[Spoiler alert: This story contains the identity of the eliminated contestant on Wednesday night’s (Nov. 10) The Masked Singer.]
The Masked Singer has served up every kind of disguised star over six seasons, from professional singers and rappers to comedians, actors, sports stars and even Kermit the Frog. But during Wednesday night’s (Nov. 10) double-elimination Group A semifinals extravaganza, it revealed a truly shocking face under the hood.
Talk about a wild card! The Jester came in and ripped through Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” and then really switched things up with a down-home cover of the Soggy Bottom Boys’ bluegrass jam “Man of Constant Sorrow” on Wednesday’s show, which included some eyebrow-raising choreography.
The judges didn’t know what to do with this oddball character, with Robin Thicke praising him for bringing some “metal” edge to the typically poppy prime-time series and the panel swinging wildly with their guesses. Their off-the-mark suggestions ranged from Def Leppard singer Joe Elliott to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, Ozzy Osbourne, Jack Black, Howard Stern and always-wrong Ken Jeong’s suggestions: SpaceX billionaire boss Elon Musk or mean reality judge Simon Cowell.
They were all, of course, terribly, terribly wrong. In the end, when the Jester head came off, the man inside the mask was none other than legendarily irascible punk progenitor John Lydon of the Sex Pistols and PiL. Though known as snot-rocket-shooting, journalist-baiting, queen-thrashing, anarchy-advocating sourpuss alter ego Johnny Rotten in the Pistols and a progressive post-punk noisemaker in Public Image Ltd., Lydon, 65, did not sign on to perform on the family-friendly show as some kind of postmodern joke.
In fact, the flame-haired firestarter tells Billboard he actually agreed to strut his stuff in the hilariously weird harlequin costume for the sweetest possible reason. We spoke with Lydon before his elimination to find out what motivated him, why his beloved bejeweled codpiece didn’t make it to air, and what feelings a 21-year-old Johnny Rotten would have said about such anarchy in the U.S.
I’ve done a number of these interviews and typically the person will say they watch the show with their kids or they said yes to delight their children. But I’m wondering what inspired you to take the plunge.
I don’t know. Someone contacted my manager and we discussed it and I thought it would be really good because it meant my lovely wife, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, might get a great sense of fun out of it if she managed to guess who it was. We’ve lived together for 47 years, Nora and I, so she must have some clues as to who I am and what I can get up to.
So sorry to hear your wife is ill. Were you able to watch the show with her?
No. I can’t watch the show because I’m on a book promotion tour in England [for his 2020 book I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right], which is very upsetting to me. I hadn’t planned it out in my mind well enough and I can’t travel with my lovely Nora, so I have to do it on FaceTime with her every night. I think she did guess… they made me a lovely pair of Jester gloves for me and Nora had them on when I talked to her on FaceTime.
Whose idea was it for you to do Alice’s Cooper’s “School’s Out”? Is that a song that would be on your personal playlist?
It’s one of the the things when I first joined the band later to be known as the Sex Pistols that I mimed to. Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” and “I’m Eighteen” — so Alice Cooper is integral to my entire history.
I’m a Pistol-phile, but I didn’t know that story!
Well, then, you should read my book!
The Jester costume seemed apropos for someone so used to, as the English say, taking the piss out of the media and music industry. Was that the idea?
No. You’re wrong there on several levels. The costume is part of my character but certainly not a piss-taker. The Jester is a very knowledgeable person in any court who knows all the goings on. He’s the center of information and a spreader of hope. There’s nothing negative in my Jester apart from that fact that he’s completely f—ing terrifying. I used the imagery on my last album and it’s based on the Hopi Indian character called the the Huckster, the Prankster. It’s a character that has been used throughout history… every culture has one and it’s a vital part of transferring information in any society. I wanted all of that. The costume people helped me greatly by introducing the concept with the playing card theme, which made the character more vivid. They also helped me develop a metallic codpiece, which was later covered up because the powers that be were very, very nervous about that and thought that if this is a children’s-type program that might be found offensive. My problem with that is my codpiece was highly mirrored, so the only thing you’d see in it would be your own face. No pun intended.
Very Clockwork Orange of you.
Yes, exactly. I wanted to give them as many guesses as possible because I came in late and didn’t want to spoil it for anyone by trouncing it after all their hard work. I did it for a quick innie and outie and when I get home I can sit down and watch it with my lovely wife.
What would have 21-year-old Johnny Rotten thought of 65-year-old John Lydon appearing on a reality singing show?
“What a handsome dude,” he would have said. “If only I could grow up to be as professional, skillful, beautiful, well-weathered and manicured as him, well, I might have a career!” You can quote me on that!
This seems like the kind of show a young Johnny might have made fun of other musicians for going on. Is that a sign of maturity on your part?
I think you should make fun of everything you do. If you take yourself too serious there’s not much place of a place left for you in this world. You have to have a sense of self-deprecation. I can’t bear over-arrogant, overindulgent people. I’ll tear myself down as much as anyone or anything else, probably more so. Hence that’s the sadness in that character, the joker. The smile carries empathy and pathos at the same time.
The judges praised you for bringing some “pure metal” to the show, which made me think that perhaps they’d never heard metal before. But certainly it was more rock than just about anything they’ve shown in the past…
I’m not one to condemn my judges… what a juxtaposition of events that would be! When you take on a show like this, you have to accept that complete strangers will be in a position of dropping the guillotine at any point and so you just go with that and don’t be too self-indulgent and upset out bit. I’m quite glad I got it out of my system by two songs! For me that’s quite an achievement.
You definitely seemed to lean into the absurd aspect of it with your preening stage moves.
Yes, I put a lot of effort into it. You don’t just turn up. I found it very enjoyable to perfect some kind of stagecraft with it.
Did you work with a choreographer or was that all you?
There were choreographers there for the Alice Cooper thing, but that was more “two steps to the left, face the camera, that kind of stuff.” Once they’d seen what I could really get up to, they said, “Johnny, you go for it, you’re already there!” You can’t choreograph the things that pop into my head. I work without a script, it has to be spur of the moment and I let nature take over. I fill my head with endless possibilities and then just let it happen.
In one of the clues packages, you said you were interested in changing history and showing that you’re this more sensitive, multi-faceted clown. Certainly your reputation precedes you as someone who has been known to be a little bit… angsty, edgy, what’s the word I’m looking for?
Don’t you mean acerbic? [Laughs] Instead of you coming over as aerobic?
So was this a redemption tour for you to soften your image a bit? Your public image, as it were?
What? At 65? Are you joking? Soften? Ha, ha, ha. I’m just sharpening my razors, mate. And I’m not the kind of bloke that wants to go out and garner some fake appreciation based on me attempting to be pleasant. You either find me this way or you don’t find me at all.
I thought your “Man of Constant Sorrow” cover really showed another side of you. I don’t have to tell you about the history in punk rock — as punks like X age they lean into country sometimes…
I have no knowledge of what you’re talking about there… No, no, I loved the film [O Brother, Where Art Thou?] and I knew George Clooney wasn’t singing it, so I hunted it down and found a far more accurate, traditional version of it and I absolutely fell in love with it. It was very difficult in that mask, I’ll tell ya. The heat inside… I felt like I put my head in a furnace. It’s really difficult to sing or hold a note in there because the microphone’s on the outside and if it comes anywhere near you it will scratch off the front of the helmet. Really, really an absurd thing to have to get over! It’s a bit like I was in a lancing competition in the 12th century. A jouster and a jester. So for me the luxury was when I could take that cap off and let rip the way I like to.
You did seem out of breath by the end…
That’s because I’m jumping around like a lunatic in a heavy rubber outfit with an added belly that must have weighed what? A baby elephant?
Did you hear from any of your former bandmates in the Pistols or PiL who might have guessed it was you?
I wouldn’t know. I never bothered to tell anyone, why would I? I’m not like that. This is no big, huge career move for me. “Everybody stay tuned.” This is a giggle, which I don’t mind sharing with the general public, but mostly because I want to see my wife happy. Alzheimer’s is a very, very challenging illness. Any connection I can have to bring joy into her life I’m more than happy to do that. Those are my motives.
That’s very sweet, but not a sentiment most people would associate with you given your… acerbic persona over the years.
Well, most people don’t know me and don’t bother to know me, either. One of my jobs before the Sex Pistols was to look after problem children and I was qualified to be a primary school teacher, which I would have accepted. But I found the bad babies in the Sex Pistols far easier to handle.
I love when they do the guesses and when Jenny thought you might be a comedian I wondered if you took that as an insult or dead-on?
They seem to not have any clue about body shape or size or frame. I got called Jack Black by one and Howard Stern by another. Anyone in their right mind with eyesight would have have seen those two body shapes as vaguely familiar at all: one is 6-foot-four, the other is 4-foot-short. And then they chucked in Ozzy Osbourne! I mean, deliciously funny and worth the comedy ticket to entrance.
They also thought Elon Musk or Simon Cowell. And Flea.
Well, that’s a strange range, isn’t it? God bless Flea, he’s the only one I’d like in that list.
Flea came up because one of the clues that tripped them up was that you were possibly neighbors with Robin Thicke. Is that true?
No, no, no. I thought I was, because I would have to hear that record of his [“Blurred Lines”] that somebody kept playing every weekend, over and over again. And I just assumed that was him, because who else would?