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John Lydon on Public Image Ltd, Stirring Up ‘Trouble’ and the Donald Trump ‘Circus’

John Lydon
Ian Gavan/Getty Images

John Lydon is a rock ‘n’ roll icon. From his early days as Johnny Rotten fronting the Sex Pistols to his years as leader of Public Image Ltd, Lydon has been releasing thought-provoking music for just about 40 years now. With a new PiL album recently released, Lydon took some time to chat with us about the disc, titled What the World Needs Now, as well as offer his thoughts on the current presidential campaign, the evils that can come out of modern technology and more. Check out Part 1 of our interview with the legendary John Lydon below:

The new Public Image Ltd. album is titled What The World Needs Now, and with all the chaos going on around us, what’s one thing from the words of John Lydon that the world truly needs now?

The trouble is that trouble has always been. These are not new compounded situations. I think since the dawn of mankind we’ve had ways of killing, murdering and stealing off each other. It’s about time we eliminated the root causes, which in my mind, is religion. I think it’s at the bottom of everything, as I think it excuses people in ever so many ways. Need that to be looked at, and transparency in politics is a must. Politics are the new religion. If you look at any of the wars in the Middle East, i think the root cause is oil. Then comes all them other sobby shoes. There we go, so what does the world need now? Transparency. Freedom of thought and things discussed openly and clearly, and not left open to politicians to make snide deals that don’t involve us, the people of the world.

The first song on the album is “Double Trouble.” You yourself earned the reputation as a trouble maker dating back to …

All I’ve ever done is express my studied opinion. Indeed that brought lots of trouble, mostly trouble came to me [laughs]. I think what I did, and I’m still doing it these days, for all our alleged freedom and democracy, we don’t have precocious much of it.

Dating back to the Sex Pistols, you earned the reputation, not from the fans, but from the mainstream media as a troublemaker at the time. 

Yeah, you’ve got to realize who they’re working for and it certainly isn’t for the voice of independents. Media are there to maintain the system.

But is there something about stirring up “trouble” that entices you?

That it’s an unfair world and I’d like it to be changed. A classic example of everything I’m fearful of and hold in contempt is the example now of Donald Trump trying to buy the presidency. This is a real estate agent who thinks he can run the world. That’s a frightening prospect. He’s a classic voice of ignorance with money, a terrible, terrible calamity.

I’ll skip ahead, because I actually had a question about Donald Trump. As much as people disagree with his policies …

What policies? He hasn’t got any other than sexism and racism that seems to be his root cause.

But on the flip side, is there something dare I say punk rock about him? He’s very brash and says the opposite of what you’d expect a presidential candidate to say, and he doesn’t care about offending anyone …

Contentious just for the sake of it is of no result at all. When you say “punk rock,” I hope you’re not talking about me, the King of Punks. Maybe one of them lesser acts, and I emphasize the word “act.” Certainly definitely no, he’s not in any proper league I care to acknowledge. In fact, I heard a curious thing the other day, somewhat relating the ancestors of Donald Trump to Hillary Clinton [laughs]. I thought it was really remarkably poignant. That would explain why they went to his wedding. I could never understand why the Clintons would go to a Donald Trump wedding. Talk about incestuous behavior.

Is there a candidate that you can stand behind, now that you’re an American citizen? 

Yeah, well it can’t be anything Republican because of the religious connotation and the dictations towards to freedom of women. I can’t tolerate that kind of suppression.

How about someone like Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders? 

I don’t know much about him other than he seems a bit too old for me. On the good side of the Republicans, I’ll tell you what chap I respect and I’ve met him years ago, and I know him to be true to his word, is John Kasich, oddly enough. He’s worthy of attention. Possibly their only serious candidate and yet negated by the ridiculous circus that’s going on at the moment.

“Circus” is a good word to define what’s going on there. 

And we all know who the elephant in the room is [laughs]. That’s the thing with politics, you have to be able to laugh at it. As you do with everything in life, really, in order to survive or understand it and move forward. People adopting rigid, hateful positions is so destructive. They’re not really separating them as parties, apart from that moralistic religious backbone that is unfortunately dominating the Republicans.

Another thing you seem to rebel against on the album is the evil that can come out of modern technology, as that appears to be the a theme in the song “Corporate.” 

Yeah, I think it’s making fools of us all and it’s dissipating our natural involvement with one another socially. It’s becoming a cowardice through fingertips. The internet to me has turned into a very poisonous affair. It really is. Have you bothered to follow the CNN chat lines where people tweet their little pearls of wisdom? They all end up bitterly attacking or insulting each other. It seems relentless, the football sites are like that. Every time you turn to the public for discussion, they turn negative on each other. It’s opinionated without any study of their opinions. It’s just voicing, and it’s a form of cowardice that I dislike. In an open debate, face to face, you get different reactions. You have to consider what you’re saying. So, that’s a problem for me. The information highway has become a gossip byway.

People can hide behind their keyboards …

Yeah, it’s fingertip warfare. It’s sad to see it, I don’t like it. It makes me uncomfortable.

There was a time where when you say what you wanted to say you had to identify yourself.

Yes and that’s very important. You have to stand up and claim. You’ve got the right to say something but we’ve got the right to know who you are. Otherwise that innuendo becomes part of the mainstream assumption. And assumption is a very dangerous concept.

Getting back to the album, another song that stood out was “Bettie Page.” Musically and vocally, I sensed a little bit of David Bowie influence…

That seems to be the common run of thought [laughs]. That’s wonderfully complimentary to me, first and foremost. But no, that’s inside my own voice and my own way of expressing things. That seemed to be the best way to deliver that particular message in that song, which is I have many heroes in my life and there’s a few women thrown in for you. People who stand up and be counted and don’t hide — Mae West, Bettie Paige — these are people who’ve put themselves way out front. It’s very dangerous for them to do that way back then, but they created a wonderful world which unfortunately by lesser mortals gets eroded in time. I suppose that’s what happened to punk rock, really. You give the people the freedom to stand up and change the world, really all they wanted to do was change their bank balances, a lot of them. Things degenerate rather than progress and that may be the problem with new ideas. They very quickly turning into novelties. I stand by my set of values I’ve always had and I’m enduring and I think endearing that way. We’ll show by example that it’s possible to change the world, but first you’ve got to change yourself. Know what’s wrong about yourself, I point that out. One step at a time, the ladder is long as they say.

Turning to the legacy of Public Image Ltd, as influential as the Sex Pistols have been on music, one can make the argument that more bands today owe a debt to PiL, as far as the post-punk sound that is popular in the current indie and alternative scene. Is that a fair statement?

I think Public Image has had a greater influence, yes and the most enduring. Yeah, and in much more positive ways. Rather than the shambolic nonsense that many of the latter-day punk bands turn the whole thing into. Far more creative thinking comes out of the PIL fan base than the Pistols, and that’s just unfortunately the way it is. That’s not denigrating my first band, not by any means. But we didn’t do enough with each other, really.

What gave you the impetus to bring PiL back after a few years back after a long hiatus?

There was no hiatus, there was a serious financial burden and problems with record labels and that took nearly two decades to resolve. I kept very quiet at that time, because I didn’t want to get involved in woe is me, self-pity world. So I went off and worked elsewhere in order to raise the money to find my way out of certain binding problems. As soon as I could do that, I could restart Public Image again. Here we are now, two albums [into our comeback] looking very happy and independent. It’s what I’ve always wanted it to be but no, I was bound by contractual obligations right from the Pistols. I never had quite all the freedoms I wanted. But now I’ve got them, well, we’re up and running. And it’s a joy to be home. It’s an incredibly healthy workplace. We have a true sense of respect, not just us in the band but everyone that works with us. We view each other as equals and nobody tells lies. That’s a very fortunate position to have worked ourselves into. It takes time. But the time has been well spent.

Your fans are glad you’re back and we’re going to see you on tour, and there’s going to be a North American trek this fall.

Yes. We’re touring America. We’re starting it at the Voodoo Festival in New Orleans. Then Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, D.C., Pennsylvania, Canada, New York, Chicago, Colorado, Canada. Washington State and Nevada and then into three in California. It’s quite a sizable chunk but the month before that, we’re also playing practically nearly every day in Europe and Britain. It’s a good chunk of work and we’ll be rock solid by the time we hit the U.S. We always are a damn good live band, but now featuring songs from this new album it’s gonna go into some serious fun times. A lot of these songs, the way we recorded them and the sound of them, they’re just begging to be played live.

When I listen to the album, I really got a sense of some of the songs really going to another level in a live setting.

I really enjoy the way we work now, it’s complicated and very difficult to explain it to you other than four people working to be creative — this is what they do. We have the friendship set and mindset, skill level, I suppose, to be able to do what it is we set out to do. It’s all about integrity and respect. These are things we strive for, and hopefully see that rub off on the audiences who take that message away and add that to their own lives. That’s how you make the world a better place. You can’t ram it down anyone’s throat. It’s a decision-making process that each individual has to evolve themselves with but if you’re life is a difficult shambolic mess because everybody is lying to everyone, well give a nod and a wink in our direction. You can learn you can change things initially, internally and then externally.

Thanks to the legendary John Lydon for taking the time to chat with us. Stay tuned for Part 2 of our interview to get his thoughts on the evolution of punk rock, Nirvana, Axl Rose and more. Pick up Public Image Ltd’s new album ‘What the World Needs Now’ at iTunes, and catch PiL on the road at these locations.

Watch Public Image Ltd’s ‘Double Trouble’ Video

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