If you had to pick a single individual to personify ‘punk’, then a sneering Johnny Rotten circa 1976/77 would be right at the top of the list.
But while he is forever indelibly frozen in that moment as the singer with The Sex Pistols, it is Public Image Ltd, the band he went on to form after he quit them that has proved to be the more enduring musical love affair of his career.
The frontman reverted to his family name of Lydon, and over the next 40 years they’ve been sonic pioneers, leading the post-punk movement as they embraced dub, electronica, world music, and anything else that passed into their orbit. But along with the experimentation, they still had hits with the likes of This Is Not a Love Song, Rise and Don’t Ask Me.
There has also been plenty of acrimony. During the group’s original run until they split in 1992, they went through numerous members with John being the sole constant. But since reforming in 2009 the line-up has remained solid, with Bruce Smith on drums, Lu Edmonds on guitar and Scott Firth on bass.
The Guide grabbed a few minutes on the phone with the notoriously prickly singer at his home in Los Angeles, to find him in good humour, only ticking your interviewer off the once, for calling him ‘sir’ as it reminds him of school.
‘It’s already been a busy year,’ says John, ‘I didn’t realise I was walking into my 40th anniversary year, but there you go, bonus points all round.’
To mark said 40th, there’s a career-spanning multi-CD/record and DVD boxset, The Public Image is Rotten, due out on July 20, and a documentary of the same name, which is receiving screenings across the UK during summer.
‘I’m really pleased with the documentary – it’s a fun piece of work, we basically let the cameras run, it’s something that’s very hard to do is to be natural in front of a camera, but we manage. There’s a lot of interviews in it, and a lot of interviews with people you wouldn’t have thought would turn up for me, but there it is. The big continuity point being me – I’m all over it!’
And he describes the boxset as ‘the biggest thing I’ve ever done in one great piece, it’s not insubstantial in content.’
Thanks to legal troubles and contractual wranglings down the decades, John has often found his own music out of his control, with others exploiting his back catalogue.
‘I’ve always poked my nose and tried to stop it when it’s wrong,’ he explains, ‘but if it comes from a good place, then it’s fine. We are our own record company now though, so we’re in full agreement with ourselves.
‘I’ve got to keep a roof over several people’s heads. It is an organisation and it requires everyone to be paid, and you have to look out for these things. And as far as I know, I am my own favourite charity.
‘I didn’t want the complications of what happened originally. It was all the right ideas done for all the wrong reasons. Well, it seems that way.’
Compiling the boxset found John trawling the band’s archives, although he says he is no stranger to looking back at their older material.
‘You have to all the time because it’s still relevant, and when you do live performance you have to acknowledge your past as well as the present, otherwise you’re cheating people, and as you do, you revise songs. Some you dig up from the grave that were lost somewhere in your memory, but you find that they’re all jewels in themselves.’
And PiL don’t view the older songs as artefacts to be preserved in aspic.
‘The fun of being in PiL is that we improvise a lot, we shape-shift songs according to the mood of the moment. If the crowd’s energy is leading us in a certain energy, we’re happy to go there, but let me explain, that’s not the same as doing a cruise ship number!’
The current line-up boasts an impressive pedigree, Smith was in early PiL peers The Pop Group while Edmonds was in The Damned and The Mekons. Since reforming in 2009 there have been two studio albums, This is PiL and What The World Needs Now… with a third in the works. Has this stability helped them to be more productive?
‘You can dig deeper into each other’s souls and you can share more. The end product being empathy.
‘Bruce I’ve known the longest – we’re good mates, and Lu is an exceptional person, we’re blessed also because we came across Scotty, and he has one of those personalities where you swear you’ve known him all your life.
‘They’re just really easy to get on with – there’s no hatred going on, or jealousies and personal animosities, or egos, it’s a fantastic combination of events, but it’s taken 30-40 years to get to this. I suppose it’s worth the wait,’ he chuckles.
How about a new album?
‘We’ve left over space between some gigs to knock into the studio and rack up some news ideas, otherwise this would be pointless. We play live so that we can make the money to record because that’s the wheel of fortune we spin, it’s self-serving in the most appropriate way. We pay for what we can achieve, and live performance is the key to that.’
While The Sex Pistols have unashamedly cashed in on their legend with a series of occasional reunion shows and tours, John insists he’s more at home in the smaller rooms.
‘We could waltz into larger venues, but that would be impersonal and I think we would lose our effect. I like these small venues, and I don’t like them going out of business because people don’t like to see live music much any more, at least that’s what promoters are telling us, and that’s a tragedy. You have to be able to get up close to the people making the music you’re interested in. These small cosy events, this is genuine.
‘You cannot fake it because eyeballs are less than three feet from your movements.
‘I’m terrified before I go on because of stage-fright, that’s never going to go away and I’ve learned to accept that and now enjoy that. Once you go onstage you have to leave the ego in the dressing room, there can be no prima-donna business going on, it has to be proper business with proper people who’ve come to see you be proper.’
In 1997 Lydon released his sole solo album to date, Psycho’s Path on Virgin Records. Aside from a previously unreleased track on a 2005 Best Of…, it was the only new material from John until he put PiL back together.
‘There was serious problems with the record label, they wouldn’t finance me, they said I owed money,’ he snorts derisively, ‘it was Catch-22, trying to break out of that was the hardest thing ever. It went on for 18 years.
‘Any money I would raise would instantly be grabbed because it was owed. Now I look back on it, I shouldn’t have signed contracts in the way I did when I was very, very young. The Pistols left a real stain on me for that, and everything was dragged back to that point.
‘I’m not the only one though, many other people went through hell too. There’s no self-pity there, it just took time to wedge my way out, and I have to say: “Thank you Country Life!”
Lydon fronted an advertising campaign for the butter brand in 2008, attracting flak from diehard fans for that most punk of sins – selling out.
‘It was what was needed,’ explains John. ‘It wasn’t an enormous amount of money that came from that, but it was sizeable enough to put a good chunk towards the outstanding debt and that freed me up and we terminated the contract.’
Jon has since set up his own label, PiL Official Ltd, to put out his future releases.
‘I didn’t know if that was going to work either, that was a risky time, but it has.’
He also admits to doubts about how the new PiL would work out.
‘The minute I knew that was going to work was when I deliberately turned up late to the first rehearsal, so I could sneak in and hear if they were gelling well. They were in the middle of [second PiL album Metal Box’s opening track] Albatross, and it was stunning. Simply stunning. Hard work pays off. Hairs on the back of my head stand up – for me these are exceptional people, it’s a very, very good friendship we have.’
Whereas once John would fight his bandmates, things are different now.
‘There’s been a lot of animosities, both internally and externally, and I had presumed in my earlier years that that was how it was for everyone. Maybe so, but I’ve found there’s also another way.
‘This is the most thrilling, exciting, open and explorative music we’ve ever done. And we’re doing it with total empathy and respect to each other and we come from four very seriously different musical backgrounds, but you put those elements together they’re not competitive, or combative, they’re complementary.’
Does this mean the man who once sang ‘Anger is an energy,’ is mellowing, or does anger still play its part?
‘You can’t avoid it, it’s a very valid emotion.’
So where does he look for inspiration these days?
‘In anything and everything. I like my songs to come from a place of familiarity – what is happening in my own life and my friends and my family and those I naturally feel affiliated with, and that would be the disenfranchised, I can’t help it, that’s the way I am.
‘And that’s it, but that’s more than enough to get on with, as long as there’s a pulse in any of us. It’s an open-hearted novel, that’s what Public Image Limited is.’
So is it more of a democracy these days, or is still your band?
Enunciating very clearly, he simply says: ‘The. Public. Image. Is. Rotten.’
Public Image Ltd play at Engine Rooms, Southampton, tomorrow, doors 7.30pm. Tickets £26.50. Go to engineroomssouthampton.com.