John Lydon turns 64 on January 31. To pay tribute, we’re republishing Ann Bardach’s interview with the punk legend from the November, 1980 edition of High Times.
Johnny Lydon almost single-handedly defined the “punk ” in punk rock. Not the textbook version coined by Marsh and Bangs in Creem over a decade ago to describe a certain late-’60s recording sound that has once again become fashionable, but the nightmare visions of brain-damaged apocalypse kids bent on demolishing everything and everyone in their path. He was the vile and repulsive Johnny Rotten, lead vocalist of England’s most cursed and celebrated Sex Pistols. Rotten was too good a name for the astounding character he created in this guise, as he built one of the most sensational images in rock history. His antistardom, right down to the green teeth he cherished as a symbol of his foulness, became his calling card as he cursed out every rock band, TV commentator, record-company employee and virtually every reporter he ever met.
The Sex Pistols disintegrated in one awesome, vulgar swoop after their brief, aborted 1978 U.S. tour when bassist Sid Vicious died of an overdose. Rotten reverted to his given name, John Lydon, and formed Public Image Ltd. His character hasn’t changed much in exchanges with the press, as witnessed by his recent battle with Tom Snyder on the “Tomorrow” show. It took Ann Bardach, whose coverage of the Vicious murder case gave her an international reputation, to get Lydon talking. The results are pretty interesting…
High Times: Can you describe the transition you went through, from being the ultimate media-contrived hype product, to being an artist, performer—a musician who calls the shots himself.
Lydon: I’m not an artist or musician. And I definitely don’t perform.
High Times: We go from the ultrahype of the Sex Pistols to—
Lydon: Well, I got nauseous. I had enough of that. Just a farce.
High Times: Are you unhappy with Virgin Records?
Lydon: Yes. I’m totally unhappy with all record companies. They’re bullshit. They’re liars—third-rate frauds. They’ve no fucking sense of anything, no perception. They don’t want to take risks. Which is why their crummy industry is falling to pieces. I mean, they’re frequently moaning about album sales dropping. Why shouldn’t they be. They’re just selling the same old dirge forever and a day. In the last 15 years music has changed practically not at all. How many retreads of Chuck Berry are still going on? All those long-haired, platform-booted, flared-jeaned, fucking imbeciles. That still goes on. And that’s fucking old as the hills. God! Grandad Rock!
High Times: I was going to ask you about that—how you felt about all the renaissance of music from the ’50s and ’60s.
Lydon: It’s vile! I don’t need history. I can go to a museum for that, thank you very much. And they did it so much better the first time around anyway. They made their mistakes. And there’s people desperately trying to do the same thing.
High Times: How do you like the revivals of two-tone groups, girl groups, and all the ’50s music? Do you see it as inspired reinterpretation, or just regurgitation?
Lydon: Just farcical imitation. Well, I mean, we all know there’s going to be a psychedelic revival, [laughs] right? It’s so obvious, it just has to happen.
High Times: Are you looking forward to that?
Lydon: No! It is going to be the worst. Woodstock, part two. Woodshack.
High Times: But you don’t see reggae, which you like, as being part of the ’50s revivalist music movement.
Lydon: I don’t mind reggae, I don’t mind a bit of jazz, I don’t mind classical, I don’t mind cocktail music or cabaret. I don’t mind rock in its place. I don’t mind anything. It’s fun. Just so long as they don’t pretend it’s the be-all, end-all of the universe. Which is the way it seems to be.
High Times: The Clash?
Lydon: The clap.
High Times: The clap is the Clash?
Lydon: Same thing: They’re both a disease.
High Times: You told a story once in a piece in the New Musical Express, where Joe Strummer comes over to your flat in London and shows you a book in which Bernie Rhodes [the Clash’s first manager] had underlined passages for him.
Lydon: Yeah, Bernie used to give them Marxist theories and stuff like that. Books on it. And he’d underline certain lines and sentences. Then they’d write about it.
High Times: Did you get to see any of the titles of these books?
Lydon: Oh, I don’t really know about that dreariness. He [Strummer] was a wank for even considering it. “Here Joe write a song about this, I’ve underlined it for you.” Such trash. What can you do?
High Times: Why do you think Strummer was interested in Bernie Rhodes’s Marxist theories?
Lydon: I don’t think he was. I don’t think he knew what he was getting involved in. If you look at the Clash and its various succession of managers, you’d notice that they’ve adopted the styles given to them by those managers. They are very easily influenced people. They don’t seem to have direction of their own. I don’t like that.
High Times: You don’t see any value in their songs?
Lydon: No. None at all. Completely ineffectual. Waste of time. Politics was always a definite thing to avoid.
High Times: Are most of your friends musicians?
Lydon: No. None of them. No one in the band is a musician. We all hate that term.
High Times: Excuse me. What are you?
Lydon: I’m not sure. Something close to factory workers. Machinists. Skilled operators.
High Times: Do you work for a living?
Lydon: Uh huh. Who doesn’t? Mind you, I’d love not to work for a living.
High Times: You wouldn’t want to be or live like Mick Jagger?
Lydon: Oh, god, no! It’s not doing him much good, is it?
High Times: Yet you’re very pragmatic
Lydon: What’s that?
High Times: Sensible.
Lydon: Yes. I’m definitely not an intellectual. I keep getting asked, am I an intellectual or am I a poet. And all that dreariness. All those labels just reek of boredom. Bookworming. Ooooh! Ugh!
High Times: In other words, you think of an intellectual as being a poser, like Joe Strummer leafing through Bernie Rhodes’s crib notes on dialectic materialism.
Lydon: Dia- what?
High Times: Marxist theory.
Lydon: All right, you backed me into a corner. I give up. [Laughs]
High Times: What college did you go to?
Lydon: Kingsway, CFE. The College of Formal Education.
High Times: And shortly thereafter, you ran into Bernie Rhodes?
High Times: Oh you met [Jah] Wobble [Public Image’s bassist] at college, that’s right. And then one day you’re in the Sex Store and Bernie Rhodes comes in and sees you miming to records.
Lydon: No. I was insulting Malcolm McLaren when Bernie was there.
High Times: McLaren turns around and says, “You too can be a star!”?
Lydon: Malcolm never spoke to me.
High Times: What did Bernie say?
Lydon: “You’re unpleasant enough to be in a band.”
High Times: What did you say?
Lydon: I just did it. To me it was just a huge joke. I really didn’t give a shit, and it struck me as being mighty humorous that someone could want me as a singer.
High Times: Never occurred to you to be in a rock band?
Lydon: Never. You see, I’ve always hated rock music and that was my chance to really wreck it.
High Times: You hated rock music. Then what kind of music did you listen to?
Lydon: Anything but. Anything but that long-haired dreariness.
High Times: Name a few. I’m trying to remember what was before long-haired dreariness. Short-haired dreariness?
Lydon: Brylcreem dreariness!
High Times: So you stopped listening after Buddy Holly?
Lydon: I never listened to even that. I hated it. Besides, I was too young for that.
High Times: You never listened to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or the Who?
Lydon: Oh, no. I couldn’t bear them.
High Times: When you were 14 years old, you never listened to them?
Lydon: I did not like them. No. It’s so detached. They were in a dream world. Just didn’t want to know about them.
High Times: You said in an interview that you would like to change the music industry and “this time [you] would do it right,” as opposed to the Sex Pistols. You said “it would take years.” When you said “change the music industry,” how?
Lydon: Well, it was a bit of a rash statement, I admit. That I could change the entire industry in one fell swoop. But I’m making a bash at it I could only fail.
High Times: How would you do it? You still need Warner Brothers here, which is one of the largest multinationals.
Lydon: They are seen here merely to distribute our records, nothing else.
High Times: They’re lackeys then, for the Public Image?
Lydon: Yes. And they don’t like us treating them like this. But that’s just too bad.
High Times: Did you ever hear that Warner Brothers is the mob?
Lydon: Uh huh. I’ve been told that. They must be curious then, how we got the gall to say “shove it.”
High Times: Public Image taking on the biggest mob in the music world?
Lydon: Horrible fun. And all we can do is lose, right? That is if the worst comes. Oh, we won’t lose. I’ve no intention of losing. I never back a dead horse. I look a bit like a horse as well, don’t I? [Sings:] “I’m getting near the winning post, get out the way.”
High Times: So, you were always listening to American black music?
Lydon: Yeah. Tamber what from the early skin days. We were skin heads when all the hippies in the universities were going to see the Who. It meant nothing to us.
High Times: When Malcolm McLaren said, “You too can be a rock and roll star,” you said “why not”?
Lydon: It was never put like that. I had no faith in the Pistols that amounted to anything other than a damp fart. The prospect looked pretty grim. Oh, it was something to do, and then it got so huge. I saw the humor in it for a while, and then it crawled up inside my ass. I felt embarrassed about being alive. We just fell apart when we got to America. Too much of everything.
High Times: Do you think Malcolm McLaren was ever honest, at any point?
Lydon: No, and he had very little to do with the Pistols as well. That was what was the farce of it. He was always a remote, distant figure.
High Times: But he made a lot of money.
Lydon: Uh huh. He wasn’t too remote about that. He sent me the tax bills too. That was real good of him. And when the Pistols broke up, they left me stranded in fucking L.A. Sorry—San Francisco. No ticket, no plane ticket and 20 dollars and no hotel. So there I was in a hotel lobby with a suitcase [laughs] like a fool. Destitute, as usual. Fucking poncing money off journalists.
High Times: You came back to New York though?
Lydon: Yeah, I had to.
High Times: Have you talked to Malcolm McLaren since then?
Lydon: [Snickers.] Words wouldn’t be passed between us, I’ll tell you that. Quick-firing metal projectiles would be aimed at his direction. He doesn’t deserve to live. I feel very righteous about that one.
High Times: After the Pistols broke up, and Sid had this murder rap—
Lydon: Uh huh. It was so dismal.
High Times: Malcolm was in town [New York]—
Lydon: Yeah, see how Malcolm helped him. He got one hell of a failure of a lawyer [F. Lee Bailey]. I never got through. Well, Sid wanted to talk to me. But his old dear never put me through.
High Times: His who?
Lydon: His mother. She’s a bitch.
High Times: Wasn’t she arrested?
Lydon: In jail?
High Times: I heard she got busted for smuggling dope back.
Lydon: Yeah, she did. I don’t know what’s happened about it.
High Times: I heard she got busted again a few months ago.
Lydon: Probably, that’s highly likely with her. Right irresponsible human being. I remember she bought him a pack of needles once for his birthday. With substance in white packets. Never liked to be quoted on that one.
High Times: What birthday was that?
Lydon: This was years ago.
High Times: When you were still in the band or when you were in school?
Lydon: Before then. You see, he’d cleaned himself up.
High Times: My understanding is that Malcolm was trying to manage a murder.
Lydon: That’s how I understood it. Yeah, that’s how it appeared to me.
High Times: Malcolm was very cooperative with all the American reporters, who knew nothing.
Lydon: Our Malcolm loves dealing with people who don’t know nothing. That way he can shine.
High Times: Where do you think Sid went wrong? At what point did he go from being the kid you knew in school, a fairly nice bloke, to a total disaster?
Lydon: He believed in his own publicity. He fell for it, hook, line and sinker. He was called Vicious because he was such a wanker. Really, he couldn’t fight his way out of a crisp bag. He’d lose all the time.
High Times: Then why did you ask him to join the band and fire Glen Matlock?
Lydon: Because Matlock was into the Beatles. [Laughs.] He had nice melodies. Sid was into no melody whatsoever, which struck me as a damn good right conclusion. I mean, so what if he couldn’t play when he joined—Wobble couldn’t play when we [PiL] started. He learned as he went along. That’s what we all do.
High Times: Yeah, that’s what you did. You began the Sex Pistols as a joke and you learned to sing. Then you started to love it.
Lydon: I perfected the joke and it backfired, I must admit. Slightly like scrambled egg on face. Sunny side up.
High Times: You say Sid went wrong when he started believing his own publicity, as opposed to doing a lot of junk.
Lydon: Maybe that was the reason. He just lacked humor. Took it all too serious. I don’t think it deserves a lot of sentences.
High Times: Even posthumously?
Lydon: Well, heaven! Pretty wanky way to go.
High Times: By a drug overdose?
Lydon: Yeah. So dreary and typical, isn’t it?
High Times: Was he using junk before he joined the Pistols?
Lydon: No. Speed then.
High Times: Which you approve of?
Lydon: I don’t approve of nothing.
High Times: I mean favor.
Lydon: No, I wouldn’t advise anyone to take any kind of chemical.
High Times: Who do you think brought him into the realm of junk, Nancy Spungen?
Lydon: Yes. There was that horrible movement from New York to London, and they brought their dirty culture with them.
High Times: And that was the beginning of the end for Sid?
Lydon: He was impressed by the decadence of it all. God! So dreary. Too many Lou Reed albums I blame it on.
High Times: Do you think there are drugs that are useful?
Lydon: No. They just put off what you’ve got to face sooner or later: blandness.
High Times: Do you know that book written by Julie Burchill and Tony Parson, The Boy Looked at Johnny, that has your photo on its cover?
Lydon: Uh huh.
High Times: Burchill and Parsons advocate speed. About it being a useful drug. There’s an entire chapter on the benefits of amphetamines.
Lydon: Well, that’s just stupidity.
High Times: They credit some of your genius to your intake of amphetamine.
Lydon: [Laughs.] That’s a typical journalistic approach. I mean, that’s all they are, toss-bag journalists, desperately trying to get in on something.
High Times: They came up with a very interesting unknown scientific “fact” that amphetamine raises the IQ.
Lydon: I doubt if that’s true.
High Times: Did they ever discuss this with you?
Lydon: Tony Parsons I’ve met briefly, for about two minutes. He was shaking like a leaf. Snorting lines. He just looked like a pathetic character to me. He didn’t strike me as having a high IQ.
High Times: So you don’t see any utilitarian value in using drugs?
Lydon: Each to his own. It’s just as simple as that. I would never advise anyone to do anything.
High Times: You say you can’t see anything remotely political like the Clash.
Lydon: No. What I really mean is naive political. I mean, they’re spouting these theories and not knowing what the fuck they’re talking about. And that I find offensive.
High Times: Because they don’t have the academic muscle to personally read it and figure it out themselves.
Lydon: They don’t even read all of it. It’s just what they’re shown. They’re very narrow-minded. Go into it totally or not at all. I can’t bear people not knowing things totally. Just spouting out ignorant, half-assed statements that don’t mean fuck-all. I mean, you’ve got to understand what you’re talking about.
High Times: But say in your case you sang “Anarchy in the U.K.”
Lydon: That’s not political.
High Times: Yes it is.
Lydon: How? Anarchy is a mind game for the middle class. It doesn’t mean anything.
High Times: It was very threatening to the Labor government at the time.
Lydon: I never thought so.
High Times: Threatening enough to get you bruised.
Lydon: No. That was “God Save the Queen.” That’s what got me bruised.
High Times: For all intents and purposes, it was political in that it frightened the authorities to action. It brought the whole police department down on you.
Lydon: So what. They’re still coming down on me. I just got raided recently.
High Times: Where?
Lydon: Oh, they’ve been around quite a lot, the police. They kicked the house to pieces. And then they go off and wait for another month. In the last couple of months I’ve been raided on suspicion of bomb making, of hiding runaway juveniles and, last week, for drugs. They’ve raided me for drugs and found nothing. Not even one marijuana seed, and it made me very happy. They done me instead for a gas canister. I have to put the case forward until I get back to England or else I wouldn’t have got my visa.
High Times: So essentially you had to plead guilty. Which you would not have done if you didn’t need a visa.
Lydon: So this might be my last time in the U.S. of A.
High Times: As a kid, what were the charges against you?
Lydon: Oh, silly things. Minor burglaries, jaywalking. Out on the streets late at night.
High Times: Does it make you feel paranoid?
Lydon: No. It’s just a way of life. It’s always been there and it just gets worse.
High Times: It strikes me that you take things very calm, one at a time.
Lydon: You have to, God! I couldn’t be one of those people who sit down and think, “God, if I go out I’ll get arrested.” That would be terrible. Wow.
High Times: Do you have any prophecies for the world for the next ten years?
Lydon: We’re damn lucky if there will be a next ten years.
High Times: What do you see yourself doing in the next ten years should the holocaust not happen?
Lydon: Being very embarrassed.
High Times: How old are you now?
Lydon: I’m 24.
High Times: You’ll be 34.
Lydon: Oh. I’ll have to move over for the next big mouth. It won’t be me ranting and raving then, will it? I’ll be too old then and past it.
High Times: Have you seen any of the Pistol movies, like The Great Rock ’n ’ Roll Swindle?
Lydon: I’ve seen the Swindle, yeah.
High Times: How about that?
Lydon: What about it? Really, it’s not worth spending money on. It’s very dreary. It’s just Malcolm’s ego, isn’t it.
High Times: Were you ever enthusiastic about making that movie?
Lydon: Never. I had nothing to do with that film.
High Times: How about D.O.A.?
Lydon: What’s that?
High Times: A movie about the Sex Pistols.
Lydon: No. I don’t know about that.
High Times: You say you read newspapers and magazines, which ones?
Lydon: All magazines. I like Omni.
High Times: What else do you like?
Lydon: Well, any kind of glossy magazine.
High Times: Do you read Rolling Stone?
Lydon: No. That’s so boring. Oh God! What in earth do they got in mind with that rag? That’s showing its age.
High Times: Do you think people will rely upon drugs and sex more as we approach impending nuclear war?
Lydon: When I get my seven-minute warning, I’m going to go pretty over the top, I think. Do it all in one glorious swoop. Everything all at once. I have the supply ready here, put that way.
High Times: What’s your favorite day or night?
Lydon: Monday morning. I watch others go to work.
High Times: Do you think you’ll always want to live in England?
High Times: Does your family live in London?
Lydon: I’ve got family in England, Ireland and Canada.
High Times: Are you close with your family?
Lydon: Umhum. There’s three others. All boys. They are all younger.
High Times: Oh, you’re the first one?
Lydon: [Whispers.] Yes. I was the experiment. Then they decided to have some more.
High Times: Do you want to have children at some time?
Lydon: No, definitely not.
High Times: Why not?
Lydon: One of me is quite enough.
High Times: Can you envision yourself as an old man?
Lydon: No. I can’t conceive myself being old.
High Times: No old age and no progeny.
High Times: Children.
Lydon: No. Well, I’m happy. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else. I couldn’t cope with kids. It would drive me nuts. I’m totally irresponsible. Me as daddy. I’d be rotten.
High Times: I don’t believe that.
Lydon: I’d like to get married to Dolly Parton, though. Maybe I’d consider it then. “Dolly Rotten?” God! What a glorious name.
High Times: Were you religious?
High Times: But you were raised Catholic?
Lydon: Yeah, that’s enough to make you not religious.
High Times: But you know what they say about Catholic boys: always an altar boy.
Lydon: I never thought of that. I was almost an altar boy when I was young. But the priest who wanted me died. Definitely an act of God.
High Times: How did you feel about getting scooped up by the National Front a few years ago?
Lydon: Scooped up! They hate me. They always did. Right from the start. Yes, right from the very beginning. The National Front, just after Anarchy was recorded, had their magazine, Spearhead, with its front page a picture of a gorilla and underneath written “Johnny Rotten—the White N*gger.” That’s their opinion of me and they can go shove themselves.
High Times: Did you ever receive any phone threats from them?
Lydon: Oh yeah, lots. But if people mean to do you harm, they don’t let you know about it first.
High Times: How do you stay sane?
Lydon: I drink permanently.
High Times: Is that the only way?
Lydon: It lets me stay asleep a lot. What’s wrong with being asleep on and off? I suppose there’s not too much to get up for, is there?
High Times: Do you get a lot of groupies?
Lydon: No. No one wants to know us. If we do get any, they’re fat and ugly. We get a lot of loonies: lunatics and dangerous people. Like one who commits suicide in your presence.
High Times: Has anyone ever done that?
Lydon: Tried to.
High Times: What did you do?
Lydon: Push them out the front door. “Don’t do it here. Away!”
High Times: One last question: Do you have any advice for our world leaders?
Lydon: Drop dead! Move over!