“The best night I’ve ever had was to be accused of being a bad Johnny Rotten in Kyoto,” laughs John Lydon, frontman of punk pioneers The Sex Pistols and groundbreaking postpunk band Public Image Ltd. Speaking on the phone from his adopted home of Los Angeles, the 55-year-old Irish-born, London-raised icon is reminiscing on his “eight or nine” tours of Japan over his 30-odd-year career. (PiL were added Monday to the bill of this year’s Summer Sonic festival.)
“I think this was the ’96 tour,” he continues. “Me and my current manager, Mr. Rambo, we found this crazy-arse punk club. It was the maddest house I’ve ever been to in my whole life, just young Japanese kids doing crazy punk karaoke in this club. I sang ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ and of course they didn’t know — or believe — who I was, but that made it better!”
It’s about 20 minutes into our nearly-two-hour conversation before Lydon finally turns friendly. At first he’s a little standoffish; I know it can’t be something I said, because I can’t get a word in edgewise. Then again, he has been conditioned through personal experience to be wary of journalists. Lydon has often been mistaken by media and mainstream alike for being a troublemaker, a mindless proponent of anarchy, an enemy of decency and worse.
Those people aren’t really listening. Despite declaring himself “pretty vacant” back in 1977, Lydon has proven himself to be a deeply authentic and intelligent artist, a provoker of thought and exposer of hypocrisy. He considers himself not a punk but a folk musician: a man of the people.
Manipulated to some degree by Svengali manager Malcolm McLaren (who reportedly left the band penniless), The Sex Pistols captured the zeitgeist of late ’70s Britain perfectly: the disaffection, disillusionment and dissatisfaction felt by the common man as union strikes sent the nation into chaos, and conservatism prevailed in the shape of Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Anthems such as “God Save the Queen” galvanized the youth and gave them a voice.
But while the Pistols released just one album (“Never Mind the Bollocks: Here’s The Sex Pistols”) before imploding amid in-fighting and scandal, later followed by the tragic death of junkie bassist Sid Vicious, their legacy will undoubtedly last for a very long time.
“Listen, you know this: If there’s not a rebellious youth culture, there’s no culture at all,” says Lydon as we discuss the student riots that erupted across Britain recently. “It’s absolutely essential. It is the future. This is what we’re supposed to do as a species, is advance ideas.”
And advance ideas he did. Short months after the Pistols’ breakup in 1978, Lydon formed Public Image Ltd. with school friend Jah Wobble and early Clash guitarist Keith Levene. Rather than milk the punk image that Lydon had helped create, early PiL were instead about raw rhythm and groove, an avant-garde postpunk blend of rock, Krautrock and dub that later grew to embrace off-kilter pop sensibilities.
Up until 1992, the band released eight albums, with Lydon the only constant member; other collaborators included revered producer Bill Laswell, Frank Zappa cohort Steve Vai, The Smiths’ drummer Mike Joyce, Lu Edmonds of The Damned, The Slits’ sticksman Bruce Smith and even Japanese electropop innovator Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Via the Pistols and PiL, Lydon’s influence on the course of alternative music (and the mainstream that steals from it) cannot be overstated. Here in Japan, punk and postpunk are thriving, if fringe, music scenes. A 2007 Sex Pistols tribute album, “Never Mind the Bollocks: Here’s the Softly!,” featured covers by a range of Japanese underground bands (“I hope they get it right,” deadpans Lydon), while one Tokyo postpunk outfit even named themselves Drive to the Forest in a Japanese Car, a lyrics from PiL’s “Poptones.”
“That’s the band name?!” laughs Lydon. “Pardon? Well, they picked a good song! They picked an amazingly good song, with the idea of tune, and rhythm, and randomness, and trance. Yeees. Well done!” He takes the briefest pause, then adds, “I hope they sound nothing like the original song.”
Lydon speaks warmly of the Japanese, describing them as “honest, straightforward, artistic, creative and incredibly open to new ideas.” He also says that “most Public Image albums were hits there before anywhere else.” Indeed, many PiL songs can be found in karaoke booths throughout the country — surely unthinkable in the West.
“Oh, and other towns,” says Lydon, lapsing back into revery of his time in Japan. “Fukuoka, or F-ck U OK, ha ha! Right? It’s brilliant. Young lad (who I met there), he goes, [Japanese accent] ‘Aaaah, Johnny Rotten, I have prepared shirt for you with Fukuoka!’ And to this day I still wear it. It reads ‘Fuck U OK Number 1.’ And don’t tell me they don’t understand the laugh in it, cos they do. Listen, I’m English; we have a very similar dry, deadpan sense of humor. And once you get into that, you rock in Japan, right, cos you get it. They’re really folky people.”
Scenes from Japan feature heavily in “Mr Rotten’s Scrapbook,” a new coffee-table book handwritten by Lydon and filled with photos from his childhood to the present day, which was crowned Best Book at the recent NME Awards in Britain. One photo shows Lydon hanging out on a Tokyo street with several Japanese fans; another shows him leaning into a crowd at a Sex Pistols Japan show; while a third presents a bemused Lydon watching pubic-hair-free pornography on Japanese TV. The book, which is limited to 750 copies, is quarto bound in high-quality litho finish and includes a PiL picture vinyl; 100 lucky buyers will also receive a “golden ticket” that entitles them to a 10-minute webcam chat with the man himself.
The book is priced at a whopping £449 (¥59,000), which amounts to £336,750 (¥44.3 million) if the run sells out — though Lydon insists it is not a money-spinner.
“It’s cost us more to make it than what it will ever sell for,” he spits. “And high price? Well, f-ckin’ ‘ell. Do you ever wanna live my life? There’s a high price. If you don’t want this book, and you don’t understand what I’ve gone through, don’t f-cking have it.”
In recent years, Lydon has presented TV documentaries on bugs, sharks and gorillas, and appeared on British reality show “I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!” The Sex Pistols have played occasional reunion tours since 1996, which they openly admitted was an attempt to finally make some filthy lucre from their legacy. In 2007, the Pistols re-recorded “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “Pretty Vacant” for the video game “Guitar Hero III”; Lydon is currently considering writing a new song for the band, his first since they originally split. When asked if that will materialize this year, he replies, “No, cos they’re dumb c-nts. They’ve lost that point or purpose of talking to me as a human being. They now talk to me through management, and that’s unacceptable.”
In 2009, Lydon funded PiL’s first tour in 17 years by appearing in a series of commercials for Country Life butter. He was, of course, branded a sellout, but in fact it was a brilliant move, raising not only his profile but also the cash to put PiL back on the road and later into the studio — without any record-label interference. The band’s first album since 1992’s “That What is Not” is due later this year (it was delayed by the tragic death of Lydon’s stepdaughter, Ari Up of The Slits, in October), and then there’s that show scheduled for the Chiba leg of the Summer Sonic festival in August.
“I love the Japanese clubs,” he says. “So fantastic, the atmosphere; so personal. So deeply felt, and so deeply appreciated by me.
“It took years and years for me to end up playing the Budokan. When I finally got there it was with the Pistols, and I didn’t like it! It was too big, it was too vast, and the audience was too far away from the stage. I think I was doing it right all along.”
Public Image Ltd. will play Summer Sonic’s Chiba leg in August. “Mr Rotten’s Scrapbook” is out now. For more information, visit www.johnlydon.com.