In Conversation: John Lydon

Punk icon on Virgin’s 40th and the Pistols’ legacy…

Virgin Records may be celebrating the 40th anniversary of its first album release this year, Mike Oldfield’s debut ‘Tubular Bells’, but no commemoration of the label's legacy would be complete without some involvement from one of its most notorious sons: a certain John Lydon

Here, the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten talks about his former label, the general state of the music industry and the world in general.

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PiL, 'Disappointed', from the album '9' (1989)

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Your relationship with Virgin Records has been a famously tumultuous one, with numerous love-ins and bust-ups scattered throughout your career, both with Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited. So what made you agree to honour the label's 40th anniversary this month on your current tour with PiL

Let’s face it: if Virgin is going to celebrate their years as a company they can hardly avoid me. It has been a love-hate relationship, but I’ve got to say I really enjoyed working with Virgin. It’s not common to find someone like Richard Branson, who threw his whole company behind the title ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’, and backed it to the hilt with a huge poster campaign.

He heard people bitching about it, about us using foul language, and he backed it. He backed me in court when we were fighting to use that. As a result, we made “bollocks” part of the English language, which it always was, but we fought for and won the right to use it. It was not a small thing at that time.

Did that support from Virgin allow the Pistols the freedom to embrace the chaos? There were legal challenges and a lot of establishment scaremongering going on around the band and the label at the time of ‘Never Mind The Bollocks’.

All of the things we were getting accused of – and actually getting up to, let’s be honest – carried heavy penalties and it was good to have that kind of company behind you. They were like the cavalry, backing you up – not so much with horses, but tanks. Knowing that made it easier to be us, knowing you could rely on them.

When we got raided on the Thames (on the promotional ‘God The Save The Queen’ boat trip in 1977), I was quite happy to point at Malcolm (McLaren, manager) and Richard when the police asked who the Sex Pistols were. I knew they'd take care of things. But I also did it as a stich-up. I was hardly an angel, let’s not mess about. Everybody seemed to get arrested that night apart from Johnny Rotten.

But the relationship with Virgin eventually turned sour. What, in your opinion, changed?

When the record company started, the staff were like your friends. But that all changed. Virgin was set up to be an alternative to the other record companies. At the time, the EMIs and such were very corporate, very stiff and most people had to wear shirt and tie except a few trendy ambassadors in fake hippie gear, and it never really worked. Virgin was very loose in comparison, but then it went very corporate on us.

The company started to be manipulated and run by the accounting department, and that’s not any way to run any business because that’s the death and ruination of originality and dexterity. You can’t be approaching it with a tried and tested, and therefore staid, financial model. And be under no illusion, I’ve earned Virgin a pretty penny over the years and introduced them to all manner of things, not just the Pistols and PiL. It’s a shame they haven't shown more gratitude.

You’ve been locked in a long-running dispute with various labels including Virgin over the rights to your own music, which is one of the reasons why it’s taken PiL nearly 20 years to put out this latest album (‘This Is PiL’). Are you free to talk about what happened now?

Well, I was denied access to my career for a large period of time. Record companies came up with these blanket agreements where everyone would get the same low fee and you wouldn’t have the rights to your songs. They could be thrown into any old advertising campaign and you could end up selling second-hand mattresses or something. This kind of thing created a real tension between me and the labels. And that’s just one of the many, many issues.

You always ended up getting challenged by the accounting department because you wouldn’t agree to go along with that or the release of ‘Best of’s or compilations and you were stopping them earning money off you. These end up being black marks against you. If you make shit, you’ll earn the money but that would contaminate what I feel is the purity of PiL.

It’s taken nearly two decades for me to get out of that, and I haven’t made any rubbish just to speed the process up. We’ve had to form our own label. We have distribution deals, but we’re self-funding so everything is reliant on filling the halls, the venues, for the gigs because that’s our future, where our money is earned. Nobody makes money from records anymore, and haven’t for a long time. The only reason I’m now able to freely use my own material is through persistence.

We were all still linked to that original Pistols deal. There was no renegotiation on that. I was trapped from what seemed to be a great promise from the beginning. The deal with Virgin, for instance, turned into a musical death trap for me. It was a shackle; they wouldn’t release records from me, they wouldn’t fund me, so I could literally not function and I had to go outside of music to raise any kind of money at all.

And that’s difficult because you can't compromise your integrity. In the creative industries you have to be able to hop to new things regularly. Not being allowed to is one of the causes of the general malaise in the music industry that is felt today.

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PiL, 'Death Disco' (live on Top Of The Pops), from the album 'Metal Box' (1979, second edition)

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To what extent was your involvement in endorsements such as the Dairy Crest (Country Life) commercials and your appearance on I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! linked to your situation with the labels? You got quite a lot of stick for doing both from people who questioned your motives.

Well, the money for the butter ads wasn’t huge but it helped me put something up against the outstanding debt, and I could start crawling my way slowly and surely out of those constraints. I could then basically buy myself out of those restrictive contracts. When I worked with the butter people, they gave me a free hand. I enjoyed working with them very, very much, and there was a lot of mutual respect. But it wasn’t done for any scandalous reasons. It was quite anarchistic of them to want to connect themselves to Mr Rotten.

Then when I did I’m A Celebrity… I could have easily taken that money and put that money into PiL, but I agreed to do that for charity reasons so that’s where all that went. There’s no greed in me. But that’s not the kind of story that gets printed about me. What I didn’t know at the time was that I’m A Celebrity… is heavily linked to the newspapers. It’s so tightly knit with the headlines and the scandal weaving, it’s very hard to get any truth printed.

Do you still find that people have an agenda for working with you, or are looking to exploit you in much the same way as they did with the Pistols?

There are a lot of arseholes out there who want to grab onto me and create a controversy by using my name for their own good, and that’s never been my way. I attack governments, institutions – these are the things that I find oppressive in life, not personal tit-for-tats or brawling in a discotheque. This celebrity culture, which is corporate at its rotten core, is my enemy. The only enemies I have these days are institutions that try to manipulate me or my words.

Controversy is contrived these days, and ugly too. You’ve got this useless gossip about who’s shagging whom and all this innuendo, which has gone beyond that and into out-and-out lies printed as truth. It’s all led to a completely meaningless universe; it’s shallow, trivial… Facebook-y and Twittery… There are all these nobodies with their blogs and personal agendas clogging up the drain. Opinion without knowledge can be a spiteful, useless thing, but unfortunately that’s what gets rewarded now.

There is a way to get out of it, and that’s just walk away from it. I don’t need it. I don’t live in that world. To maintain any kind of integrity on the Internet is damn hard. We monitor ourselves religiously here and pride ourselves on putting nothing but the truth out on our website. But it’s then taken by other sites and altered. It’s a constant battle.

Would it be possible for a band like the Sex Pistols to evolve and make an impact in today’s musical climate, or is the industry set up to smother true mavericks and rebels in favour of the lowest common denominator?

I wish there was someone out there who I could consider a rightful heir, but I'm not seeing it. Corporate control is stifling creative rebellion but it’s not a conspiracy: it’s a money-making scheme. It’s cottoned on to the safe codge, the safe bet – anything that's outside of that is pushed aside.

Can music still make a difference and be a voice for social change?

There’s been a lot of nonsense about how music doesn’t change things and every couple of years some famous person comes up with that quote when really they’re just describing themselves. It just creates this general belief that the younger you are, the less prone you are to demonstration and chaos and change you are. It’s ridiculous, as it’s an upside-down universe now. The voice of rebellion was always a young one, but not any more. It’s us old folk.

The fact that kids have gotten everything they wanted for so long, that everything’s too easy… there's an element of that to it. There’s no rebellion because they’ve never had to fight for anything. In the record industry, all you have to do these days to sell your record is to wear a bikini and flash your arse. And that’s just the boys. Where’s the mystery, the intelligence, the depth, the content, the point, the purpose in life? That’s all been removed. It’s all about jewellery and showing off. It’s one dimensional.

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Sex Pistols, 'God Save The Queen', from the album 'Never Mind The Bollocks' (1977)

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Would you say that this is unique to the music industry or is it a general attitude in society?

I weep for society sometimes, but I’m also really hopeful because things do happen which excite me. I really hope that there’s going to be a tipping point where we’ve all had enough of the lies and spin. I believe we have it in all of us to rise up.

For me, the best glimpse of this was the Occupy movement, which was a combination of all different elements that disagreed with each other but came together to face a common enemy. It was mocked by the media; but the more it was mocked, the closer I came attached to it. I think civil disobedience is a wonderful thing. I thought the uprisings all across the Arab World were thrilling, breathtaking, something not seen for a generation and certainly not in that part of the world.

What about back home in the UK? You live in Los Angeles now but you still have a very strong opinion on what’s happening back in Britain. Is England’s Dreaming now a nightmare?

This government, this Tory-Liberal coalition… they’re laughable. They’re a bunch of people ill equipped for the jobs they’ve been given. They’re the embodiment of all that class animosity which is still rampant in the UK. Both Labour and the Conservatives have said that they have strived to break down the class system, but I don’t believe that either of them has done anything of the kind. They’ve alienated all of us.

We the people, regardless of the class we come from, we are equal. This doesn’t seem to be the view of any politician out there. The thing is, we have to vote because it’s the lesser of two evils. That’s what we confront every f*cking four years! We’ve fought for that right. But politics has to change from the grassroots upwards, starting with your local council elections. Get yourself involved. Don’t expect the world to do everything for you. It won’t. Unless you do it for yourself, it won’t happen – that’s the punk ethos. Make change by example, not dictation.

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Words: Nick Amies

Photos: Paul Heartfield (website)

The latest issue of Clash features a wealth of outsiders, much like your man Lydon here, from M.I.A. to Omar Souleyman – go and check it out

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