John Lydon (Johnny Rotten)

When the Sex Pistols splintered in an explosion of backbiting, recrimination and lawsuits, it seemed unlikely that John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) would ever be able to top the band’s musical and social impact. He confounded expectations by starting Public Image Ltd, in hindsight, PiL can be seen as the first post-rock band, the progenitor of grunge and as musically challenging in its way as the Sex Pistols. Lydon led PiL through countless incarnations with some 49 collaborators before calling it quits in 1993. The band reappeared in 2009 and released their new album, This is PiL, in May. Lydon spoke to SOMA from his home in Southern California, his conversation as forceful and frenetic as his stage presence.

Why did you reform PiL after all this time?

I didn’t start the campaign to re-launch PiL. I know everything I do will be
treated with suspicion initially, then later it gets watered down for the
masses. Multi-instrumentalist Lu [Edmonds] and drummer Bruce [Smith]
approached me. I didn’t know if it would work or not, but I took a gamble.
It took about 18 years to get over the debt I had from being connected with
major record labels. To finance this project, I did a butter commercial in
England. I don’t feel like I’ve sold my soul. I needed to earn money, so I
could continue my work. The ugliness of money is always there, but we live
in a capitalist society, so what are we to do? We made the album in six
weeks. It was done almost completely live; no fiddling with knobs at the
end. It’s not an album a major label would want to have, but I am sure there
will be versions of it done by lesser bands by the end of the year. I have a
long history of creating fashion, hairdos, clothes and music that get
imitated by everyone else, but nobody wants the bloody original. At least
the powers that be don’t.

People don’t seem to realize there’s a lot of humor in your work, or is it

[The songs are] absolutely loaded with [humor], but most people are afraid
of humor. People who are afraid of PiL are afraid of themselves and restrain
themselves, but there are no restraining orders in our music. If you want to
portray real emotion, you have to have the best musical framework and, for
me, after 30 years, I’ve found that place in PiL. We can’t wait to make the
next album. We’ve done this and we love it and now we want more.

Do you play an instrument?

Not on stage. If I tied myself down to an instrument, it would take away
from the raw emotion I need to perform. I’m more active singing than
tinkling on a piano. I play violin, sax and keys and mess about with the
guitar, but they don’t get me to the place the voice can. I don’t do scales
or practice, I just let it rip. I have big lungs and a lot of energy and
drink plenty of water. I’m looking for the perfect note and, when I find it,
my heart will probably explode and my lungs will collapse, but I’ll die
doing the thing I love most.

Text by J.Poet
Photography by Paul Heartfield