Since 1976, John Lydon has been using words and music to question the inhabitants of the corridors of power, those untutored in the rhythms of popular culture who tut-tutted at the so-called degenerative influence of music’s equivalent of TNT – punk rock – on the nation’s youth.
Of course, the British establishment has a tradition of vocal detractors and, for a while, the Sex Pistols’ outspoken frontman (better known as ‘Johnny Rotten’ back then) was public enemy number one, wanted only for the crime of blatant honesty and for leading a band that single-handedly revitalised an ailing music scene and liberated a generation from long hair.
The formation of Public Image Ltd (PiL) in 1978 allowed Lydon to continue his less-than-satisfied discourse with society while experimenting with new sounds, and the band continue to impress in the post-punk era with their albums and live performances, including a memorable appearance at Glastonbury in 2013. While the Sex Pistols were exemplars of discord in a fractious Britain, it’s an undercurrent of nothingness that Lydon fears most today, as politicians become ever more adept at boring us to death through their collective verbal application of opaqueness and patronising blandness.
Times change, and the subtlety and complexity of the man’s character have been appreciated more widely in recent years, particularly since his infamous performance in the jungle-camp unreality show I’m a Celebrity… Get me out of here! back in 2004, in which he endeared himself to many. It’s hard to believe that the flint-edged irascibility of punk, of which Lydon was both its figurehead and most articulate protagonist, jarred against conservative sensibilities enough for him to once be described as “the biggest threat to our youth since Hitler”. These days, he’s much more likely to be referred to as a ‘cultural icon’, even ‘national treasure’. Lydon’s relationship with his homeland has swung firmly from the ridiculous to the sublime.
The only person who could ever provide a context for his own life, of course, is Lydon himself. Anger is an Energy, his autobiography, has just been published, and he launched it at Manchester’s recently restored Albert Hall. The significance of the venue won’t be lost on those who know their popular music history. The Albert Hall stands on Peter Street, next door to the Lesser Free Trade Hall where the Sex Pistols played in 1976. Despite the fact that only a handful of people turned up, it’s considered to be one of the most influential gigs of all time. In attendance that night were future members of The Smiths (Morrissey), Joy Division (Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook), The Buzzcocks (Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley) and The Fall (Mark E Smith). The foundations of British post-punk music were laid that night in Manchester.
Tonight’s ‘in conversation’, is, not surprisingly, a sell-out, and there’s an expectant buzz as people chat and observe the beautifully-lit stage, its stunning pipe-organ backdrop (the Albert Hall was once a Methodist chapel) awash in a neon pink glow, with purple spotlight beams trained on a sparsely-furnished stage comprising a table and two chairs. A few bottles of beer of unidentifiable brand are positioned near Lydon’s eventual seat. Before long, the wiry figure of Dave Haslam appears, host of tonight’s tête-à-tête. Clearly a fan, the writer, DJ, and honorary Manc proceeds to pay a touching tribute to the influence of punk and Lydon: “Not just local, but global; not just music, but cultural…ladies and gentleman, please welcome John Lydon!”
The spiky-haired Lydon tentatively appears to rapturous applause and a standing ovation, garbed in a long overcoat and converse-style trainers, acknowledging the audience for a moment or two before taking his place at the beer bottle side of the table. What follows is an hour or so of Lydon a-musings, on everything from the Royal Family (“I’m not willing to pay for that ridiculous institution” – though as Lydon now lives in California, he probably doesn’t), to Lemmy from heavy metal band Motörhead (“Lemmy is the perfect human being. He was there at the beginning and we loved him.”). Haslam is the perfect interviewer. He knows his subject well and allows him free rein, because just when you think the cuddly old punk is nearing answering a question, he’s off again on one of his quote-rich monologues. On hair: “All the fucking hair dye and chemicals I’ve used and it’s as thick as you like!” On ignorance: “Don’t be an ignorant fuck, it gets you nowhere – unless you’re U2!” On being working class: “To some in this country, it’s viewed as a stain. I view it as a badge of honour.” On Sid Vicious: “I couldn’t protect him, but I’ll meet him in punk heaven.”
While it’s true that many have found Lydon’s hallmark candour offensive, his legion of fans know that’s missing the point. Underpinning his directness is a keen intelligence encouraged early on his life by a loving family and hours of reading in local libraries. “I had very good teachers,” he says. “They were called authors.” This was all put at risk when he was struck down at the age of seven with spinal meningitis leading to a year-long spell in hospital and the complete loss of his memory and identity. His own book, the appropriately-titled Anger is an Energy, is as much a survey of Lydon’s love for words as it is his remarkable life. His entire artistic output is a response to the anger precipitated by injustice, inequality, and the more straight-jacketed stratum of society, which chose to define punk as the vulgar expression of yobbish youth, rather than affording it the artistic merit that became its seismic legacy.
In addition to his undoubted cultural influence, both the book and tonight’s talk afford Lydon the opportunity to talk about his personal life. Consistently, he talks of his wife Nora with great affection (they’ve been together for 30 years). Since 2000, the two have been full-time parents to their grandchildren, following a period where his stepdaughter, Ariane, (Ari Up from female punk rockers The Slits) was struggling to cope with teenage twins. The unlikely tale of John Lydon attending a PTA meeting is related to the intense amusement of the audience. “I love the responsibility of looking after my fellow human beings,” he says. “Johnny Rotten is a nurse!”
After fielding questions from the audience (and grappling with a couple of the finest Manchester accents), Lydon leaves the stage to another standing ovation and retreats to the basement to sign copies of Anger is an Energy. Almost 40 years on from the legendary Lesser Free Trade Hall gig, this was a witty and charming chat with a very human being, and devoid of any anger, in fact. Credit, too, must be given to Dave Haslam for being such a genial host and for letting John be John.
Photos: Jack Kirwin – JK Photography
John’s book, Anger is an Energy, is out now, published by Simon & Schuster.