“If people truly want to understand what motivates me in life, it was surviving a disease that nearly killed me.”
John Lydon, the world’s most renowned punk, couldn’t possibly give a flying toss about the sound quality of the recordings he makes now with Public Image Ltd., could he? To borrow one of the last lines he ever uttered onstage when he was known as Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, having you listen to lo-res versions of his music would make him feel like you were being cheated.
“We go to a lot of trouble to make sure our sound quality is of the maximum,” Lydon confirms. “We lose money, but we guarantee our vinyl and CDs are made to the highest possibility. I’ve always stated this! The industry lets us down, so, to keep up with our own promises, we have to finance that gap ourselves. I’m furious with it, and I have been for years.”
PiL continues to put its filthy lucre where its mouth is, as evidenced by the ever-so-appropriately titled What the World Needs Now…, out today on the band’s own custom PiL Official label, via various formats. World teems with that magic Lydon touch, from the low-end thud and scoff of C’est La Vie to the twangy spy-movie guitar-driven lust of Bettie Page.
“It’s been an incredibly fun album to make. We’re really proud of it. We need an alternative to all that kak out there,” sneers Lydon. “From second one, a lot of improvisation and a lot of inspiration went into making this music. And no, I would not like to be hearing a copy of it on MP3 on somebody’s cell phone from two blocks away. There are people out there who want that, but they’re cheating themselves.”
Digital Trends called Lydon in L.A. to discuss his passion for great sound, how he really feels about Pink Floyd, and how vigilant he is when it comes to guarding the Sex Pistols’ legacy. God save the once and future punk king.
Digital Trends: After all these years, did you ever think you’d become such a recording-quality institution?
John Lydon: Institution? Nooooo… and I don’t expect to be institutionalized soon, either! (chuckles) What I do is to the best of my ability, and I’m always pleased if that impresses and is helpful to my fellow human beings.
Do you care about how people listen to your music these days?
Yeah, I care very much, because MP3 is a downgrade in quality that I find is killing the potentiality of music. It’s taking away from our vast range of experiences our ears deserve. I don’t want a picture-postcard version of a holiday in Rome — I want a holiday in Rome!
For me, vinyl has always been top-notch. I kind of had to accept CDs, but I’m definitely not going to go downgrading myself to the point where it sounds like an old World War II radio.
I’m encouraged that we have higher-resolution 96/24 files available to us now. Are you cool with that?
No! Sounds like a license plate number! (both laugh) Listen, don’t garble up technology in numbers, because it’s missing the point, and it’s deceitful by nature. I’ll never be happy ’til I’m guaranteed 100 percent! (snickers)
OK, just so I’m clear — you feel vinyl is the best way to listen to music, right?
For me, it’s vinyl, yes. I’ve always attended my own pressings, as much as I possibly could. It’s really important. The vinyl masterer was always my best friend that day. Cutting a master — it’s a beautiful process in itself.
“I don’t want a picture-postcard version of a holiday in Rome — I want a holiday in Rome!”
If you’re not processing the full amount of information, what are you bothering for? Of course, this is where the record labels love to cut off, because it’s so much easier to manufacture a lower-quality CD. That’s not for us. They literally disagree with us, because we don’t believe in allowing them to cut corners.
It takes an enormous amount of effort to make a record. It’s everything that I am proud of, and I don’t like to be chiseled out of quality.
Streaming is probably not your thing either, then.
Oh my God, please — the buffering problem!
I do hate it whenever that evil spinning wheel pops up on my screen.
(laughs uproariously) Why do we have to accept being buffered?
I don’t think you’ve ever been buffered in your life, John!
(laughs again) Not at all! I’m not about to start! It’s the technology — the technology isn’t there. The promise is, but the technology isn’t.
I read in your new autobiography Anger Is An Energy that you contracted meningitis and lost your memory as a child at age 7.
I never mentioned that before. I didn’t want anyone to think I was pulling on the heartstrings, or wallowing in self-pity. It was a tough childhood.
If people truly want to understand what motivates me in life, it was surviving a disease that nearly killed me. I was in a coma, and then I had a loss of memory that lasted something like four years.
I struggled to find my own personality again, but it made me stronger, so what can I tell ya? That was my greatest sense of achievement, ever. There’s no self-pity in that. In many ways, it’s a huge blessing. The reward, of course, fully, fully prepared me for Johnny Rotten. I wasn’t ever a creature manufactured. I came fully loaded!
Like you said in the book, you used anger as the energy to literally recover yourself.
Anger has never been a negative. It got back the memories. Anger doesn’t have to result in violence and hate — in fact, it never should. Those are the options of the illiterate and the ignorant.
Many people could take some lessons from the Rotten approach.
Yes! Just like I say in the song Double Trouble, by the way! “If you’ve got a problem about the toilet, don’t row about it — fix it!”
Did you ever think back in the Sex Pistols days that you’d actually be running your own record label?
“Anger doesn’t have to result in violence and hate — in fact, it never should.”
I knew that at some point I’d probably have to. Almost immediately, the overanalyzation and critique crept in, you know. And of course that wonderful, fabulous sentence of, “Why don’t you just write a hit single?” That’s all you ever hear. Well, look, over the years, this is what I have been doing!
I’m going to go out on a limb and say I think it’s worked out in your favor.
It has, because each experience was worthy. It supplied me with a serious enough challenge that I had to pull my finger out, you know, and get cracking on it. And not allow myself to be manipulated into a cozy situation. I quite happily dropped the “rock star” mantra very, very quickly.
You’ve essentially defined yourself, in your own way.
This is my own life’s journey. I’m not really into having myself labeled as a pop-star clown. That’s not interesting. Though I do see myself as a prankster, and the album cover indicates that in the Hopi tradition. Every culture has that — the alleged clown, the one sneered at and looked down on, is the only one telling the truth! (laughs)
Seriously! Send in the clowns, as somebody once said.
(sings) “Send in the clowns…where are the clowns…” I don’t like many show tunes, but that’d be one of them.
Was the Super Deluxe 35th anniversary box set that came out a few years ago for [1977’s] Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols your handiwork?
I supervised it. I’m not letting my past get away from me. I do everything I can to maintain the integrity of that band. And that’s very difficult, because there are certain aspects of the Pistols that want to turn it into a commercial fun-for-all. That’s not why I wrote those songs. I want their integrity to be maintained, and that’s a battle even unto itself.
You must be dealing with that pretty much every day.
It’s everything, all the time. And every now and again, an error squeaks through. I don’t view the Pistols as Mickey Mouse, and I don’t want us to be treated that way. It annoys certain members who don’t have the care or consideration.
You have to keep the mantle intact.
Well, you’re damn right! And this is why I won’t allow myself to be inducted into any Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This is indeed an industry that never did us any favors. All I can see is they just put hurdles in our way.
Then, of course, they induct us by secret ballot. What? You don’t even put your name next to us! (sings) “I ain’t got your na-a-ame…” (both laugh) Hello! It would be rude to put living human beings into a museum!
[The Sex Pistols were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in November 2006, but the band rejected that induction by using, shall we say, quite explicit language in a statement on its website.]
And we won’t be seeing you anointed “Sir John Lydon” in the future either.
No, I don’t want that! No! I didn’t do this for self-aggrandizement. And I’ve never believed in that Lord and Ladyship regime anyway. I won’t walk into a privileged lifestyle — not willingly, not ever. I may get a cheap discount in a hotel room, but I think that’s about where it ends. (chuckles)
What, you don’t want any crown jewels to go with it?
Yeah, well, do I look or sound like a rapper to you?
No, though you did do some innovative work back in the ’80s with Afrika Bambaataa on his Time Zone album (1984). Rap has changed a lot since then, of course.
You can’t help that. It’s not progress, by the way. The original ideas get copied, and slowly but surely, they become shadows of their former selves. There’s no peculiar odd reason why the highlights of the rap industry are really Las Vegas acts. Next stop: cruise ship! I know it happens. (snickers)
“The alleged clown, the one sneered at and looked down on, is the only one telling the truth!”
I look back at this and laugh. I remember The Cure — he [Robert Smith] never wanted to fly in an airplane, so they always had to take to the QE2, and they’d play their way, you know? Oh, look at the door here — how bizarre: “Cocktails at 8, Goth Rock at 9!” (both laugh)
I have to ask you: Do you actually like Pink Floyd? [Johnny Rotten was famous for wearing an “I Hate Pink Floyd” t-shirt.]
I always have! Always! Listen, I go all the way back to Arnold Layne, when Syd Barrett was in the band. [Arnold Layne was Pink Floyd’s first single, released in the UK in March 1967.] I was listening to them when I was very, very young — to everything. Indeed, the name Sid Vicious comes from Syd Barrett.
I think a lot of people don’t even realize that.
No — they’re dumb! No matter how many times I tell them, they’re still not paying attention! It’s very hard to argue against the media manipulation of Sid Vicious. More or less, the paparazzi grew up around the Sex Pistols — and we didn’t give two fucks what they said. We always presumed the great British public would know better than that, and we could keep moving on. Well, they don’t.
That mindset continues on in the Kardashian World we all live in now.
Well, there you go. I found a good side in the Kardashians — at least she [Kim] made the physical improbability of a huge, fat ass acceptable! (chuckles) Until Gucci designs a wheelbarrow in gold for it, she should put it away!
I think you’ve just created their next line.
(laughs heartily) Well, I’ve been ripped off all my life, so she’s welcome to ripping off the wheelbarrow!
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