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'Zeppelin? I Love 'Em': The Confessions Of John Lydon

Think you knew the man they once called Johnny Rotten? Think again.

On December 1, 1976, John Lydon – or Rotten, as he was then known – was instantaneously catapulted from metropolitan obscurity to national infamy just for uttering a single, mischievous profanity while appearing on a live, pre-watershed local television show.

Saying “shit” to Bill Grundy, as a 20-year old, defined the subsequent course of John Lydon’s life. Forever ‘Rotten’ in the mainstream consciousness, he has spent the better part of four decades endeavouring to cultivate a more accurate public image than that of a foul-mouthed yob, gobbing nihilism and casually breaking Britain while unapologetically saying the unsayable. 

The original Sex Pistols era took up less than 30 surly months of Lydon’s life yet still marks his every move. However much influence various incarnations of Public Image Ltd might exert, there’ll always be countless media hacks queuing up to goad John’s inner Rotten. But not this time. Lydon is in his adoptive home of Los Angeles, where he has lived with his wife, Nora, for more than 20 years. As he boils a kettle to make his morning tea (it whistles shrilly as he pads from couch to kitchen), he’s fully primed to promote the soon-to-come tenth PiL album, the modestly titled What The World Needs Now…

We begin where most Lydon biogs conclude: in the Pistols aftermath. As we wend our way through the late 70s and beyond, we drift back and forth into Lydon’s private psyche. There we find a driven soul, haunted by feelings of guilt since a childhood incident born of a four-year battle with meningitis; a tireless musical evangelist; a struggling stepfather who’s as baffled as the next man by the arcane processes essential to successful parenting; an early-to-bed, early-to-rise home bird, deeply in love with his wife, who laughs easily, adores Led Zeppelin and just happens to have once been Johnny Rotten.

The first thing you did on leaving the Sex Pistols at the beginning of 1978 was make an A&R trip to Jamaica, funded by the Pistols’ label, Virgin. How was that? Did it give you the headspace to formulate your next move, the total reinvention that was Public Image Ltd?

Well, it showed that Virgin had some good intent as a record label towards me. Although at the same time there was shenanigans going on behind the scenes with the others [ex-Pistols guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook] putting together a pile of tapes that they called The Professionals. It was presented to me when I came back from Jamaica, actually when I’d just started PiL, as: “Would you just put some voices over it? Put some words to this.” Very annoying. Me, well, I knew about reggae, it’s in my culture, and so any opportunity really for a bit of a holiday. It turned out to be fantastic. I brought [photographer] Dennis Morris and [DJ] Don Letts with me. We had a hoot, and indeed really helped form Front Line, Virgin’s reggae label. It was different times way back then to what it is now.

Were there any specific artists you were instrumental in getting signed to Front Line?

No, I didn’t actually, physically sit down with anyone. I just handed over an enormous list of recommendations. There was a lot of auditioning going on out there, [but] I kept away from that. I was just a magnet, but if anybody asked me about contracts, my clear-cut advice was: don’t do it.

You always had a broad palette of influences: Krautrock, Hawkwind, dub, Van der Graaf Generator, Captain Beefheart, even your parents’ record collection with their Celtic influence was in there somewhere. It wasn’t stuff from Top Of The Pops or even The Old Grey Whistle Test. Where were you finding all this?

Well, that would be there, and you’d see it, and know it was in existence, but for me, from quite an early age, record stores thrilled me, just like book stores did, and libraries. So whatever jobs I had I’d be saving up and rushing out in my spare time or at the weekends, Saturday afternoons usually, and just raid record stores. It was a very good hobby of mine and because I like art too, I was attracted to just the covers of records, many times. Things like [forgotten early 70s prog band] Paladin come to mind there. The man who did that artwork [Roger Dean] also did the Yes albums, but I knew them and friends had them and there was just no need for me to go off into that angle.

Did you have a group of friends that you could swap albums with?

Oh, you would never swap because you know someone would put a thumbprint on your vinyl and that’s how to lose a friend [laughs]. But you would share – you can’t do all this alone, it’s a group thing.

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