John Lydon Interviewed: “Anything that gets me doing the same thing over and over again, I have to walk away from.”

On the eve of a new Public Image Limited album, John Lydon speaks to MOJO about the early days of PiL, studio trashing and why Keith Levene’s heroin use tore the band apart

by Tom Doyle |
Updated on

THE SHEER EMOTIONAL POWER OF PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED IS SOMETIMES overlooked. But John Lydon’s pain, and catharsis, have been keynotes right from the start: with the venting, accusatory 1978 single Public Image – directed at Malcolm McLaren and the Sex Pistols – and Theme, the opening track of the band’s debut album, in which he primally howled, “I wish I could die/I will survive”.

“It was just hard… to be disappointed and aggressively inward-looking,” he says of the latter song. “I obviously didn’t wish I could die. But I was going through those feelings. And I was trying to articulate that. It was ultimately a song of hope. As indeed, I hope everything I do is.”

READ: John Lydon, PiL and the Sex Pistols: The Best Albums Ranked

But if Lydon had been battered by his Public Enemy No. 1 status as the singer in the Pistols – and the lack of protection afforded by McLaren’s shonky management operation – then further disappointment lay ahead. The brilliant, if problematic original line-up of PiL fractured with the departure of drummer Jim Walker in 1979, before falling apart when bassist Jah Wobble quit after that year’s monumental Metal Box.

“I expected better out of them,” says Lydon. “Whatever they thought was going to happen, like easy money and instant stardom, these were all the things I was not looking for. So I could honestly say my very close friends at that time were reading the situation wrong.”

In other words, they thought you were hugely ambitious in terms of being a massive rock star? “Yeah. The word ‘Limited’ was absolutely to be applied.” Lydon cites the production of Metal Box itself as proof that he was deflecting the spotlight. “We cut the voice down to its bare minimum,” he states, “because it was interfering with the tonality of the bass. It was all for the greater benefit, and the feelings and the emotions were tone-driven at that point. But you could get the point without the vocal just riding so heavy over the top.”

One exception being Death Disco – the pre-Metal Box 45 reworked for the album as Swan Lake. It found Lydon addressing his mother Eileen, dying of cancer. Here was a young man, still in his early twenties, vividly expressing his agony. With tar black humour, he later revealed that his mum had asked him to write a disco song for her funeral. In some ways, it was a grim pre-echo of his current situation.

“Oh yeah, yeah,” he nods. “I seem to have been down this path before a few times. But not quite to this degree.”

LYDON’S DURABILITY AND DESIRE TO MAINTAIN some version of Public Image Ltd was put to the test when he, guitarist Keith Levene and drummer Martin Atkins convened for the making of the third PiL album, 1981’s The Flowers Of Romance. While his voice tackled Eastern scales as the sound moved into musique concrète and the pummelling, ground-breaking gated reverb drum sound inspired his friend Kate Bush to further explore it on The Dreaming, the album endured a troubled creation.

To start with, the singer sacked Town House Studios’ in-house engineer, booting him out of the control room and locking the door.

“They couldn’t comprehend the sounds that we were looking for,” Lydon explains, before assuming a lofty, teacherly tone in imitation of the ousted engineer. “‘You can’t get that much bass on the record.’ My God, we were all brought up with reggae. We know that to be a lie!”

Later, Lydon grew violently frustrated that the rough mixes of the tracks were being smoothed out in the final stages.

“I actually damaged the desk,” he grins. “Y’know, I love [rough] mixes. They’re just really honest and you get to grips with the hardness and the heart of the song. But, my God, when it goes into 36 tracks, all those coloured buttons and things… they don’t do much but absolutely bury everything in 10cc mud, shall we call it?

“I quite happily, in me steel toe cap shoes, walked across the mixing desk and kicked all them knobs off (laughs). It sounds like comedy. At the time, it was done with a great deal of hatred in my heart. Because I knew where it was going wrong. They were trying to take us away from the meaning, the clarity of the thing, and cover it in what I call, with overproduced records, subterfuge.”

I’ve done every drug known to mankind, and if there’s a few new ones coming up, I’ll have a go there too.

John Lydon

More recently, the November 2022 death of Levene has forced Lydon to further reflect on the drug problems and grievances that ended their partnership.

“I never had a vendetta there,” he says. “He’d be doing all this negative talk. A lot of it being drug confusion. The poor sod couldn’t get away from that. I remember an interview he did years ago where he said, ‘Heroin’s not a problem. I take it to stay normal.’ How can you argue with that? You don’t. That’s the impenetrable barrier that you cannot get past.

“Y’know, there was a period there where we were very, very good. And that was under control. But then outside influences came into his life and he believed what they were saying. And that was his downfall. So many people in this industry are misled by their alleged friends who are really leading them into this world of drugfazed confusion.” A thought suddenly occurs, and his eyes twinkle with mischief. “Now, I’ve done every drug known to mankind, and if there’s a few new ones coming up, I’ll have a go there too,” he comically gurns. “I ain’t no saint, right? Oh no sirree. But I don’t let them dominate.

“I have the kind of personality, for better or worse, that gets bored with routine,” he adds. “Anything that gets me doing the same thing over and over again, I instinctively have to walk away from.”

“The Sex Pistols have coffined themselves. They don’t need my forgiveness. They’ve made their decision. Them as people, I don’t need them in my life.” Read MOJO's interview with Lydon IN FULL, in which he discusse the new PiL album, the Sex Pistols, the death of his wife Nora and more.

End Of The Wold by PiL is out 11 August via PiL Official

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