John Lydon (PiL, Sex Pistols)

by Greg Prato

One of rock's most outspoken figures - for decades, by this point - is unquestionably John Lydon. He has been the frontman for two groundbreaking acts: Sex Pistols (he was known at the time as "Johnny Rotten") and Public Image Ltd (or "PiL" for short). In 2015, PiL's tenth studio album overall was issued, What the World Needs Now..., the second release in a row to be issued by the band's own label, PiL Official Ltd.

Speaking to Songfacts shortly before the album's release, Mr. Lydon was just as you would expect him to be - ready to chat and prepared to get right down to the nitty gritty - as we touched upon such topics as songwriting inspiration and the stories behind several PiL compositions, while discovering that he holds both John Lennon and Kurt Cobain in high regard.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Where do you find inspiration for songs?

John Lydon: Between the ears. A careful observation of my fellow human beings. That's actually the truth.

I've got the kind of brain that just won't stop working. It's constantly thinking and thinking, and analyzing and working through issues, and storing song ideas. So when it comes to studio time, I'm revved to the max, and anything can spur me into a song - whether it be a piano leg falling off or the roof caving in. And anything musical in between. Which really, more accurately, means I consider all sounds to be musical.

Songfacts: Is there a PiL song that you feel never got the attention it deserved?

John: Every single one of them. Actually, they have got the attention, because there are many out there trying to duplicate the ideas that we've been creating through the decades. That's somewhat of a compliment, but it's also somewhat of an audacity.

PiL's fifth studio album overall was 1986's Album (in a crafty marketing maneuver, each format was issued under the appropriate title: Cassette, Compact Disc, etc.), which was co-produced by Lydon and avant-garde jazz bassist Bill Laswell.

And it was Laswell who assembled a stellar supporting cast for the album, which included guitarist Steve Vai (who later that year received major accolades and acclaim upon joining David Lee Roth's solo band), drummers Tony Williams and Ginger Baker, organist Bernie Worrell, backing singer Bernard Fowler, and bassist Jonas Hellborg, among others.

While the album failed to make much of an impression on the US charts, it was a hit in the UK, where it peaked at #14 and the single "Rise" reached #11.
Songfacts: I've felt for a long time that the earlier PiL release, Album, didn't get the attention it deserved in the US.

John: The record company pulled the strings from me. In fact, they "retired" me from their label after less than a week of issue, and pressed no more records. It's very difficult for that album to have climbed higher than it did. But in less than one week it got to #86, so that would have been quite some hit there.

Unfortunately, that deters their future projects, because you get that smear of being unwanted and being abandoned by the very industry that you think would support creativity. It just makes it harder for the next project, and on and on it's gone like that, until I finally had to buy my way out of the remaining record contract, and we had to start all over again with our own label. And here we are, two albums in, and we're as happy as you can be musically.

Songfacts: I read a quote from Steve Vai that there was consideration in putting together a band to tour in support of Album that would have included you, Vai, Bill Laswell on bass, and Ginger Baker on drums.

John: We discussed the idea, but it would have been too much like a superstar kind of thing, and that would have creeped me out at the time. And it indeed did. I loved working with those people, but I didn't want to go out as a bunch of "pop stars" kind of thing, whose only real ambition wouldn't be future songwriting - it would be more to do with showing your big bad egos. At least that's how I felt about it then.

Songfacts: Is there a Sex Pistols song you don't feel gets proper attention?

John: Again, every single one of them.

Songfacts: How does the songwriting work primarily in PiL?

John: No hard and fast rules. Whatever seems to grab all of our attention is where we go. We focus with that. What works, works. What doesn't, we abandon.

There's no egos in this now. It's just there for the love of it, and to portray as accurately as we can the emotions we're dealing with in song. Sometimes, the lyrics can be inspired by a tone, a pattern, anything you like. Or sometimes, the other way around. It's six of one, half a dozen of the other.

But I view the voice now as valid an instrument as any other part of it, and that's our approach: four people doing the best they can to the best of their abilities in their allotted slots. But of course, we cross over all the time inside of that, because if we find ourselves in position of having a manual to adhere to, we tear the manual up and start again. So, things happen instinctively, spontaneously, but after a hell of a lot of research to get to that point. And then, an awful hard slog of work and consideration thereinafter. Nothing is done lightly or flippantly.

But when we find ourselves over-analyzing, we do take a break from it, because that could lead to trouble - you can be too precious about the final mix. It's best to get all of that sorted out in the actual recording side, so when it comes to post-production, that's as limited as feasibly possible.

Songfacts: What was the inspiration behind the song "Double Trouble"?

John: Well, the inspiration came from something Lu [Edmonds, PiL's guitarist] was playing and I really fell in love with - this beautiful little angry sort of pattern. And it matched perfectly, the scenario of a row that my wife and I had over the repair of a toilet. So I wanted to accurately portray how a domestic issue can be blown out of all proportion, but it can also be resolved - i.e., we got a plumber in, rather than an analyst. [Laughs]

So it's a happy song, because you find the resolve. Me and Nora [Forster, Lydon's wife], we love that song - we laugh when we hear it. It reminds us just how ridiculous rows can be. But oddly enough, they're very important at the time, because you free up your mind of all that debris you might be hanging onto. So the idea in life is to really be as transparent as possible, and to get all that stuff out, and then laugh at how idiotic you sound when you say it. Self-analysis. And selfless analysis, at that. Not selfish - the opposite.

Songfacts: "Know Now"?

John: Well, that's me trying to be as minimal as I can, using the least amount of words with the most poignant of ambitions. That's speaking directly: I don't want to know that. If you're going to lie to me, I don't want to know you. That's not aimed at anyone internally, because there are no liars in PiL, there's none in my domestic life, there's none in my family life.

But when we come across "outsiders," shall we say, or the world in general, it's just full of snakes in the grass. And it's our kind of refreshing flag waving: Don't come near us. We don't want you. We do not want to know you if that's the way you continue to be. So clean up your act, because we're getting back into the Garden of Eden.

Songfacts: "I'm Not Satisfied"?

John: About losing my memories when I was a child, from coming out of a coma from meningitis. And I wasn't satisfied - I knew I must have belonged to someone, somehow, somewhere. I just didn't know who, how, or why. And that stuck with me ever since.

It's like the "anger is an energy" theme - it's constantly running in my mind throughout my life, and I won't be satisfied for second best. Not ever. Why should I?

Songfacts: I recently watched the video clip for "This is Not a Love Song." What do you recall about the video and the song?

John: What looked like a good car kit with a cheap old Ford engine, driving around Century City, being absurd. Century City is where all the lawyers are, and I had a lawyer there, too.

That's a poignant dig at the business aspects that I've been forced into having to use during my life of music. You can't get by without lawyers and accountants, and there it is - such is the world of snakes in the grass. When you run into nonsenses, well, you just get yourself a bigger snake.

It's also a song that is anti-corporate greed, and that's a theme that's going to keep occurring in my life, because I don't like the way the big business considers itself very wise, when in fact, it's not. It's a headless chicken of greed and selfishness and all of the things that make life for the rest of us unbearable.

Songfacts: Something that I've felt strongly about for a long time is I think that there are three musicians who spoke their mind the freest about their beliefs in both interviews and their songs: John Lennon, you, and Kurt Cobain. Do you agree with that statement?

John: As far as I'm aware, Kurt wrote one really excellent song, called "Teen Spirit," which I think is more than enough for anyone in a lifetime. Even writing one most perfect pop song is quite great, that.

I don't know the comparison of Lennon and me, that's something Oasis brought up years ago. I think we're all very different from each other, and long may we reign. I seem to be the only one left alive! But in my memory, there's always a great place for John Lennon. Always. "Working Class Hero" and the album Imagine are highlights of my musical collection.

Songfacts: I didn't mean so much stylistically, I meant that all three of you were never afraid to speak your mind.

John: I know that, but I had to point it out, because there will be people who read this and take that as meaning "similar."

Songfacts: I still give you a lot of credit, because in this day and age, everyone is worried about saying the wrong thing in the press or not speaking their mind.

John: Political correctness, yep, I know. I can end up my own worst enemy - just by speaking as I find. Which is going to be unfortunate for me, already has been. [Laughs] And long may I continue! Sometimes, the truth hurts. But it needs to be told.

September 9, 2015
For more PiL, visit
Photo: Paul Heartfield

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 3

  • Sammy from Los AngelesI read his answers with his voice/accent in my head.
  • Mike from West Islip, New YorkLydon is ALWAYS an interesting person to listen to. I don't always agree with the things he says, but, he is very thought provoking
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaNice Interview. He can be very difficult to interview, but when you get him to open up, Lydon is very interesting person to listen to. His candor is very refreshing.
see more comments

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