Retro Interview: Johnny Lydon of PiL

Johnny Lydon PIL 1992

On February 2nd 1992, PiL shot their music video ‘Covered’, a promo video shoot shot at Iguanas in Tijuana, Mexico. After this special free gig, journalist David Mills spoke with Johnny Lydon. What follows is his reflection and Q&A with the bad boy of punk?

On filming the video at lguana’s:

Plastic cups filled with beer shower the stage. The crowd is becoming louder, more abusive in their anticipation of seeing the ex-Sex Pistol?

They are taunting him to come out: "You tosspot, come out and suck my c*ck!" Guys with big black boots and not much hair are being pushed along overhead toward the security that frantically try to keep them from reaching the stage. Another guy wearing only furry bright green pants nearly makes it past them. Security throws him back on the crowd just as the Brit some call Rotten takes the stage.

John Lydon flashes his psychotic glare – that fiendish look Nicholson would envy – the one that arouses the wildness in a crowd. More beer hits the stage. "A little vodka on the side if you please," he croons and starts with a song from P.i.L.’s new LP That What Is Not.

?Mind over moral$,
anything banned
The zealots are marching with bible in hand
Keyed to the roof 100 proof
Some of them hairpins, some of them clams
Desperate Susans, desperate Dans.
Who censors the censor, can 100 that myself
Make up my own mind like anyone else
You read but missed my plot
You only see that what is not?

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(The Interview)

DAVID MILLS: Can you hear me aright?

JOHN LYDON: Yes.

MILLS: I’ve got this cheap-shit recorder, and I don’t want to start off by making demands, but if you could talk real clear.

LYDON: I thought I always did.

MILLS: Yes, you do. Well… I saw your show at lguana’s. Never seen you live before. It’s an interesting place there.

LYDON: Yeah, it’s a bit dangerous the way we did it. A tough thing to do a video with that crowd.

MILLS: The group I went down with drank too much. Grain alcohol with a splash of tequila for flavor. They were all hallucinating.

LYDON: Ha, ha-ha.

MILLS: So I hear you’re a bit sick yourself.

LYDON: Jet lag is my problem – jet lag and exhaustion from doing all this promoting with the press. But if I don’t do, then no one is going to know what the hell I’m doing.

MILLS: I don’t really know where to start. They said you weren’t going to call for another hour. You kind of caught me a bit unprepared.

LYDON: I want to do it now ’cause I want to go home, eat and go to bed.

MILLS: I’ll try to make the best of it. Let’s start out with … that if you don’t like doing these interviews, this PR business – considering what you were like in the rebellious days of Johnny Rotten – then why do them? Is it the record company telling you what to do?

LYDON: Well you have perceived it wrongly. It’s not the record company telling me what to do. I do this of my own free will, in fact on my instigation, because if I leave it up to the record company to promote, no one will hear anything. This is the best way I know to get my opinion out. Before the poison pen letters of journalists. I’ve always done interviews starting from day one, in any outfit I’ve ever worked in.

MILLS: I was reading something by Hunter S. Thompson that said, "Anybody growing up in England today without a serious urge to smash windows is probably too dumb for help." What is it about living in England that drives people to smash windows?

LYDON: Generally speaking, the apathy. The country seems to be falling apart and nobody wants to do anything about it. We’ve got a government in there that was voted in by less than one-third of the population. That’s because the other two-thirds were too lazy to vote.

With a situation like that, unease is bound to happen. This country is on the verge of serious rioting. Because of the deeply felt frustration there’s massive unemployment, massive hopelessness, massive everything. Everything that is wrong is here, in large amounts and unlike most people, I don’t think rioting is the answer. I think getting up and joining in politically would help.

The trouble with the English is they’re very apathetic. They want everything handed to them. but they’re not prepared to commit themselves. They like to be mowing their lawns, they like to feel sorry for themselves. They’re very lazy. And that’s the thing that annoys me most about being in England. I have to tolerate that.

MILLS: In this country, the energy for rebellion comes primarily from the right. The fundamentalists, the anti-abortionists, the people who want prayer in school. What avenues for rebellion are there for people of liberal conviction who are outside the religious right? Your music addresses that issue in many ways.

LYDON: Yes, it certainly does. This lot should rally around things they don’t agree with. Stand up and be counted. I don’t know how you make people feel these things. If they genuinely don’t care, they’re gong to have an awful world to live in.

I’m very, very frightened of the fundamentalists. The censorship they’re bringing on the world is a very bad thing indeed. Censorship of any kind, I think, destroys culture. Destroys free thought. Blandness is their ultimate goal. And if we don’t stand up to be counted that is what we will all get.

And it will be our own fault. There’s no one to blame any more. You can’t point fingers at government officials, or presidents. You have to look at yourself. Because you are doing nothing, they are getting away with whatever they feel like.

MILLS: What role does pop culture play here?

LYDON: The trouble with pop music at the moment is that it lulls people into a false sense of security. The dance music thing is really all about escapism, and not hitting issues head on.

MILLS: What about heavy metal?

LYDON: Heavy metal doesn’t deal with anything but itself. It’s self-congratulatory and a masturbation. They don’t say anything. They don’t help people. And when they do have a comment, it’s usually racist. They are part of the problem, not the solution.

MILLS: And the (MC) Hammer phenomenon?

LYDON: Well there you go. He’s so safe isn’t he? And God’s on his side. The enemy. That’s what the devil looks like.

MILLS: And Public Enemy, who’s not safe, but if they were passing our awards for the dumbest black guy in the industry, Flavor Flav might win one.

LYDON: It’s a very great shame that Public Enemy has become the white man’s toy. They’ve lost their edge. They’re too mellow by far. Fear of a Black Planet is exactly what black people want to hear, not what black people need. It’s too nice, it’s too sloganeering.

MILLS: A large part of rebellion in contemporary American music is like Sammy Hagar’s "I Can’t Drive 55."

LYDON: Exactly. All very selfish.

MILLS: And now Motley Crue is singing "Anarchy".

LYDON: It’s hilarious. I need the royalties.

MILLS: "Anarchy" was rebellion in music and now the millionaires have perverted that.

LYDON: Yes, well it’s quite sad but hopefully they’re learning. There’s nothing wrong with getting millions from a record company. I think that’s absolutely fine. I’d rather them as millionaires rather than the usual lot.

But what do they do with it? Just sit back. They don’t go forward. And they play safe. It isn’t enough to just wear makeup and shout and rant and rave and do versions of other people’s songs. I want more from them.

MILLS: So what is playing it safe?

LYDON: Not standing up. Not saying what you stand for. Not having any beliefs. Not wanting to be counted. All they are really eager for is collecting awards at the Grammy’s or whatever. That’s what it’s all about for them.

MILLS: And you?

LYDON: I won’t be attending any of those events. I see them as the evil. I see those events as just nothing but greed, selfishness and masturbation.

MILLS: What’s important to you right now?

LYDON: Me! (laughs) What is important to me? To destroy this fundamentalism, I cannot tolerate it. It does nobody any good.

MILLS: In the song "Rise" on the generic album you say the written word is a lie. Are there such things as truths?

LYDON: I was referring there to the Bible. The Bible has been rewritten at least ten times in recorded history, and God knows how many other times. It’s changed languages, it’s changed meanings, changed concepts even. It has no relation whatsoever to what was originally written. The people blindly take this as the whole truth and nothing but. That I find very weak. In fact, it’s a sin to question it.

MILLS: Can we find truths to follow, to lead us in the right direction?

LYDON: There are no easy answers. So you should always be suspicious of anything that looks too easy. To blindly follow the Bible is just far too easy and that really is for the stupid. Life is a series of lessons and you learn by them. Books like that deny you that privilege.

MILLS: Some of your lyrics suggest you are an atheist.

LYDON: Not necessarily so. But I’ve yet to meet God. I question everything, anything.

MILLS: When you were with the Sex Pistols you achieved great notoriety, but didn’t have the time to se11 out?

LYDON: The reason we didn’t was because I left. It was very close to it. But rather than it all fall back on itself I thought it was best to call it a day.

MILLS: If you hadn’t left, could The Sex Pistols have continued to make music?

LYDON: No. We genuinely did not like each other enough for that. We all had very, very different goals. What Steve and Paul wanted was a good time. I asked far too many questions. This annoyed them.

MILLS: What did Sid want?

LYDON: He wanted selfish indulgence. Basically just to be a big rock star.

MILLS: Did you see the movie Sid & Nancy?

LYDON: Yes. It was appalling. And a joke that a film could be put together and released without once talking to the people it was about.

MILLS: Would you say it was drug propaganda?

LYDON: It was complete drug propaganda. It definitely made it look like it was condoning heroin addiction. That I found disgusting.

MILLS: Hasn’t being in a long-lived band as popular as P.i.L. made you part of the establishment?

LYDON: There’s no establishment in us. These are things I ignore. It doesn’t really matter if people perceive us that way or not. Our audience knows better.

MILLS: You’ve got a book coming out that you have said will clarify what really went on with the Sex Pistols. What is your motivation for writing about this?

LYDON: Because I’ve read so much rubbish for so long that it’s reached a breaking point. I have to clear this up. I tried for a long time to think that it didn’t really matter, but I finally now think it does. Because in every interview I do I’m constantly asked stupid questions that are not true, that are based on other people’s fantasies.

MILLS: Is there one that annoys you the most?

LYDON: Not particularly, no. Just the whole feel of it. Having to be constantly asked to regurgitate my past. To clarify some mistake a journalist made way down the road some time ago. It’s a very, very annoying thing. What better way to make all this very clear than to put it into a book?

MILLS: Back to your show at lguana’s, I had a good laugh when the director of your video was on stage explaining the process, and the crowd started chanting, "fuck MTV, fuck MTV," and having a good time with that.

LYDON: It’s a shame the MTV people there didn’t take it in the good humor it was meant.

MILLS: They took it wrong?

LYDON: Yeees. They were convinced I instigated it and told me so, which you know better.

MILLS: But what you do try to instigate, what you try to do, is dare the crowd to let loose.

LYDON: I knew that they meant no harm. Nothing bad could come from it. I know my stuff by now very well, and I can perceive audiences’ attitudes exceptionally well. And I knew that they were there for the right reasons.

MILLS: And being with a crowd that is there for the wrong reasons?

LYDON: Those days are gone. When I first started, it was just hatred and animosity then. And because of that really, that’s how I’ve learned.

MILLS: How about that night in Texas as a Sex Pistol when Sid smashed the man with his bass?

LYDON: That was a pathetic incident. And not indicative of the gig at all. There was some animosity from a small element. They were promptly removed. Other than that it was a great show.

MILLS: Why did P.i.L. open for INXS? It was strange to me because INXS is such a mindless pop band and?

LYDON: The point is that you should not be scared to trot the floorboards with anyone. And I will always use those situations … I have no fear of these things. It’s never going to make me look bad. The only people who really suffered there was INXS themselves because they just weren’t good enough. And I think that showed with the audience. This is why they stopped letting us have sound checks on that tour. There was some serious sabotage put afoot. But it made no difference.

MILLS: I heard you on the radio say "Come to my show and make me lots of money, but don’t expect much so you won’t be disappointed." Some people might think you’re trying to swindle them.

LYDON: That would be very silly. That was far from an expensive show to get into and obviously said in good humor. I think you should always play with everything. Nothing should be safe. This is what makes life enjoyable. I know how far I can push it, and I never push it any further. An audience that comes to see P.i.L. knows that I’m not throwing hatred at them.

MILLS: Do you think of yourself as an outcast in the industry?

LYDON: I never felt like an outcast because I never tried to join the establishment. I go my own way and I have no fears about that.

MILLS: Your good buddy Neil Young is another one who seems fearless about going his own way. He wrote that song, ‘This Note’s For You," which criticizes liquor industry, sponsored tours.

LYDON: Yeah, I know. I love the video. I like most things that man does. I think he’s very good.

MILLS: Were you amused by his "Hey hey, my my" song?

LYDON: Yes. I always am.

MILLS: Have you ever talked with him about it?

LYDON: No, I’ve never met him and don’t think I should. People always let you down in the flesh. Except live, performance wise.

MILLS: Have anything else you want to say? I’m just the one who organizes this, you’re the one who has to say something interesting.

LYDON: Ha, ha, haaa. Well, come watch us on the MTV tour. That should be hilarious. I think it’s very funny that MTV has decided to sponsor a tour for us. At least it shows change there. And far from us looking like we’re joining the establishment, it’s the other way around. They’re coming around to our way of thinking. This would never have been possible, not even last year.

MILLS: Your publicist says you’ll be in South Florida in March.

LYDON: Yes.

MILLS: I live in Miami.

LYDON: Well, do come to the wet T-shirt concert. I have no doubt that that’s what it will be all about. Only I’m not going to be doing a Mike Tyson.


This interview originally appeared in Revolt in Style Magazine.