John Lydon: ‘An anarchist? I never was. Whoever told you that?’
The PiL frontman on Hampstead squatting, vampire hunting and that Question Time appearance
I meet John Lydon in a Kensington pub, tucked away in the beer garden, behind an army of suited lunchtime drinkers. I don’t expect to find him in this part of the world, so I tell him as much. “I will not be marginalised in this country. We can go wherever we like,” he says, smoking a Marlboro Red. “I live where my work takes me. I set up camp wherever I am and I’ll make well with the locals. I like that. That’s my way.”
Lydon has recently been on Question Time, where, sat next to Conservative MP Louise Mensch, he discussed all manner of political hot potatoes. How did he find it? Well, he liked David Dimbleby but the politicians didn’t surprise him. “I’m sitting next to a Conservative lady and she’s like presuming and said to me, whispered to me, ‘I thought you were on my side’, because there’s some music business connection. She was alright, but she made an assumption there, presuming just because I’m in a band and I want to make music that I wanna hide my money abroad and not pay a fair whack of tax. I’m a national health service person me.”
Lydon may be an NHS man, he’s also the man who by his own admission had an Israeli audience chanting Allah in Tel Aviv (a refrain in one of his songs), he’s the guy off the butter adverts, the petulant contestant on TV jungle reality show and, of course, Britain’s favourite anarchist – although even that is up for debate over a pint. “I’m the same as I ever was.” But you’re not an anarchist anymore? “I never was. Whoever told you that? Anarchy is mind games for the middle class.” But didn’t you have a song that said: “I am an anarchist?” “I also had a song that said Pretty Vacant. I’m not pretty and I’m not vacant.” It may come as a surprise to some that he watched the Jubilee on television and isn’t waiting for Margaret Thatcher to die. “It’s vicious, can’t these people offer anything better than that? No- one is the enemy, none of us is the enemy.”
He’s currently touring with his band PiL, formed after the Sex Pistols disbanded. The band announced a comeback in 2009 and their first performances for 17 years. Lydon spent some of the break doing TV, including the butter adverts he was berated for, to finance the band’s first studio album in 20 years: This is PiL. It was recorded in the Cotswolds, at a friend’s studio. “We played in the open air with the wind blowing through.” Did that not spoil the recording? “No, it absolutely added to it.”
The whole project is being managed by the band and their team, in a small company they have formed. “We despise, hate and can’t tolerate any longer the shenanigans of the record industry. It’s a very difficult thing. For two decades I couldn’t make any music because they wouldn’t release me from the contracts. So I had to play a waiting game – I’m lucky to have any career at all. They wouldn’t let me go and they wouldn’t let the debt go either. That’s still there and I’m still having to pay off that. But they wouldn’t release any records so I couldn’t make any inroads on the debt. It’s a trap and I’m not the only one. There’s many people out there. This is why when you hear of longer standing bands from decades ago reforming. I understand that’s them trying to take back their careers and their lives that have been stolen from them by record labels.”
The album is Lydon back at his old protest song roots. His songs are “always about something meaningful,” he says, citing the Sex Pistols’ Bodies, which is famously about a woman’s right to abortion. “When I was younger, we didn’t have an indoor toilet. My dad worked away on cranes and the oil rigs sometimes and I remember delivering two afterbirths in buckets in the outside toilet. It was par for the course then, a full on neighbourhood experience. It stays with you. So when I write a song like Bodies that’s about something serious.”
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Nothing is out of bounds for Lydon. He recalls the early Pistol years when he would squat in Hampstead, behind the station. “Oh lovely. Squats we have loved,” he laughs. “I had to squat for a long period. Me and Sid, we found this wonderful old block of flats and all manner of people in that period. We were in run-down old derelict buildings really that were viewed by the council as unliveable and they put boards up. But, hello, we had nowhere to live so what we would do was move in and clean the place up and sort out the plumbing and make the toilets work and the council would then come in and take it off you and rent it out.
“It’s a different world now. It’s a lot of upper class toffy kids practising at being slummy. Having a bit of rough. This was a necessity. I couldn’t live at home at that point. I didn’t have any money and yet I was in a band that was notorious. I had to find some hole to crawl into at night – poor old little ratty. So Hampstead, that was where we squatted, we covered the area well. We were just behind the tube station there for about two years.”
“I like the pubs round there too. I ran into many of the Monty Python lot, who were borderline insane, but great fun. And people like Peter Cook, who I really, really respect. Although that was not my class or upbringing, I found that we could get on well with each other. If you are honest about what it is you are in life you will find that you can form very good friendships with all manner of people.”
They also used to go vampire hunting in Highgate cemetery. “There was books out saying a vampire rested there. What a thrill to a young lad. So we go in there with stakes and hammers and you would hear all this rustling and it would be another bunch of vampire hunters.” He laughs before playing with a spot on his face. “I like festering them,” he says. “Sid was fantastic for that. It was his favourite hobby. In fact, his only hobby. Big volcanoes and build up til the final yellowhead eruption in the mirror,” he laughs. “Oh I miss my friend. Stupid rock deaths, too many of them. They don’t understand that drugs are for fun and recreation and you should never take a daily dose.”
At 56 years young (as he puts it), he’s lost a few of those close to him too early. Still, his life goes on, being Johnny on TV, Johnny in the pub, recording in a field in the Cotswolds or performing among the egos of the music crowd. “At festivals, if you have seven acts, it is like the seven deadly sins backstage, all the egos.” He still likes a party, having even got “blindingly drunk” just last night. Will he ever give up and retire? “I’ll work until I’m 100 and think about it. I love what I do and I don’t want to stop.”
PiL will perform their only London date at the Kentish Town Forum on Saturday August 11. 0843 221 0100