For all of rock `n’ roll’s inherent rebellious bluster, it’s rare that any of its practitioners actually speak their minds—apart from mouthing off about other stars they don’t like, of course.
God save Johnny Rotten, then, for he remains as unrepentantly outspoken as ever.
The caustic frontman for the Sex Pistols—known by his proper name, John Lydon, ever since the band imploded soon after the release of its seminal 1977 debut—returned to the spotlight recently as the Pistols prepare to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their still-incendiary work and the (more or less) birth of punk rock in general.
As it has sporadically during the past decade, the original lineup—Lydon, guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook and bassist Glen Matlock (who preceded the infamous Sid Vicious)—has reunited for a series of shows, this time primarily throughout England in November. As a warm-up, the Pistols played Thursday night at the Roxy in West Hollywood—not only their first-ever club gig in Southern California, but one of only a handful of appearances the band has made since unexpectedly resurfacing with its aptly named Filthy Lucre Tour of 1996.
Since then, Lydon, 51, has kept his profile up less through music (his last album was a 1997 solo effort, “Psycho’s Path”) and more by wielding his scurrilous celebrity.
He hilariously turned up years ago on “Judge Judy,” knocking down a suit from a former drummer in his second band, Public Image Ltd. He hosted his own short-lived VH1 show, “Rotten TV,” in 2000. More recently he took part in (and departed midway through) the BBC reality series “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!” and just a few months ago could be seen haranguing no-talents on Fuse’s “Bodog Battle of the Bands.” (Neither he nor the rest of the Pistols were seen accepting their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year, however. Irked over being asked to pay to attend the ceremony, the band stayed away, refusing the honor.)
If all of Lydon’s television antics aren’t enough to make some purists’ stomachs turn, there’s now this: The Sex Pistols have just finished rerecording their notorious song “Anarchy in the U.K.” for use in the third installment of Activision’s immensely popular “Guitar Hero” game.
Call him a sellout for doing so and Lydon will turn Rotten all over, disabusing an inquisitive reporter of misconceptions. He says he hasn’t made a mint in property investments, for instance: “I’m on skid row since the day I first started!” Nor will the Pistols see a dime of “Guitar Hero” money, he claims: “Any money we were looking forward to making on that we had to spend rerecording the (bleeping) song!”
As for anyone bothered by the idea of this norm-defying lot consenting to something as conventional as an anniversary tour, well, Lydon’s got a response for that, too: “Don’t be telling me I can’t do a damn thing in my life! ... People are putting false, fake values on us without understanding that we’re human beings.”
It’s a wild half-hour chat, with Lydon—a longtime L.A. resident who was stranded in the city at the end of the Sex Pistols disastrous sole tour of the States in early `78—offering choice words about the Ramones (“Mommy and Daddy didn’t buy us no guitars!”), the Clash (“Highly manufactured”), Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (“Fine job he isn’t doing!”) and Britney Spears (“She doesn’t know who she is anymore”). Oddly enough, he had kind things to say about the royal family.
“The mad ol’ sod’s coming out of hiding!” he declares as we say hello. Love him or loathe him, there’s still no other quite like him.
So why are these shows happening? Why commemorate the 30th anniversary?
Well, it’s an anniversary of punk in England, and there’s been garbage rubbish bands performing all year trying to claim the credit for what existed 30 years ago. We just decided to put our foot down on that and tell a few home truths. Started with one gig in London, which expanded into five—didn’t think 25,000 people wanted to see us! And so ... why not?
And then an offer to play Manchester came along, and that’s 15,000. And so, again, why not? That’s our homeland, you know? We’re loyal to that place, and this is like “thank you” to people who have been loyal to us. That’s how it should be.
Especially if there have been also-rans trying to cash in ...
Everybody’s trying to claim the credit for inventing punk. It is utterly ridiculous, utterly insane. And that Ramones nonsense going on and on and on—how on Earth are the Ramones anything at all like the Sex Pistols? We came from a culture facing some serious challenges when we were young. We were the complete bottom line—the poorest of the poor. We come from squalor and fought our way up tooth and claw. Mommy and Daddy didn’t buy us no guitars.
It’s wrong to make a comparison, and these idiots don’t understand that. I have no begrudging of what the Ramones do or any of them bands. But they did not come from harsh realities—and therefore (are) incomparable.
But surely there were both an American punk and an English punk.
Yes, there always has been, absolutely. But don’t try to, like, claim the glory. I mean, it’s bands even before us that are claiming they invented everything. There’s nothing to invent! I am who I am. Nobody made me, far as I can make out. Not even my parents claim that responsibility.
Well, it is rather ludicrous that American punk bands, great though many of them were ...
...that any of them would feel they came from the same sort of socioeconomic revolution that was going on at the time in England.
Yeah, well, they try to make light of that, pretend that that doesn’t exist. And that’s where you miss the point: We’re working class, and that means something in England. It means you have no hope, no future. Every line in every (Pistols) song is about that.
That’s important, and I hate to see my life trivialized by idiots trying to grab glory that doesn’t belong to them. Even our own manager was at that game. Malcolm (McLaren) tried to grab credit for everything. It eventually made him look ridiculous.
Does it surprise you that people still respond so strongly to the no-future sentiments you put down 30 years ago?
Well, oddly enough, the Establishment, if you want to call them that, still resent us bitterly, whether it be a Margaret Thatcher government or the now recently departed Tony Blair. They’ve both made life hell for us—and, indeed, we get a great deal of pleasure making life hell for them.
You know, we’re seen as antiroyalists, yet I’m rather fond of the royal family. I’m just not fond of the attitudes I’m getting from them. It’s a piece of history. There’s an invigorating pulse to a British heartbeat to have something so ancestral as a royal family. It means your roots go back way into the centuries, and that’s an important thing. But whether you like or dislike that according to current political trends is irrelevant. It exists—you can’t pretend it doesn’t. This politically correct thinking is a load of bollocks. It hurts all of us.
I was about to tip-toe around this next question, but seeing as you’re Johnny Rotten ...
It’s certainly no secret you’ve done well for yourself financially ...
Ha-ha! (Laughs loudly.) That’s one of my biggest, most fabulous lies.
So it’s not true?
Ah, I’m on skid row since the day I first started! When you try to keep bands like I do together, money flies out the window. Public Image (Ltd.), for instance—highly, highly expensive outfit to control the purse strings of, you know? And it was all basically down to me to coordinate and keep it together, `cause there was no help from any individual members in that way.
But I had read that you had done very well for yourself in property investment.
Yeah, well, that again is a most hilarious joke that sort of backfired. A couple of years back we played the Jubilee in England. They wouldn’t give us a venue, but we managed to find an old stadium that was derelict in Crystal Palace ... and we put together a what-ya-call it, a brochure for the gig—a program, you’d call it. And in it we fabricated this story that I was a property speculator, with various assorted pictures of different houses for sale.
What nobody bothered to look closer at was that all of these were derelict buildings and broken-down caravans. But you know how the press can be sometimes. They take the thing literally and assume, “Oh, that must be it!” What starts out as a joke ends up as a bigger truth.
Then you do still identify with your working-class roots.
Oh, you can’t take it out of you! You’re born that way! And in many ways I would never, ever give that up, because that’s everything I’ve learned—to be deeply, deeply honest and clear of heart. I don’t need the lying nonsense of the wealthy, the powers-that-be. I don’t need to suck up to them. They’re all cheats. They cheated me out of my childhood and out of my life. And I’m certainly not gonna join that game. And anyone who feels superior to me can go (bleep) off and die, quite frankly. (Laughs.) I’m not tolerating it.
I’m self-educated. Education was free, but believe me, you had to fight for even that in England. I clawed my way out of the ghetto, so why would I ever go back on that and tell a lie, or join the crowd? I’m not part of it.
That’s why I had to ask about making a killing in property investing. I was baffled by it. And even if you had done well for yourself, which you’re certainly entitled to do ...
Yeah, what is the jealousy about that? It’s ridiculous.
Right. But what the Sex Pistols mean to so many people, what they represent ...
Yeah, well, people are putting false, fake values on us without understanding that we’re human beings! And we really seriously struggled in our early lives. Seriously! So now, look, we’ve attached ourselves to Guitar Hero ... a (bleepin’) great video game. It’s brilliant! I love it! I’m not just saying it. It is the best fun, it really is. It’s stage one to going and getting a band together.
But this idea that we have no right to do that, and isn’t that selling out—selling out what? You know, any money we were looking forward to making on that we had to spend rerecording the (bleeping) song, because Virgin, our record company, have lost the masters.
And what is up with that? Where are the masters?
You tell me. In the pending department!