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The PV Q&A: PiL's John Lydon on Punks, Censorship, and Why There's Still Hope for the Future

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Interview by Tom Lanham

It may have been two ponderous decades since the last release from his experimental, post-Sex Pistols outfit Public Image Limited, but bandleader John Lydon hasn’t mellowed much; he’s still the same irascible, curmudgeonly misanthrope he’s always been. The only difference? 2012 affords the LA based artist much more to rail against, like the Republican party, organized religion, TV censorship, and even “American Idol,” which ruffled his feathers by requesting permission to incorporate the Pistols' classic “Pretty Vacant” into an episode. Even “Celebrity Apprentice” host Donald Trump gets strafed. In Lydon’s eyes, he’s “a moron — all he knows is how to pinch money off people – he’s wrapped up in vanity.”

Naturally, the singer and his latest PiL ensemble (guitarist Lu Edmonds, bassist Scott Firth, drummer Bruce Smith) open their new self-produced This is PiL comeback (released on their own PiL Official imprint) with a swaggering manifesto of a title track (telling listeners how lucky they are to be hearing it), and then segue straight into the thumping “One Drop,” an examination of today’s disenfranchised British youth that begins with a defiant declaration: “I am John, I was born in London/ I am no vulture, this is my culture.” Lydon’s surly sneer also remains intact through more textural soundscapes like “It Said That” and a spoken-word “The Room I Am In.” The album's epic nine-minute plus closing track "Out of the Woods" — written about Stonewall Jackson, a Confederate general during the American Civil War  — is scheduled to be released on October 1 as a double A-side single with "Reggie Song" and several live tracks from 2010. You can stream "Out of the Woods" above and pre-order the limited -edition double pack vinyl and CD editions now. The band is also set to kick off their first tour of the US since their 2010 reunion trek, starting October 3 in Orlando, Florida and ending at the Fun Fun Fest in Austin, Texas on November 3. Check out their full tour schedule here.

Ready to hear his bugaboo litany? Read on...

PureVolume: You did the surreal cover painting for This is PiL, but you never went to art school — like some punks. How did you get into art?
John Lydon: As far as I’m concerned, punk rock begins in England, and it’s from working-class people who came from working-class council estates. We were all extremely poor, we had no opportunities to do anything, so we created our own universe. Of course, there was the American [punk] scene, which was more artier and also a lot older. But I’ve never seen a connection between us and New York at all. But for me, art has always been there since a childhood illness. It was one of the things that helped me recover from memory loss — learning to paint and to use colors to express my emotions. I’d lost my memory and it took something like four years to recover. And in that time, reading, writing and painting were the three things that I used as therapy.
PV: What did you paint back then?
JL: I wanted to try and be realistic. I went to the local library after school and they would show us the fun of colors, and these things I’ve carried through to the rest of my life — and to great effect, I must say. So I’ve always painted. What I love to do most is cartoons. I put a book out last year, and we only printed 700 copies and each one was personalized. And in it, I tried to explain my early childhood leading up to where I am currently. It was for the fans only — a very limited thing.
PV: Didn’t it cost $595 or something, retail?
JL: Yep. And that’s exactly what it cost to make. It was a hard piece of work and a great deal of labor went into it. And I used nothing but quality products.
PV: Your This is... painting features a green bison, segmented like an insect with thorax and abdomen, leaping over a PiL globe. What does it signify?
JL: Freedom! That no animal should be constrained or bound in a zoo. The only way you should ever see any wildlife is in the wild. There’s two paintings in there — I also used a crappy old Dell computer and I painted the Cotswolds using that laptop’s general art board. Because we were in the Cotswolds — that’s where we recorded the album (Wincraft Studios in the English countryside). I wanted to represent the landscape, so you’d understand where this album was put together. It’s a very scenic part of Britain, the Cotswolds, an odd place, you would think, for us to go and put together a record. But we loved it because it was so different. We were bored with inner cities, you know? So we were out in sheep country, surrounded by something like 20,000 sheep, so the only influence on us was ‘Ma-a-a-a!’ But one thing led to another, and we came up with 12 songs on this album that I’m totally proud of. And at the same time, we were formulating our own record label, trying to organize all this into something economically viable. There’s been some serious hard work. The last three years have been relentless. We’re outside of the industry, so it’s very difficult to find promoters to work with us because we’re not large rental-company-backed. So everything has to go through a very difficult route. We’re trying to earn the faith and respect of the industry, which you would think I would have automatically. But believe me, no. They’re still as suspicious as hell of me.
 


PV: In some ways, British youth today has been catapulted right back to the repressive, on-the-dole Thatcher years. And tuition has been jacked up so high, kids can no longer afford to go to college.
JL: Yeah. And now they’re being stomped in the streets by baton-wielding policemen. It's so easy to blame the youth for the troubles in Britain, when it’s the adults who created the problem. If you don’t give your generation something to do, they’re going to find. Something. To do. You know? But as a band, what we do is, we sit and we talk a lot, and we analyze everything and anything. And if it’s worthy, somehow or another that will creep into a song format.
PV: But you were at the Olympics opening ceremony this year, at least in spirit, right?
JL: I worked closely with Mr. Boyle, the man who put together the opening ceremony, because he’s somebody I really respect. And he wanted to celebrate the National Health System, which is an intrinsic, beautiful British concept, regardless of how many Republicans view it as communism. My attitude in life is, if you can’t offer a helping hand to the rest of your fellow citizens, then it’s you that should leave the country, not them. Generosity is a very fine thing, and greed and selfishness — as portrayed by the right-wing evangelists — is not Godlike. So I get involved with this, and we use – of course — a refrain from (Pistols hit) “God Save The Queen,” which the Queen herself has to listen to. The whole royal family in the auditorium were sitting down, and then had to listen to a minute and twenty seconds of “Pretty Vacant” — it was the most fantastic thing! But apparently, American TV edited that out, and that is astounding. You don’t allow TV executives to cast aspersions or views on another country’s aspirations — that’s a really dangerous world we’re creating here. They were trying to manipulate foreign perspectives and that’s corrupt. Danny Boyle represented Britain as it should be, with a proper inclusion of the working class point of view, which for way too long now has been ignored. And to censor that out? I’m sorry, but the Sex Pistols were a vital part of British culture. And if the royal family can sit through and watch it, you’re telling me America isn’t yet ready? Wow.
PV: Do you have hope for the future?
JL: Yes! Yes, because I’m part of it. I’m not gonna let the powers-that-be steal all this from us. I want us to get back into the Garden of Eden and not be told that we don’t belong there anymore. Because religion is in the power of the money people, and they’re lying to us. The religions they present to us are all lies, so we must learn to live without them. Beyond them. That’s why my album ends with “Out of the Woods” — I use a war scenario to explain how you can defeat overwhelming odds. Not necessarily by murder or guns and bullets, but mentally. Mentally, you can overwhelm them, because they’re not as smart as us. So let’s start chipping away at the foundations. Let’s bring down Babylon.
 


 
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