THE PV Q&A: John Lydon on 'Mr. Rotten’s Songbook,' the End of the Sex Pistols, and Modern Music

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By Josh Chesler

John Lydon (perhaps better known as the Sex Pistols’ Johnny Rotten) has written exactly 127 songs for the Pistols and Public Image Ltd. over the last four decades. How does he know the exact number? Well, because he recently had to compile every lyric he’d ever penned — all into one 300-page document.

After adding some drawings and personal commentary, Lydon’s releasing the massive collection as Mr. Rotten’s Songbook, a huge collector’s item limited to 1,000 hand-signed copies. Before (or after) you go pre-order the book, we chatted with Mr. Rotten himself about the story behind the book, the state of the music world today, and his involuntary switch from the Sex Pistols to PiL.

PUREVOLUME: After 40 years, how did you decide it was time to put all of your lyrics together in a book?
John Lydon: We wanted to tour China, so we made a proposal there and then the Chinese government interjected and insisted they wanted to see every song and every lyric I ever wrote. I had to compile all of that together, and it was the first time in my life that it ever occurred to me to do that. So we did it, and they approved. That raised the eye of discontent in me somehow, because I thought “My God, a government’s approved of me,” and it’s the Chinese one!

We went and did the tour, and then since I had all of the songs together, I started looking at it and doing drawings as I remembered the times when I was originally writing them. It went from there, and it took quite some time to put together. It was an awful lot of work for all of us involved, and we’re all drained from it. It’s a hard thing to do well, and we wanted it to be worthy of the cause. We limited the amount and upped the quality on each one.
PV: How different is it to see your lyrics written out on paper as opposed to performing them live?
JL: They’re always written out to have noise, tones, and chaos — an audio tapestry, as I like to call it. They work best that way. But written out with a drawing is like another way of coming at them, so that’s quite good for me. I don’t usually share the drawing side of me with anybody. It’s something I’ve always done, but kept a secret. I’ve always done the artwork for records for PiL, but that’s quite different. This is like exposing yourself, and I like it. I think I’m going to become a nudist. Get your laughing cap on!
PV: How do you feel you’ve changed both as a person and as a musician since the world knew you as the young frontman of the Sex Pistols?
JL: I know many singers, guitarists, and other people in bands who say “Oh my god, the looks are the first thing to go.” That’s just ludicrous. I always viewed myself as an ugly bit of a monster, so I think, like a fine wine, I’ve improved with age. You can see the vulnerabilities in yourself when you look back. It’s a frightening thing, but it’s really rewarding. Over time, you make up for that and improve that side of your character, so I’m happy about that. I’ve had to do that all my life. When I was young and lost my memory, that was terrible. I was looking at myself from the outside in and guessing at what I was really like. Then I realized what I was looking at in the end was alright after all. That’s what adulthood is. All these years later, I still think of myself as a child just doing the same stuff.
PV: As someone who was around damn near the beginning, what do you think of punk music these days?
JL: Every generation deserves its own theme, and I don’t like to see the idea of punk turning into a manifesto and a dictatorial attitude with it of all punks must adhere to this rigid uniform. That I find disgusting and disgraceful. The whole idea of what we did right from the start was “Do it yourself, because no one else is going to do it for you.” There it is, that was it.

Am I confronted with a modernized version of me? Well, Green Day, but they’re such a cop out band anyway. It’s really really dull to hear them pretend to be something they’re not. There’s no need for it, because they have a perfect voice for themselves. They should wave that flag. I’m John, and I’ve always done it my way. If you don’t like that, well then you obviously don’t understand punk.

PV: What was it like to switch from the Sex Pistols to Public Image Ltd.?
JL: It was horrible because the Pistols shouldn’t have fallen apart. It was obvious with the way it was doing that it had to, and I had to make the decision to move on. I didn’t do that willingly or flippantly. It was deeply hurtful. I started up PIL, and we had basically the same values and principles, but now I have a different area to explore. It was the area of the Pistols becoming a kind of entrapment for me because we were getting pushed into being pop stars, which I did not want. I decided PIL would be much more closed down, and its public image would be very limited and not bombasted all over the usual crap music papers. That way, we could be true and genuine in what we were doing, which was trying to research human emotions and find out who and what we really are — and not putting forward images before content.
PV: How have you seen the music industry change over the decades?
JL: There doesn’t seem to be [a music industry] anymore, starting with the lack of record stores. Those are heaven for me. It’s what it was like when I was young. I can’t understand why a whole generation just so happily gave that up. It’s very sad. Record stores when I was young were great places. They were meeting places. You’d meet others with like-minded interests, or others even with completely opposing points of view. It was great to argue over what was on a vinyl. It was the best conversation you could have, and I loved it. I’m sad that it’s now viewed as old-fashioned. It shouldn’t be “fashioned” at all, because it’s not a fashion, it’s quality.

Look at the sound quality drop. What is the point of that? It’s like a picture postcard of “Wish you were here” without the real holiday experience. Don’t you just hate those postcards? That’s internet music. I have to make compromises to myself, and the occasional CD will slip into my files, but I do love my records. I’ve bought so much now that I’ve actually caused structural damage to my house in London. It’s like the weight of a baby elephant, so the ceiling is starting to bend and I have to move things around.

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