Brumlive’s Mark Veitch was offered a golden chance to talk to one of his heroes, when the opportunity arose to interview the legendary John Lydon: pioneer, innovator, iconoclast, hero and anti-hero, PiL front-man and of course Sex Pistol. Unsurprisingly Mr Lydon had a lot to say and the wide ranging interview was so vibrant and uncompromising that we have included the whole conversation, but in two parts so you can catch your breaths halfway through. This has to be one of the most entertaining and insightful things we have ever published on Brumlive.com. Whether you agree with the opinions expressed or not, it”s a delight. So sit back and enjoy. Over to Mark and Part 2:
BL: John, I remember when I was about thirteen or fourteen, sitting in my bedroom listening to the Sex Pistols, and I’m thinking that the Pistols were the be all and end all, and then an older mate lent me a copy of “Death Disco”. For a thirteen year old to go from listening to a damn good rock’n’roll outfit like the Pistols to listening to “Death Disco”, it was just too challenging and….
JL: Yeah, many people thought the same at the time, but now what do I find? I find the charts filled with those influences and…. whatever it is that I do it’s instinctive of me to be ahead of the curve, alright? I don’t go out of my way to copy styles or patterns in music at all, and errrm… and I’m happiest when I’m with three people like Lu, Bruce and Scott who also feel the same way. When we first started in PiL we felt the same way, but financial restrictions at the time really wrecked us as a band and drove us apart. It’s been a constant story of trying to raise enough money to keep everybody bleedin’ happy.
BL: Well, to go back to the question, for me it was only when I caught up with the output and heard “Rise” that I got it and suddenly it wasn’t challenging it was….
JL: Well that was a particularly harsh song because it was dealing with the death of my mother [“Death Disco”] and the only way that I could come to grips with it was screaming in agony. Later Tears For Fears, remember them? They explored that terrain with “Shout” using shout therapy. But I didn’t have any help in that. It was a real serious personal battle, I’d lost the one person in life who’d helped me really recover from my lack of memory from an illness when I was seven.
JL: Yeah. Which put me in a coma and when I came out of that it took me nearly four years to remember anything at all and she was like my constant guide, so, when she kicked the bucket I picked it up and used that bucket to scream through. It’s a song that we still play to this day and it’s more poignant than ever to me because of the death of my father. An equally important figure in my life. A really difficult man to understand, or even get on with until he died, and then I realised just how much of him is in me! And so, when we do that song live…. I’m in tears! I’ve got a photographic memory or something for scenes that really upset me and that’s what that song does. It takes me right back into that moment!!! That’s why PiL live is such a dramatic band! We’ve been called opera, which you know, isn’t an insult at all. If you know anything about opera, and I’m not talking about at the Royal box and tiaras and flowing gowns…. I’m talking about proper Italian stuff where it’s a folk music… It’s a way of expressing yourself and of communicating, indeed, as most music should be.
BL: In the same way Flamenco and….
JL: Yeah, and we’re in those moulds without being able to be categorised.
BL: Which takes me back to that word “challenging”; opera and those types of music a lot of that is challenging music and so…
JL: Yeah, painfully so for the listener. I remember I wrote a song that was on the first PiL album called “I Wish I Could Die” [laughs]…. Well hello! I Didn’t! And that’s the point of it. You have to express these emotions or they’ll stick to you like glue and they’ll clog up yer drainpipes for the rest of your life. So for me music is…. errrm….
JL: [Sigh]. I don’t like that word. It sounds like an illness!
I went to the Doctor over me cathartic! [In a very passable Yorkshire accent].
Pain should be approached. Not cautiously but full on! Mental pain and it’s something I’ve had to deal with most of my life. It’s a pretty tough thing to have lost your memory, and it… It wells back up. How can you not remember your own Mum and Dad? Well that’s what I had to deal with at eight when they released me from the hospital. Then four years of not knowing anyone or anything and then being sent off to school and having kids coming up and saying “Remember me?”, “NO!, I don’t!”. So I earned a reputation, dummy dumb dumb! So dummy got smart, dummy learned to read and write and I read everything that I possibly could and definitely went into music in a most industrious way. I was just trying to find myself by listening to other people express themselves honestly.
BL: I understand that you were very much into Krautrock at that time; Can, Faust, etc.
JL: Oh yeah! Yeah! In a big way. That was fascinating for me hearing the Germans try to recover from World War 2 using “boom boom boom” as a backdrop. It was like oompah music transferred through electronics. Deeply fascinating!
BL: And do you still get those moments of almost child like joy when you hear something new? Is there…
JL: Oh yeah! All the time. And I tell you the best… And this is not official released records. When I go out and sign autographs or talk to people after he gig, they’re always handing me cassettes or CDs, and when I take them home and play them…. They’re the most tearful and enjoyable moments of my life, because that’s people sharing something deeply personal with you. And they know that I’m not going to judge it…. “Oh, that’s not professional”. That’s not my way. I know what they’re trying to communicate with me. What a gift! What a gift the human race is…. You know, when we drop our complexities and we open our minds and share!
BL: Do you take the attitude that there’s always something positive to take out of everything?
JL: Oh yeah. Even if it’s a pile of negative hatred. That in itself is a voyage of discovery, innit? [Laughs] Like how’s Villa and Birmingham doing?
Just take football as a backdrop. When you hear the opposition fans chant a song that’s so funny, negative but so funny, doesn’t it really get into your heart? You know what I mean? There’s a generosity in insults. It’s human beings and minds at work and for me comedy is such a beautiful thing, it’s what pulled me back into myself really… Carry On films, or any of those people… Norman Wisdom.
BL: That very British humour.
JL: Yeah, and that’s never gonna change, no matter where I am on the planet… Tommy Cooper. None of his tricks ever worked and that’s genius…. The sheer fun, just to share his moments of awkwardness and trying to explain that away. You know what that did to me as a kid. It cleared the self doubt so I used it in a very, very positive way. That’s maybe why I’m still here doing this. It taught me not to take things too seriously and to definitely not to take yourself to serious and to have that sense of self mockery. I think that’s a brilliant gift that a lot of British comedians shared with us.
BL: It’s very much a British trait.
JL: It really is an excellent one!
BL: John, talking of Britain, are you looking forward to coming back over next month for the tour?
BL: I notice that it’s very Midlands-centric. Is there a reason for that?
JL: Well, we’ve kinda avoided that area in the past because…. I don’t now…. Maybe it was promoters. It wasn’t a deliberate move but, ya know, if the universe had a black hole to centre around, I’d put Birmingham in the middle. [Laughs]
BL: Don’t worry about me, I’m from Leeds. Not that that’s much better.
So you’re in sunnier climes at the minute and…
JL: No! Not at the moment. It’s absolutely pissing it down with rain and it’s freezing cold. Setting me up for what I’m about to get involved with and the fun for me is that I start in Iceland!
BL: Okay, I didn’t see that on the tour dates..
JL: No, well mostly it’s a…. a… errrm…. speech about a book that I put out but I must admit it’s an absolute thrill to go to a place that I’d never have thought about going to ordinarily. So there’s the gift of life. Once you start communicating with others, open and honestly, they openly and honestly invite you.
BL: Is that then another joy about the, I hate to call it an industry, but the industry that you’re in?
JL: Well, I’m industrious in it. But as for the industry itself… I’ve always called it the shytstem instead of system, but yes, yes, and meet your fellow human beings and that eye opening forever-and-ever realisation that wherever we come from, we all have the same painful emotions, the same joys, the same everything and it’s just how we focus our attentions that causes frictions. We find ways of separating ourselves and unfortunately governments and religions tend to do that and make us enemies of each other when really we’re all just one big human family.
BL: But is that not just human nature to separate and…
JL: No! I disagree. No! I come from a very working class background and dummy dumb dumb as I was, I knew I was safe on the street and everybody knew in them days that your house wasn’t going to get burgled. But we’ve had successive governments since that have managed to separate and dislocate that working class sense of community. That’s a great pity. And we see our inner cities and towns turn into what? IKEA projects.
BL: Well that’s a homogeneity that governments actually want…
JL: Yes. There you go….Well thank you Europe… You gave us IKEA. I’ve been to Scandinavia and nobody’s working with rickety furniture there when it snows.
BL: John, I have to ask about the re-releases of the two albums; “Album” and “Metal Box”. How did that come about? What was the….
JL: Well, we’re working quite closely with the Universal Records who have been affiliated with the Sex Pistols kind of affairs, over the years, and they suggested would we mind, if they were prepared to take on the workload to re-release “Album” and “Metal Box” and…. Yippee Hi Ho! Yes please!!! Thank you! We didn’t know how much that work actually meant and that’s involved me now and all of us for the last two months in serious bleedin’ problems putting artwork together and packaging and to ensure that the recording are as excellent as they possibly can be. And all this of course is cost cutting measures but I don’t flog cheaply to no one. I don’t give trash to no one. You get the best of the best regardless of how many holes that digs in me pocket and quality costs money…. Sorry folk! You all know it’s true.
BL: So we’re talking the full monty? 180 gram vinyl, top notch packaging and….
JL: Yeah, and trying to keep the price down. It’s important…. These are things that mean things to people like us…. And then hopefully…. The nation at large!! I don’t think anyone should be force fed lazy crap.
BL: There’s an awful lot of interesting remixes in there and rare….
JL: Yeah, and a lot unreleased that we found in the vaults so … Hello…. Share time!
BL: And is there more still in the vaults?
JL: No, we used as much as we could and what we haven’t used is kinda like…. not worth it. One or two little pieces that weren’t quite appropriate.
BL: And are we going to get a similar re-release of some of the other albums?
JL: Errrm… No… no, there’s no plan for that. It was a joy to jump into it using “Album” and “Metal Box” as examples of PiL dexterity and so…. Yippee… That seems to be the perfect combination and for those that know, they already know and for those that think… “Ooo, ahhh, there must be more”, of course there is. I’ve not been lazy over the years. I’ve worked damn hard to do what it is that I do. It’s not bad for a working class lad. [Laughs] To have achieved this much in life when the shytstem is against ya. And that that’s not an act of paranoia. That’s just a plain fact!!
BL: Is that important for you to work hard in that…
JL: Yeah. Yep. It is for me. It’s something that me Dad instilled in me. You don’t work hard you won’t get nuffink and he was dead right about that!
BL: And no sign of you slowing down then?
JL: Nooo! How can I? The world we live in … Jesus… full of inequality and fundamental stupidity so I’m never gonna run out of inspiration am I?
BL: Are you working on anything new at the moment?
JL: Well, when we finish.. this is only a small segment of… but when we finish touring proper then we’ll go back in and record a new album. That’s the joy of this. See we travel together, when we travel with the road crew it creates a very, very chummy atmosphere and it makes it really easy for me to open up and explain new ideas. Because of the temporary nature of some of the bands I’ve been with in the past that wasn’t possible. Y‘know, you discover things about each other and they just help improve your mind, very much like I approach libraries. Everything in them is there for me to help expand my knowledge and that’s like I approach human beings. I’m happy in any company really, whether sitting in the pub with sloshed working class types or oiking it with the oiks, it’s all discovery.
BL: So Iceland, Midlands…
BL: That’s a festival I believe isn’t it?
JL: Yes, yes it is. And it’s odd, the festivals tend to shy away from us for some reason, for some political reason that’s yet to be declared to me. But every now and again when we do one, we do them really well! Glastonbury comes to mind on that. That was a great thing to do with an audience that we were told would, basically, just not like us, at all. And hey! Turned that one round! That was a tough ‘un ‘cos the Rolling Stones played the night before…very, very badly! [Much Laughter] Thanks Mick and the boys!!! [Laughs]
BL: One of my favourite festivals is Rebellion which you played a couple of years ago….
JL: Yeah, yeah., the Punk thing. Very strange atmosphere. Quizzical? There’s a word for you, but that’s what it is. They seem like lost in a landscape of forty years ago and can’t understand that the whole point of the Do It Yourself nature is to advance!!!
BL: There can be quite a bit of that there but this year they had the new band stage that was an absolute roaring success. Some of the bands on….
JL: Well then, alls I can say is that someone was listening to me because that was my wording at the time, verbatim to all that were involved is… you need new blood in this!
BL: So, there are new songs in the bag already or are there works in progress?
JL: No, no. Only in the mind which is the best place for them until you’ve actually got back in to a studio, set up the equipment and heard the first crash of the drums. That’s when the brain then unravels all the concepts and conceits, cos there is conceit in writing songs, there’s a certain arrogance in being in a band, and to unravel even that outside of yourself and do it just for the sheer love of saying things that you know are right.
BL: And you’re showing no signs of slowing down…
JL: Oh, how on earth could I? My kind of folk, we never give up. No way would I ever settle on me laurels…. I don’t even want them bleedin’ laurels anyway. Don’t want the accolades and the awards, I want to be able to communicate with people and this is what I do. This is what live gigging is to me. It’s an affirmation of the quality of human life, it’s the most amazing feeling that I’m looking into peoples eyes, from the front to the back of the hall and they’re sharing something with me and geeing me on and telling me, “There it is. Tell it like it is!”
BL: It sounds like you’re almost feeding off the emotions of…
JL: Oh yeah, yeah, totally! The audience is the fifth member. I’ve used the term folk music to describe what we do, in the past, and that’s raised more than an eyebrow…. And a complaint from… the folk musicians. But this is what it is. This is us communicating to the folk that matter to us about things that matter to all of us.
BL: I understand that you would call yourself shy and does that …
JL: Oh yeah!!! Big time!
BL:… make it difficult to walk out on stage in front of those people?
JL: Yeah! Very much so…. Fear of letting people down and just not being good enough for them. Very, very serious problem that. Stage fright you could call it…. Whatever…. There’s an endless list of terms but the reality is that you really care about what you do, and if I didn’t have that in me then this would just be… nonchalant rubbish. Which, of course it is not. And, listen, in the back of my head, and I told you earlier about doing songs like “Death Disco” even forty years on, that song breaks me down. And I see that. I see people crying with me, because they’re relating to their own family and friends, and they’re finding a release in it. If you can do that with your fellow human beings then that’s called success. Not money in the bank.
BL: It’s connection with people….
JL: Yes. That as a species we’re valid after all!!!
BL: So, one more question John. Would you like to be remembered as an entertainer, or, and it’s back to that word, as someone who has challenged people’s….
JL: Yes I would!!!! But on my gravestone… “Leave a message, not in at the moment. Call back later!” [Laughs] There’s more to come, and there it goes, ya know. Until the Duracell bunny batteries run out… Here it is!
The man is generous with his time. That reader, was the end of the interview for you. For me…. I talk to one of my childhood ‘heroes’ for a while longer about non-league football, his beloved Arsenal, Punk Rock football chants and how we should always keep friends who have passed on in our memories. No longer a ‘hero’ he is now just a regular bloke but one to be admired for his honesty, heart worn on sleeve, sentimentality, humanity, integrity, warmth.
Interviewer : Mark Veitch
Special thanks to Penny “Race against time” Johnson for saving the day and the interview!!
Photograph: courtesy of PR
At the end of October, PiL reissued the seminal albums ‘Metal Box’ and ‘Album’. ‘Metal Box’ was the band’s second album, originally released on 23rd November 1979 and ‘Album’ was their 5th studio album and was originally released on 3rd February 1986, marking 2016 as its 30th anniversary.
The album’s will both be issued as 4 CD and 4 vinyl LP super-deluxe box sets, as well as digitally. The editions will include rare and previously unreleased material along with a live disc. The CD version’s feature additional tracks to the vinyl editions due to running time restrictions, however, the vinyl edition will include a download card for all tracks on the CD version’s. ‘Metal Box’ will be issued in a square metal tin (CD & LP) (the 1979 original was issued in a round metal film canister) with an embossed PiL logo. ‘Album’ will be issued in a square card box with de-bossed artwork. Both super-deluxe editions will include a 72 page booklet together with an exclusive poster, art-prints (LP version) and postcards (CD version).
The reissues are available on Universal here