John Lydon has always been outspoken about the issues of the day. When the Sex Pistols were the kings of punk in the late ’70s, he sang, as Johnny Rotten, about a “fascist regime” on “God Save the Queen,” and the song got banned by BBC radio.
Following the Sex Pistols’ reign, which lasted only two and half years, Lydon continued to rail against the system with Public Image Limited (PiL), a constantly evolving post-punk outfit with numerous albums (including the excellent Metal Box and Second Edition) and a bunch of lineups (one that even featured ex-Cream drummer Ginger Baker).
All of Lydon’s snarling, snotty lyrics are now collected in Mr. Rotten’s Songbook, a visually bold, limited-edition book featuring his own artwork and annotated lyric sheets handwritten by Rotten. Songbook follows the 61-year-old punk’s two previous books: Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs (1993) and Anger Is an Energy (2015).
In his conversation with Newsweek, Lydon talks about his early punk days, PiL and his appreciation for Pink Floyd, even though he used to wear an “I Hate Pink Floyd" T-shirt. He also slags Donald Trump, Angela Merkel and Green Day.
The new book shows your evolution from nihilistic punk through your PiL period.
I hope it’s an upward progression. The more I learn, the better I get, and that can only happen with the longer I live.
You’ve said you were determined to grow musically with PiL.
People just want you to keep doing the same kinds of thing, and that's a box I cannot accept. They want to box you in and departmentalize, and that's torturous for anybody that is a free-thinking individual.
How would you rate PiL’s most recent album, What the World Needs Now…?
I think the band that we are now is absolutely amazing, but apart from the skill of each and every individual is the friendliness that we approach this with. We truly are friends. These last two [PiL] albums have been such an eye-opener for me because I always presumed working in music was an adversarial occupation.
Would you agree that the Sex Pistols’ musicianship has gotten far less credit than it deserves?
Yeah! We were despised as being talentless.... Just personality-wise, we just couldn't see eye to eye. But that was actually the striving energy that drove us forward, those complicated relationships. And then you had a manager [Malcolm McLaren] in there playing us all off against each other.... Basically, for me, the ideology is to remove greed from music. If it’s all fair shares; doesn’t matter if there is one particular person in charge of everything, but you are all equal.
How did Malcolm get in the way?
Malcolm was disruptive. He couldn't help it because that was his left-wing politics. He just felt the need to talk bollocks at all the wrong moments. And we were very, very young. And there it goes, the beginnings of punk.... Malcolm was great at certain things but absolutely awful at others. Particularly in connection with money, he was much more interested in promoting his aspirations. He made himself be very much like an Andy Warhol. Who to us in England was Andy Asshole.
Kids understood what it was we were saying. And oh my God, it was just pure luck, what opened the door to become the Sex Pistols singer: a bloody T-shirt with “I Hate Pink Floyd" on it. That’s all I had to do. You have to bear in mind that at that time, Pink Floyd was so adored.... They were sacrosanct. It was blasphemy to write "I hate" over the top of it.... The hilarity of it is I've [now] got friends in Pink Floyd.
PiL has had a lot of members over the years. Any reason?
There was lack of funds, frankly. That's why Public Image was such a revolving door. If you can’t guarantee a monthly wage, well, good-bye. And I don't blame any single one of them for that.
What has that done to punk rock?
I don't know, but it ended up with Green Day running around in studded leather jackets. There's no personal animosity there with members of bands, but it’s like, don’t use the term punk, because you’re not. Why don't you use your own terminology, your own expressions. To me, they were karaoke.
When the Sex Pistols started, many punks were hurling insults at the big biggest arena-rock acts of the day, like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd and Queen, yet over the years, you’ve actually expressed appreciation for those popular rock acts.
The chaps that stand up, they've always impressed me because what they did was challenging in its time. Led Zeppelin, they took the blues and turned it backwards, upside down and on its heads. That incredible drummer [John Bonham], insane!
They come from a different period in time. I was never very interested in rock bands that were imitating black America. I resented that. So the ideology of the British invasion is so awful. That was putting white faces on black music, played very badly, without the empathy and the grueling existence that black people had to endure. When I started with the Pistols, what I did not want was a piss-poor representation of English blues music.
Another form of music that grew very popular around the time the Pistols started was prog-rock. What are your thoughts about all that stuff?
It's kind of in between this, that and the other, isn't it?
What about heavy metal?
I think when the Pistols first started, a lot of heavy metal wouldn't tolerate us. But I've got to say, God bless bands like AC/DC and all of them, because they understood it honestly and openly. They always came to our gigs. And Lemmy [Kilmister of Motörhead] and all these people, they got it.
We're all fighting for the same cause.
You’ve spoken about the camaraderie you’ve shared with guys from other genres.
I've got to tell you, Mr. Journalist, about how deeply connected me and my friends in music are. And we have to listen to this “we're all in opposition” nonsense in the media. What you have to understand is that we love each other's fucking work ethics. It’s so important that we understand that. Nobody's doing anything casually. They came to be my friends.
Who, in particular?
Pink Floyd. Yes, we’re back to that. I'm running you in a circle so you understand that the fan base creates opposition where there isn't any. Roger Waters's wife was the art teacher for my younger brother, Martin. So, hello? We're all inter-related, whether we like it or not. Don't make an enemy where you don't need one. You might not like the sounds they come up with or whatever, but they're doing something important to all of us. They're making us think, and anybody who thinks can never be my enemy.
Pink Floyd once asked you to perform with them. What was your reaction?
They were doing a show in L.A., and I think it was a song off The Dark Side of the Moon. It was a great idea. I didn't have the time to do it. I look back on that now, and I regret it. I should've canceled what I was doing because it's an album I love. It would have been just lovely to have Johnny [Rotten] come out and go, "See you all on the dark side of the moon" [laughs].
Another instance: Alice Cooper was playing in London, the Hammersmith Odeon, which is just up the road from where I live, and he wanted me to come on and do “I’m Eighteen” with him. But I couldn't do it because I was deep in recording This is PiL. What a shame. At the same time, and I've got tell you, there's that fear in me because I'm a human being, that I thought I might kind of wreck the show for him.
You didn't want to steal the show?
It's not that. I don't want to ruin the show. I've loved Alice Cooper all my life.
The last thing I want is Johnny Rotten in the middle of [Cooper’s shtick]. ’Cause that's not the Alice I love. Alice is one of me heroes. He was just was insane—that delicious idea of theater mixed in with, basically, teenage angst.
And the horror aspect.
Yeah, but the songs are basically about, how do you get a girlfriend? Teenage angst. I'm still suffering from it!
In 1976, the Sex Pistols embarked on the infamous Anarchy Tour and took several bands with them.
Of course. the Clash, the Damned. And the Heartbreakers. Yes, we took them on tour with us. We got banned everywhere [laughs], and none of them other bands were banned—it was only the headliner!
Punk opened many doors, but at the same time, the village built around punk closed many doors, because it became an “us and them” kind of an attitude. How awful, you know? Judgment crept in. And judgment meant nothing to me. Oh my God, the Adverts, the Slits. X-Ray Specs and the Pistols. Hello? Diversity.
Put it this way, I never found it easy to fit into any group. Because there's always that pull in me to stretch it beyond their imagination. It’s been the story of my life, really.
What kind of music are you listening to these days?
Everything, anything, done by anybody because I have complete, total respect for every single human being that goes through the process of writing a song, rehearsing a song, recording a song and then waiting for the negative review [laughs]. That's hell on earth, man. The modern world of music tends to be dominated by, let’s say, a Simon Cowell kind of approach.
Some glorious things certainly came from the Sex Pistols’ female contemporaries.
The most major aspect of punk was that girls learned to stand up and be the equivalent of boys. And that changed the world. All them girl bands stood on the stage and took it just like the blokes, right? It changed everything. The Slits, X-Ray Spex, Raincoats, right? Absolutely fantastic. I don't know if young kids these days realize how open and creative and challenging to society that was.
You’ve been speaking favorably about U.S. President Donald Trump lately.
I don't expect any of us are going to tolerate alternative facts. Donald [Trump] is actually our friend in this concept. He is allowing us to understand that we ourselves have become disproportionately outsiders.... Some of what Trump is addressing might be helpful to us, [but] the way he's done it is amateur hour.
What are you feelings about former President Barack Obama?
Wonderful man. I love him very much as a human being. But he couldn't get nothing done. Now it's up to all of us. We've got to start sorting this out all over again. It's Punk, Part Two.
What’s your take on the immigration issue when it comes to European countries, like Germany?
When [PiL] were touring Europe last year, we had to deal with the massive immigration that [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel has allowed. It's such an ugly scenario. [Merkel] welcomes everyone, but she didn't realize that to get into Germany, [immigrants] had to emigrate through all them other countries. And the trouble is, there was no proper vetting.
Your sociopolitical views have been covered by all kind of media, including the extreme left and the far right.
There was a magazine in England called Spearhead. It was very right-wing and Nazi-inclined. They did a delicious interview with me, and on the cover they put the body of a gorilla and my face. And the title was, “Is This Man an Albino Nigger?”
This is what you get into, you see? People misinterpreting for their own political agendas.
How does this relate to your life?
I come from Mixed Race R' Us, you know? My grandkids are Jamaican.... I'm in a mix-and-match world.... You're either good or you're not good. No other determination comes into it.