Interview: John Lydon of Public Image Ltd.
"You are now entering a PiL zone."
These are the words that greet you when you pop in This is PiL, the first proper studio album from John Lydon's Public Image Limited since 1992's That What Is Not.
Since then, Lydon has been mired in miles of music-industry red tape, kept from recording, thanks to his being shackled to a major-label contract.
"For two decades I couldn't get a record out because I was in debt and they wouldn't give me the money to record," Lydon said. "And if I did, I'd be breaking their agreement because of the recoup nonsense. So basically, they killed me off!"
But in miraculous fashion, PiL have been resurrected, thanks to Lydon's tenacious drive to once again make music as part of one of the most influential music collectives of the last 50 years.
With a new album on the shelves and a string of tour dates ahead, we recently caught up with the man formerly known as Johnny Rotten to get his take on the state of PiL, the music industry and much more.
GUITAR WORLD: In recent years, it seems PiL has been lumped in with a lot of bands of the same era — Gang of Four, Wire, Cabaret Voltaire — as "post-punk." How do you feel about that as a descriptor for your music?
I don't like any label or category. I think it's deconstructive, ultimately.There is one discipline that you could apply, and that's those who create and those who imitate. And I've always been in the create bracket. I don't suppose it's mere coincidence that any band I've led or worked with has had a huge influence on the world.
I think it comes from a lot of people considering Never Mind the Bollocks... to be a kind of end to the classic punk era.
Not the end. It's that you have to constantly change, you have to be aware of your surroundings and your environment, and move with and according to. If you don't, then you're stagnant and you become part of the problem.
And a lot of the punk situation was a lot of that stagnancy; it became pond life. They adopted the imagery and the stance and the style of the song, but they didn't really know how to progress beyond that. So they dragged us all down with their imitative ideas, or lack of. You have to constantly be aware. Progression is what we all live for. I want the world to be a better place, not the same place.
So I formed Public Image, and Public Image had an enormous effect because we opened people's minds. And it didn't have to be purely in a rock format. Music can encompass many, many aspects of life: art, drama, culture. And not just be four dudes with guitars.
There does seem to be an over-abundance of that kind of band.
We're looking at Green Day. To me, they're an absolute shame and a fiasco. Ten steps backwards. And yet they're hugely popular. And so that's the world I'm looking at. And I really don't have an answer for it. It seems to be that majority thinking is always going to be in the negative.
Speaking of, do you have an opinion on [Green Day singer] Billie Joe Armstrong's recent on-stage meltdown?
In short, he felt his set was being cut short, so he smashed his guitar and walked off stage. Then he checked into rehab the next day.
Let's say I've seen that before.
A lot of people seemed disappointed that the band apologized afterwards.
Well, if you let people down, you should apologize. If you walk offstage and you've robbed people of the price of their ticket and not give them a full performance, then yeah, you're a cheat and a ripoff. You're also incredibly self-centered.
The apology wasn't even really geared as fans so much as Clear Channel, who were putting the show on.
Well that's worse! [laughs] Ouch! What can I say about that? I've had to do gigs with all manner of injuries, some of them quite serious. But you've got to push through it and not be lazy.
I remember a few years back, there was a Marilyn Manson tour, and there he was screaming all about being the first original anarchist. Hello, I think John Lydon might have a word to say about that! [laughs] But then he cancelled gigs because he hurt his ankle. Put it in a ski boot, but do the gig!
How has your experience been with the music industry since jumping back in with a new PiL album?
It's poisonous. The music industry is poisonous. I was under obligation, contracted to major labels to such a degree that they stifled my career and made it impossible for me to function. For two decades I couldn't get a record out, because I was in debt and they wouldn't give me the money to record. And if I did, I'd be breaking their agreement because of the recoup nonsense. So basically, they killed me off.
I've had to play a very serious waiting game. I've had to raise money outside of the music industry. I managed to do that, and I've clawed my way back; I've formed my own label, and we're completely and totally independent of the record industry. And yet still facing problems from them because they've closed everything down. To try and book live venues is a nightmare, because without the corporate backing, the local promoters don't want to touch you. Everything becomes a complete struggle. But it's a struggle that's always been there. And it seems I'm always up against it. But some way or another, someone will benefit from this. [laughs]
In the face of that, a lot more bands are approaching things from a DIY perspective.
Everyone should always do it yourself. It's a very nice idea, but how do you get people to pay attention? How do you get an audience? It's very, very difficult. I was amazed, recently, looking at all the facts and figures of music sales in the past year or two, and how downloads are so minimal. People don't even download music on the internet anymore; they're not listening.
Some people point to the sheer amount of music coming out. Consumers don't know where to spend their money.
It becomes a quagmire. You're endlessly bombarded to the point where you turn yourself off, because you can't decipher what is worth listening to. I understand that. But when has choice ever been a problem? Is that really how people think these days? "Oh, there's too much choice. I better not listen to anything."
That's how far that kind of lazy thinking gets us. It's what I call the "Pizza Generation." If it isn't there in 12 minutes, you don't have to pay. And that seems to be the attitude about everything. Everything becomes temporary and pointless, and it's silly.
You see, when I was young I used to love going to record stores, and I felt challenged by every record there. I wouldn't know what any of them sounded like and I'd spend a whole day there until I fully immersed myself in all the different styles and disciplines of music. But then again I come from a town when we used to love music very seriously, because we understood that music — all music — was our culture. It was our expression, our freedom, our way out of the doldrums.
But record company thinking has destroyed all of that, and they've even destroyed themselves in the process, haven't they?
They seem to have taken the attitude that, "If we're going down, you're all coming down with us!"
Yeah, seems to be that way! And I'm sorry if this sounds like, "Oh, woe is us. Life is complete misery." But I think it's a worthy discussion, you know? That we should be able to sit down and look at what's really happening here and raise issues and try to find solutions. And I don't just mean one band, I mean all of us, all across the board, all those who still love music coming together to try and figure out how to correct it.
It's hard to get people to come to live gigs anymore. They just don't seem to believe that they even exist.
Have you seen anything positive come out of the "new" music industry?
It was amazing to me that Rihanna, to hit No. 1 in England, she sold under 10,000 records. That was stunning. She spent the whole year there doing festivals, doing TV, and that's all you get at the end? [laughs] I'm looking at that going, "Bloody hell! PiL's outsold her by 10 times!" [laughs]
What do you have to do to get people to take an interest? I'm not going to go out and cause a silly sex scandal just to sell a record!
It's tough for young artists. Growing up in a small town, I really only had access to big-box stores and the same classic rock stations that played the same 20 or 30 songs.
Over and over again. That's what record labels became really, warehouses. They constantly regurgitate the same stuff, and in the process they've closed everyone down. It's such a shame.
As a culture, we've sort of fetishized these old bands to the point where nothing else can ever seem as good or as important.
Fetishized! Sir, we are at one on this! [laughs] Get your Mick Jagger dildo here... [laughs]
All that said, it seems that PiL's fan base has been very patient over the last couple of decades.
Yeah. That's there. There's that solid hardcore fan base. But those are people who know I don't tell fibs, and have shown me great patience. I love and respect them very much for that. I will never let them down.
We've just been in Europe, and the audiences were extremely varied. It's a heartwarming thing because that's what PiL managed to achieve so many years ago. We're for all ages, we break all of the delusions of young and old. It's all about people, and people are varied. Your audience should be varied, and if it's not, if the first 30 rows all look like the lead singer, that's not an achievement.
PiL started almost as a sort of multimedia conglomerate. Do you feel there are still interesting creative opportunities in other mediums, or is PiL primarily a music project now?
It should be, but I do like the idea of us veering off into other ventures when the moment is right. But not trying to do it all at once. I think we ran out of the gates too quickly there, and we didn't look neither left nor right. But then saying that, we've always made good music!
Having such a huge back catalog to pull from, how did you go about selecting a set list that hits career highlights as well as introduces fans to the new album?
We pick the songs we like to rehearse and play with. Sometimes we alter the set a lot, sometimes we stick with what we're most comfortable with. It's six of one and a half-dozen of the other, and that's a very healthy way of approaching a live gig. It is an enormous repertoire we have.
Me personally, I tend to use the lyrics of songs that are kind of relevant to each other, so that it has a sense of theater, and a buildup, and a point, and a purpose. It has a beginning, middle and end, by way of explanation. And that's what the new record is, it's an explanation of the life of a very young person to the current climate. What's made me this way? What are my influences?
It was a very enjoyable album to make, This is PiL. In my mind, and I know the band feel this too, it's probably the best piece of work any of us have made.
Listening to the album, it sounds like the band really enjoyed the process of making it.
We're not one to put out a record of self-pity and malice and revenge. We just got into the things that fill us with hope and joy.
In the song "One Drop," you sing, "We are the ageless, we are teenagers." Do you really feel that way?
That's a song about rioting. We all have problems, but we all have the same enemy. Ageism, I think, was a record company ploy, the us-versus-them factor that conned quite a number of young people into believing they were a part of a revolution by purchasing certain bands' records. It's something Pete Townshend started with that phrase, "Hope I die before I get old." And I've talked to Pete, and he's told me it's not quite what he meant. [laughs] He was discussing internal possibilities, but by the time a statement like that gets out to the masses, it becomes a proclamation, and that's unfortunate.
Poor sod, he's got a lot to live down, hasn't he? He's got a lot going on, but let me tell you about Pete Townshend: He helps people. He helps musicians. He's been nothing but really, really generous and kind to me for years and years. Every now and then, when you feel down and despondent, a fellow like him can really put a good word in your ear, and it's unfortunate that that side of his character hasn't really come through in the media.
He's a very important person for us, and let's not for forget that. And he wrote some bloody excellent songs along the way!
Public Image Limited's new album, This is PiL is out now. The band are on the road in North America, and you can find their current tour dates here.