John Lydon about the benefit of getting older, the public burning of sex pistols memorabilia, and the whole politics.
Happy Birthday, Punk. In 2016, you turn 40 years old – if you count starting with the first performance of the Sex Pistols in 1976. Needless to say that there were lots of influences from American bands like MC5, The Stooges and Velvet Underground in the late 60s or the Ramones in the mid-1970s before them.
But as a public phenomenon, which went from an underground into the mass media and at least to a big heterogeneous movement, the emergence of the Sex Pistols was ground zero for punk. This was in 1976. Exactly 40 years ago, their singer, Mr. Johnny Rotten, who’s know more known under his real name, is still very active with his other band, post-punkers Public Image Ltd (short: PiL), which he reformed in 2009. And he has still a lot of self-confidence.
PIL is going on tour again soon. How do you prepare yourself?
With great difficulties. The hardest thing is packing. You can’t travel anymore with the amount of luggage a long tour needs because the airlines won’t let you on the plane with four or five suitcases. For me now this is a real problem. I have to decide what to wear. I suppose I have to get unusual and have to buy my underwear as I travel.
You turned 60 some month ago. Does this make any difference in your work to you compared to the past? Easier or harder?
Easier, than it was when I was younger because of the quality of the people I now work with. We’ve all known each other for very, very long time and we can trust in what each other say. There have been times in my past with certain band members being very negative and made being the band a very difficult thing to enjoy. That’s gone by the way. We have a very healthy relationship and this made it so much better. I have an eagerness to wake up in the morning and get on stage. Even though I still suffer from stage fright, I can’t wait to get on and carry on with the work we´re doing. And that’s good even it’s taken until I am 60 to find that out. Oh, hello! This has been a very positive and interesting journey. Well, it´s like that and I learned to survive in a world of adversity in the music industry from the first bands. For me everything, even the first experiences ultimately turned out to be useful. There is no self-pity in it. Life isn’t an insurance course. You have to work hard. And I work very hard.
How can you describe your work to us?
Thoroughly honest! Good enough, isn’t that? Above all: Honest! And what it really expresses most deeply is my love for my fellow human beings for without I wouldn’t doing this. My love of life, which is a gift that was nearly taken from me in my childhood [John had a dangerous case of meningitis at the age of 7]. So here I am! A survivor. And the most useful thing I can offer is the songs and I hope you find answers to your questions in them.
On your next tour you perform in smaller cities in the UK to be closer to your fans.
Yeah, we love that!
But in Germany you play bigger cities. Why not like in the UK?
There is no choice! It’s what the promoters offer you. You cannot change promoters quickly. This takes time and you have to pay attention to build up a viable business model. It’s very difficult for us because we don’t have any major label backing. And so it gets us in all kind of difficulties with the insurance and guarantees that we actually turn up. Even though it’s very rare that I’ve not shown up for a gig but even still facing that nonsense. And it seems, that in every German town we are playing, there is a local fire marshal who wants to make problems.
What kind of problems?
Well, I’ve had concerts closed because the building was too full or our equipment presented a fire hazard.
Have you ever not been able to do the concert?
At one festival, I think it was in Hungary, the stage actually collapsed because lightning hit 10 minutes before to go on stage. Many things can happen. In Greece, I was almost between football hooligans. It was at a festival we played years ago in Athens. The two gangs from the local football teams decided to fire rockets at each other. Well that’s not my fault that I am not on the stage to receive that kind of a blessing.
You will be in Berlin again. Compared to your Tour 2015, it’s the only city which is on the itinerary again. Why is it so?
It’s always a fun place to play and it’s available. I can’t play where I am not wanted.
What’s special about Berlin and your link to the city?
I think it was the first place where I have been on holiday with Sid from the Sex Pistols. We were banned everywhere in London so we got on the plane to Berlin and we loved it. I loved Berlin before the Wall came down. It was a really mad city 24 hours. And the history and all… the whole thing really. And it’s still there for me and makes my heart patter whenever I am in Berlin. I love it! It´s an exciting place, at least for me emotionally.
What did you do with your time here? Where did you go?
The night clubs were really sensational. They played weird stuff which later turned into techno music. It was a precursor to that. Very onteresting. It was a combination of disco and Umpapa music. I’ve always loved that.
Punk is turning 40 years now. Joseph Corre, the son of your ex-manager Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood wants to burn Sex Pistols souvenirs. You said it’s a bad idea. Its pollution you said. What should he do instead?
He should sell the stuff and give the money to charity, to those who need it! That’s all. Otherwise it’s ridiculously pompous. Who gives a fuck what he thinks about anything anyway? Who the hell is he? He is no one! He wasn’t there when it mattered. Oh well, the sins of the father I suppose.
Does he just want attention?
Yes, of course and unfortunately in a very Malcolm McLaren-ish way. As we knew him. We always called him Malcolm McClownish.
Or he could give it all to a museum. Doesn’t punk belong to a museum anyway?
Haha, you might, but I don’t. I am very much alive.
Yeah, I know. Ah, I didn’t think that about you.
Well, but I am the number one in it. I am the one who started it, no matter what anybody tells you. And all of these people talking about the 40th birthday of punk are fucking arseholes to me. They were not there, they do not belong.
What’s your connection to today´s punk scene?
Public Image Ltd is very much alive and kicking! Unfortunately for a lot of people they involved themselves with the trappings of clothes, fashion statements and clichés. That’s unfortunate because I’ve always, right from day one as king of the punks, proclaimed that every person is an individual. We follow no uniform. And if you want a uniform join the army. They make it much better. And so the narrow-mindedness of what it all became is an insult to my integrity.
When you look back: What´s the worst in the punk legacy for you?
The cliché bands and the cliché followers. They didn’t understand what is about: a do-it-yourself attitude that means doing something completely individual from inside yourself, not imitating another punk band. This endless parade of bands that all look and sound the same. That is absolutely the enemy. That is a dull thing in music that I rebelled against in the 70s. “Don’t you give me any orders,
For people like me there is no order!” It’s a quote from the song “Problems” which is actually very insightful of me because that predicted what the audience becomes: A Problem. Many of us know how to advance and make the world a better place. And you’re never gonna do that by closing your mind. I don’t like block groupings of people looking identical and thinking the same things. I find that it’s always destructive. And unfortunately the punk manifesto was written without my consent. Therefore it´s wrong. Funny that this is construed as arrogance, but it´s actually the truth I am telling.
Besides punk, the last months were really hard for pop music. Many people, Lemmy Kilmister, David Bowie or Prince died recently…
Yeah, but I look at the bigger picture and there are people dying everywhere from all walks of life. For me the bigger tragedy its what´s going on in Middle East, Syria and currently the immigration problem in Germany. And how do we deal with that? And honestly, compared to that: Does the death of a popstar really seem so important? You know I miss them all dearly; I regret the death of any human being. But life is for the living! And let’s stop the hatred and the wars.
Well I asked you because you are a pop star.
I am not! I did all I can to be not one. I am the complete opposite because I am honest and I have integrity. And a sense of values that I never gave up. I have a responsibility to my parents, my family, my culture and my words. And these things define me in a completely different way. I don’t do this for the money. If I did it would be far easier for me. I fell into a flaw of what we call corporate thinking, which very quickly fucked up an early period of my life and I walked away from that. I’ve seen it was corrupt. This construction of this image is corrupt. I am still one of the people and I write songs for my fellow human beings. I am determined to make the world a better place, not a worse one.
You spoke about German politics. You pay a lot of attention to what´s going on in Germany?
I have to! I have to pay attention to the damage that politicians do all around the world! And I have to my best to communicate it wherever I am to remove the lunatics who are running the asylum. All these wars in the Middle East – it’s created by politicians who got us into it. And it’s our fault for allowing it to happen. And now we are suffering the consequences of what war fully means. Its tragedy for everybody. There is no winner in any war. There never will be. I’ve studied history long enough to know that!
If there is one thing in world politics you could change: What would it be?
Remove the idea of needing political groups to dictate us what our beliefs are. It’s a terrible, terrible progress for democracy to see left wing democracy versus right wing democracy. It’s idiotic. We should united for the same thing: fairness on this planet. One percent run the world. One lousy percent run everything! Surely that has to change.
And you are known for your harsh criticisms of religion too…
Yes, I have viewed religion as the enemy. It’s a dictatorship that takes away your sense of individuality and does not allow you to question it. Therefore it’s oppressive by nature. And modern politics is the cleverer version of the same process. It’s all about manipulation.
How would you describe your own political agenda?
There is no hatred in my heart. I am a pacifist by nature. Gandhi is my hero if I have heroes, it would be complete passive resistance. This is my line, my motivation. No need to throw bombs or kill people to get a point a cross. And in fact for me: If you have to kill another human being you have no cause. You destroy the point of purpose of your belief.
This magazine I’m doing this interview for is called “lower class magazine”. You always described yourself as a part of a lower class. What did that mean for you?
Ah yes, it’s the community I grew up in. The time was very hard and rough but there was a sense of respect for each other. When a kid did anything wrong, every parent in the neighborhood would give him a slap in the back. I think this made us better people because we learned to care about each other. That’s the principals and the values I grew up with. I hope to carry that on now in my later life. I know I am. It’s a worthy approach to care for each other. Empathy rather than separation trough politics or religion or color or anything. I come from a very mixed cultural background. The area I grew up in [North London] is all manner of people from different countries, colors and creeds. We managed to get it right with each other.
What does the term “class” mean to you today?
A division. And that should not exist. I have struggled really hard to make people understand that we have to break out the class barriers and learn to share. Because indeed as I pointed out earlier: This one percent that control all money and business in the world hate us all. And so there is no point of hating each other because that’s just helping them keep control.
Last question: How did you spend the 90th Birthday of the queen?
Ah, I didn’t know till somebody told me! It’s a great thing to hit the 90. I hope I can. That’s how I look at it. I hate the institution she was forced to be in but I don’t hate her as a human being. Far from it! I feel quite proud for her that she is doing so well. Long may she live, not so long may she reign!
PiL is actually on tour again and have got four gigs in Germany:
May 10th 2016: Wiesbaden, Schlachthof
May 11th 2016: Düsseldorf , Zakk
May 12th 2016: Hamburg, Markthalle
May 14th 2016: Berlin, Huxleys
Check out their Homepage for further information.
Photo credits (all on flickr.com)
Linda Flores (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0), bradalmanac, (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0), Ed Vill (CC BY 2.0), michaelz1 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Thx to Martin and Walter helping me with the English part.