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Johnny come home
It was a Jubilee ago that The Sex Pistols exploded onto the world stage and changed music forever. Except little has changed, according to John Lydon and that's why he's back
Stuart Clark, 21 Jun 2002
Why did punk explode with the ferocity it did in 1977? A pertinent question which can be answered in three words. “Emerson”, “Lake” and “Palmer”.
Sure, there were other prog monstrosities like Genesis and Yes, but it was ELP with their Persian carpets and eight-minute drum solos who encapsulated the awfulness of the rock du jour.
Old enough to remember the adrenaline rush of the ’60s Who, Kinks and Small Faces, the Sex Pistols decided to get as far up the old guard’s noses as possible.
An indication of how they were succeeding came when Rick Wakeman – fresh from staging The Six Wives Of King Henry VIII On Ice – objected to having Messrs. Lydon, Cook, Jones and Vicious as his A&M labelmates. The Pistols answered his concerns by going round to the multinational’s offices, having a drunken fight among themselves and pocketing £75,000 when A&M decided that perhaps Wakeman had a point.
It was low-grade controversy, though, compared to the national canary that was thrown in December ‘76 when the Pistols went on the Today show and uttered the F-word. The tabloids were shocked, Mary Whitehouse disgusted and a lorry driver from Liverpool so fucking furious that he stuck his foot through the telly. Allegedly. There were dark mutterings too in Sevenoaks when Mr. Clark told his 13-year-old son Stuart that under no circumstances would he allow a Sex Pistols record to be brought into the family home. Despite – or actually because – of this parental warning, little Stuart went straight down to W.H. Smith’s and spent his football sticker money on ‘Anarchy In The U.K.’
Malcolm McLaren will have you believe that it was all carefully orchestrated, but the great thing about the Pistols, and punk in general, is that for 12 glorious months there were no rules. Anyone with a “fuck you” attitude was welcome at the party, which is why punk bequeathed us such disparate talents as Paul Weller, Ian Dury, Elvis Costello, Shane MacGowan, Kirsty MacColl, Mick Hucknall, Gary Numan, Jim Kerr, Jools Holland, Vivienne Westwood, Julie Birchill, Tony Parsons, Adam Ant, Nick Lowe, Tom Robinson, Ian Curtis, Sting, Joe Jackson, John Cooper Clarke, John Shuttleworth and, ahem, Danny Baker.
It was a schizophrenic beast that, on one hand, promoted total narcissism and, on the other, supplied the clarion call for the UK’s first mass anti-racism movement. Primarily, though, it was the most fun anyone my age had had. Bunking off school, taking cheap speed, making new friends, having opinions that were your own. It wasn’t much help with my ‘O’ Levels, but it gave me an ability to observe, question and react to situations that I’m still grateful for today.
As keen as us London boys were to claim them as private property, the Pistols were dealing in themes that, if not universal, certainly made it across the Irish Sea. It’s not stretching a point too far to say that, without the momentum they created, The Undertones, Boomtown Rats and U2 wouldn’t have got within gobbing distance of the charts.
hotpress’ first sighting of a real, live Sex Pistol came in 1978 when wanting a respite from all the negative attention he was getting in Blighty. Johnny Rotten accepted an invitation to attend the hotpress ‘Kiss Me Quick’ Awards in Cork. Chaperoning duties fell to Dermot Stokes who recalls that: “His first words to myself and Liam Mackey were, ‘Entertain me!’ which we preceded to do with copious amounts of beer and a briquette of dope that an unspecified record company person had supplied.
“We’d decided to push the boat out a bit and put him in this posh-for-back-then hotel, the Arbutus Lodge, that was famed for seafood including lobster which you picked from a tank. This upset John who started shouting at the top of his voice, ‘Some fucking cunt is going to come in and say, ‘Him, I want him!’ Cunts!’
“There was a wonderful moment later on when his Uncle, who must have been 80 if a day, walked in, looked John up and down and said, ‘You’ve changed, boy!’”
24 years later and it’s a weekend of debauchery that the ex-Pistol still remembers.
“You gave me an award, didn’t you?” he says in that trademark sneer of his. “It fucking broke, you cheapskates!”
Looking considerably younger than his 46 years – “I’m aging well, ain’t I?” – the singer is back in his old West London stomping ground to announce details of the Pistols’ Crystal Palace reunion on July 27. Before we let him plug it, though, what were the events that led to him fleeing across the Irish Sea in ’78?
“A machete that ripped open my thigh to the knee, nonsense like that. I had a knife put through the tendon on my thumb and first finger. That at the time was celebrated in the media as, ‘Oh, go get the dirty rotters!’ Now you tell me, who’s on the right and wrong side of that? Many would apologise and back down but I meant every word I said.'
Asked why the punk uprising ultimately petered out, Lydon responds: “There were an awful lot of caricature bands after The Daily Mirror and the nationals jumped on it. They’d have centre-page spreads on ‘How To Be A Punk’. Wallyworld then waltzed in on us and it became time for me to go. The Pistols did kick me out in a roundabout, cowardly way. They went off to see Ronnie Biggs in South America and left me in a hotel, without a word. But that’s alright, I’m ‘ere. I’m not the kind of person to roll over.”
He is, however, the kind of person who buggered off to LA in the ’80s ’cause he was tired of everybody taking a pop at him.
“I’m back in Britain and I feel sorry for the lot of you. Tony Blair is evil to me, he always was. He looks like a soup terrene and he’s full of bile. He’s a liar. What he’s done is merge Tory and Labour and what do you get when you mix red and blue? Grey. There seems to be a fear of real opinion about anything. And all these silly new bands copying the punk thing. They’re wearing anoraks, National Health glasses and that awful hairdo, that thin thing. What is that about? Beckham and Blair’s Britain!”
As much as he bad mouths it, Lydon still cares passionately about his country of birth.
“It’s my Britain, our Britain, not hers – fucking German tourist. The monarchy doesn’t work too well at the moment but let’s make the fuckers do a good job. Let’s get rid of the useless ones and keep a few of the goodies.”
It’s all relative of course, but who are the biggest villains? “Prince Charles – as long as Elizabeth keeps him off the throne she’s doing a good job.”
Asked whether playing only one show is a sign of him getting old and lazy, he retorts: “I’m not interested in a full tour. It’s my jubilee, 25 years on and you bastards still haven’t learned anything! I’m celebrating my big, bad self. I’m quite proud of my beginnings in the wonderful world of music and I intend to not let anyone dissipate that energy. We’re doing one big show. I want it to be an all-nighter and I want all new bands, all new everything.”
(Pause while journalist inserts tongue in cheek) Are The Clash in the running for a support slot?
“No they are not!” he says, doing an excellent impression of Harry Enfield’s Old Gits. “From what I hear, they’re all just rowing among each other like silly little schoolgirls. I think Joe Strummer’s ran off with himself, as per usual. The upwardly mobile socialist! He’s a nice enough bloke but what I never liked about him was the sloganeering aspect. Y’know, they go and grab a Karl Marx novel, underline a few sentences and base a career on it. ‘White riot, I wanna riot…’ I mean, it’s a bit limp-wristed!”
How’s he getting on at the moment with Messrs. Jones, Cook and Matlock?
“Same as ever. We talk. We’ll always be at war with each other personality-wise, but that’s what made the band what it is. It would be stupid to pretend that we’re best friends, but there’s never a problem when we hit the stage.”
You won’t be unduly surprised to learn that Lydon considers the Pistols to be “infinitely superior to 99.9% of the joke rock that’s around today.” Please elaborate.
“There ain’t nothing that I can really, truly hold my hands up at and say, ‘Woooo, that’s frightening. That’s shocking.’ It’s just a lot of pop trivia that wants to be mellow and compromised and utterly bland and offer no real point or purpose. It’s just packaging and I don’t like it. There’s a few bands out there that aren’t on labels and I will be exercising their rights to vote. I’m gonna release their stuff which is smart in a forward-thinking way. Not like, say, Limp Bizkit which is a collection of clutter and flash, bang, wallops.”
Okay, hop up on the couch and we’ll try a bit of word association. The starter for ten, The Osbornes?
“A fakery that shouldn’t be tolerated. I find it appalling. Watching a dismal, tired, worn-out old drug addict collapse slowly into…millions and millions of dollars per episode is not interesting viewing.”
Eminem? “There’s nothing really outrageous in what he’s saying, it’s the same old palaver. It’s not really politically motivated and it’s not about changing society. It’s just selfish whinging to be frank. If he doesn’t like gays, well, he doesn’t have to hang around with them, so shut up.”
Marilyn Manson? “Is he an anti-hero? There’s no real threat in what they’re doing. There’s no real threat in anyone who openly expresses exactly what they believe.”
Britney Spears? “She’s just Tiffany by any other name, really. I always used to mispronounce it, Tough-fanny.”
I’m detecting a theme here. Bulletproof as ever, Lydon denies that 1995’s Filthy Lucre tour and next month’s Crystal Palace shindig go against everything the Pistols ever stood for.
“I’m proud of what we did,” he says defiantly. “And I ain’t seen fuck all to beat us. We meant what we said. Still do. It’s still valid. When have I ever done any of this for money? I ain’t about the money and you all know that. You cannot call me corrupt. I’m doing this ‘cause I’m a good bloke and I think this country needs something to be happy about.”