John Lydon may forever be best-known as Johnny Rotten, the lead singer of the Sex Pistols, despite the fact that his strongest work in the band Public Image Ltd. can stand side to side with Never Mind the Bollocks. After a 17-year hiatus, Lydon reconstituted a new lineup for PiL late last year and is now on his first U.S. tour in more than a decade. In between shows, he spoke with NEWSWEEK’s Seth Colter Walls about Green Day’s new musical, the pleasures of Beyoncé and Lady Gaga, and his enduring distaste for the Catholic Church and certain other conservatives. Excerpts:
As of this month, Green Day has a new musical on Broadway, based on their album American Idiot. What do you think of that?
Somebody mentioned this to me the other day, and I fell off the chair laughing and almost shattered my elbow. It just struck me as, like, hilarious and wrong. I never thought of Green Day as a punk band. Just bubblegum, really. Tom Verlaine [of the band Television] once described punk and the Sex Pistols as bubblegum. The only difference is that I was discussed in Parliament under the Treason Act, which at that time carried the death penalty. That is not bubblegum.
The early PiL songs weren’t bubblegum, either. But for most of the ’90s, it was difficult to find albums like Metal Box in the U.S. You could only buy the later, more pop-oriented works. Jumping from your style in the Sex Pistols to that material could be quite jarring.
It’s been very annoying and disturbing for me the way record companies have mishandled me over the years. While of course [later albums such as] 9 and That What Is Not were more accessible to purchase in America, at the same time, the English label would make them less accessible there, which would create completely different PiL audiences in the two countries. And it caused some friction, because people thought I was radically shifting emphasis [toward pop], and it wasn’t that at all. It was a deliberate progression.
I know you’ve bristled when people have called you an “artist” in the past. How would you prefer that we describe your overall endeavor—this progression, as you say?
Works of great humanity [laughs]! You’re a little jumpy on me; please lighten up—I’ve been sound asleep!
OK, we can talk about …
No, no, no, it’s a good subject, it really is. Perhaps “art” is the right word. I’m just a little wary of it, because there are so many pretentious people who call themselves artists.
I remember you once dissing David Lynch and Twin Peaks on the radio, saying something to the effect of “God save me from art, particularly popular art.”
Yes, I found all that really pretentious. I term that “craft.” Art should be life. It’s an imitation of life. It should have some humanity in it. I never got anything from a David Lynch piece, did you?
I think there’s a lot of humanity in his best work.
Well, there was all that love of cherry pie. That fascinated me. But the rest was rather empty.
After [Sex Pistols manager] Malcolm McLaren’s recent death, I was thinking about the connection between his fashion shop, Sex, and the mythology of the Pistols as a band. And now today we have Lady Gaga with her designers in the Haus of Gaga . . .
What? So she has a fashion house now?
That crew has been designing all her material from the start.
Well, I find Lady Gaga hilarious. And I kind of like her. My heart’s warmed to her. “Paparazzi” is a great song. It’s a real slice of humor. There’s some humanity to it. And I don’t see anything misleading there.
So is pop music getting smarter?
I would generally say no, not at all. But that’s a step in a good direction. Of course it borrows from the past. But there’s no harm in that. Though I like [Christina] Aguilera too [laughs]. I like good pop; I always will.
What else is good right now?
Very little in the rap world, I’m afraid. It seems as soon as they make the money, they go showbiz on us, like a Las Vegas production. Naming no names!
I was going to ask about Jay-Z, because you played opposite him at Coachella the other week. And Beyoncé also showed up.
Well, Beyoncé is a damn fine artist. It’s utterly pointless to say anything there, because I think she’s almost flawless, really. Though the video with Lady Gaga I think was a little tack-ola. The clothing was definitely hilarious. I mean, it was full-on absurd. Madonna would take it and try to make it serious. Gaga is beyond that, but Beyoncé couldn’t quite cope with that universe.
What’s interesting is that you’re quick to call out artistic pretense, and you venerate that sense of fun in good pop, while meantime, your own songs are often quite serious. “Death Disco” isn’t about a sense of fun.
And your early song “Religion” isn’t lighthearted at all.
No. And actually it’s as up-to-date and current as ever! And that’s the tragedy. That’s the dilemma I face. Doing “Religion” now is a wonderful thing, and it shouldn’t be. It should be almost an anachronism. But the Catholic Church is still plundering on in an evil way…[with] this child predation. I grew up Catholic, went to Catholic school. All of us boys, we knew to run from the priests.
Would you sign on with Christopher Hitchens’s call to detain or subpoena the pope over the child-rape scandal?
Well, I don’t know what his political motivations are there, but, yeah, I’d go along with that. It’s reprehensible for them to hide information about pedophilia. It’s an endless form of new material for me.
Will we see a new album after the current tour?
It took an awful lot of money to start us up again. We’ve had no contact with our record label, Virgin, for such a long time. It became all rather pointless with them. Over the years I’ve never managed to get them to release all the records in equal amounts. [But] I am going into recording, when we finish this tour. Whatever money is amassed will go into that. We are looking into other labels who at least show some keen interest. You know, I have a serious set of values and I adhere to them.
Honesty, above all else. Integrity.
Do you see those qualities as being in decline?
No, not while I’m alive. Well, let’s go back to Lady Gaga quickly. I don’t expect those things from her. She doesn’t want to do things for the benefit of mankind. I don’t mean to sound grandiose, but I put my money where my mouth is. The chance to be honest is an amazing, wonderful gift.
Can’t let you go without talking politics.
This is NEWSWEEK, eh? Obama: please give him a chance! After eight years of George W. Bush wrecking the economy and creating mindless, stupid, futile wars, I think we should lighten up on the new president. He has his work cut out for him.
You don’t think the left should be upset about his record on retaining certain Bush-era civil-liberties positions, or on closing Gitmo?
Yes, yes, but you can’t do everything all at once. So be fair! But I don’t see anything in Obama as being extreme. It’s quite middle-of-the-road, his slow, almost seemingly ponderous approach. And it’s quite a marvelous achievement for the grand old U.S. of A. A very strange thing is, the only problem against him is the birther movement and the Tea Party mob. And actually, the Tea Party mob, they should be called the Chimpanzee Tea Party. Because it’s so utterly ridiculous, what’s going on. I mean, they’re shouting for “bring back Bush” [laughs]…It’s pretty damn heinous that the Sarah Palins are shooting their mouths off. Because she’s almost, well…nigh-on illiterate, really. There’s always a space for everyone to have their say. But you add that to the Fox News network and it becomes a pretty appalling picture. And these people are bandying around words like “Nazis” and “national socialism,” and they’re not quite understanding the concepts.
Perhaps there’s a song in this for you.
Almost definitely. And then I could turn it into a musical! One that would make more sense [laughs]. This Green Day thing puzzles me…You’re asking people to sit down, theater style, to a musical. That’s kind of very un-punk, really! Very, very naughty move.