CALIBRE sits down with the King of Punk himself, John Lydon
Calibre: What do you believe is the most punk thing you have ever done?
“Fucking butter! Without a doubt!” says Mr Lydon, leaning back with a laugh. “What an insane thing that was to ask us – I mean it was a puzzlement. What on earth were they thinking? I thought, ‘Well, this is a trick, isn’t it? It’s a trap. It must be because it’s so obviously wrong’. But it worked!
“They asked this particular individual to help save an industry really, and it worked, we made it work. I wasn’t selling Tampax, although I’ve got some really manly purposes for them! They can solve all manner of issues on stage.”
“But, they were great and said, ‘You can do what you want John, we trust you’. So, I never looked back and I was treated with great respect, far more than in any other industry I’ve worked in. The money wasn’t fabulous but it gave me a chance to get my band back together, which I had been striving towards for an awful long time.”
Calibre: Was reforming the band the main goal for you?
“Always, because the record company really shafted me. They wouldn’t give me any backing so I said, ‘Well why don’t you just let me go then?’ If you sign someone like me you know you’re gonna get something original that isn’t going to fit into any known form – but it’ll work, not matter what I get up to!
“But, I won’t be manipulated and so I found myself in a very tight legal situation that I was eventually able to get out of – so thank you British dairy industry!
“I can take all manner of nonsense from people calling me things like ‘sellout’, but you’ve got to understand what that means – when have I sold out? I’ve never not been meself!”
Calibre: You live in the States now, but do you ever vote when back in Britain, such as in the EU referendum?
“No, I couldn’t see a reason for it, it seemed like a trick – I mean what the fuck’s going to change here? Where’s the industry gone? Nobody wants to do anything here. We’ve just toured the UK and we’ve been through towns like Middlesborough and Sunderland and they’re destroyed – it’s like the North is being slowly eradicated.
“People are very, very despondent. That’s not the energetic Britain I’m all about. The get-up-and-fucking-get-on-with-it Britain. But, does it matter who you vote for anymore?”
Calibre: What do you think politics is about these days?
“I think it’s all about business investment. There’s a contrivance in it. Look at the referendum: ‘independence’. Britain’s always been independent. It’s never blended into Europe, not at all.”
“People are very, very despondent. That’s not the energetic Britain I’m all about”
Calibre:Who do you consider to be the worst government in your history?
“Anything Conservative – and of course that includes Tony Blair! He was never, ever Labour. Look at Boris – he needs a clown car! But they do this act on purpose, it’s simple and plain ‘confusionism’.”
Calibre: They manage their image to play on peoples’ emotions?
“Yeah, absolutely. They find an image that’s… absurd! And that deflects you away from their real agenda.”
Calibre: What’s your opinion on the American style of politics and candidates such as Donald Trump?
“I think that money buys all and he’s bought his way into a nomination – but he’s slowly and surely destroying the Republican party. Which is a majorly good thing in my humble opinion!
“Trump’s ego is what’s driving him, but he’ll find very quickly that it doesn’t matter who’s president in America, you’re not gonna change the ‘shitstem’.
“They don’t have a ‘real’ political system over there, it’s not equal and it’s not fair.”
Calibre: So, no real democracy there?
“There’s no democracy, no.”
Calibre: Speaking of politics, do you think the younger generations are ‘dumbed down’ today?
“They’ve done it to themselves, they really have. Just this gullibility to believe anything that’s handed down to them. I especially see it in the universities when we play there, just this willingness to accept anything from the Left as factual, and that seems just ridiculous to me because there’s so much foolishness that comes out of the Left, all this aspect of ‘moral ownership’.”
Calibre: Do you find you have the luxury of perspective, living outside the UK?
“Yeah, it is a luxury and it’s one that is sorely missing here. You’re not able to look outside yourselves and analyse political situations properly.”
Calibre: Did you ever believe people like Bernie Sanders were going to be the ‘great hope’ everyone wanted?
“No, because he was talking too extreme, too quick. For things to change properly it takes time. I live in a world of – not compromise – but if ‘that lot’ are saying something sensible, then fucking hell, I want a part of it. But that’s not what we’re getting in the world anymore, it’s all polarised, it’s all ‘right’ or it’s all ‘left’. And, of course, then there’s the rest of us in the middle going, ‘Well you know what? We can do without either of them’. We will eventually eliminate the need for politicians – I think that’s the way the human race is heading!”
Calibre: Self-determined governance?
“Why not? We all have access to things like the Internet and infinite information and can vote for whoever – without ‘them’. What exactly are they doing for us?”
Calibre: Do you think this polarisation of political discourse into left and right paradigms is a control mechanism?
“No, I would say it is a hate mechanism. It’s purposeful separation, and then a lack of obligation. This extreme non-activity by politicians in engaging the public is so that the public give up trying.”
Calibre: There was an old rumour that you were up for an MBE. Would you accept one?
“No, I’m not in the market for one of them. I don’t like that accolade/award system – it separates you from other human beings. What does it do anyway? It gives Mr Geldof and Mr Farage the right to flounce up and down the River Thames spouting a load of nonsense at each other like they did. Trading insults like a couple of worn-out pirates!”
Calibre: A fine example of our farcical politics.
“It’s insane, it’s like a Carry On movie, a fiasco. I think what it does is damage a perfectly decent chance to have a proper discussion on things. But, the clowns have gotten in and the lunatics are running the asylum. There’s not really a way of taking that back now – something major’s got to happen.
“Something major will happen, something catastrophic, and it will force people to wake up to reality. It’s almost like walking into a coma, walking into England at the moment.”
Calibre: Do you envisage a 1984 type future?
“Yes! You think Orwell, don’t you? But that has some seriously grim scenarios attached to it. We haven’t got that grimness yet – but it’s coming.”
Calibre: You have recently been called a national treasure, what do you think of that label?
“Well, there ‘aint no money in it! But, I don’t know what that means. Again it’s a title that’s pointless – although it was great to be in a list between Winston Churchill and Lord Nelson. I like to think there was some cynicism in it though, some fantastic humour. Sometimes humour works a great deal and it was a nice reminder not to take things too seriously.”
“I’m always running through saucy ideas in my head – I was born revolting!”
Calibre: You visit London fairly regularly, what do you think of the state of London these days?
“I ‘aint seen anyone repair a hole. There are holes everywhere! They seem permanent now. It won’t be long before the National Trust start putting fences around them, ‘This hole has been here for years’. Hahaha.”
“Everywhere’s changed though – and changed weirdly. Traditional concepts like neighbourhood values and community seem to have been lost.
Things have changed too quickly and now kids are growing up without a sense of responsibility and community and it’s bizarre that governments have allowed that. They love to wreck working class communities first – and they’re the moral building blocks of society.”
Calibre: Do you think we need a political revolution?
“Oh yeah – it’s gonna happen. I mean I’m always running through saucy ideas in my head – I was born revolting – with everything that word implies!
“But you can’t fight the war for everybody, because everybody disagrees, although you can find conclusions in disagreement – middle grounds can be met which are not compromises. You need to allow for other people’s quirks. If you hurt others, you hurt yourself, ultimately.”
Calibre: Do you feel the PIL song, Rise, is more pertinent than ever in the current political climate?
“The ‘anger is an energy’ lyric goes back into my past and into my childhood illnesses.
I find that lyric appropriate in so many different ways – but that song was based on interrogation techniques and tortures that Nelson Mandela introduced – he wasn’t such a saint after all!
But, there’s that song and it is a rebel song, absolutely, but it’s not quite the rebel song the Left think it is – there’s more truth in it.”
Calibre: Changing tack slightly, you had your teeth done while in the States…
“Oh yeah – saved my life! The amount of money it took to sort them was appalling, but it stopped all those illnesses I used to keep getting – like a constant sort of cold – and then there’s the bone erosion and… urgh!
“Anyway, they filled that all in and then put the implants in, which was actually painless, but that’s what I was fearing the most.
“What I would do before is endlessly try to put fillings back into things that were already rotten – you know, the coward’s way out! But, I just said, ‘Right, let’s take all the pain they’ve got to give in one huge go – and it was fantastic.”
Calibre: So, you’re a big advocate of dental hygiene now?
“To be honest, the bit I enjoyed the most was the injections! They tasted of orange, had a cocaine ‘rev’, and had a highkick. Speedy Gonzales dentistry!”
Calibre: If you could have work done on any other part of your body, what would it be?
“I wouldn’t. This is the way I was born. Obviously, if things go wrong I’d get them fixed, but I’m not one of these people who sits around going, ‘Ooh, I’ve got to have a toe-lift. I can’t go on like this!’ I live in America and such things are possible! It’s only a matter of time before the idea’s pinched – there’ll be a Kardashian on it in the morning!”
Calibre: Do you have any plans to celebrate the the 40th anniversary of Never Mind The Bollocks, which is coming up soon?
“I don’t know about any of this stuff, what does it need an anniversary for? I was told, somehow, that Boris Johnson was involving himself in all of that – which creeped the high-hell out of me.”
Calibre: It is part of ‘Punk London’, a Boris Johnson-backed event designed to celebrate punk as a part of English heritage.
“For God’s sake where do they come from? That’s very, very too much self-importance. It’s the trouble with punk though – that the outskirts, the fringes hold on to us and try to grab the limelight. But they’ve turned it into something really silly and sissy, weak and unresolved and petulant. It’s not like that at all, this is a do-it-yourself culture.”
Calibre: Do you feel they have commoditised punk?
“Yeah, but there was no room for people like us in music, so we made our own way and ignored the charts and ignored everything and somehow, oddly enough, found ourselves right in it.”
Calibre: Were people unknowingly crying out for punk at the time do you think?
“There was nothing else going on! So, this idea of, ‘Wow, we can all take part in this, this is for everyone’, was fantastic.
“But for some the need to be famous often took precedence over the music and the lifestyle, which shouldn’t be a ‘lifestyle’. Your life is how you are, it’s not about the clothes on your back, it’s just about being honest with your fellow human beings.”
Calibre: Is punk just as relevant today as it was then?
“Everything is relevant, depending on how you use or adopt or connect with your fellow human beings. Titles are irrelevant – but the self-motivating, industrial inner ‘you’ will never, ever be irrelevant. And that’s the rock-solid, king-of-punk saying that.”
“Malcolm, what have you achieved, no one liked you, and they liked each other even less!”
Calibre: Since penning God Save The Queen do you think the lot of the working class has improved?
“Well, we don’t run the government, so no. You have a very Conservative-led media that always puts a spin on everything and questions the wrong things, continuously, trying to put a downer on everything.
“Calling us, ‘Foul mouthed, filthy’. Nonsenses! How on earth can words make you foul? The greatest gift a human has is language. It really does separate us from the beasties in the field who are still learning how to moo properly. How can I be foul? It’s only words!”
Calibre: Would you say foul language in the ear of the beholder?
“Some of the most foul language I’ve read doesn’t even include any naughty words – it’s usually in the Daily Mail or the Daily Express. And we all know what The Sun got up to. Never forgiven ‘em for that football disaster – that was evil writing. It was really, really evil and burying the police’s activity? Now that’s criminal. And here I am, a filthy, foul-mouthed punk – now you tell me who’s right or wrong?”
Calibre: Is music history something you are interested in?
“No, I don’t need to study that – you don’t need a rulebook for it. Everything comes from four or five people – in the corner of a pub! They talk, and that’s more or less singing after a few Scrumpy! And there it is, more or less all conversation is music. The human voice is the first instrument, which probably comes from hunting – you wanna sound like what you wanna eat. You can see how ‘oink’ can quickly become a very popular folksong!”
Calibre: Have you got any hobbies that might surprise your fans?
“I just live a minimalist lifestyle really. I’m not one for flash cars – unless I’m playing Real Racing 3. I’ve wasted a lot of money on games over the years!”
Calibre: Is gaming a tension release for you?
“Yeah, absolutely. Currently I’m really into Game Of War, and my ambition is to reach the top without attacking anybody else at all, just being a pacifist throughout. The game is all about war – but I won’t have that. I think I can find a way to beat the system from the inside!”
Calibre: So you’re applying your punk ethos to gaming?
“Yeah! You can’t make me war – I don’t want to. I don’t want to hurt or steal from anybody and I’m doing very well at it.”
Calibre: Do you think the Sex Pistols would have made it in the music industry if they had started out today?
“No. X Factor and American Idol would have put an end to all that. We made our battle and took our stance against that kind of regime way back then – and it was necessary – but not enough bands have followed through.”
Calibre: Do you think music is becoming something of a homogenised monoculture?
“Oh, I think there are duller phrases than that for it, don’t you?! But yes, because that’s what we’re getting now. I’ve always been suspicious of the retro cultures, too. Wanting to live in Dad’s past – that’s just so many steps backwards.”
Calibre: Are we lacking modern musical trailblazers?
“There are none. There are some decent bands out there trying to get somewhere, but they get lost in the deluge of it all. I was watching the Isle of Wight festival and I found it bland – the bands weren’t representing anything at all. They seemed lifeless, soulless and clueless. All the notes were in the right place – here’s a perfect imitation of the blues, here’s a perfect imitation of heavy metal – but that’s all it was.”
Calibre: Like we are living in a hand-me-down culture?
“It’s like colouring books that come already coloured for you! Denying you of those special choices in life, which make you a distinctive individual. I see the art of the individual being completely replaced by the need to be a fucking robot.
“One of the best examples of being a robot out there is those perfectly curved beards and with a backwards baseball cap. What is that representing?”
Calibre: So what do you think of young modern men and their kind of ‘tribalism’?
“Haha. You made me choke! What tribe is it? You’re asking me and I’m asking you – it’s indecipherable! But, I do know it’s the most completely dull arsehole you can possibly be.
“I mention that kind of thing in the song Shoom, which is actually a requiem to my father. I miss his company so much, his sense of dry sarcastic humour.
Sitting in pubs with him – he was great company and would see the fun in everything. He was very witty and observant – which was catastrophic to me when I was younger. The analysis would make me cringe sometimes! But then he died, and you realise that your dad is you and you are your dad. And that’s not a bad thing at all.”
“I’m all sharp edges, me. Always will be”
Calibre: Do you see a lot of yourself in him now?
“Yeah, can’t help it. I see what I didn’t, or wasn’t able to see, while he was alive. And that’s hurtful really. Emotionally, deep down inside, you wish you’d been able to let him crack that egg in the way he was looking for.”
Calibre: How would you want to be remembered?
“I don’t know but the most impressive thing I’ve seen in a long time is the way Mr Bowie handled his funeral. It was so moving to me that he wanted it minimal, a pauper’s burial really. You don’t need a mockery like a Malcolm McLaren funeral, which I’m sure many people will misunderstand as me backbiting, but it was horrible from the stories I was told about it. Malcolm, what have you achieved, no one liked you, and they liked each other even less! That’s not a legacy is it? Leave well alone.
“And yet I miss him, I miss his company y’know? We’d have great rows, great rows. And no human being, once their place has gone in life, can be replaced. For me, death of any kind, of anybody, no matter how extremely different we are, is a great loss. I’d put it on an equal level with the death of me own mum and dad, of my friends, it hurts, it personally hurts.”
Calibre: Do you feel that you are mellowing as you are getting older?
“No, no, no. Not at all! That just won’t happen. I’m all sharp edges, me. Always will be.”