Since fronting the Sex Pistols in the mid-'70s and branding the nascent punk rock genre with its promise of "No Future," John Lydon, once known as Johnny Rotten, has appeared on Judge Judy, hosted a show on VH1 and used his name and face in commercials for Country Life butter. Yes, those butter commercials were hilarious, but that somewhat odd venture is what helped fund the reunion of his other band, Public Image Ltd.
Formed in 1978 after the Pistols imploded, PiL was a complete departure from that band's snarling, gnashing, anti-everything style. Their 1979 album, Metal Box, was propelled by Jah Wobble's dubby bass, Keith Levene's taut guitar and Lydon's more introspective singing, setting in early on the UK trend of combining punk and reggae. In an interview with The Guardian earlier this year, Levene stated that Metal Box "was created with instruments and notes, but no talking between us," citing a certain telepathy between the members.
PiL would exist until roughly 1992, when Lydon called it quits after disputes with their label, Virgin Records. In the 20 years in between, the group has become quite influential -- members of Fort Worth bands War Party, Doom Ghost and Bitch Bricks even recreated PiL's 1980 Tom Snyder interview for a promo video this summer. Looking back at that interview, in which Lydon and Snyder bob and weave in the most wonderfully antagonistic fashion, it's interesting to hear him describe himself as a "happy person" 30 years later. Starting his own label, PiL Official, might have something to do with it.
With a new album out and a November 1 show at the Granada Theater looming, I chatted with Lydon about label politics, election politics and the demise of corporate thinking.
The new album is called This Is PiL. So what is PiL in 2012? It's what it always was, but better. The reason I've had no output for PiL for the past 20 years was really because of record labels stifling me. It got me into the position where I was handed over to the accounting department, and financially, I couldn't operate in my chosen career. It took two decades to buy my way out of that problem. It's been very punishing for me, those years. There's two things in my life I think I've done well: writing songs and performing them. Should I be sad at the demise of corporate thinking? No.
What do you think about programs like Kickstarter? It's too complicated, and it has every possibility of falling on its face. Through experience I've learned to not get involved with large, yet well-meaning, projects that are in the hands of the lowest common denominator. Did I put that politely enough?
Yes. I have my own issues with Kickstarter, so I understand where you're coming from. Everyone's having a difficult time in music right now. On one hand, the large labels falling apart, it's sort of like, "Ha, ha, told you so." But that demise has left a terrible gap, and there's nothing to really fill it. There were good things about being on a large label, because the money was there to help the bands sort themselves out. Now, that's gone. Let's face it: We all need a sponsor every once in a while. We do live in the West.
Do you feel like major labels are less discerning these days? Well, there are a few left, but for me, I don't think I could feel comfortable within the confines. We waltzed into it in the early Pistols days, and there were extensions and continuations of that. It was a form of entrapment, really. It was a lovely carrot to dangle, but I had no way out of it. One thing led to another, and the more experimental my music got, the tighter the restraints. But, it's got me here. And I'm not a miserable or sad person about it.
There are some Fort Worth bands that recently re-enacted the 1980 Tom Snyder PiL interview, as a promo video. [Long laugh] Oh, heaven help us from high art. Was it commendably silly?
It was. But I went back to the original interview, and there's a part where you say, "We're not a band, we're a company." Do you still feel that way? Well, yes. These situations go beyond just music. I'm going to be getting into the bigger agenda. Our only source of finance is live performance, and hopefully record sales. But it's so hard to get people to know how to buy music anymore. There are no more record stores. All of the culture around sharing music has been taken away.
Well, and our attention spans have been diluted too. I certainly miss the record store. They were our cultural centers. And it's hard to book the shows, to find the clubs that will put you on. It's all connected still to large record company sponsorship. And yes, even though I have a name that has some kind of clout, it actually kind of works against me.
How so? All the fears and phobias: I might be a saucy boy and say the wrong word. I don't walk away from gigs, I don't wreck venues, I don't throw TVs out of windows. I do write accurately and honestly. And sometimes the smear campaign takes shots at those people who are honest.
Especially with the Internet, truth is stranger than fiction. You remember Al Gore called it the "information superhighway"? How hilarious. Poor old Al. He never got much right.
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What do you think about this upcoming election? After that [first debate], I'm kind of despondent. You've got a rich guy who doesn't know what he's doing, and kind of a boring bureaucrat. There doesn't seem to be much enthusiasm to take care of some very serious issues. It's two blokes fighting over a polished leather chair.
There's no invective. Yes, you see what I mean. What we're looking at here is who will be the next Caesar. And we better choose wisely. I think in 20 years time, politicians will have convinced us that we don't need the right to vote. This "corporations are people too" -- that's a real problem to me.
Was this new album difficult to put out? Well, I've had to face some serious death issues in my family, and it almost put this album to the side. I've been through a lot, but I think it's worth it. Anyone who comes to see PiL will leave a very happy person. And on that sweet and tender note, I will ride my horse into the sunset.
Public Image Ltd performs Thursday, November 1, at the Granada Theater