Love him or hate him, John Joseph Lydon is a London music icon. At the age of 19 he became Johnny Rotten, iconoclastic frontman for the Sex Pistols. Since 1978 he’s been leading his post-punk band Public Image Limited (PiL), and in 2002 he beat Tony Benn, Walter Raleigh and Tim Berners-Lee in a BBC public vote as one of the greatest Britons of all time. None of which could have happened if he hadn’t narrowly survived spinal meningitis as a working-class kid in Finsbury Park.
Ahead of the release of PiL’s tenth album, ‘What the World Needs Now…’, we called up Lydon at home in LA for a chat. First on the agenda: his foray into dairy advertising.
1. He doesn’t regret appearing in those butter ads.
‘It’s bizarre and odd, but the only way to buy my way out of the stifling contracts that I was tied into from the Sex Pistols was by promoting British dairy products. The working-class chap in me wasn’t going to turn away a gift horse – and it was actually a good piece of work! I brought humour back to advertising.’
2. He’s not keen on official histories of punk…
‘It’s simple: if they haven’t spoken to me, then you know it’s a lie. That’s about 98 percent of it – and the few I have spoken to have been rather poisonous too, so that’s 99.9 percent that can be dismissed instantly.’
3. …but he will recommend one book.
‘I like [Slits guitarist Viv] Albertine’s book [‘Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys’] – that’s good fun. My, my: how calculating she comes over! It sounds like she’s spent her whole life counting coup on men. Fascinating.’
4. He’s spent literally thousands of pounds on iPad apps.
‘Fortunes! My band recommended an iPad to me – well! That was whisky to the Indians. I got well fascinated with the games: the car racing games, the battleship games, the war games. I love ’em. I suppose you could call it somewhat addictive. You can’t stop and you have to let it run its course, and then when the bill comes in… haha! Reality bites.’
5. He very nearly starred in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.
‘I went to do the part of Herod in [a touring production of] “Jesus Christ Superstar”. That took six solid months out of me, and then they let me down [the show was cancelled before it opened]. That was bitter disappointment. I would have been a most excellent Herod.’
6. He’s fascinated by chimps.
Listen: I’ve been up close and personal with chimpanzees and gorillas. You’re told not to look into their eyes, but they wanted to look into my eyes. I could see a longing to want to communicate outside the bubbles and squeaks. I have a great sense of empathy for them – I feel like they’re trapped.’
7. He’s now an optimistic American…
‘I became an American because of Obamacare. I can’t become a part of a country that doesn’t want to take care of its sick and its ill and its disenfranchised. I jumped straight in because I’d seen that America was at last turning away from being a greedy, power-hungry and self-aggrandising bunch of gangsters into a nation of people capable of understanding each other.’
8. …but he’s not so keen on Donald Trump.
‘It’s that endless silly mistake: because they run businesses they must be good at running a country. America is now looking at the prospect of a real estate agent running the world. It’s absurd!’
9. He still gets on with at least one of his fellow Sex Pistols.
‘I am still friends I think with Paul Cook, who I like very much. We’re mates. And we know damn well that we never would be if we were back in that band again.’
10. He’s found peace in PiL.
‘I love being in PiL more than anything. It’s where I found myself. The reward of enduring them illnesses is Public Image Limited: it’s an amazing opportunity I’ve been gifted here, and I’m not going to get it wrong. Inside my soul is my mum and dad going: “Well done, John. Tell it like it is.”’