'Public Image was a training camp,' John Lydon says
“Don’t ruin this interview.” John Lydon drops that warning nearly 40 minutes into a conversation, when he’s asked how he feels about his early collaborators in Public Image Ltd. -- Keith Levene and Jah Wobble -- revisiting the band’s catalog on their own, outside of the Public Image name.
Known best for his work as the snarling troublemaker Johnny Rotten in the Sex Pistols, Lydon in 2009 reformed his post-Pistols experimental outfit Public Image Ltd. “Don’t call it a reunion,” Lydon says. “This is a continuation.”
The band, which includes later-Public Image additions Lu Edmonds and Bruce Smith, released this week its first album of new material in 20 years, “This is PiL." Here, he talks about the band’s legacy and its “continuation.”
So this album begins with the sound of you belching.
It’s a delicious sound.
You’ve lived in Marina del Rey now for about two decades, but this album is full of love for the U.K. -- thinking of the ‘English roses’ on ‘Human.’
It’s just about remembering British summers -- salad days we used to call them. Being there in the summer on an English afternoon recording the album, it just struck home. It brought back great memories of childhood, the time you’re free of all the contamination of what human beings really get up to. Everything just seems wonderful.
Both PiL and Big Audio Dynamite, Mick Jones’ post-Clash band, viewed punk as a jumping off point to more adventurous dance textures. They were moves away from everything people expected.
The punk world wasn’t just punk rock. That’s important for people to understand. As soon as the cliches started to creep in, it was time for the more serious of us to move away from that. My biggest fear is mindlessly and stupidly repeating myself. That’s not going to happen. There’s too much to do yet. So let’s hear it for the next 50.
Edmonds and Smith were later additions to PiL, but not members of the band’s most famous lineups. Why this configuration?
I’ve been gagging at the bit to get back together with these chaps. They’re the ones I have the fondest memories with, out of all the PiL situations. Bear in mind there have been something like 49 members. In many ways, Public Image was a training camp. It helped many people get careers they wouldn’t have otherwise have had. You only really get one chance in your life. So do it honesty, do it openly, do it with integrity and do it with transparency.
How are things getting on with the Sex Pistols these days?
I suppose they’re fine. We don’t see much of each other -- I don’t mean that badly. I just don’t have time for that. The majority of my musical life has been in and around PiL. The Pistols are a part of my past -- a very proud part of my past. It deserves its place in history, no doubt, but I don’t want to be living in my history.
Why, then, revisit PiL?
I’ve always wanted to. I’ve always wanted PiL to continue. This is not a revisiting. This is a continuation. I couldn’t do it due to the record labels. The reason for that nearly decades of being out of work musically was due to record company entanglements. They became oppressive. The contracts were binding. There was no progress to be made. I couldn’t afford monthly wages for anyone. I couldn’t pay anyone. We couldn’t rehearse because there would be no advance until outstanding debts were taken care of. So I ended up having to play the waiting game. I was just waiting for contracts to cease.
A lot of the lyrical imagery on ‘This is PiL’ seems to reminisce or discuss your youth.
I’ve been away from making music for so long, so I felt I had to tell a bigger story. I felt I had to even involve early childhood for this album to have any kind of sense to the listener. I felt that was a good backdrop to begin.... Without my past there’d be no present and there’d be definitely be no future. It’s not stuck in the past. It just uses it as poignant reference points to explain certain situations. There’s a song like ‘One Drop,’ with the refrain, ‘We are teenagers. We are the ageless.’ That’s how we feel. The message of revolution does not cease to exist with age.
Some of these songs, like ‘Deeper Water,’ for instance, feel extremely groove-based.
That song we improvised and recorded in one take. Everything was improvised, even words. It all came together from a really good conversation before, and the night before from some other situation. All the different elements of chit-chat between us went into the song. That’s how my brain works. It’s not regurgitation, but reiteration of certain situations.
What was the chit-chat that inspired the song?
I was talking with Lu and I had never realized that he comes from a long line of admirals in his family. He has a lot of ocean connections. I love the ocean. We were chatting about sharks and it led into all these different things, so the next day it all played out in that song. There’s also references in there to people who will deliberately give you bad advice.
Did you talk to record labels before deciding to release this on your own PiL Official label?
Oh yeah, we looked around. We eyeballed every possibility. We gave them all an equal opportunity and decided none of them. It was a tough one to make. ‘Oh my God, how quickly can this go wrong?’ But it doesn’t. It just involves hard rock. I’m sorry. I’m trying to eat at the same time. No, it involves an awful lot of hard work. PiL is not just a band. It’s all the people who work with us. We know that if things go wrong we let ourselves down.
What are your thoughts on Levene and Wobble doing a tour centered on PiL’s (1979 album) ‘Metal Box’?
Wobble had the opportunity to come back and work with us, but [money differences made] it impractical. It’s very unfair of him, and it was a shock to me. He’s behaving very silly.... Bear in mind, when I started PiL, nobody in the world knew any of them people. I gave them careers.
Is that why the name of the album and the first track appear to be a statement?
We didn’t do it as a statement. We just liked the groove and that’s the way it naturally occurred. When we record, everything stays on the tape. That’s why, quite oddly enough, the first PiL album quite a few years opens up with me burping.
-- Todd Martens
Photo: John Lydon. Credit: Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times