A brilliant interview where the PIL and Sex Pistols frontman opens up to explain his creative outlook and attitude to songwriting throughout his career.
The following piece is an extract from the superb book Isle of Noises by Daniel Rachel, a series of in-depth interviews with British musicians about their approach to songwriting. This is just half the Lydon interview and the remaining 3500 words are just as fascinating. You can click through and buy the book at the end of the article. It also features interviews with Noel Gallagher, Mick Jones, Madness, Paul Weller, Johnny Marr, Jarvis Cocker, Pet Shop Boys, Laura Marling, Ray Davies, Squeeze, Joan Armatrading and many more. The Lydon interview is fascinating as it comes minus the journalist baiting and attempts to offend people that he so often serves up and just gives a genuine insight into his music – James Brown
chips.’ He was really charming.
John Lydon “When I got kicked out of school I felt cheated so I wanted to get my A Levels. I worked on building sites and at play centres to raise the money. I don’t know if they’ve done me any good but I enjoyed the studying: World War Two history, and geography. Technical drawing was all right until it became too mathematical. That side of my brain doesn’t function too well since meningitis. That’s probably why I’m not instrument-attached; that side’s damaged forever. As soon as there’s any counting or four beats to the bar . . . fuck off, I’m in the bar. I call songwriting the lyrics themselves. I don’t write music. I don’t write musical notes but I can make a tune up. Usually when I put words together I have a melody in mind, but it’s not always the melody that ends up on vinyl because you’re sharing with other people and sometimes you alter your perception. As soon as a microphone is put in front of you it can change and shift and reshape itself. I hope my songs are accurate. I want them to be little details, slices of my life; to be genuine and truly felt; to represent all the emotions that I like every other human being go through: the things that make us vulnerable and strong. And that means really, really tearing yourself apart a fucking lot of time.
Daniel Rachel: And you’re always prepared to do that?
Oh yeah, ’cause it’s ultimately completely rewarding. I learnt at a very early age as a songwriter that the closer you get to your own problems and being able to express them on record, it’s so cleansing. You find that you’ve solved the very problem that was at the root core of something disturbing inside you – really brilliant. In a weird way it’s related to scream therapy. It’s all just dissipated in different directions. When psychologists get hold of a thing they tend to murder it.
Do you remember the first set of lyrics you wrote?
Yes, I do. It was a song called ‘Mandy’. It was about a girl I knew. It was really silly. There was blood on the carpet, blood on the stairs. Mandy I did it for you. It’s not about murder at all. We had a party round her house. Sid (Vicious) invited me. I got so sick on the punch; it was a mixture of Martini, Cinzano Bianco and red wine. I vomited everywhere, particularly the stairs, and bingo! I’ve lost the original song. We never even rehearsed it. The Pistols died of laughter.
Before you write words down will ideas be circulating in your mind?
Almost constantly, every waking minute of the day, and sometimes actually when I’m deep, darkest REM sleeping. My brain won’t stop working and rather than let it eat itself alive . . . I found writing helped me when I was younger. And then songwriting deﬁnitely helped me in the Sex Pistols. That was fantastic for me.
Helped you in what way?
I’d never tried singing. I’d avoided singing because I was frightened of being pushed into the school choir, which meant the priests had access to you. Un-singing went on in my mind. Then, joining the Pistols, not only have I got to ﬁnd my voice really bloody quickly – because I promised them the moon; I’d waxed lyrical about what great singing I could come up with – but I had to write songs too. I’d never thought of doing that before and I dived in. Lucky for me I learnt to swim very quickly. It’s always running in the head. ‘God Save The Queen’ was running around in my mind for months, long before joining the Sex Pistols; the idea of being angry, of the indifference of the Queen to the population and the aloofness and indifference to us as people. I had to work on building sites to get the money to go to college because I wanted to further my education and yet I was taxed to fuck. Why am I paying for that silly cow who couldn’t give a shit about me? Along come the Pistols and just one morning over baked beans I wrote it down in one go on Mum and Dad’s kitchen table. A couple of lines were altered later because they just seemed a bit silly and inappropriate. I had lines in there about Persil and Omo washing-up liquid. I can’t understand now what the connection was. I remember removing them when we did a rough demo. It’s the way I write: I’ll spend weeks, months, years, sometimes decades, juxtapositioning a thing in my head and usually when it comes down to writing, it comes down in one fell swoop. It’s really good. Something happens up there that I’m not quite aware of and I don’t want to discuss too much because if I ever ﬁnd out what the process is that knowledge might ruin it.
I loved making the Flowers of Romance album. I’d just got out of jail in Mountjoy in Ireland for attacking two policemen’s ﬁsts with my face.
What is the process of editing or condensing the outpouring of ideas?
Too many words. It can be a problem. Other subject matters require an intense verbal assault. Some of the songs I’ve written have so many words it’s almost unbearable. ‘No Feelings’, for instance: I think it’s sixteen to eighteen lines where I don’t take a breath. Now, live, that’s tempting fate. But I managed to do it. I found the knack. And even when we were recording it I thought, ‘I’ll never be able to sing this live.’ I love pushing those boundaries. You can’t cut up a verse like that because it would become out of context. It’s the monologue that’s necessary to paint the proper picture of someone in a state of babbling confusion. The song is from the idea of someone being completely selﬁsh, which I’m not. I like to imagine being in that frame of mind. I’m insulting myself really. That happens a lot.
You strike me as an educated person, with a lot of intelligence.
I’m an avid reader. I like to analyse other people’s thoughts. You can learn a great deal from books, but not everything. The best conversations you can ever have are with drunks in a pub.
Where there’s no barrier to thought.
Yeah. When people are quite literally telling you what is what. Fascinating. I love the atmosphere of pubs; everybody loosens up. You really get to grips with things.
I read that when you were ﬁrst in the Pistols a lack of confidence prevented you presenting your lyrics. Is that still the case?
Oh, yeah. Ha, ha, ha, yeah. Ask the band. They have to ﬁght to snatch them off me. I’m getting over that in the last few years. It’s like this: when I try to just show the written word, the message isn’t there without the voice. So the bigger picture isn’t grasped. I use the line in ‘Rise’ the written word is a lie, because it generally is without the human tone on it; the double entendres just by inﬂections; the irony just by a mannerism in a tone is vital to the bigger picture. I mean every word. There is absolutely no loose dialogue in any song I ever put together. There are so many bands that quite happily brag that their words are meaningless and think that’s an achievement. I ﬁnd that remarkably disappointing. If that part of the human condition is meaningless, what’s the point in padding notes around it? If it starts from nowhere, it’s got nowhere to go.
Do you need certain conditions to write, silence for example?
Yeah, but then again I have written songs on crowded subways. The ideal framework would be absolute dead silence, but after twenty minutes (laughs) the TV has to go on. Sometimes I like masses of distortion cluttering up my brain and sift through that. Everything can be an influence. Children don’t bother me at all, screaming and running around. One of my favourite jobs was looking after children, before the Pistols. It was the greatest job. Some of them were really problem kids that needed careful attention. They were never a problem with me. Loved, loved making balsa wood aeroplanes and ships with them and things. I’ve still got a Lego set. I can pull it out and I love playing with it, with anybody.
There is poignant footage of you on Christmas Day 1977 serving cake to the kids of striking miners and firefighters inHuddersfield, and them chucking it back in your face.
Fantastic. The ultimate reward. One of my all-time favourite gigs. Young kids, and we’re doing ‘Bodies’ and they’re bursting out with laughter on the fuck this fuck thatverse. The correct response: not the shock-horror, ‘How dare you?’ Adults bring their own ﬁlthy minds into a thing. They don’t quite perceive it as a child does. Oh, Johnny’s used a naughty word. ‘Bodies’ was from two different points of view. You’ll find that theme runs through a lot of things I write like ‘Rise’ – I could be wrong, I could be right. I’m considering both sides of the argument, always.
Did some lines from ‘Rise’ come from South African torture victims: They put a hot wire to my head / Cos of the things I did and said?
Yes, and that whole nonsense that was going on out there, but it’s applicable to many situations.
You once described yourself as a noise structuralist.
I think I was trying to be clever. I know exactly what I meant. It’s the same dilemma I faced when I ﬁrst got my passport. It came to that problem of ‘occupation’. I could not think what to call myself. We ended up with entertainer.
Are you an entertainer?
Yeah, I think so. I thought long and hard about it and I never liked it. I do now. I think that’s very appropriate. I’m many things: I can be quite severe and brutal in language because the songs require that sometimes; other times I’m closer to Les Dawson. I recommend the whole world hears Les Dawson sing ‘Feelings’. It’s one of the funniest things you’ll ever hear; the sheer wit and destruction of that song. To this day, wherever we tour if there’s a piano bar in the hotel and a pianist singing I’ll run up and quite happily deposit any money they require as long as they do a version of ‘Feelings’.
When you’re writing do you think, this could be a verse, this could be a chorus, perhaps a middle eight?
Sometimes yeah, sometimes no. I loved making the Flowers of Romance album. I’d just got out of jail in Mountjoy in Ireland for attacking two policemen’s ﬁsts with my face. I had no band. Keith Levene was having his mental anxiety problems. You could politely call it a chemical imbalance. Martin (Atkins) the drummer was going off to tour. I got him to put down some rough drumming patterns and then started splicing them up and came up with ‘Four Enclosed Walls’, which is a song I love. Love what it does to people. It really, really, really pushes some boundaries and it shouldn’t. That’s the joy of that song. It’s quite innocent. It manages to offend. Why? – because I sing Allah. That infuriates a lot of people. Clearly where it was the most understood, so far in any time when I’ve ever played it, was in Israel last year: 6,000 Jews singing Allah in Tel Aviv. I thought that did more for world peace than any of them arsehole demonstrators.
Can you remember writing ‘This Is Not A Love Song’?
That came in bits and drabs and pieces. It was odd that Paul McCartney a year later came out with ‘This Is a Love Song’ (laughs).
My mum had tuberculosis when she was eight and missed a year at school. She always felt she had to prove herself because she was behind; the stupid girl at the back of the class.
That’s exactly what happened to me. I missed a year at school. Dummy-Dumb-Dumb was my nickname. And that was given to me by a nun.
Thank you very much.
Thank you very much. But look what it did. It made me strive harder to achieve. I didn’t want to be like Dummy-Dumb-Dumb. The irony being that I could read and write at four. My mum would always put books in front of me. I loved drawing. I loved the shapes of letters and that naturally led to, ‘What’s that, Mum?’ ‘How does that work with that, Mum?’ And she would answer every question. Imagine losing all of that and then it coming back to you later. It breaks your heart. Breaks your heart. The point I’m trying to make, before we drift here, is that starting school at ﬁve and already being able to read and write, so therefore way ahead of any other kid in the class, was really uncomfortable. The nuns didn’t like that because on top of that I was left-handed and that was the sign of the Devil to the Catholic Church. Then at seven: meningitis; gone for a year. Back at eight and I don’t know nothing. And still not liked by the nuns: vicious cows they are. I have no resentment to them because I’ve never written a song about them.
Why, because it would be deep down in you . . . ?
No, it would be right here, straight away.
So why haven’t you done it?
Because I don’t feel any resentment to them.
Do you have to write with resentment?
No, if it was about them I would think so, but I don’t actually resent them at all. I’m kind of like thankful; their nastiness actually helped me achieve something. Priests, on the other hand: now that’s a different problem. A nun hating you is water off a duck’s back. Brides of Christ, as they used to call themselves. Who else would have them?
As a songwriter I was once interviewed about the greatest song ever written. I chose ‘Anarchy in the UK’ . . .
I would have said Johnny Cash, ‘A Boy Named Sue’, a very challenging song.
What were you trying to achieve with ‘Anarchy’?
Oh, probably going for shock value. I don’t know right off the top of my head. I’ve never really thought about it. I took great delight driving Glen Matlock crazy. He was just ferociously angry about the rhyme in it: I am an Antichrist / I am an anarchist. ‘You can’t do that.’ So in the Pistols that was exactly what I went away and did. And for me it makes my part in the Pistols. I probably wrote it in the rehearsal studio. Trying to get in there and have my space in things. It was very, very difﬁcult; they’d all known each other. They all hung around with each other. They didn’t want to know me too much. It was, ‘Just put some words to it.’
So it was a reaction to the music?
Yeah, completely, and generally speaking to Steve’s guitar, which I loved. I couldn’t understand him wanting to give up all the time, saying he couldn’t play. It was the greatest sound I ever heard. The New York Dolls was a band that couldn’t play, but what a wonderful racket. You don’t need to be able to play perfectly. Sometimes not being able to play at all can be a good thing too.
When you’re angry or against something the pen might flow more easily.
Angry is a complete energy. And it’s wonderful. It really is. I recommend it. But don’t let it turn to violence. Find an outlet for it and it can be amazingly rewarding. It’s a very useful tool. I don’t know if it’s the driving force in me. I would say completely not. There’s many tools out there: all the human emotions. I get angry when I see people oppressed, the disenfranchised. I’m constantly churning up emotions for that. My enemy will always be all political systems. All of them. I support no government or politician anywhere, ever.
You have a very distinctive approach to melody?
It might be brain damage from meningitis. It’s possible. I’ve not come across anyone who really thinks about it the way I do and I’m really pleased about that. It’s so disorganized. It doesn’t follow what any other person would call logic. When I talk to other people that sing and write songs they have all their own quirks too and it’s fascinating. But ultimately it’s like . . . if I overanalyse that I might kill it. I might destroy the gift. So I don’t want to go there. Once you know exactly how you’re doing something then you don’t want to do it any more.
I’m surprised more people haven’t said that to me.
Sometimes I feel there are not enough words in the world to describe things, and other times when I hear intellectuals I think those cunts have got far too many.
I’m often shocked by what you’re prepared to write about because in many respects you delve very deep inside yourself. Not many writers reveal that pain.
Hardly. Maybe when I was young and I repressed all my emotions; that was the pain. This isn’t pain now. This is joy. Really. The deepest, darkest hurt and sadness is, oddly enough, in its weird way, proof of your existence, and that’s not a bad thing. It doesn’t require much. That’s what they’re all doing: I think I’ll go this way. That’s being flippant, I know.
Your guitarist Lu wrote with Kirsty MacColl, but there are few female British writers with notable success . . .
She’d be one of them. Kate Bush. Maddy Prior, she’s more a beautiful singer. There’s quite a few.
There are few that have achieved the accolades that men do in this country.
Well, they did in punk, and punk did a wonderful thing that it levelled the playing ﬁeld for women and bands competing. They weren’t viewed as just silly girls all wearing matching outﬁts with bouffants. They took the boys on and many a time beat them. There were some fantastic bands. The Raincoats, X-Ray Spex. Poly Styrene wrote some great lyrics in a really exciting pop way. ‘Oh Bondage Up Yours!’ was hilarious and deeply sympathetic about a subject that was really quite perverse. She did good. I wouldn’t say the Banshees were much cop. They just tended to wait for the newest Stephen King novel.
Was there a point from the unknown to the known John Lydon that affected your writing?
It’s a tough thing to become instantly Britain’s most unpopular, popular person. That’s a tough one to try and wriggle out of. You could so easily fall into being a cliché of yourself. There are many people that would love to think that’s what happened, but it didn’t. But of course the thoughts are there. I’m always riddled with self-doubt. I’m very far from arrogant. That’s a word that’s wrongly been placed on me; fear and loathing of myself really, and self-doubt and a huge lack of faith in my own capabilities. These are constant problems.
What does the name Johnny Rotten mean to you?
It was a nickname given to me by Steve Jones. I thought it was hilarious. It was because of my teeth.
Whose opinion do you seek/accept when you’ve finished a song?
Absolutely no one’s. It’s nice if somebody likes it but if they don’t I’m fucking more than determined. Of course I listen, but ultimately the challenge is mine. If others around me think a thing that I’m doing should be something else, they’re more than welcome to go and do their something else. It has to be because it’s from in here. I can’t give my vision of things too well if it’s from somebody else’s point of view, although I can shape-shift. I can imagine myself inside somebody else’s psyche, but not if they’re asking me to do that. I can invent characters. ‘Pretty Vacant’, that’s an invention of a song. I’m inventing a character that’s trying to explain himself. It’s from a yobbo point of view. I’m not a yobbo, but I can be.
How far do you step into that character idea?
Quite a lot. It’s not theatrical but it’s deﬁnitely kind of theatre, but it’s real. I know the framework and the mindset of each song. I want to absolutely portray it accurately. I don’t have much of a problem doing that. The words lead me quite brilliantly back to where I came from when I ﬁrst wrote the thing. ‘Pretty Vacant’ was a generalization. I suppose I was imagining myself as a Slade character, Noddy Holder – serious. That’s how I viewed the song: we’re so pretty.
It’s astonishing ‘Pretty Vacant’ escaped the censors.
Va-cunt: yes, I got away with it holding the pause, but the BBC aired it. There was a debate about it. There was a second’s delay. They very rarely let me go out live. It’s not because I might use naughty words, the F’s and C’s which I think are valid: it’s the content of what I have to say. It’s too disturbing. And it should be. You should make people aware. You should wake people up and give them the freedom of thought. You grab the moment and you turn it into a mad opera and everybody goes home laughing. There’s no spite or victimization in what I do at all, unless you’re a government figure.
When you’re reading, opening yourself to literature, ﬁlms, does your mind become a songwriter?
Not deliberately, no, but when I come across an excellent point of view the brain goes, Bing! I can use that message in my own life. If it contradicts a thought in myself then I’m more than happy to change for that because that’s the better way. You have to be able to change all the way through life. The things you thought at seventeen were very appropriate for you then but not at fifty-ﬁve years young, because the world has changed. As in ‘This Is Not a Love Song’: I’m adaptable and I like my new role.
Has living in Los Angeles altered your writing?
It’s the same head looking at different things. I love the landscape of America and I like Americans. I ﬁnd them very open and friendly, less analytical and spiteful. Here you have to be on your guard all the time; you can’t let it down. It’s too tensile here. You feel stretched all the time. And that’s me! Bye-bye.