Interview with John Lydon : "Nobody does decadence quite like Berliners"

He created punk with The Sex Pistols, produced avantgarde hits with PiL and has just written his biography. John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, talks about being in Berlin with Sid Vicious, why we should welcome refugees and how making music is all about the audience.

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English Singer John Lydon on stage.
English Singer John Lydon on stage.Foto: picture-alliance/ dpa

In your book "Anger is an Energy" you mention being in Berlin when you were in the Sex Pistols. You said you escaped from London to Berlin and that you loved it back then. Do you still?

It's a little different now, but in them early days, for me, it was madly exciting. It was 24 hours of non-stop clubs and fun. It was like an adventure playground and, deliberately sponsored by American money, I suppose, to annoy the Russians. [laughs] It was very, very, very, very much fun and well, me and Sid [Vicious], we spent a couple of weeks there 'cause the pressure of the Pistols and it was glorious, utterly fantastic. Nobody does decadence quite like Berliners.

So, you are going to be here again playing with PiL and promoting your new album "What The World Needs Now". It has an extraordinary range of sounds and your voice sounds fragile, in pain and angry. Why?

When I'm trying to express emotions that I genuinely feel, I let it rip from the heart... But I would view this album as "Johnny Romantico". [chuckle] If you've had a career that spans well over 30 years, you're going to have to open up and reveal some inner darker secrets.

So you will be performing some of the record. Do you have a preference between recording and performing. If you had to chose between them what would you side with?

I think they're both the same. We love performing live, but the money we make from that goes into the next album. We know when we're writing songs that we tend to record in a very live format because there's always the idea that this is gonna be played live and so I suppose, ultimately, it is all about live. Yes, performance. And the idea that songs, once they hit stage, can shape shift.

So an audience is important to you?

Vital, vital, vital. That's the power. You feel the energy and you operate accordingly. We're not a wedding band. We don't do requests. [laughs] But we can be finely attuned to the empathy of an audience. And I think we're well respected for that. The PiL audience is a wonderful, wonderful juxtaposition of different cultural events in people and age groups, race, creeds, and colours, as it should be. We leave violence and animosity outside. That's what the rest of the world is getting up to. In our hallowed halls, none of that, thank you. No need. We're here to make friends... and influence people! [chuckle]

What would you say is influencing the sound PiL is making today?

We're exploring emotions, and these acquire these kind of tapestries that complement the lyrics as much as the lyrics complement the sounds. One can't work without the other. It's a really, really fine network there that we've created amongst ourselves.

Your early PiL work was unusual and subversive yet was featured on mainstream TV. Nowadays we don’t seem to have that mix, but instead have a bland broad mainstream.  Do you think we are poorer for that?

The music industry has collapsed in on itself because of that requirement for blandness, which was led, really, by accounting departments. Now it's all about making the money when every record label ever always begun with the idea that it's all about making the music. It's like the rise and fall of the Roman empire. As soon as you go for the money, you've lost all those other wonderful, creative avenues. The two don't tally well and so there it is. I've been as honest and as open and true as I possibly can be and I'm still here to this day because I've avoided the machinery. I'm not often respected for that either. It's an odd thing, but it doesn't matter. It might be a narrower audience or band of people listening, but they listen with a greater intent and they take something from it and bands that are influenced by us are great bands, indeed.

Anger, you say, is an energy you’ve used in your life. So what, if anything, makes you angry now?

The idea of people not being given a fair opportunity, which indeed I don't think I was when I was young. You were just cast aside as, "Oh, you're one of those." You're born on the wrong side of the tracks. I like equal opportunity and education for all. And I've always had this attitude, that a society that's incapable of looking out for its sick, wounded, and unemployed, is no society that I want to be a part of. [A boiling kettle whistles in the backgound] Hold on one second...I'm having the inevitable English cup of tea. [laughter] Some traditions should never be abandoned!

You have Irish roots, but your voice, your expression is so utterly English...

 Well, it's just "Hello, welcome immigrants!" because what you get is the benefit of both worlds. Without the English influence in my life, I would be half the person I am today. England has always been made up of all different things. It always has been and always will be and every country in the world knows that. You have to bring in new bloods. Or you go the way of the Egyptians or indeed our current Royal Family inbreeds...[chuckle] Fascinating to watch, but is it worth the money?

In your book, you look back at your life in London in the 1970s. When I was last in London, I visited the place where you lived as a child and it’s been knocked down and Arsenal Football Club’s Emirates Stadium now stands on top of it.

 It's hilarious! I mean, my father raised us to support our local team! What do I think of that new stadium? Well, it's an eyesore. It's closed its options down to the local community. You can't afford those ticket prices. And that's a great loss for the sport...

 You're nearly 60. What words of wisdom would you pass on?

I think the exact opposite of "Hope I die before I get old." It's absolutely contradictory to my way of life. When I'm a 100 and arthritis kicks in, then maybe I might relax a bit, but as long as the brain's working...I'll put some of it to contribute. And it's all about contribution and sharing.

Interview: Mark Espiner. Concert: Columbia Theater Berlin, Oct. 15th, 8 pm (sold out).

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