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Rotten on the Rake

By Radio Afera's James Shanahan

Posted July 20, 2017
john lydon speaks to james shanahan
Top bloke: PiL frontman John Lydon in action. Check bottom for credit.

PiL's John Lydon talks music, books and footie with Radio Afera's James Shanahan.

Thankfully, from a jobbing hack's point of view, John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, is a musician who needs very little in the way of introduction.

After fronting Sex Pistols in the late 70s and in so doing arguably changing the face of British (if not world) popular culture forever, he then, in 1978, formed Public Image Ltd (PiL) with Keith Levene, Jah Wobble and Jim Walker.

While the PiL line-up has undergone various changes over the years, Lydon has remained the one constant sneering presence.

An innovative, outspoken and highly creative maverick, Lydon divides opinion.

Some people love him; some people don't.

We here at the Rake & Herald fall firmly into the former camp.

So, when our very good mate James Shanahan said he would be interviewing Lydon for Poland's Radio Afera 98.6 FM, we were well impressed.

Then, when he said we could run a transcript of the interview, we jumped at the chance.

Except that was back in April last year and we were on hiatus, putting together our glorious Rake Clag T-shirt shop.

Thing is, we're back in action now and the interview is simply too good to toss in the bin of history.

Admittedly, a couple of bits are now slightly dated, but by far the bulk of the interview is truly timeless and, as you would expect with Lydon, thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking.

So here it is now, the full Shanahan/Lydon interview that you should read, re-read and then re-read again.

It's a corker.

Please share if you agree.

john lydon in 2011
Not just microphones: Lydon also does telephones. See bottom for credit.

James Shanahan (JS): Hello, can I speak to John Lydon, please?

John Lydon (JL): He is speaking to you right now.

JS: Good morning, John. My name's James Shanahan from Radio Afera and it's a pleasure to be speaking to you today. How are you? How are you feeling this morning?

JL: It lives.

JS: It lives?

JL: Yes.

JS: Excellent. OK, so let's start by talking about the album What the World Needs Now, which is great, by the way, sounds great. I've been listening to it quite a lot recently. It's been out a few months now. How's that going for you?

JL: Well, in terms of what? I mean for me it's a highly successful album. It's something I've made with my friends and we're very proud of. It's the second album with the same people, which for me is a historical moment because all the time I was on large labels I could never keep a band together.

JS: Difficult to keep the same group together?

JL: Yeah. Now that we're independent and struggling and running it ourselves, things just seem to have empathy with each other and the situation's much more friendlier. Less outside influence is the key to it and the bonding, that's necessary to be in a band – you've gotta really get on with your people – is all happening now. Going to make records is a joy, a pleasure, a luxury and one of our own making.

"Those that want an interesting piece of music will seek it out and those that want the mundane are more than well accommodated for already."

JS: I've been watching some of the promo videos as well for What the World Needs Now and it looks like a very close-knit community that you've got there. It looks like some kind of cottage that you were recording in.

JL: Yeah, well we're all mates. Everybody that works, regardless of whether you're on stage or backstage or off stage or running the office, we all view each other fairly equally and so there's a big camaraderie thing going on in it. And, I mean, well I've tried adversity haven't I, for how many years? Eh? You know, you have to make the best of the situation but now we've made our situation the best and these are people that I've worked with before so it's not like we're new to each other and we've gone through difficult periods with each other in the past so it's not really like me picking and choosing special favourites. It's not like that at all. These are the personalities that I knew would blend best. And I'm very lucky that everybody in the band said, "Yes please, John."

JS: You've been a lucky boy then?

JL: Yeah, very.

JS: The album has been well received by the music press also. Is this something that you place any importance on?

JL: No, I don't think reviews matter any longer. It's really trying to get the thing to people's earholes and how do you beat the mass consumerism that is out there? Well, you ignore that. We're not going for chart positions or anything like that. Those that want an interesting piece of music will seek it out and those that want the mundane are more than well accommodated for already. No, I don't see that as competitive to what I'm doing at all. In fact, every time I listen to the Top 30, I feel complimented that I'm not in it. Although, occasionally I do tend to break in there. I can't help myself but write a catchy tune.

JS: I just wanted to ask you a couple of things about the recording of the album. Did you change anything in your approach to recording the album or writing the songs compared with previous material?

JL: No, it's pretty much the standard PiL approach, which is to try to create as much of the live experience as you can when recording. So, record everything all at once if you can and, thereby, maintain that high energy. I mean, I have worked on records and songs in the past where studio technique played a great deal in it. That's been enjoyable too but, for me, because we want to perform this immediately live, this is the way we're going about it.

JS: I read in the book [JL's recent autobiography Anger Is an Energy; discussed more fully later] that you think faster than you write, meaning that you come up with lyrics on the spot.

JL: Yeah, I have to. And then I have to rewind the tape to find out what it was I just said!

JS: And then scrawl it down afterwards?

JL: Yeah. Not always, sometimes there's a great deal of advanced preparation but those are just ideas. It's the actuality that counts. You know, you only get one, two, three, four goes at a thing really and if you haven't got it by then you're never going to. So, move on because time is money and you can't ponder your navel all day long.

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JS: Also, talking technical, I saw in one of your new promo videos, perhaps it was for Bettie Page, that you seem to be using a dynamic SM58-type microphone in the studio. This doesn't seem to be standard studio practice.

JL: Yeah, well it is in that studio! I've got to say, "Thank you, Stevie Winwood." You know, you work with what's there and as you open the door, whatever's in front of you, that's what you use. Those are the tools. I like a microphone that can grasp every inference and whisper and the highs, lows and middles that are there. Some microphones will cut that out and smooth you out but that's not the kind of production I want. I want the gristle as well.

JS: Is it an analogue or digital recording?

JL: It's digital, yeah.

JS: Do you have a preference on that kind of thing?

JL: No, because I think that in studio craft now everything is all computer run anyway and that seems to be very, very good. We're getting the full signal there. If it isn't then we'll revert to tape. I love tape editing anyway. I love cutting up things and sticking them back together with Sellotape. But we're not doing that this time because as I said before, it's to do with a live, live, live performance and as close as we can imagine it to be when we get these songs on stage.

It's a wonderful place for us to record in, in the Stevie Winwood barn, because it has this enormous great stone room where we just set everything up and I have my microphone in the corner and that's how we put the song down. All together. Now, of course there's bleeding and all of that, but... bleeding hell! Listen to the energy you get.

JS: How long did it take to record the album from start to finish? All said and done.

JL: Oh, God, err... I would think six to eight weeks.

JS: That's pretty good going.

JL: Yeah, we work fast. And, of course, there are days of indolence, which are very necessary, where you just fop about and do nothing all together. Then, oddly enough by conversation, which I find a most useful thing, is when we're talking amongst each other. That's when ideas start and then we'll all run back in. Sometimes separately, sometimes all together, sometimes in ones and twos. There's no rule book for it other than a complete trust in each other's workings. I don't think we're capable of achieving catastrophic results because enthusiasm and the love of what we're doing is there and that's the guiding force of it.

JS: I think Bettie Page is my favourite tune on there at the moment but that's likely to change.

JL: Yeah, well as time goes by and you study your own emotions, you'll find songs that will suit those purposes and that's what music is supposed to do. And that's what PiL do. We study our emotions and hopefully see them relating to an audience. I know that from live performance. I can tell by making eye contact – because we like playing smaller venues – I can see that people are understanding what it is I'm trying to translate to them here and if they get it and they understand it, that's the result. That's the reward. What we feel is what other people feel. So, we're not lost in space here and crawling up our own big artistic bottoms... which is very fashionable.

john lydon in 2013
Books 'n' all: Lydon doing a spot of proofreading. Check bottom for credit.

JS: Can we talk about your book a little bit, John, Anger Is An Energy? Now, I've gotta say, it's quite an insightful read, but what audience would you say that the book is aimed at? Is it for the die-hards or are you just getting things off your chest?

JL: No! I would say it was a general reading of someone who endured an awful lot in his childhood and you're either interested or you're not. And that's really the crux of the book. It's the unexplained earlier part of my life. People seem to know me as this instantaneous negative pop star. Well, there's a lot more that went into the making of that human being and what I had to endure as a child and what I survived... That gave me the strength and stamina and integrity that I needed to endure the rest of my existence. All that early stuff is a reward in many ways because it's made me the strong person that I think I am.

JS: It's fascinating and some of it's harrowing...

JL: Well, a lesson learned from all of that was that self-pity will not be tolerated.

JS: You mentioned a band called Magazine and a song called Shot by Both Sides.

JL: Yeah, yeah... love that song.

JS: Now, that stemmed from having an Irish background and being in England and when you were in Ireland, it was about not being Irish...

JL: Oh, there's many reasons I understand that song and that would be the least of them. It came out at a time when I'd left the Pistols and I was starting up with PiL and felt that I was shot by both sides. There were those who wanted me to continue in my past vein and those that resented my past and wouldn't listen to my present or give me any prospects for the future. And it was a pretty nasty period too, press-wise. They were well up for condemning anything I did because of the lack of record company support in that particular area. And so, it was feeding time, feeding frenzy.

JS: Yes, the witch hunt.

JL: The sharks were out and, well, I got through it and songs like Shot by Both Sides were really helpful.

johnny rotten with sex pistols
Blast from the past: Lydon in his days with Sex Pistols. check bottom for credit.

JS: OK, along with Magazine, you mentioned Johnny Cash, Dr Kitsch, Jim Reeves, Mozart, Captain Beefheart... You know, there's a long list of other artists and musicians that you mention.

JL: Ah, listen. Anything done by human beings interests and fascinates me and I don't specialise in one particular genre in music and I don't think anybody sensible should. And there you go, very varied in my taste and very varied in my own music.

JS: Do you have any current favourites, John? Is there anything that's on your stereo more often than not?

JL: No, because I'm preparing for a tour so I will listen to nothing and be completely focused on what it is I have to do, which is a serious body of work, and the last thing I want is to be humming a Taylor Swift tune half way through Death Disco!

JS: No, don't do that!

JL: It can happen on stage. It can happen that the infectious nature of pop songs can creep into your psyche all at the wrong moments.

JS: You mentioned the tour, so let's talk about that a little bit. Kicks off in May, you're going to be touring Europe. We're expecting you in Poland on May 18. How many times have you played in Poland before?

JL: Quite a few.

JS: Quite a few? Have you got any specific memories you can share with us?

JL: I love Polish audiences. They're always very up for it. They're very participatory and make an occasion become an event.

JS: Actually, I did come to one of your concerts. I've been told not to mention the name of the band though but it was a few years ago up in Gdansk or Gdynia, whichever it was, and it was a thoroughly enjoyable concert also.

JL: Yeah, well, in any form. I mean, live for live music and I'm always appreciative of audiences that share that opinion. When it's live and there you are, your heart and soul are bared and basically you put your head on the chopping block. It's very rewarding for people to appreciate that you took that risk. Because, I mean, we now look at the modern world of music and it's mime artists! Most of them, they only sing one or two lines and they have the audacity to call that live. The rest is pre-recorded and looped and dropped in by Fairlight patterns. What an audacity is that?!

JS: And Auto-Tune also...

JL: The very worst thing.

JS: It drives me mad.

JL: Oh, you can detect it very seriously. I'm not a robot. I write and sing and live according to my heartbeat and capabilities, the way my heart is and my lungs function. It's how I sing and I don't want to challenge that because it becomes inhuman after that.

PiL in concert
No miming here, mate: PiL in action. © Check bottom for credit.

Does Lu [Lu Edmonds (guitar and miscellaneous instruments)] speak Polish?

JL: Probably does. He speaks everything else.

JS: So, you'll get along just fine over here.

JL: Oh, Lu is completely multilingual and if he's not, he does a bloody good impression of it. He'll understand what I mean by that if he reads this. He's a very brave lad, Lu. He'll take on anything.

JS: You're also venturing into Ukraine. Kiev first and Kharkiv after... [The Kharkiv gig was cancelled due to factors beyond the band's control.]

JL: Yeah, yeah. We know the Ukraine very well. In fact, that whole area and love playing there. And there's, well, could you call it a political environment there at the moment which is quite challenging?

JS: Well, this is what I was going to say. Did you push for those gigs or...

JL: Yeah, they're there and the people want to see us and we want to play to the people. We don't play to governments. We're not playing to invading armies or to occupying political forces. We're playing to human beings. And therefore, it's probably for us the best place to be because these are real people that do need time out from a very, very negative, frightening and terrifying situation.

JS: I looked at the gig listings for Kharkiv and there doesn't seem to be much happening there at all.

JL: No, everybody gets scared and won't go there. Well, that's a golden opportunity for a band like us. And it's where you're wanted, it's where you're appreciated and they definitely want us.

JS: I think the gig will go down a storm there.

JL: Always does. All of that part of the world. Macedonia is fantastic to play too. Part of that whole general area which is completely misconceived by the western world.

john lydon on stage in hammersmith
On me 'ead, son! Lydon likes his footie. © Check bottom for credit.

JS: I'd like to change the topic a bit, John, because I know you're a football fan. If you don't mind me asking about football, of course.

JL: How can that be? I support Arsenal!

JS: I wanted to ask you what you think about Leicester's achievement this season.

JL: Fantastic!

JS: You like it?

JL: Fantastic! So overwhelmed with pride for them. They put themselves together as a team and the team spirit is absolutely magnificent. Hats off all round!

JS: They're unstoppable!

JL: And I hope that be the case.

JS: This doesn't cause you any gripes as an Arsenal fan?

JL: None at all. No, it's a game. Please! Nobody owns anything unless they earn the rights to it and that's through hard work and the teams that are under them didn't achieve that hard work barrier, did they?

JS: Totally, yes.

JL: And there you go. And teamwork and team spirit... I mean, that's completely what Public Image is all about. So, hello! Well done boys!

JS: Yes, exactly. There's a big shake up at the top of the Premier League.

JL: And it needs it. And it needs it!

JS: Yes.

JL: Alright. Wake up a few sleepy heads.

JS: Indeed yes.

JL: You know, over-privileged and underdeveloped mentally. That seems to be what the teams are offering them as resistance.

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JS: And what about [Arsène] Wenger?

JL: Well, he's there isn't he?! A manager can only do so much. I mean if you're consistently not going to buy a captain or someone in charge in the middle of that field, this is what you're going to get. Listen, somebody has to be steering.

JS: But they've kept hold of Wenger for a long time now and...

JL: Yeah, yeah. I like that loyalty and longevity in it.

JS: Yes, it's admirable.

JL: It really is because the whole process of temporary management is foolhardy.

JS: It certainly is. One other question about Arsenal. Have you forgiven Szczę̨sny and Koscielny for their little cock-up in the League Cup Final a few years back?

JL: (Laughs)

JS: I'm asking because I'm a Birmingham fan.

JL: Yes, I was at that game!

JS: I know!

JL: Yes, I mean, the last thing I would want to be in a football team is a goalkeeper or the defender, alright? If anything, as a footballer, because I'm amazingly untalented, would be an anvil up front hoping that something would ricochet off me and into the net! And as a defender that would be a very bad philosophy.

Listen, it's a game. Everybody makes mistakes, right? And you just get on with it. Don't think that your life depends on it. And there's an awful lot of transporting turning into a violent kind of passion now in the game... which is foolhardy. The hooligan element has definitely been removed and they're replacing that with this negative nonsense internet chatter, foolhardy spite and rage... against... what? It's 22 millionaires kicking a piece of leather about. Don't lose your knickers!

The modern football fan is somebody who wouldn't be allowed into a... Well, wouldn't dare go actually... You know, I grew up in the old days. School of serious hard knocks. Now it's ballet slippers. I still remember those hobnail things with wooden studs. That's how old I am! Cor blimey! When I was young!

JS: For me, it's Co-op plimsolls. That's what I remember being on my feet when I was a kid.

JL: Yeah, if you were lucky. But I was no good at it anyway. I'm not a physical person. Never have been. Illnesses from childhood got rid of that for me so I had to develop in other areas. Hello, Brain o' Britain here!

JS: OK, John, I want to thank you very much for your time.

JL: Good on you, sir!

JS: I wish you every success with the tour, the album and the book. It was an absolute pleasure being able to speak to you.

JL: Yeah, well you know success for me is eyeball to eyeball, up close and personal, all there for one good reason... Save the world. Hello, welcome to John. May the road rise and your enemies always be behind you. May they scatter, flatter, batter and SHATTER!

JS: That's excellent! What do you have planned for the rest of the day, John?

JL: Sex, drugs and some rock'n'roll. Yes, I'm a traditionalist at heart. Give me that old-time religion! Peace.

JS: Thank you very much, John. Have a nice day.

JL: Yeah, good on you. Cheers, mate.

JS: Cheers, mate. Bye bye.

Massive thanks to Shanny for letting us run the interview and, of course, to John Lydon for speaking to him in the first place. As a thank-you, here's the aforementioned Bettie Page. Cheers, y'all!

And while I'm about it, here's Double Trouble from What the World Needs Now as well. I wish he'd repair my bog, mind. It keeps making this weird noise when I flush it. And it stinks of shit.

See also The best interview ever, posted 24/7/14.

Picture credits

Respective authorship and licensing information (from top pic to bottom) can found here, here, here, here, here and here.

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