|© The Irish Times / Ireland.Com 2005|
Johnny b Good
|The Irish Times Weekly Guide to Entertainment|
From early punk to sub-punk to hip-hop, John Lydon has made his mark. Jim Carroll hears about Lydon's career - spanning CD and oddball current projects (producing nature documentaries?!) and discovers that some things will always stay rotten.
It's impossible to mistake the voice on the other end of the phone for anyone but John Lydon. After 30 years of making headlines and music, this chirpy, sing-song drawl is as distinctive as his TV documentaries, his adventures in the reality TV celebrity jungle and any of a dozen inimitable tunes he's produced over the years.
Lydon's on the phone to plug Best of British £1 Notes, a career-spanning collection of magnificent Lydon moments. There's the strident war cries of the Sex Pistols, the remarkable dub-punk of PiL, his adventures in New York hip-hop with Afrikka Bambaataa, and that Open Up collaboration with Leftfield. All of these still sound like a colossal bang on the ear.
"Virgin Records were going to put out an old Sex Pistols compilation, so I jumped in and said they should give people value for money," says Lydon of the release. "I've done a rather large body of work over the years and I'd like to see it put together in one piece. I've stretched over several different kinds of careers, if you want to call it that."
The tracks include World Destruction, his 1985 collaboration with Afrika Bambaataa. "That was pre-hip-hop. Bambaataa was an excellent DJ who would play Gladys Knight and blend it quite happily with Kraftwerk. He was using the more hardcore rock rhythms in a dance setting, so it was quite natural for me to fit in with that." This was one of the first times that rock and hip-hop got together. "After that, of course, you had the likes of Malcolm trying to do his Buffalo Girls," says Lydon. " But perhaps that's a fiasco we shouldn't talk about."
Not that Lydon is short of things to talk about. He's never been busier, although music has taken a back seat recently. "I haven't had very much time to make music over the last few years because I've been doing so much bloody TV. I like doing TV work. It's like music to me because it's challenging to get it right and to beat the format."
After his I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here star turn, Lydon was asked by the Discovery Channel to make some nature documentaries. John Lydon's Megabugs hit the small screen last year. "I did it for the kids. How many nature programmes have you seen that you wished were more user-friendly? I don't like the way the presenters talk about the bugs and insects with Latin names attached to everything. A spider is a spider, mate."
His current TV project involves traveling around Britain to find out what makes Britain great. "That's a cheek from an Irishman, isn't it?" He likes what he's found. "I'm finding the people to be great, not the institutions or the government for which I have no fondness at all. That Blair, he's a public school snot, he would do anything for a biscuit.
"I've talked to an Oxford professor, miners, scrumpy manufacturers, people on holiday in Blackpool. I'm talking to people anywhere and everywhere I can. One thing I like in life is to have a chat and have a bit of fun. You learn more about life that way. You learn bugger-all from books." There's a pause and then a cackle. "Unless they're my books."
Lydon thinks the compilation may result in a new respect for and understanding of what PiL were about. "What I've noticed is that there seems to be a 10-to-15 year turnover before people catch onto something. It took people long enough to understand the Pistols, so when I leap-frogged into PiL, they were completely lost." Yet it hasn't escaped his attention that some acts came along and subsequently nicked his ideas. "I see an awful lot of my ideas watered down in a soppy, polite, nice way. It's not our fault that these lesser arseholes came along, looked at what we doing, jumped on our bandwagon and thought it was all a gimmick. "There's more to us than the clothes. You can try to dress up like us but that doesn't make you like us. They don't understand the energy and hard work. You can't get that from fiddling with a computer. Hard work is the key to it all."
Being a tough gaffer caused problems with the vast majority of those who passed through the PiL doors. "The lesser mortals did not like my work ethic," Lydon says. "I don't have any time for shirkers, I don't like the codgers and the easy riders. I earned a reputation for that and, apparently, I was difficult to work with. Yes, because I demand things to be right! What's wrong with that?" He'd work with Jah Wobble and Lu Edmonds again "in a heartbeat. I have total respect for them and I think they feel the same way."
While a PiL reunion is possible, another Sex Pistols romp is unlikely. "I know that both times I said I'd never do it again but, quite frankly, I've too much new stuff I want to pile into now. I want to finish the new record and tour that." There's a taster for that work in progress on the compilation in the shape of The Rabbit Song. A new song which Lydon describes as "a serious hardcore dance stonker," it's short and snappy and as sharp as a tack, quintessential Lydon. "I put this one new track on the compilation as a kind of bonus to anyone who has followed what I've done over the years. It's a song which encompasses everything I've done to date."
He's happy to stay living in America. "It's a brave new world and it's a couple of nations in one. Its like watching an empire building itself and I find that thrilling. In Britain, we have traditions and common sense, which is fine. Things are done a certain way because that's how they've always been done and they work. "But I like watching the way America is structuring itself. It's on shaky feet but, my God, those are awfully big boots on its feet. And those weapons of mass destruction? Well, these lads have got them all! Anyone who really bugs them is going to get blown off the planet."
Lydon will celebrate his 50th birthday in January. Unlike so many others, he's survived and thrived. "I've had many friends die from stupid rock deaths, which really disappointed me. I've no time for the drug malarkey. I cant stand people who let drugs use them. You use the drugs, that's alright, that's your right."
No, despite everything, this
Johnny is a survivor. He's been through a good few battlefields and he's
come out the other side, undamaged and unruffled."Things you think
are hideous or horrible can actually be beneficial for you," he says.
"I remember when I was a kid, my granddad in Cork took us out in
a row-boat when we were kids to catch herring and it was murder. We were
in this shaky little wooden rowboat on the open seas that he built himself.
I was terrified, I thought it was the cruellest thing ever done to me.
But I got a love of the sea from it. "And after that, I went through
the British educational system. But look at me - it hasn't done me any
wrong, has it?"
The Best of British £1 Notes is released on Virgin on October 3rd
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