John Lydon: 'I didn’t want to be a comfortable, Mick Jagger-type naughty pop star'

From the Sex Pistols to the various iterations of PiL, via collaborations with Afrika Bambaataa and Leftfield, the legend, innovator and butter salesman picks the best of his output in the latest instalment of our songbook series

Sex Pistols – Anarchy in the UK

“Har! Hahahahahahahah!” John Lydon’s throaty, mischievous cackle barrels down the phone from Los Angeles. It’s eerily reminiscent of the laughter at the start of Anarchy in the UK, with which the singer – then called Johnny Rotten – unleashed the Sex Pistols on the British public way back in 1976. “My laugh was spontaneous in the studio,” he explains. “I suddenly had a microphone and the realisation that words can be very powerful and thrilling. I was thinking: ‘Ah-ha! Look what I’ve got a chance to do.”

Johnny Rotten in 1977.
Johnny Rotten in 1977. Photograph: Elisa Leonelli/REX Shutterstock

It had been a troubled childhood. The eldest son of Irish immigrants in Holloway, north London, Lydon went into a coma after contracting spinal meningitis at the age of seven. When he awoke, he had lost his memory: “I didn’t know who I was, my parents. I couldn’t hold a spoon.” As he tells it, he recovered through anger, which would later become a key artistic drive. After being dubbed “Johnny Dum Dum” on his return to school, he squirrelled himself away in libraries, devouring literary classics to help him use words as weapons. And suddenly, aged 20, there he was – “Right up close to people playing very loudly” – fronting the seminal punk band whose music prompted questions in parliament under the Traitors and Treason Act.

The Anarchy lyrics were written “almost spontaneously” in rehearsals – a volcanic eruption after years of frustration. “What Robin Williams described as ‘overflowing madness’,” he sniggers. “Mix that with a bit of James Joyce and out it comes. Repression, [anti-Irish] racism, the belief that class was all important ... I’d seen what was coming: Ikea-made shopping centres, the destruction of personality. I was lucky to have words to express what a lot of people were feeling.”

The (in)famous opener – “I am an antichrist” – reflects Lydon’s Catholic schooling. “You either believe that nonsense or have something to say about it,” he cackles. “Hopefully maliciously, because that’s where the fun is.”

Sex Pistols – Bodies

“She was a girl from Birmingham / She just had an abortion” begins this equally controversial song, from 1977’s Never Mind the Bollocks. It was a true story. “She’d been in a mental institution and used to brag about living in a tree,” Lydon explains. “She turned up at my place one night with an aborted foetus in a see-through plastic bag. Shock horror and all that, but once you get over it, it’s a bloody good subject for a song.” The young lyricist – further informed by grim childhood experiences carrying his mother’s five miscarried foetuses from the house in buckets full of blood – respects no sensitivities here either.

Bodies has been interpreted as being anti-abortion, but Lydon argues that it’s not clear-cut. “I could have been aborted. Any of us could. It’s about the value of life but also the pointlessness of bringing someone into the world and not caring for them, which is much more savage.” The word “fucking” rarely featured in songs in 1977, but Lydon says he reached for swear words to convey his “sheer rage”. “Silly people think swearing is fun,” he argues, “but if you use those words carefully they become very clever, full of poignancy: ‘Have a fuckin’ smack of this one, baby!’”

Public Image Ltd – Public Image

“The filth and the fury!” screamed the Daily Mirror’s front page as the Pistols’ Bill Grundy TV show appearance in December 1976 sparked moral panic and appalled one viewer in Essex so much he kicked in his television. Rotten was all set to be a pre-reality TV tabloid bete noire but he wasn’t playing ball. “I didn’t want to be that comfortable, Mick Jagger-type naughty pop star,” he explains. “I was in danger of becoming a parody.” Thus, with the Pistols having imploded, Rotten “became John Lydon again and exposed myself in a completely different way”.

“I’m not the same as when I began,” he cries over PiL’s mission statement, a pioneering post-punk juggernaut. The band took its name from Muriel Spark’s The Public Image (about the corruption of fame) and brought together early Clash guitarist Keith Levene, jazzy drummer Jim Walker and rookie bassist Jah Wobble. “This was the first thing we did in rehearsals,” Lydon remembers, and for two albums, sparks flew thrillingly. “That band could not get on with each other. Musically didn’t understand each other, but this is a key to how I am. I love pub culture, opposing elements and angry people up against each other. Johnny Chaos can sit in the middle and, through humour, calm that into something brilliant, and there’s my space in life.”

Time Zone – World Destruction

In 1984, with PiL having already careered through various lineups, Lydon was “buggering around” in New York, when he started going to nightclubs, hearing hip-hop and early electro. He was particularly taken by Afrika Bambaataa’s “wonderful mix of Funkadelic and AC/DC, which made them sound as if they belonged in the same place”. After being introduced by producer Bill Laswell, Lydon turned up to work with the Planet Rock legend “completely out of my comfort zone”. “The studio was full of people, all strangers,” he says. “I felt nervous and frightened: ‘I’m going to make a fool of myself here.’ Perfect!” In fact, the pair’s joint apocalyptic raps plus Lydon’s wails make a perfect fit. “The rap thing hadn’t really existed until that point, but I related it to Jamaican toasting, which I loved. I didn’t mind singing someone else’s lyrics because the Pistols covered Who songs. The difficult bit is making them sound poignant and relevant ... so I was over-enunciating, exploiting every word.”

Public Image Ltd – Rise

In 1986, Lydon had settled years of wrangling with Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren out of court (“so much of my life was wasted on that childish nonsense”) when he was transfixed by a TV documentary about apartheid-era South African interrogation techniques. “I thought: ‘We’re all being tortured, mentally and physically, so let’s rise up against it and have a song about that.’” Hence Rise’s key lyric: “Anger is an energy.” PiL’s biggest hit since Public Image is “a cross between an Irish lilt and a Zulu war dance. I had to replace the band I was working with because they couldn’t cope with the studio technology, poor things, but I was amazed at the names putting themselves forward. I didn’t think I had any respect.”

At the Hammersmith Palais in 1987.
At the Hammersmith Palais in 1987. Photograph: Ilpo Musto/REX/Shutterstock

Where Lydon had once toured with a suited, mulleted band he had found playing in a New Jersey Holiday Inn, the album Album united some of the world’s finest players, among them drummer Ginger Baker (“He’s nuts. If I was to worship a musician it would be him”) and guitarist Steve Vai. “Mr Twiddly twiddly,” chortles the singer. “He turned up playing 50,000 notes a second, but getting him to calm down was half the fun. The chorus, ‘May the road rise with you’, comes from an Irish saying for ‘good luck’. I was addressing everybody in the world, including myself. Stop the institutionalised hatred. A long way from the Pistols? I would hope so.”

Leftfield – Open Up

Lydon isn’t a of the disco era Bee Gees. “God, Stayin’ Alive. What a terrible song. That’s why people suddenly stopped using vocals on dance tracks – the Bee Gees – and the reason rave started.” He roars with laughter, and yet here we find him, in 1993, bringing angry energy to trance. In his teens, Leftfield’s Neil Barnes had somehow ended a mad night at Lydon’s place listening to reggae. So years later, when the duo wanted to make an album full of songs that would also work in clubs, he asked the former Pistol.

John Lydon in Las Vegas, 1995.
John Lydon in Las Vegas, 1995. Photograph: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc

“They said: ‘If you’re rubbish, we won’t use it.’ That’s such a tease isn’t it? Because they’ve guaranteed you’ll put in 150%.” Lydon insists the pairing wasn’t that unlikely: “I was a disco boy in my early years, and as an avid record collector I’d fallen in love with trance rave.” He delved into his lyrics bag – “What you’ll hear from me in the studio first is 10 minutes of paper rustling” – and found a killer chorus: “Burn Hollywood burn!” It isn’t – as was believed – Lydon “cashing in” on LA’s forest fires (which almost engulfed his US home); it reflects his experiences in the movies. “I wanted to turn my life story into a film, but they kept wanting to turn it into a David Cassidy story, with generic love interest and fake scenarios.” He’s consistent on this: “If it’s not from the heart, it’s not going to work.”

Public Image Ltd – Human

It was financial wrangles with Virgin Records that stopped him making music for years. “Unbearable,” he says. “I ended up doing the butter commercial and that money got us out of it. I love butter! If I was selling tampons it would be different. I would have worn them but only outwardly. You’ve got to move on from safety pins.” With cash to restart PiL, the band were recording in the Cotswolds. “Getting on like a house on fire,” he chuckles. “Then the house caught fire.” A blaze caused by a faulty washing machine back at his London property almost killed his dear wife, Nora – “When I got back she looked like a chimney sweep” – and burned his lyrics to a crisp. Typically, he saw this as another chance to start afresh.

Human – from 2012’s This Is PiL, the band’s first album in two decades – is unusually wistful, all cotton summer dresses, roses and beer, but melancholy. “It’s innocence lost, a nostalgic waltz through my childhood, and about how things that mattered have been thrown away for greed and chaos. My ambition in PiL now is to explore every emotion.”

Public Image Ltd – Shoom

Which brings us here, and a song that – despite being named after an acid house club (Shoom, which the drum machine thud reminds him of) and containing the word “bollocks” 50 times – is actually his inimitable way of addressing his father’s death. “The sadness is that I never really connected with him until he’d gone,” he sighs, and his voice is softer now. “He thought I blamed him for my illnesses and I thought he blamed me, until years later when we realised how foolish we’d been.” They became closer towards the end, and enjoyed each other’s company in the pub. So, in true contrarian fashion, this “old Irish sea shanty, happy Paddy thing with a load of ‘bollocks’” is a song John Lydon senior – who rarely swore – would have loved to hate. “He’d have said, ‘You can’t do that kind of ting!” the singer roars, in his dad’s Irish brogue. He can imagine what his mother would have told her husband. “‘Johnny, look what your son’s done to you now!’”

Perhaps, throughout all these many cackles, genres, countries and emotions, the only real constants are laughter and upheaval. “I don’t like to be put in a box,” Lydon says. “So I will go kicking and screaming to my grave.”

The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks deluxe reissue and 1977: The Bollocks Diaries book are out now. PiL tour in May. Details at

Lydon has curated a longer primer on his work, featuring the above alongside other favourite tracks from across his career; you can listen and subscribe to it in Spotify below.

• This article was amended on 13 March 2018 to clarify that John Lydon isn’t a fan of the of the disco era Bee Gees.


Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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