Shout Therapy: John Lydon on the other side of Public Image Ltd.

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PiL Glasgow, O2 Academy, December 19th 2009
Photo © Duncan Bryceland / © PiL Official Ltd

A version of this story first appeared in The Sunday Herald August 28 2015.

IT IS A QUIET THURSDAY MORNING, and John Lydon and I are talking bollocks. Specifically, we’re discussing a song called ‘Shoom,’ the final track on What The World Needs Now…, the new album from Public Image Limited, the great, scarred, mutant vessel Lydon has steered bloody-mindedly since 1978, when he jumped ship from The Sex Pistols.

In ‘Shoom’ – the song is named after the skewwhiff pulse of its wonky drum machine – Lydon dances a crouched two-step with the word “bollocks,” embracing it like an old friend, and then using it to batter everything in his path. “Fuck sex,” he mutter-sings, sounding like a tense electro Albert Steptoe: “it’s bollocks. Success: it’s bollocks. Contracts: well, they are bollocks. Botox: fucking bollocks….” On it goes, until suddenly, breaking into the high, broken Lydon wail, he lets fly with the line that gives the album its title: “What the world needs now… is another… FUCK OFF!”

Hearing this, you might reckon, well, it’s just Old Johnny being rotten again, showing off with his rude words. “Well, I’ve earned the right,” he points out happily, referring to the day in 1977 he sat as a 21-year-old in a Nottingham courtroom, watching John Mortimer, the beloved barrister and Rumpole Of The Bailey author, successfully defend the Pistols’ right to call an album Never Mind The Bollocks against indecency charges. “And having earned that right,” he continues, cackling, “it’s up to me to wear out its welcome!”

Actually, though, as often with Lydon, what you might think is happening is not what’s happening at all. This ‘Shoom’ song isn’t just gleeful obnoxious obscenity. “It’s my dad,” he says. “His death was still in my mind in the studio, and I wanted to write something specifically for him. That song is from my old man’s point of view: the way he used to sit in the pub, this very dry, brilliant sense of timing and humour, always brittle, but deeply funny. It’s there in that song, that’s the personality I fondly remember. It’s everything about him. Except his Irish accent. My dad in my voice.”

This explains the ragged edge to Lydon’s voice when he cries that chorus. He lost his father suddenly in 2008. What his world needs now is to hear him one more time.

“THIS PERSON’S HAD ENOUGH OF USELESS MEMORIES,” Lydon declared through the dense, dubby miasma of Metal Box, the timeless, cavernously claustrophobic 1979 PiL album many consider his masterpiece. (“Yeah: well they didn’t at the time, let me tell you. Fucking hell! Did I go through the wringer for that!”) But memories keep resounding in his songs. In its cranky way, Shoom is a flipside to Metal Box’s ‘Death Disco,’ a juddering post-punk floor-filler built from depth-charge bass, Lydon’s thorn-in-the-soul screaming, and guitar that wraps like electric wire around the theme from Swan Lake and strangles it.

Some took the Tchaikovsky reference as a two-fingered salute to high culture, a snotty parody stomp. (“Just another con-game?” pondered the NME’s review of the single. “A gigantic piss-take?”) In fact, the song is deadly serious. The thing Lydon is screaming about is watching his mother die in her hospital bed: Swan Lake is in there, being torn apart, because she loved the melody. To this day, when PiL perform, there is no distance between Lydon and the song. It’s not uncommon to see tears in his eyes.

“The songs, they’re all about specific scenarios in my life, or things that struck me deeply,” Lydon says. “And they take me back there. It’s my photograph album, my audio tapestry. Some are sometimes overwhelming to perform to the utmost – because that really hurts. But it’s essential. ‘Death Disco,’ it’s different every time. I suppose shout-therapy would be similar.”

Music is what John Lydon is about. But it is often the last thing anyone wants to ask him about. In Britain especially, it can sometimes seems as though the media simply wants him to replay the Pistols’ Bill Grundy interview on infinite loop: the moment Grundy goaded, “Say something outrageous.” Since he first appeared, he’s been held up as monster, or provocateur, or cartoon – all roles he’s been willing to play, of course. But the deeply personal nature of PiL for Lydon gets discounted, overlooked.

“I get journalists putting in their spiky little nonsenses, saying it’s all some elaborate joke on my part. Well: that’s an expensive joke, isn’t it? It’s a spiteful thing to say. This is no joke to me. Never, ever has been. The English are – I’ll say English, because you’re Scottish – still so embedded in this idea of The British Eccentric. That creates a real problem. Some of us are not just eccentric for the sake of it. It’s just how it is. This is what I am.”

Taking him through the years – sometimes taking him back – PiL has been Lydon’s Tardis in reverse. While he remains constant, it keeps changing, shifting shape around him, an experimental lab exploding through countless styles, internal arguments and umpteen line-ups. (Factoring in studio musicians and live accomplices, over 50 people have passed through the group.) And, like Doctor Who, it suffered its own 20-year hiatus. The last PiL record, 2012’s defiant This Is PiL, was the first since 1992.

Broken only by a 1997 solo album (“I put it out under my name because it is just me: I couldn’t afford a band”), that seemingly terminal two-decade recording silence was the result of legal wrangling with his old label, Virgin. The TV stints and the butter ads helped Lydon buy himself out of that contract and fund an unexpected, triumphant tour for a reactivated PiL in 2009. The proceeds from that tour allowed the self-financing band to make the 2012 album – which in turn funded another tour, which funded the new record.

The “new” PiL’s roots actually go back a long way. Drummer Bruce Smith (formerly of The Pop Group and The Slits, the fantastic femme punks fronted by the late Ari Up, daughter of Lydon’s wife, Nora) and guitarist/ multi-instrumentalist Lu Edmonds (ex- The Damned) first joined PiL in 1986. The other current member, Scott Frith, has played with everyone from John Martyn to, as Lydon delights in pointing out, The Spice Girls.

Following the often volatile chemistry of previous incarantions of PiL, and of the Pistols before, Lydon enthuses about the camaraderie inside the present band. “Because of how things started for me, I’d always presumed that that was what making music was like: being in a band meant you all hated each other. It’s been a long journey to get to this stage. And this stage might not last long – who knows, the way human beings are?

“But this is something I’ve always strived for: a healthy working place. I ran at the studio making this new album. Great fun. Listen, we’re all childish. Everyone in ‘the entertainment business’ is. But we can also be innocent. So leave the seven deadly signs outside, don’t bring it into the workplace…Unless, of course, it’s good song material.”

As it was, Lydon didn’t need to look far for material. Work on the new record coincided with a particularly busy period in his life. For one thing, there was the matter of his becoming an American citizen, late in 2013. He first moved to the States over 30 years ago. “Before that, I’d always been led to believe Americans were just gaudy, just into baubles and flash cars, and I discovered that need not be the case.”

His relationship with the place has fed many PiL songs, including the new album’s ‘Bettie Page,’ a tribute to the 1950s pin-up. “A hero,” he enthuses. “Groundbreaking. People like her went through hell, but achieved great things. They helped American society become more open-minded. My natural revulsion is always toward anything with a religious-dictatorial nature. Anything that fights the religious evangelists is yippee to me. To make the human body seem a thing of disgust: what kind of religion is that? Then again, fair play: when I look at myself nude in the mirror, I am fairly disgusted…”

After three decades living in the USA, Lydon’s decision to apply for citizenship came partly as a response to recent political developments. “I really wanted to show commitment to ObamaCare, which I think is a wonderful step in the right direction for America as a society. But now, I’m looking at Donald Trump trying to buy the Presidency, and that absolutely revolts and terrifies me. A very interesting election coming up, though. Haven’t I picked the right time to be in Rome? I shall be voting!”

Work on What The World Needs Now also overlapped with finishing last year’s Anger Is An Energy, his second volume of autobiography. He found the two projects inevitably bleeding together. The book revisits one of his formative experiences: when, aged seven, he contracted meningitis and fell into a six-month coma. He finally woke to discover he had no memory of who his parents were. The memory of having no memories resurfaces on the album in the song ‘I’m Not Satisfied.’

“That just happened instinctively and intuitively in the studio: and, yeah, it’s completely me as a young child, just screaming in pain: ‘Why don’t I remember your name?’ That whole time, recovering from that, seeing my parents as strangers, that lasted nearly four years. That’s a very painful lesson in life, that complete sense of isolation.”

His greatest fear is that one day, it might happen again. “Just before I go to sleep at night, I’m always thinking that: What if I get into that condition again? Would I be able to handle it as an adult?”

As it is, though, sleep is a happier place for him. “I’m always writing, y’know? I always have a notebook on the go, and I keep one by the bed. And when I have dreams, I’ve learned to wake myself up then write it down. It can be quite amazing. When you do that, you go back to sleep feeling quite content. Then you surprise yourself when you wake up and you find it – this stuff that was going on inside you, that you’re not aware of anymore. There’s a lot of dreamscape in me.”

BEFORE SPEAKING WITH LYDON TODAY, I was thinking about another time I interviewed him. It was July 7, 2009, and, as we spoke, the memorial service for Michael Jackson was being broadcast live on the world’s TV screens.

“Another stupid rock death,” Lydon said to me as it unfolded. “It really annoys me, how he ended up so isolated. It’s just not right. Y’know: people end up like this if they’re not careful. Fame is not a good thing, it’s very fucking dangerous. And ego isn’t the problem – it’s the isolation after. When you come off stage, it’s…nothing. It’s nothing. Everything is just disappointingly down on you.”

With that in mind, and with a new PiL tour looming, I ask him how he feels before he goes on stage today.

“Oh, terror. Nerves shaking. Really. Feeling like I could heave. These days I find I’m going on stage with a completely open heart – and that’s a frightening thing, because, over the years, I’ve used various personas to protect myself. It’s scary letting go of that. It’s begging for someone to cause me mental pain, with a negative judgement, or with me making a fool of myself. But I wouldn’t be worth tuppence if I didn’t face up to my own flaws and weaknesses.”

And after a show?

“Drained. Impossible to sleep. Still vibrating with the tension of it. Aaaaaand… then it all starts again at around 6.30am the next morning.”

And during a show?

“Oh, once out there –that’s different. That tension is released, and I can be myself. You leave the ego in the dressing room, and just be yourself. You know you asked about ‘Death Disco’? When I’m doing that, for example, oddly, there’s a reward in going through it again and again. That song, it’s different every time, but sometimes I clue into something that helps relieve the pain and the stress.

“And I can sometimes see this in people’s faces. I like an audience to be lit, to see them. I can gauge if they’re understanding what I’m trying to translate. That empathy, that’s dramatic. That’s really what all this – music – is supposed to be about.”