Skip to main content

PiL's John Lydon explains music as communication and why expression trumps intonation

“I’m a friendly chap unless I’m being deliberately insulted; then I pull out all my best weapons.” So begins this chat with Public Image Ltd’s John Lydon.

By Martin Popoff

“I’m a friendly chap unless I’m being deliberately insulted; then I pull out all my best weapons.” So begins this chat with Public Image Ltd’s John Lydon, the former Mr. Johnny Rotten, meaning well, disarming himself in reaction to a confession of nervousness from a fan since ’76 — one who’s also wincingly watched a few halting and halted Lydon interviews on YouTube over the years.

The occasion is the band’s new studio album, “This Is PiL” (or, if you prefer, in the spirit of The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, THIS-IS, and with no PiL needed). This bouncy, accessible record of 12 highly original originals is every bit as delightful as John’s cajolery down the phone line.

Public Image Ltd

Public Image Limited features the talents of (from left) Bruce Smith, Scott Firth, John Lydon and Lu Edmonds. Says Lydon, “Singing is a representation of what you feel in your heart and soul. And so the concept of in or out of tune is really not relevant. You try singing screaming pain and the loss of a dear relative in note-perfect format, and I’ll tell you you’re lying.” Publicity photo/© Paul Heartfield.

Helpful, patient and yet cheerfully disagreeable, Lydon articulately gets across the seriousness and honesty of the PiL project, one that is much more than the PiL and Sex Pistols legend himself. The band features Lu Edmonds and Bruce Smith, PiL pushers from as far back as ’86, plus a newer bass player in Scott Firth, who has played with Elvis Costello, John Martyn and Steve Winwood — that last name further attached to the studio in which this album was crafted.

“I can’t think in those terms, the way you’re approaching this,” begins Lydon, offering the first of many contrarian lead lines that kept this writer on edge throughout the interview. “That’s an unanswerable question. For me, any song I write is from life experience. It’s all part of what I call audio tapestry. And how I can fully explain the moods, emotions and feelings that I’m trying to get to grips with. Sometimes those can be sad emotions; sometimes they can be absolute joy. But either way, you have to get the exact right combination of words and sounds to fully express what it is you’re trying to convey. You see, I live in a world of communication. That’s what music is — the greatest way of it. But it can be really difficult, because we’re pushing ourselves into corners where this kind of subject matter isn’t usually dealt with in music at all. In fact, it’s ignored. You know, the deeper the feelings, the less you’ll find the world of pop trivia wants to know about it. It’s all, I suppose, something of an experiment, but it’s also a work of joy. Ever since I accidentally got into the music business when I was young, I’ve seen it as a great gift, and I’m not going to throw that away. I want to do this correctly, and I don’t feel any need to tell lies or promote this silly pop star imagery. I think I’ve done well not to do that for some 30-plus years (laughs).”

When asked to define the role of guitar in PiL, Lydon is quick to reply: “The guitar to us is just a title ... Lu, in himself, he plays everything. If it has strings on it, and it’s based on a fret and a neck, then he’ll play it. He experiments with a lot of Middle Eastern instruments, half of them, the names I can’t even pronounce. And so, that gives Lu the texture and the notes that he couldn’t possibly achieve on a Western-style instrument. And in fact, that’s what makes the voice sound so in tune (laughs). But no, we are playing with musical scales that are outside of Westerners’ normal way of thinking. And it’s not that we’re musical snobs. It’s just that we need to go to those places in order to fully underwrite and come to grips with what it is we’re doing within each song. We love it.”

Some have suggested that in the post-punk world, the bass, drums and even vocals have conspired to slap down the guitar. Lydon disagrees.

Public Image Limited This Is PiL

“I think you’re talking silly there. Very silly indeed (laughs). Quite the opposite. In fact, from the very onset of PiL, first album onwards, we highlighted that the instrument is not a dead instrument, that it could be used in a vast way. When people first started, I remember this very distinctly, that people were saying that after Jimi Hendrix you couldn’t really use the guitar — but you can, you can! You’re looking at a title that’s a very loose title: the guitar. This is PiL, and we defy those categories. The second you accept a category, it means you’re redundant, you’re imitating something, and usually something not of your own making. All of those experimental … there’s a terrible phrase (laughs) — that usually means people that don’t know what they’re doing.”
In PiL’s topsy-turvy world, guitar and voice share kinship more than guitar and bass. Lydon’s vocals serve many purposes, and one of them is definitely as instrument.
“It always has been — always has been. It amazes me that people seem to think that the singing part of any band is somehow not as relevant, where, in fact, it’s the most relevant, because it’s the one true aspect of nature, which comes from within the voice. It can’t be electronically produced. It can be imitated, but it can never be mastered completely. It’s the one true impulse that any music has with nature. Everything else, every instrument, is an imitation of nature. And yes, boy, I can sing (laughs). And of course, not in what you would hilariously call a typical way, because, indeed, I don’t do show tunes, and I’m not for ‘American Idol.’ So don’t point fingers at me in that direction. That’s pantomime. That’s not true singing. Singing is a representation of what you feel in your heart and soul. And so the concept of in or out of tune is really not relevant. You try singing screaming pain and the loss of a dear relative in note-perfect format, and I’ll tell you you’re lying.”

So are Lydon’s vocals and the wander of Edmonds�� guitar somehow representative of chaos?

“There is a random looseness that is a thrilling tightrope to be balancing on,” Lydon explains. “Some of the greatest albums I’ve ever heard … this sounds odd to people when I try to explain this, but do you remember “Zuma” by Neil Young? Well, that album is stunning, because the guitars that he’s playing are just about to fall over the edge; they’re on a very tight tether and yet so loose. It’s like, ‘Oh my God, he’s gonna have a drug overdose and the whole thing’s going to collapse’ (laughs), because the notes are teased to the Nth degree. That’s the stuff I love; that was a stunning record. It left a really, really healthy impression on me. I have deep respect for what he was trying to do. His voice too — you’re expecting it to almost crack, but it doesn’t quite. It’s very exciting and very difficult to control. I have respect for anybody who pushes the boundaries to that length.”

There are definite parallels between Neil Young and John Lydon at the mic.

“I’m now focused fully on the voice,” Lydon says. “That is my method of operation. I’m pushing myself into areas I wouldn’t have had possible, really, years ago, because you need to get to this place. It’s like, well, I view myself as 50 years young, and it’s taken me this long to get the tools polished enough to know that what I’m doing is accurate and not happenstance. They are things that fully express exactly what it is I feel. When you feel pain, you don’t feel the words. You fight for the words to fit the situation, to explain it to others. It’s communication. I’m trying to relate that emotion as accurately as I can. It’s no good just standing there screaming, because that’s just somebody standing there screaming. You have to put depth into it. You have to fill the canvas. It’s very much like painting — something that I love, love, love, love. I would have loved to have been a painter; I’d have loved to have been a writer. But I didn’t think I was good enough. But I found that writing songs and painting pictures with words, that’s my angle. That’s a universe that I’ve carved for myself, and I’m very, very pleased with the end result.”

Personally, Lydon started in punk, but curiously, his own punk path melds with the artists who inspired him. And internally? Well ...

“Listen, the wonderful world of sounds, right from the onset, was everything I always wanted — but never, ever considered up to that point,” he says. “And so, for me, there’s no negative in any of this. I’m not leaving anything behind. Everything I’ve done has been a great step forward, and quite frankly, a wonderfully exciting journey. One step leads to the other. That’s what it is. I wouldn’t be here without the first footfall.”

And externally?

“All of it. Right down to the restraint of pop music, which I love, to the vast expansive universes of insanity from the likes of Captain Beefheart. Everything. I love the overproduction work on a T. Rex hit single, love that! You know, the Tony Visconti approach, just as much as any piece of madness. The pure joy of listening to a Miles Davis piece, particularly ‘Bitches Brew.’ And all of these things are done for our benefit as human beings. It’s people understanding something a little bit deeper than ‘Tra la la, here’s the song.’”

All this heaviness makes for a band that is demanding, and, unsurprisingly, up against a number of roadblocks. Blissfully commercial PiL is not, and in tandem, the band seemed to adopt from the onset an adversarial surliness that helped keep the band quarantined from potential success.

“You know, I can’t help what journalists write,” Lydon says. “Unfortunately, most of the music press don’t seem to quite understand it in the same way an audience does, or an interested fan base. If there’s anything like that going on, then it’s the so-called intelligentsia missing what was actually being experienced by us as human beings. The absolute painful aspect of dealing with these large record labels — really, really, really mind-numbing at times, so oppressive, and so mean-spirited, and so stifling of creativity. It was a constant battle just to get out and be able to perform at all. I always had to find ways of raising money, independently of the labels, to keep PiL ticking, you know, and I’m the man who’s done that right from day one. And, hello? A work of pleasure, may I say. You know, I’m quite happy to say that I’ve never relied on a handout, not from anybody. I had to find alternate means to keep PiL up and healthy and uncontaminated by record company thinking. That’s why there was almost two decades there where I couldn’t work, because of the record companies, their restrictions placed on me, financially. Once they get you into the position of you owing them money, you’re finished, really. And you have to then play the waiting game, and that means waiting until the contract expires. They were wicked enough to make that last two decades. And so if there’s a surliness in there, it’s there, yeah, but it’s never pointed at an audience or even journalists. It’s always directed at what I love to call the ‘sh*t-stem.’”

This makes for a strong bond of band brothers. PiL has been conditioned from the inside and the outside to become a fierce coalition of independents.

“I’ve known Bruce and Lu for 30 years plus,” says John, “for nearly 40 years, really. And this is the end result of that experience. I’m not just representing myself here vocally. I’m representing all of us. There’s a great deal of conversation that goes into putting together a song with us. It all comes from a serious amount of analysis. You have to get the angle correct, and it has to be accurate and truthful and represent everybody. Otherwise it’s just an overly especial excursion into selfishness. That’s not what PiL is. And the juxtaposition between Bruce’s pinning down a rhythm … he loves his syncopated bits. He’s more James Brown’s backing band more than anything. And that’s a wonderful juxtaposition to play with. And oddly enough, it doesn’t limit the music. It actually allows us great freedom, to live inside those deliberate constraints. And Scott, the bass player, his mind, he comes from a really good variety of things. I mean, he’s been with the Spice Girls through to Stevie Winwood. But there’s no musical snobbery going on. We put the songs together, and it’s not, ‘Oh, what’s the format?’ Because there isn’t one. It’s hard to explain how we even work, and because there really is no set way of approaching any particular song — they come about because they feel right. There’s a lot of work that goes into that. And then, us being us, we like a live sound, because we have to play these songs live – as we’ll do this fall. We make an album so that we can go out and play it live.”

So you’ll cop to surliness?

“No. Certainly not. I’ve had problems with members that viewed themselves larger than the project itself, and that was a shame. But then again, PiL has launched some 49 different careers. You know, they’ve all benefited greatly from the PiL school of musical education. And so you know, the naysayers will always be there in life. And indeed, they’re a valid part of it. Because, you know, there’s a refrain in ‘The Reggie Song,’ which is erroneously being called ‘The Reggae Song,’ because it is certainly not that (laughs). This… It’s one thing to get back into the Garden of Eden and get away from bad thoughts, you know? For us, we need to analyze and study the seven deadly sins, but we don’t need to actually live like that. Our way is to resolve the issue: When you fully understand the damage you do, you can say, for instance, you lie to someone, then you wouldn’t be lying ever again. And a lot of that, with me, goes back to childhood memories. I lost my memory when I was seven, through meningitis. It took me four years to recover from that. And I did not know who my parents were. And then that’s a frightening thing in life, and I had to learn to trust these very strange adults telling me that they were attached to me. And that’s why, for me, what you say to me must be the truth. Because if I find out you’re lying, you’re not in PiL no longer. It’s as simple as that.”

And don’t think for a moment that the members of PiL are into an opulent rock-and-roller lifestyle.

“We work practically on a shoestring kind of budget, and it has to be that way,” Lydon says. “We are not wealthy, but whatever is available, whatever fits the moment. It’s not happenstance and it’s not, ‘Oh, that will do.’ There’s an endless process of things thrown out, and I think with PiL, there’s always — in particular with us right now, the way we understand each other psychology-wise — it’s quite, quite remarkable. It’s a joy to work with these fellows. It’s what we throw out. And we throw out more than we keep. The ideas are constantly flowing. And so the making of this album, we were all kind of like, we all wanted to do it, but the first day in the studio was, ‘Oh, now we have to start!’ (laughs) and put our money where our mouths were. And that’s fine. Love that.”

Lydon also loves what’s been happening to the PiL fan base.

“Very varied,” he says of PiL’s fans. “And a lot of the old crowd are still there, and the audiences are as joyfully diverse as they always have been. A PiL crowd is a very, very mixed bunch. Very mixed bunch. There’s a whole new lot now. Young girls, you know, to great, big, fat thugs to college intellectuals to even professors, and they now, they’re calling themselves The Lollipop Mob, which is great fun. It’s a very, very exuberant place, the PiL zone. It’s very diverse, and in that diversity, I think is a clue to the universe proper. If you’re just playing to rows and rows of fans that want to look exactly like you, that’s kind of underwhelming and slightly moronic and not what any, any one of us should ever be doing any of this for. So for me, it’s a celebration of the art of being an individual. And that’s the Lollipop Mob — they’ve picked up on that song ‘Lollipop Opera’ — and it’s become an anthem. So, yes, there’s an enormous contingent now, The Lollipop Mob, this joyful bunch of exuberant lunacy.”

And finally, Mr. Would-Be Painter, what shall we make of this latest album cover art for “This Is PiL”?

“Freedom! The wild beast left up to his own devices,” Lydon says. “He’s of no harm to no one, so why would you want to fence it in?”