He should be enjoying what could be considered a victory lap, but John Lydon isn’t having it.
The man once known as Sex Pistols singer Johnny Rotten is celebrating the 40th anniversary of his post-Pistols outfit Public Image Ltd with a recently released five-CD, two-DVD boxed set The Public Image Is Rotten (Songs from the Heart), as well as a documentary by the same name, minus the subtitle (Lydon introduced the film at Metrograph in NYC on Sept. 13 and returns Sept. 14 to do the same). Additionally, PiL is kicking off a North American tour Oct. 8 in New Orleans — but Lydon can’t quite enjoy the moment.
“It’s almost overwhelming because all the issues,” Lydon says in a phone interview at a tour stop in London. “They’re wonderful issues to have, but it’s all slamming into to me all at once. I thought it would be like some kind of joyous party. It always works out that way, doesn’t it? You go to the most anticipated party of the year and there’s people who you owe money there.”
Still, even if he’s a bit overwhelmed, Lydon is enjoying the challenge. “That to me is of very great interest because it becomes a personal battle to see just how far I can push myself,” he adds. “I think that’s the methodology I’ve applied all my life — just force yourself into that harder and harder situation just to find out how deep your character really is…Work is it’s actual own reward. There is a truism in that. I suppose my daddy put into me. You know, ‘Get out of bed you lazy git!'”
If nothing else, Lydon has always shown ambition. After the Sex Pistols flamed out following a final show at San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on Jan. 14, 1978, Lydon was legally forbidden from using his Rotten stage name, but he didn’t let that stop him. Instead, he formed a new outfit, Public Image Ltd, with former Clash guitarist Keith Levene, aspiring bassist Jah Wobble and drummer Jim Walker. They debuted with the eponymous single and debut album, First Issue, before the year’s end.
With the band’s influential first single “Public Image” brilliantly laying out the band’s mission statement and a revolutionary sound that set the stage for the post-punk movement, you might think a lot of planning went into the band’s launch, but Lydon says that wasn’t the case.
“In truth it was pure guess work,” he says. “When I formed PiL, I got what I thought were very best, closest friends. We were all guessing what we were going to do and we loaded ourselves into a rehearsal studio, stared at each other for about 20 minutes, drank a bit, imbibed in what was available and slowly but surely had a bit of confidence in each other and started to make noises in the individual corners and that is what came out of that. The perfect storm, really.
“That set that direction. Nobody wanted, particularly me, to sound like my first outfit,” he adds. “That’s an enormous hill to be climbing, let me tell you, because it’s still bouncing in your head that thought of the good old days and then your next thought would be, ‘Well, there weren’t any, so let’s move on.’ And try to encompass the past in one short, sharp sweet delivery and I think we did that. The lyrics just flowed so naturally, the lovely guitar line, the wonderful drumming and over course Wobble learning the bass was all very, very helpful.”
With the course set, PiL went on to release its landmark second album, Metal Box, in 1979, re-released in early 1980 as Second Edition without the film canister that served as its namesake. The sound mixed Wobble’s dub-influenced bass lines with Levene’s shards of guitar and Lydon’s unholy howl. A tour followed, with a legendary stop in downtown Los Angeles at the Olympic Auditorium, a dilapidated wrestling venue, that this reporter witnessed firsthand. “It was a very strange event,” Lydon recalls. “Somehow or another it came off. It worked. It was a like a little torch we had there in all the seeming darkness. The excitement of all of it was very hard to keep control of, we just about managed to stop it from going into something nasty.”
Lydon wasn’t as lucky with PiL’s lineup, which fell apart in the wake of infighting and accusations of Levene and Wobble stealing tapes, as seen in the documentary. “They were poor sods,” Lydon says. “I wanted to help them. I put a lot of my own personal money into that. I think I helped them launch solo careers and all they’ve done is turn around and criticize and moan like selfish, whiny spoiled brats and that’s an awful thing to see friends behave that way. They’ve not put a penny in my direction, never really helped me out at all. Not even the words thank you. And years later, I write songs like ‘Disappointed,’ ‘that’s what friends are for.’ Wow, I hope they’re listening.”
While the lineup has evolved several times over the years, Lydon kept pushing on. At one point, for 1986’s Album, he ended up with an all-star band, which included guitarist Steve Vai, former Cream drummer Ginger Baker and others. Album included anthemic “Rise,” which became one of PiL’s best-known singles.
“It was very difficult to do Album because the band were too young for New York and the studio and definitively too young for [producer] Bill Laswell. There’s a slave driver in the studio and we had a deadline to meet and we were running out of money, so I had to find quick replacements and those were the kind of people that turned up – Ginger Baker, Steve Vai,” Lydon recalls. “You’re hardly going to say ‘no thank you’ are you? I’ve got to say, at the time I was kind of low and had self-doubt because the negative press had worn me down over the years. You’re lacking a little confidence in yourself, so that cheered me up that fellas like that could walk in and say, ‘Of course we’re here for you.’ My God, thank you. And they’re thanking me, quite an amazing turnaround of events and that helped me to no end and it really gave me the confidence to continue.”
Still, Lydon continued to have his ups and downs, as chronicled in the aforementioned track “Disappointed” from his 1989 album, 9. The song includes the word “collusion,” now heard regularly on the nightly news in connection to the investigation into the Trump presidential campaign and its alleged ties to Russia. When asked about the lyrics, Lydon good-naturedly admits he can’t remember, but a few minutes later, he confirms that word is in the song’s lyrics. When asked about statements he made which news outlets interpreted as pro Trump, he claims that’s nothing but “fake news.”
“It’s so weird the things I’m reading and how people deliberately misinterpret me,” he says. “I’m the kind of fella that you just don’t take one sentence from. You have to print the whole paragraph,” he says. “How on Earth can I like him? And at the same time, how on Earth can I hate him? It’s just another ridiculous situation we have to put up with in the world or politics. For me, it’s like a situation comedy that’s either incredibly well written or poorly acted. I’m indecisive about the conclusion of it as a TV series, but I know CNN is not in charge. It’s both amusing and horrifying at the same time.”
That said, Lydon is excited about bringing PiL – with its longest-running lineup of guitarist Lu Edmonds, bassist Scott Firth and drummer Bruce Smith – to the U.S. “I’m looking forward to touring America, the land I love,” says the long-time resident of Venice, Calif. “I’m an American and I’m very proud of that. I’m coming home, babies!”
The Public Image Is Rotten North American Tour Dates
TUE 10/9 New Orleans, LA The Civic Theatre
WED 10/10 Atlanta, GA Variety Playhouse
FRI 10/12 Washington, DC Black Cat
SAT 10/13 Asbury Park, NJ Asbury Lanes
MON 10/15 Brooklyn, NY Brooklyn Steel
TUE 10/16 Philadelphia, PA Union Transfer
THU 10/18 Montreal, QC Club Soda
FRI 10/19 Toronto, ON Lee’s Palace
SUN 10/21 Detroit, MI The Majestic
MON 10/22 Chicago, IL Thalia Hall
WED 10/24 Dallas, TX Granada Theatre
THU 10/25 Austin, TX The Mohawk
SUN 10/28 Portland, OR Wonder Ballroom
MON 10/29 Seattle, WA Showbox
WED 10/31 San Francisco, CA The Chapel
THU 11/1 San Francisco, CA The Chapel
SAT 11/3 Los Angeles, CA El Rey
TUE 11/6 Mexico City, MX Pepsi Centre