By Joshua Erickson
VANCOUVER — “It’s a major achievement for any band, I would think, to be able able to see people from all generations, all creeds, all races, all colours, all belief systems, all orientations, all in one building. Unified and happy together. That is a PiL gig. Proper community. And hateful bastards can stand outside and freeze in the snow!”
John Lydon is a man who needs no introduction. As one of the most iconic front-men of all time, Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) fronted The Sex Pistols until their dissolution in January 1978. At the time, the 22 year old was still young, angry, and wasn’t done with music yet. Lydon channelled his creative energies into his new band, Public Image Ltd. (PiL) and the band released their first album, Public Image: First Issue, later that same year. PiL were more musically experimental in nature, but Lydon’s lyrics were just as vicious and pointed as the Pistols’, taking aim at religion, consumerism, politicians, and more. In 1993 Lydon announced the band was going on hiatus and 16 years later, in 2009, he announced PiL was getting back together for a tour and to record a new album. To hear Lydon tell the story though, PiL’s hiatus wasn’t supposed to last that long.
“I never wanted PiL to stop, but the record company pressure made it unbearable financially on me, and I had to go outside of music to earn the money, to come back into music, and buy my way out of them contracts,” explains Lydon over the phone from the UK. “It was almost catch-22, the position I found myself in, but I kept very quiet about it. I didn’t want to be seen as moaning and quite frankly, the music press wouldn’t back me anyways. Rock and a hard place, mate. Story of me life. But it makes for great music!”
Now, six years into their reunion, PiL have released their tenth studio album (2nd post-reunion), What The World Needs Now and, true to form, the record is a scathing critique on modern values in western society and how the future hasn’t turned out to be as great as it was promised to be. “What the world needs now is transparency in politics,” says Lydon. “And the current state of affairs that is coming out of the middle east with the mass exodus of people fighting for their lives–this is all the work of politicians. This is always what is inevitably going to happen when you start mindless stupid wars…. [The refugee crisis] is a calamity! They are our fellow human beings. No, I don’t suppose any of us want to be cannon fodder for politicians.”
Clearly, age has not tamed Lydon one bit and he would be the first one to tell you that. He has a lot in life to inspire him, and a continuing source of inspiration to him is anger. Released last year, Lydon’s official autobiography, titled Anger is an Energy, tells the story of how when he was seven he contracted spinal meningitis, which lead to four years of memory loss for him.
“In order to recover my memory, the doctors recommended to my parents to keep me angry!” exclaims Lydon. “It took four years. And that was four years of a very angry and confused young man, but it worked. And so anger to me is not a negative form. It is a major positive force in my life.”
Taken from the lyrics of “Rise,” PiL’s most commercially successful single, the refrain of “Anger is an energy!” takes on a whole new meaning with Lydon’s explanation. What people failed to understand was that Lydon’s anger did not come from a place of hate, but rather from a place of positivity as he realized its potential to bring change. To Lydon, Anger shouldn’t be seen as a divisive force but rather what unites us.
“I believe there will always be friction, but friction doesn’t always have to lead to violence and hatred. For me, the human race is a wonderful creation. It is our differences what make us,” shouts Lydon to emphasize his point. “Debate. Get involved and start thinking for yourselves.”
Unsurprisingly, Lydon does not like categories or labels (“I resented being called anything at all!”) and instead is looking for individuals and free thinkers who are, above all, open and honest. Much as Lydon believes what the world needs now is transparency in politics, he also believes we need a completely open and honest dialogue between individuals. And no lying! He emphasizes the dangers of the herd instinct (“I don’t find it none too protective. It actually exposes us.”) and he has absolutely no patience for imitators, especially not imitators of Johnny Rotten.
“No no, I don’t care for any of these what I call ‘Jonny Come-Lately’s.’ They need their own terminologies, they need their own agendas, they need to show me what they have to offer me in my life. And not imitate me! I have no time for anybody trying to out-rotten Johnny Rotten. They cannot do it,” says Lydon, sneering through the phone. “Listen, mate. Musicianship comes second. Humanity comes first.”
And what good would Lydon’s word be if he didn’t live it? According to him, it would be worth nothing and PiL as a unit is a clear example of him living out his ethos and creed. The band doesn’t need to preach inclusiveness, honestly, transparency, and embracing differences—they simply live it and lead by example.
“As a band, we are very close as friends. We all love what we do and we respect each other. And nobody lies!… There is no need. In that way, we found our way back into the Garden of Eden. Yeah, and we’re in the process of kicking God and his snake out!” Lydon laughs heartily. Pausing quickly before getting serious again, he continues, “For me, it is vital to be accurate and honest, otherwise I’ve got nothing to base anything on.”
Public Image Ltd. performs at the Vogue Theatre on November 22.BC, British Columbia, Public Image Ltd., Vogue Theatre