John Lydon on PiL’s return, stage-fright and his views on Rupert Murdoch
PUBLISHED: 09:37 06 July 2012
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Former Sex Pistols frontman speaks ahead of Kent show
John Lydon’s reputation does more than simply procedes him.
It arrives at your door, laden down with suitcases and spends a couple of weeks unnerving you.
And just as you come to terms with whether you love or hate it or are simply thoroughly confused by it, the man himself appears.
Satisfyingly, he is exactly how you imagined him to be – forthright in his views, full of bounce and thoroughly engaging.
Speaking from his home on the outskirts of Los Angeles, the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten and once jagged thorn in the side of British sensibilities as lead singer of the Sex Pistols, is preparing for a summer show in Kent.
As headliner of the new Music Event One (ME1) festival, the 56-year-old will front his band Public Image Limited (PiL) for one night in the auspicious surroundings of Rochester Castle on July 28.
“I’d like to come on wearing a full suit of armour,” he quips, “but have you felt how heavy those things are?”
It could prove to be the highlight of a crowded calendar of music in the county this summer.
“There are so many errors, so many false myths about me,” he reflects about that reputation of his. “It’s six of one half a dozen of the other.
“For me, I’m a human being, I like my own space, I’m not a rowdy sod and I don’t interfere with others.
“I don’t do this to make enemies. I never have. Everything I do is for the people and by the people because I am one of the people, that is why I call myself, with a sense of cheekiness, a folk musician.”
Certainly his return to the studio – following a hiatus fuelled by a fall-out with his previous record company – has been warmly welcomed by critics and fans alike.
With album This Is PiL, it would seem he is just as able to put a cat amongst the proverbial post-punk pigeons today as he was when he set PiL up just months after the Sex Pistols split.
One thing, however, has dogged him throughout the five decades his career has now spanned and will no doubt haunt him again in Medway next month; stage-fright.
“I still get very nervous going on stage,” he explains. “If I lost that I’d lose the driving energy needed to do what I do on stage.
“You have to be so committed to what it is you get up to and it seems to me the only thing to get the adrenalin going is pure fear.
“It’s the fear of letting people down – it’s always been like that. I’ve read many a book about stage fright, from the likes of Laurence Olivier onwards; I was relieved I wasn’t the only one. I know with stage fright I’m among good company.
“Only once did I lose that fear and it happened in the worse place ever – in Estonia [August 1988].
“And it was because I had no feeling of what the gig was. I was just back stage and lulled into a false sense of security. So I wandered out and in front of the stage there’s 178,000 people. That can take the breath out of you. Especially when there were tanks surrounding the stage and they’re all pointing at you.
“It took about four songs in until I could find my voice. I never want to be in that position before I go on again.
“And many singers suffer from that. They may tell the press something different, but it’s fear. It’s a hard thing. You don’t have an instrument in front of you, you don’t have a machine that goes ‘bing’, you can’t hit anything, you can’t twang some strings, it all has to come from inside and the nervous energy and the adrenalin is what makes that happen and react to the surroundings. And hopefully it works favourably.
“I’m the happiest when I’m on stage.”
And having been fiercely criticised in recent years for taking part in the likes of I’m A Celebrity and an advert for British butter, his return to the studio and stage has done much to restore his reputation.
In fact, his mood is overwhelmingly upbeat.
“I love it, I view myself as 50 years young. I’m 100 per cent me. I may not be the most physically fit person but my mind is definitely at it.
“I’m always on the up – I don’t suffer self-pity or stupid selfish depression – there will be an answer one way or the other.
“If there are major flaws in my lifestyle, well I’ve corrected them. I do listen to advice. That is why I have such a good collection of family and friends. They’re not going to tolerate me being an a-hole. And I wouldn’t tolerate that from them.
“I don’t live in an isolated box here. I go out and buy my own food, visit the local shop, and don’t see that as outside my realm of existence. I’m not impressed by those who live the rock star lifestyle.”
And he’s very proud of This Is PiL: “I think we’ve made an astounding album – it’s shocked us.
“This is the music we genuinely want to be making – no-ones giving us orders. It’s joy. Even when they did give orders, that was always half the problem; I never listened. I’m a naturally born dissident.”
Organisers of the ME1 event in Rochester are banking on PiL providing a springboard to bigger and better things over the coming years.
PiL top a line-up with Leeds band and indie favourites the Wedding Present supporting alongside local outfit Theatre Royal and hip-hop outfit Kids Unique.
It will provide the highlight of a series of live music events taking place in venues throughout Rochester on the day.
If all goes to plan, then next year should see the event spread over two days and then three by 2014.
Another major festival in an already crowded marketplace.
“It’s nothing like when I was young,” John Lydon reflects, “it used to be one stage, 12-15 bands a day and no-one cared about the format and running order. Now it’s so orchestrated.
“Road crews have to adhere so rigidly to the stage timings. It’s almost like running a Formula One race. Equipment turnover is akin to a pit-stop and that puts a lot of pressure on everyone who works for us. It makes people edgy and it’s difficult to mask that.
“If the audience is like me, they come to see everything. I used to love it when I was 15, I’d bunk on a train and go up north to any festival I could. I’d just spend the weekend crawling in and out of the fences.
“Money is tight when you’re young, but the sheer thrill of seeing so many bands approaching the world of music so differently was pretty inspiring. It was through that diversity that I found my own voice.
“Sometimes the atmosphere at these festivals is amazing. If the crowd comes with the right attitude a happy-go-lucky state of affairs will be in order. But if you’re there to sit in deckchairs and complain, then I recommend everyone else on the bill.
“But you can’t really underestimate the PiL crowd, it’s so varied there’s every walk of life, every age, creed, race, colour catered for even different political views.
“For me, after 30 years being in music, that is the absolute achievement – the highlight. If you’re just preaching to the converted, the front 30 rows who all want to look exactly like you then you haven’t achieved anything at all.”
Yet 30 years in the industry has also put the singer onto a pedestal he clearly loves and detests in equal measure.
There are few more instantly recognisable faces in British rock’s rich tapestry than John Lydon and his distinctive look and attitude has spawned more than his fair share of imitators.
It’s a situation he clearly sometimes struggles to balance out.
“We’re not doing this to show off – either you like what we do or you don’t understand it,” he says, “either way, you’ll be listening to PiL because we have so many imitators out there who are constantly dipping into our music landscapes for ideas – which is both complimentary and annoying at the same time.”
So after a career trying to stand out from the crowd how does he feel about those who seek to copy his style or approach?
“Don’t emulate me,” he says, “don’t do that. If you tried that you’d be annoying me. There’s only room for one me in the world. There’s only room for each of us. That’s what I tell everyone. We all have an intrinsically unique way of looking at the world and everyone’s view is valid. Just that only a few of us have an ability to talk from the heart.”
He hasn’t got much time for chart recognition either.
“I couldn’t give a toss about the charts – never ever did,” he says. “From day one onwards it was pointless. I never viewed music as competition. It’s the work of individuals approaching life with their individual views.
“Some work, some don’t. It’s not a game, not a money making machine.
“This is the one chance I have in life to tell the truth, and I’m not going to f-ck that up.”
Having spent much of his recent years bathed in the sunshine of LA, he admits he keeps close tabs on British life – visiting at least twice a year.
Not that he’s warmed any to the politics of the country.
“I don’t know how you could have voted in the coalition,” he says, “two c--ts for the price of one.
“But then there’s the nonsense of Tony Blair. That’s the problem with politicians, they all come from the same mould. I find it increasingly difficult to trust any of them.”
It’s not a relationship improved by the recent phone hacking scandal.
“He’s created quite a poisonous universe, old Rupert, hasn’t he?” he says of the debate over Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper titles and its relationship with the nation’s power brokers.
“I’ve been a victim of bad press and that sort of fake journalism – it should have its legs cut off and in particular the police and the politicians who were so in bed with it and allowed it to happen.
“Don’t just blame Murdoch, he’s not the whipping post. I think the plot goes a little deeper.”
We chat just a few days before Britain shut up shop to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
Having publicly distanced himself from an online campaign to get God Save the Queen back into the charts in a bid to emulate it crashing the Silver Jubilee party in 1977, his views on the monarchy have changed little.
“I think I’ve expressed my view point very clearly many, many decades ago,” he says. “It’s interesting to see so many people jump on the bandwagon now when it’s easy for them – they didn’t have to face the trials I had to go through.
“Have my views softened? No, they’re exactly the same. I’m not anti I’m not pro. I don’t quite understand it and I’d like more communication with the public. I, like most people, don’t give my allegiance willy-nilly just because I’m told to. I have questions – like what am I spending my tax money on.”
Public Image Ltd perform at ME1 in Rochester Castle Gardens on Saturday, July 28. Support comes from the Wedding Present, Theatre Royal and Kids Unique. Tickets cost £26 and are on sale now.
For details see www.musiceventone.co.uk.