The Sex Pistols’ unabashed malice had its roots in working-class anger
IT WAS 18 YEARS AGO THAT JOHNNY ROTTEN launched punk rock with a scream: “I am an Antichrist!” But the onetime phlegm-and-venom-spewing Sex Pistol still knows how to shock. His latest tactic: civility. “Would you,” he asks a visitor to his tidy Spanish colonial in the Los Angeles beach community of Marina Del Rey, “care for a cup of tea?”
Gone now is the famous moniker once used by John Lydon, who interred his noxious Johnny Rotten persona when the Sex Pistols self-destructed in 1978. Gone, too, are the green, hedge-clippered hair and the psycho-ward stare that once so disturbed the Establishment. Attired these days in black, his blond hair in a neat spike, Lydon, 36, has found that Rotten behavior no longer jolts the system like it used to. “To dress absurd or to have weird hair is just to be fitting in with everybody else right now,” he says. “Why conform?”
And so, as today’s neopunk grunge rockers ape the leering look, the ranting vocals, the Rotten-to-the-core attitude, Lydon has turned to new outlets for his subversive brand of self-expression. Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs (St. Martin’s), his autobiographical chronicle of the rise and fast fall of the Sex Pistols, is a best-seller in England, where the band’s once-incendiary music is now regarded as part of the nation’s musical heritage. But Rotten is no celebrity potboiler. While showcasing the author’s literate wit—the book abounds in “Joycean color,” said one reviewer—it does not dilute Lydon’s still-considerable bile.
Lydon slags everyone from the royal family—”parasites and leeches,” he says—to young rockers who, he says, lack the Pistols’ political sting. “It’s more personal issues with them,” says Lydon, disdainful of slackers old and new. “That grungy old cheesecloth-shirt thing is just straight back to the hippies.”
Lydon, who was to become the teenage poet of the embittered idle poor, howling his scorn at uptight British society during the Sex-Pistols’ brief reign, came by his anger early. But unlike some modern-day wannabes who wear family dysfunction on their flannel sleeves, Lydon never whines about a hardscrabble life with his Irish immigrant parents.
Lydon’s father, John, is a retired crane operator who still lives in the tenement in the tough Finsbury Park section of north London where young John was reared. His housewife mother, Eileen, who died 15 years ago, was sickly through most of John’s childhood, which left Lydon to look after his three younger brothers. As boys, they were pelted with bricks by Irish-baiting English neighbors, who posted racist signs like the one he uses for the title of his book. Lydon also became the family cook, laying a foundation for the fine curries that are now his specialty. (“Nora doesn’t know what a kitchen’s for,” he says, “other than a place to give me orders in.”)
At age 7, Lydon was struck by spinal meningitis, sank into a coma and was hospitalized for a year. The disease left him with a slightly hunched back and chronic health problems, including bad eyesight, migraine headaches, a slow heartbeat and epileptic seizures that continue to plague him. “When you’re 7 years old, feeling sorry for yourself doesn’t enter in,” Lydon says. “You just accept that’s the way it is.”
An avid reader but an indifferent student, Lydon made mischief with schoolmate and future Pistols bassist John Simon Beverly, whom he renamed Sid Vicious after his own ill-tempered pet hamster, Sid. The two hung with a rowdy gang of Finsbury’s Arsenal soccer fans—Lydon still attends matches when in London—who devoted themselves to drinking and club brawls. In depressed ’70s London, Lydon says, there wasn’t much else to do. “I was just a very angry youth who could see no foreseeable chance of anything,” he says. “There was no hope, no job prospects, no future.”
Expelled from Catholic school at 15 for his bad attitude, Lydon earned drinking money by busking in London tube stations. With Vicious on guitar and Lydon sawing away at a violin he had no clue how to play, and screaming Alice Cooper’s “I Love the Dead” lyrics, the two created a unique sound. “It was horrendous,” Lydon says. “We could really, really annoy people. They paid us to shut up…and we did. You can’t disappoint your audience.”
The same philosophy helped shape the Sex Pistols, which Lydon joined in 1975. By then, he had hacked off his long hair and begun making anti-fashion statements with baggy Little Tramp suits that he ripped apart and reassembled with safety pins. Within months the group—a “noisy bunch of little snotty-nose upstarts,” Lydon calls them—became all the outrage in England.
In 1977, the year of Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee Celebration, the Pistols’ anarchic anthem, “God Save the Queen,” made Lydon, who wrote the lyrics on his parents’ kitchen table, the most infamous 19-year-old in Britain. It also incited violence: Lydon was stabbed in the hand by an assailant who shouted, “We love the Queen.” The BBC banned Sex Pistols songs, citizens groups picketed their concerts, and rock establishmentarians like Mick Jagger abhorred them. “He said, ‘They can’t play!’ Lydon recalls. “How dare he?”
During their two-year existence, the Sex Pistols released one album, Never Mind the Bullocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, and made just one U.S. tour before disintegrating in 1978. Lydon blames the breakup on Vicious’s all-consuming heroin habit, greedy management by erstwhile Svengali Malcolm McLaren, and the attendant media frenzy. “The hype backfired,” Lydon says. “It was too much for any human being to handle, and we were too young.”
Though Lydon has long since patched things up with the surviving ex-Pistols—in 1986 he successfully sued McLaren for royalties due the band members—musical differences that divided the band remain. Guitarist Steve Jones, who also lives in L.A. and is a frequent visitor chez Lydon, “loves good time rock and roll,” Lydon says. “I don’t.”
In February 1979, a year after the Sex Pistols broke up, Vicious died of a heroin overdose in New York City. Five months earlier he had been indicted for fatally stabbing his American girlfriend, Nancy Spungen. Lydon has nothing but scorn for Spungen, whom he remembers as a junkie and sometime prostitute who led Sid to his doom. “She was, he says, “a beast.”
Later that year, Lydon married Nora Up, a German-born former concert promoter 15 years his senior and mother of Ariana, lead singer of the punk group the Slits. Lydon then formed Public Image Ltd., which has since produced nine moderately successful albums of his noisy antirock. “I love discordancy,” he says with a smile. “It makes people ill at ease and wakes up a part of their brain that’s normally asleep. It’s nice to be irritated. It’s a very joyous thing.”
Today, Lydon and Nora share homes in L.A., Berlin and London, where Lydon is working on a Sex Pistols documentary. Editing hundreds of hours of unreleased concert and interview footage, Lydon says, “I was really, really pleased after all these years to listen and think, ‘My God, we were a good band.’ ”
His preferred residence seems to be Los Angeles, where he can sate his appetite for American culture. “I love consumerism, TV culture, shopping malls,” he says. “There’s nothing I’d ever buy, but I like being there. It’s wacky.”
After tea, Lydon repairs to the home studio he has built in his den, where he is recording his first solo album for Atlantic Records. Public Image will be heard from again, he says, but for now he has other plans. “I want to get back into just being plain old nasty,” he says.