How Rotten Is John Lydon's Public Image?EXPAND
Duncan Bryceland

How Rotten Is John Lydon's Public Image?

John Lydon, aka Rotten, has made it his business to inflame, incite, irritate and also inform since the Sex Pistols formed in 1975. The man is a provocateur, a mischievous soul who seems to enjoy nothing more than getting a rise out of those who don't like him and, perhaps more so, those who do. That's our Uncle Rotten. The purist of punks with the original spit-soaked mindset — don't settle into the mainstream, question it. Live outside of it. That's how we like him.

That said, some of his recent musings about Trump have left many of us on the left feeling cold. The recent sight of Lydon in a MAGA shirt was downright disturbing. It would be easier to stomach if the guy threw out another 'Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" Let us know that he's fucking with us, as many of us suspect. But damn, it's hard to look at.

These are tough times — emotions are aflame and, post–Kavanaugh confirmation (among many other things), for good reason. This probably isn't the best time for a Trump stunt, with people's lives genuinely negatively affected by the current administration. Telling Lydon not to do something, though, informing him that he's upsetting lots of good people — well, that's only gonna encourage the man.

This is nothing new. He's always been this way, and it's always been up to individuals whether they take him or leave him. He's quite simply an awkward bastard. The Pistols' Nevermind the Bollocks?... is justifiably one of the best albums in rock & roll — not only punk — history. Every song is a banger, no filler. But the incendiary nature of the band, under the watchful gaze of Malcolm McLaren, meant that it was always going to crash and burn. It was practically designed that way. The Pistols ceased to be in 1978, and that same year Public Image Ltd were born.

PiL were clearly Lydon's baby from the very beginning. The band has seen as much if not more chaos and carnage as the Pistols ever did, with band members coming and going fairly fluidly for a while, crowd riots, etc. But unlike the Pistols, Lydon has always been able to dictate the terms with PiL. He's the boss (and sole founding member). Only money, or a lack of, has held him back.

PiL play the Fonda in L.A. on Nov. 3 and the Observatory in Santa Ana the following night. They're touring in support of the documentary The Public Image Is Rotten and the accompanying Songs From the Heart box set. This is unusual for a man who has prided himself on looking forward  — wallowing in nostalgia for a period. But he's OK rustling through PiL's dirty laundry for a while.

"I don't think there's much dirty laundry there," Lydon says. "There was some dirty people I worked with but for a short, brief time in their lives we shone a spotlight on 'em and they glowed in the dark. Where the bad ones have moved off into, that's their world. But most people I think came out of PiL unscathed and if anything it helped them no end. It turned out to be something like a learning college, rather than a learning curve. All in all, looking back is not an unfavorable thing for me. There's a lot of painful things in anybody's history, and I had to endure an awful lot of nonsense from the record labels that were definitely stifling me. Being in control of the purse strings was murderously difficult to put up with."

Because of those financial constraints, Public Image fizzled out in the mid-'90s. The Pistols reunited for a few lucrative tours and Lydon recorded a solo album, which was promptly buried by the record label (something that stings him to this day). Weirdly, it was his appearance in U.K. commercials for Country Life butter that finally provided him with the income to pay off some debts and re-form PiL.

"I managed to crawl my way out, and then got condemned for selling out because, of all things nasty, I'm flogging butter," Lydon says. "Oh, for shame on me. A move that, by the way, increased the dairy industry in Britain by no end. I got enough to restart PIL, and that's why we are where we are today. None of this has been easy, and I don't moan about it. I just think, as an endurance course, that's a lot better than having to work in a factory. So hello, welcome to Happy John."

The Public Image Is Rotten, directed by Tabbert Fiiller, is a tremendous piece of work, covering PiL's existence from beginning to present. Pretty much every surviving former member is interviewed, and the history is presented warts and all. That said, even those ex-PiLs, who might have an issue or two with Rotten, come across as pragmatic and ultimately positive, as does Lydon. Despite all the chaos and upheaval, PiL are apparently a happy place in 2018, sans whitewash. Of course, the main man will still enjoy the odd dig.

"The documentary is great fun," Lydon says. "That's virtually an independent piece of work. We agreed to let them film us with some sense of control. There are bits of course that I would never allow — scenes of me sitting on the toilet with my willy dangling in a poo are definitely never going to air. But everything else — we invited everybody into it, and anybody that was ever there. If there is anybody missing and espousing their complaints about that, well, that's because you asked for too much and the filmmakers will tell you that. Everybody was given an open hand. Hello, detractors — where were you when it counted? 'Cos you certainly weren't there when I needed your financial and/or present support."

Lydon is smart enough to know that most of the problems that arose, and grudges that remain, stem from financial matters. Money has always been the greatest way to draw out a person's darkest side and divide.

"You think you know your friends but when it comes to, I've got no money, then fuck your friendship," Lydon says. "Well, who can blame them. The purse strings being manipulated by a record label is a dreadful thing. Dreadful. When you expect support, they least supply it, and it caused all manner of friction and fraction."

The current PiL lineup of Lydon, guitarist Lu Edmonds, drummer Bruce Smith and bassist/keyboardist Scott Firth has been together since 2009 — that's nine full years. Edmonds and Smith were in PiL in the mid-'80s prior to the breakup, while Firth is the newest member. That's a remarkable level of stability for this band.

"Everything in life is [stable], until you get it worked out," Lydon says. "We're working while we're touring, and doing all this promo stuff — we're actually working on a new album and that will be our third. That's an amazing achievement for PiL. Two albums together was an amazing achievement with the same members. How come we can do that on our own label and our own skin and our own efforts and our own earnings, but we could never manage that under the guidance, love and adoration of a record label? I'm finding the humor in it, always. This is the way the cards fall, this is the game you have to play, and you better have the patience to play it out for as long as you possibly can because you may just win. It's persistence that gets you through, and I think I've got plenty of that."

Lydon has been living in L.A. for decades now and became a U.S. citizen in 2013, stating that he had hope for the Affordable Care Act under the Obama administration. During the 2016 presidential election campaign, he said he couldn't see Trump winning because his base was hateful, and a minority. This is why fans are confused. Still, he does genuinely love this part of the country.

"California is an exotica," he says. "I think it's a rare gift. It's one of the most comfortable places I've ever been. I think the people are the most friendly, the least assuming, very outdoorsy and very outgoing. Generally less hang-ups than any other place. Less pretentious."

Public Image Ltd play a sold-out show at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 3, at the Fonda Theatre; and at 8 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 4, at the Observatory in Santa Ana.

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