Los Angeles City Beat
November 1st, 2007

© 2007 LA City Beat

3rd Degree

The Sex Pistol on doing TV, going to Iraq, and listening to Paris Hilton

Three full decades after the first generation of punk broke in ’77, Johnny Rotten still delivers that line from “God Save the Queen” with much the same sneering ill will and bulging gaze. From such things, entire musical genres are born. The Sex Pistols were present at the birth of punk, and are partly responsible for whatever it became, emerging as its most potent symbol before melting down in the year 1978, when young Mr. Rotten (née Lydon) was just 19. The band’s bad influence can still be felt today, among young bands making their own anarchic sounds in suburban garages everywhere, and seen in the faces of fresh young punks who gather every year for the summer Warped Tour. No future, forever and ever.

Rotten had a whole other career after the Pistols, crafting revolutionary rock of another color and complexity in Public Image Limited, but the power of what the Sex Pistols created never faded. Last year, the Pistols refused to attend its induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and wrote a scathing letter to the institution that now hangs there in a place of (dis)honor.

The band’s four original members – Rotten, guitarist Steve Jones, bassist Glen Matlock, and drummer Paul Cook – were together for another explosive reunion set last week at the Roxy, where Rotten bitterly dismissed suggestions that the U.K. punk movement was a mere knockoff from the Ramones and the hangers-on at CBGB. He remembers it very differently.

Rotten has lived in the L.A. these last 20 years. And while the Pistols are active once again, with more shows planned in England this month, much of his time has lately been spent as a host for reality TV and nature documentaries, most notably on his brilliantly blunt but short-lived Rotten TV on VH1. He’s just finished a stint as a judge on the Fuse network’s Bodog Music Battle of the Bands, which began, ironically enough, with a trip to the Hall of Fame. That the Pistols have just re-recorded “Anarchy in the U.K.” for the Guitar Hero videogame might seem perverse from these famously difficult, uncompromising punk pioneers, but little in the Sex Pistols story ever followed an approved script.

CityBeat: There was some talk a while back about the Sex Pistols going to Iraq.

Johnny Rotten: Yep, as soon as the troops went in, we wanted to play to the public. But there were barriers put up against that: “No, you can’t. You can play to the troops behind closed walls.” We were thinking, “Then you are an invasionary force, and you are not relating to the people.” Now it’s too late. Anything from the West will be shot at. And do you blame them? It’s their country, after all.

How did TV become a regular venue for you?

It’s very strange. It wasn’t through choice. For 30 years now I’ve been interviewed and I’ve never liked it, and I always found it very uncomfortable to do an interview in front of a TV camera. But it’s like playing live: you can play on the fears and phobias of yourself. You can adjust yourself correctly, or you can fall flat on your face. It’s an exciting risk to take. But I like it. I tend to like myself, so it does help.

Didn’t you appear on American Bandstand and you refused to lip-sync?

I refused to lip-sync correctly with Public Image Limited. We just had fun. But it seemed to work, because Dick Clark voted it as No. 8 of all-time best performances. Anti-performance can be just as viable – in fact, better. And it somehow makes it accessible to people.

Did Clark seem to appreciate that at the time?

No, at the time he was horrified. But he was mostly horrified because someone had stolen one of his wigs, apparently. It wasn’t Johnny Rotten, I can assure you.

What did you think when you finally saw the Hall of Fame?

I was horrified with it. And I was right. Everything I said about the place – it’s a museum, and therefore a mausoleum. It might be big and sparky with lots of plate glass, but it’s cold and efficient deep down inside its very wicked, wicked heart.

They’ve already put your letter up on display.

Yes, they thought that was something to be proud of. That’s irony in itself. I tell them where to go and they enjoyed it. They must like having their bottom spanked.

The Bodog show is basically a battle of the bands. Is that something that would have interested you in the past?

It’s not American Idol. These bands actually perform and write their own songs. I’m a lover of live music anyway. Anyone who writes a song, I give them a handshake. And the idea of being paid for it at the same time is irresistible. That might come across as deeply cynical – it’s not at all. It’s pure joy to sit and listen to them. Not all of them. The first night was grim. There were quite a few acts that had to be dispensed with.

How do you like American Idol?

Nobody’s writing their own material, it’s a hell of a lot of women trying to be like Whitney Houston. Please, take a look at Whitney. Who wants to be like that? I find it annoying and Las Vegasy and really, really pointless.

Does it reflect where the music industry is now?

Yes! The music industry seems to have co-opted it into itself, and accepted it with open arms, and thus killing any potential for songwriting or live music in any way, shape, or form. It horrifies me. All these trained voices emerge. The best music is not trained voices. Heart and soul is not note-perfect. It never ever will be. Pain doesn’t work like that. Joy doesn’t work like that.

What do you think when you see your influence on other bands now?

I’m appalled when I notice it. I shouldn’t be noticing it. When it sounds almost note for note, that really irritates me.

The Sex Pistols didn’t seem to be a direct copy of what had come before.

And I certainly didn’t copy the Ramones either. And I’m really, really angry about that comparison to this day. That’s a New York phoniness put out there. You have to be deaf, dumb, and blind to see any similarity between the two bands. By comparing us at all is to denigrate both of us. Both did different things, done different ways, and should be appreciated for that alone. But that isn’t what happened is it? Punk became a competition of who could who could out-punk who, and who invented it. And then on top of that, they started going back into history and rewriting places with Iggy Pop inside of it. Iggy’s fine body of work is completely separate from punk, and wonderful, too. The man’s a real songwriter.

Was Iggy an influence?

It sounds hilarious to say the “raw power” of it. But that alone, the freedom of it, the absolute balls to stand up and do that craziness. And for it to come over as totally genuine, no deception in it, warts and all, thank you.

You can go to the Warped Tour and see punk kids there still identifying with the idea of anarchy. Where did that come from?

Anarchy is mind-games for the middle class. It’s a wonderful philosophy if you’ve got the spare time to indulge in it. It’s more like French abstract art than reality, because ultimately you would destroy everything. What’s the point of that if you’ve got nothing to replace it with? Anarchy is a problem. It’s not a solution. But it’s worthy of some thought.

Do you remember when you first thought of using it?

It’s always been in the English psyche. It’s the way we are. And the truest form of anarchy, which has always been notable to me, is football hooliganism. That’s wonderfully anarchic. That’s mobile armies on the march. These are not vicious thugs that go round attacking innocents. They go out looking for each other. These are pitched, arranged battles, and all is fair in love and war. And only a fool would try to get in-between them.

It is coming from the claustrophobia of endless dreary concrete housing estates. It creates a real serious violence in you. You feel repressed from your early life onwards. The school system has permanently put you down as a no-hoper. You have no future.

Now, that’s from the British point of view. You’ve got George Bush more or less claiming he’s some kind of monarch at the moment, and look at the mess he’s created out of blind, complete ignorance. But unlike in England, you can’t seem to stop this man at all.

Is there any American youth movement to point this out? Does anybody care anymore? Is it all just selfishly running home to the computer and getting on MySpace? Silly, silly world.

It does annoy me when I see the likes of Paris Hilton, who is, to be polite, an amazing underachiever. She’s underwhelming in every single way possible. And it’s repulsive. And she’s already a rich bitch. It’s almost spiteful. I think her entire cultural phenomena, shall we say, is resentment of talent. It’s despising talent and thinking money can conquer all.

She even made an album.

I bought it. [laughs] Well, I have to know! I have to know if there’s something there that’s worthy. There wasn’t. Which was a shame. I felt let down and cheated.

Are you working on any music right now?

I’ve almost finished an album of my own. I’ve got no record deal. I don’t know if I want one. I’ll find a way of putting it out.

There was definitely a period when you were very prolific musically.

It just happened! And it wore me out for quite a bit. You have to take a break from yourself, or else the stuff you put out becomes format. And you’ve got to constantly be checking yourself. You’ve got to be your own worse critic at all times. Up till now, I’m quite happy to say I’ve never put out anything that demeans me. It’s been a high work standard no matter what it’s in, whether that be painting, writing, making songs, or TV work. But it all has to be the right stuff. I want to get it right. I want to die happy.

You want to be comfortable and happy with what you’re doing?

Not so much comfortable, oddly enough. Some of the music I write is very deeply, personally worrying and upsetting, and it’s not comfortable. Songs like “Death Disco,” which is about the death of my mother – that is not comfortable. It breaks me apart on stage when I do that. But there are moments when it’s just dead right, when you can feel the empathy from a crowd, and they feed and drive that. Live performance is stunning. There’s no feeling like it on earth. It’s a generosity thing – everybody is sharing something. It’s not always like that. Sometimes a riot, with 20,000 people that are out to kill you, could be pretty satisfying.

Early on, you were using Lydon instead of Rotten …

There were reasons for that. Malcolm [McLaren, the Sex Pistols manager] claimed that he owned the copyright on my name. Insane, huh? So jealous he even tried to nick my nickname. Talentless man.

The impression at the time was that you were making a break from what you had done with the Pistols.

It wasn’t about that. It was actually about a lawsuit. But oddly enough, it worked out right, and it did clearly define the barriers, so that was a healthy thing. You’ll find that in life not everything is perfectly planned, but life has a way of taking care of it, if you learn to go with the flow on the right occasion.

What brought you to L.A.?

Driven out of most other places. And I just liked it. I think it’s a very, very bizarre town that doesn’t really seem to have any center or root to it. It’s lots of little villages put together. But the people are – is the word mellow? Yes, it is. They seem to be happy people, but that’s shifting at the moment. This war is changing everything.

I know several Brits who have come here. It’s not uncommon.

Well, you must understand in England, you’re brought up and everything is under pressure all the time. Everyone’s a little bit sharper and smarter and they can take you on from time to time. And you have to be on guard 24 hours a day. That seems to be British culture. It’s heaven on earth to come here and go, “My God, I don’t have to think for weeks at a time!”

Something that I’ve noticed in your interviews, and even on the Bodog show, is that Green Day seems to symbolize something to you.

No, they don’t! People keep asking me, so I give them hell. [laughs] I feel quite good-natured towards them, in many ways, except that they once said that they “meant it, man” and I believed them. And I found out later they didn’t. It matters for me. It matters what people say. I tend to believe people. I’m very open like that, until they prove me wrong, and then I give them hell.

They’re such chubby little things, too. [laughs] They’re like dirty toys.

Was getting back with the Sex Pistols the first time in 1995 enjoyable?

Oh, we love it, love it on stage. Wouldn’t do it otherwise. Never paid enough for it to warrant just purely financial reasons. In fact, it’s so complicated, we end up just about level at the end of a tour or flat-broke or in dire straights.

Will the Pistols only do the original songs, or might you come up with new ones?

I don’t feel the need to do that. And I feel very proud that in one year – when we went into that studio, we weren’t thinking [pompous voice] “Let’s make a masterpiece rock album.” That might be to its benefit. And I don’t want to come up with a new body of work that would be in some ways seen as competing with that. And I’m lazy. And I tend to save my best songs for myself these days.

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