just as outraged and amused as ever, maybe more so. “I’m only 67 for fuck’s sake. I’ve got so much left,” he says with a laugh. “I think I’m only just starting.”

Public Image Ltd
Public Image Ltd (Credit: Rob Browne)

SPIN: For a lot of people, the first impression of John Lydon is somebody extremely confident and ready with a cutting remark, but there’s a lot of vulnerability in the music you’ve made with Public Image.

JOHN LYDON: That’s what songs are for, aren’t they? To tell it like it is. Of course, when you’re doing interviews on live TV and there’s some dreadful intellectual that wants to dig you a grave, you’re going to develop a suit of armor and turn your words into bullets, because that’s your natural defensive instinct. But that’s not the be all and end all of me. Not by a long way. I think self-doubt, fear and loathing of myself is an ongoing process. It’s always been there. I giggle and I love humor, but I know that it’s covering pain. It’s equally valid. I have to go through these things.

You’ve always used PiL as a platform to explore things in your real life, going back to 1979’s “Death Disco,” about the death of your mother.

I think anyone in this industry who’s worth his salt is telling you from true experience. It’s what I expect out of a good novelist or an amazing film. Anyone can put up a sham – 98% of the industry we are in is all about that. But yes, it’s a raw pleasure, a delight, and a gift I was given at an early age to be able to do something properly. And that’s not a sense of morals I’m coming from, because morals imply religious beliefs. It’s is a sense of values. I owe this to everybody to tell it as it is, as I’m experiencing it.

Do you feel like your abilities are different now than they were back in the eighties?

The more you learn, the better you get. Like a fine wine, I mature with age.

How did the modern lineup of Public Image come together?

What I did quite naturally was look for people that I’d worked with in the past and really got on well with: Bruce and Lu. And Scotty came along. He responded to an advert and his resume was hilarious – he’d worked with everything from Steve Winwood to the Spice Girls. This is PiL absolutely! [laughs] And now it’s like he’s always been there.

If you just rent trained musicians, it’s a very uncomfortable thing. I’d much rather work with friends and actually not base it on musical competence, but on personality. That’s a much more solid ground to build your church on.

It seemed like you and [late founding PiL guitarist] Keith Levene were friends in the early days of the band.

Very close. But then in came the record company. They tell him one thing, me another, and have us all at war with each other. And of course, because they were controlling the purse strings, it made life almost unbearable. It caused frictions. Drugs, of course, came in. That’s what broke me and Keith apart, the heroin. It’s the same with me and Sid [Vicious]. It turns very good human beings into self-centered addicts, who are thinking about nothing but the next fix.

When did this new album come into motion?

I knew Nora wasn’t quite well, and I’d brought her to the studio location. And she was starting to panic and get very fearful. I didn’t know it was Alzheimer’s at the time, but I was very, very suspect of it. And then she started running away in terror. So that completely destroyed that recording session. I had to then make the decision: was I going to care more about the music or more about this human being? And humanity comes first for me.

I managed to get a good comprehensive understanding of Nora’s problem and thought that we could handle it. But that didn’t work out because along came the COVID nonsense. Nora was always very gregarious, very social, loved people, loved friends coming over. All of this stopped because the only people that came had to wear masks. She couldn’t understand that at all. And so it alienated her. I had to double down on the caring. 

Public Image Ltd
PiL in 2023 (Credit: Andres Poveda)

Is there an overall theme to the new album?

If there’s a principle to it, it’s about choices: make the right choices in life. And if we don’t learn to debate and talk with each other, there will be no more future. It will be end of world. And I’m fed up with this now. Every time you open in your mouth, there’s somebody there willing to castigate you, remove your testicles for having an opinion at all. It’s a very strange world now – media manipulated completely. Corporate thinking is the problem behind all of it, whether you’re left wing or right wing. It’s the corporations that are dividing us. So think clear, boys and girls, and please have a sense of humor, because I think this is what’s missing in the modern world. Everything is immediately interpreted falsely and used as an accusation and a weapon. 

[The song] “Being Stupid Again” is exactly that. Will you please lighten up? Just think about what it is you’re saying, because you create such divisions and falsehoods, and there’s no path coming back from that for you. Unless you learn to sit down and fucking do what I do: Learn to laugh at life, and all of its tragedies. Make it better, not worse.

“Hawaii” is about Nora. How did the song come together?

The song started initially about six years ago of Lu messing about. I think we’d seen Blue Hawaii by Elvis Presley on the TV, and so it was having fun in the studio. He wasn’t taking it too serious, I don’t think. But I did. I thought, “Wow, there’s something really dramatic going on in those harmonies and those rhythms.” So I focused in on that. And as the years went by, I could then write the lines to it. 

It was a seven-year period in writing, where every line in it has to really matter. This is a fond memory of Nora and me on holiday in Hawaii, and the grim prospect of losing her, which was not easy for me and still isn’t. But the wonderful, beautiful Hawaiian language, that very adorable word, “aloha,” which means hello and goodbye, that’s where the tears flow. It was wonderful to share that with her before she passed.

What can you say about the opening song, “Penge”?

It’s a song based on a Viking raiding party on a fishing town village. Knowing that everything would be slaughtered, the children are led away by the Druid priest, but that being not a good plan B, because we know what the clergy are capable of with young children. For me, it’s an issue of just because this is a bad situation, don’t jump into the next one without considering other possibilities. Plan B was a bad choice made by the parents of those children.

As you were finishing the album, you also had a lawsuit involving the Sex Pistols over the Pistol mini-series.

A ridiculous court case with my Sex Pistol compadres, shall we say, where they decided to use Walt Disney money to turn the Sex Pistols into a corporate moneymaking machine, which I, of course, bitterly opposed in court, but lost. You can’t go up against a corporation. They beat me hands down, but at least I made a stand. For me that was a very, very important sense of values I had to send up and fight for what is right. 

It was very wrong of them to think that you could put together a documentary, which turned into a mockumentary, excluding the main songwriter and personality – ‘cause let’s face it, those three don’t have personalities – and think that that could wash over, and in many ways eliminate the original history and validity of the Sex Pistols. That was a real problem for me. It was an act of spite and childishness. There’s no forgiving because there’s no great crime. They did something really silly, and they should be ashamed of themselves. But I won’t forget the evil-heartedness of it. So it’s done.

This is an image from Pistol directed by Danny Boyle.
(L-R): Louis Partridge as Sid Vicious, Anson Boon as John Lyndon. (Credit: Miya Mizuno/FX)

It sounds like there is no future for the Sex Pistols.

Oh, they’ve made sure of that. They put the nail on their own coffin. It was a glorious time in history, where it really did take on the world and have a major effect upon it. And they’ve seemed to push that aside for selling a few crap T-shirts. So it’s very, very, very dismal of them. But by no means think of the Sex Pistols in terms of what they’re turning it into, because that’s a joke. Remember its place in history and just how poignant that was.

Have you had better experiences being depicted on the screen?

Any live performance. That’s how it works for me. I’ve done a film with Harvey Keitel once [1984’s Copkiller], which was great fun. Except he was just too serious for my frame of mind way back then. All that method acting stuff where he’d want to continue the role afterwards. See, you can never hang out. It was hanging out with the character in the film. I thought that was taking it a stage too far, but I’ve met Harvey a few times since. He’s great fun now. Different folks have different strokes. I’ve thought about doing films. But mostly the offers are just too silly. They want is me to be a cartoon of myself. And that’s unacceptable.

Has Hollywood misunderstood what you’re about?

I’ve no idea what Hollywood thinks. “Hollyweird” is aptly named. I don’t hang out with them. It’s very difficult to deal with a crowd of people who lack personality, and that’s basically what actors and actresses are. They have nothing of their own to offer, and they’re just absorbed, like a sponge. 

Do you see that in music too?

A lot the heavy metal acts that go out dressed up in makeup and tights. It’s an image to them, and that’s very important. That’s hilarious too, because Alice Cooper’s one of my all-time favorites. The sheer way he turned it into theater was great. I loved it as a young person and I still do. Every time I see him playing live, I’m there. But there’s a lot that are selling you an image that’s false, deliberately fake and deliberately commercial. I’ve met the KISS lads. They’re all right. You know, without the makeup, there ain’t much going on. [Laughs.]

Do you feel any kinship with the writers and actors now on strike in Hollywood, fighting over issues like Artificial Intelligence?

I’m in the actors union, aren’t I? [Laughs.] By default as a singer, you’re SAG’ed. Yes, I do. But I have one major complaint about that: Will you, for fuck’s sake screenwriters, please write something decent, because I don’t think in the last 10 years there’s anything coming out film-wise that in any way works for me. It seems to be so formatted and garbagey and trashy and throwaway. Come up with something good and you get my support. But if it’s business as usual, fucking burn the building down, SAG.

Public Image Ltd
PiL in 2023 (Credit: Pil Official)

Back in 2015, I spoke with you about PiL’s What the World Needs Now… album and you were watching Donald Trump on CNN. You laughed at the TV and said: “Are you really going to hand over the White House to a real estate agent?”

I’m not going to discuss politics with you, fella. I’m not. My problem with politics is it’s business as usual. And any chance to break away from that format, I was more than welcome to. And then to watch [Trump] for four years being castigated, very much like when I first started in the Pistols — with just total falsehood, accusations relentlessly on the media every day. And he was right for this: They couldn’t have existed without him. He was their ratings. Well, I went through that. It’s called the Pistols and the very first start of PiL. I know what the chopping block is. Fuck politicians, fuck ’em all. They’re an evil, evil bunch. They’re not like us. They’re not.

Won’t this year be your first tour back on the road since COVID?

Yeah. What surprises me about that whole COVID thing is I never caught it. And I’m prone to respiratory illnesses and diseases from when I was young. I’ve got a natural weak immune system and nothing. I’ve been rejected by COVID! How cruel! [laughs] I don’t mean to make humor on a tragedy. But at the same time, I think it was blown a little bit out of proportion. There will be proper pandemics in the future. And I see [COVID] as a trial run.

People continue to be interested in the Sex Pistols and PiL, and regardless of what’s fashionable. It seems like there’s always another generation picking up guitars again.

Oh, I hope so. Look, my record collection didn’t stop in 1979! [Laughs.] I’m constantly on the hunt for new and exciting stuff, and I’ve always viewed the music business not as a business, but as an ongoing form of insight into people’s souls and humanities. And as long as people are out there making music, that’s gonna be a good supply for me. Everything interests me. I have very few prejudices. I’ve had to state over the years my only real prejudice musically – ah, sorry, New Orleans – but that trad jazz of yours is horrible. [laughs] It always sounds to me like a traffic jam in Paris. There’s something in it that naturally irritates me, like the Beatles. I can’t explain what that is, but there’s something in there that I don’t find tonally refreshing or informative. I wouldn’t dream of banning it. The more the merrier, please. But not at my funeral!

The first moments of End of World are immediately recognizable as PiL, with a sound anchored by that deep bassline. Even now, not much else sounds like that.

I think that’s the point. It doesn’t sound like anybody else, so it must be them. [laughs] There’s a few acts out there that have tried to glean the PiL sound, but they fall by the wayside. And there’s no room for that silliness. You must go for people that really mean what they do. I’m into music because, although I have an enormous record collection, it’s never completely satisfied me. It’s never given me that the sound I’m ultimately seeking to the day I die.