You hear about John Lydon, but you think Johnny Rotten.
Who could blame you? In their few short years together in the late 1970s, Rotten's squawking snarl made an indelible cultural impression as leader of British punk band the Sex Pistols. The quartet crashed music's barricades and made a deep enough impact on modern music to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006.
But at the end of an ill-fated U.S. tour in 1978, the band disbanded. John Lydon was left stranded here in America, angry (personally and professionally) and hungry (literally and artistically).
His next project, Public Image Ltd., would have more staying power, lasting 15 years and proving influential in a less blatant but deeper and perhaps more meaningful way. The Pistols, sure, fired up a bunch of punk wannabes -- many of whom Lydon still despises for their lack of originality (read on) -- but PiL's innovative weave of dub beats, pop production and the angry energy of Lydon's vocals threaded into bands from U2 to Nine Inch Nails.
Lydon, 56, in our recent conversation with the California resident during a visit to London, admitted his heart wasn't ever fully committed to the Pistols -- a band manufactured by Malcolm McLaren, a hipster clothier, with intentions largely as cynical and commercial as any contemporary boy band -- at least beyond their initial run. There was no pining for the band's return, even though they re-formed for tours five times.
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PiL is very much his drug of choice. Lydon managed to pay off old record company debts with money from a series of reunion shows in 2009 in the UK, as well as appearing in a much-mocked commercial for butter, and bring the band back this year with a lineup now featuring guitarist Lu Edmonds, bassist Scott Firth and drummer Bruce Smith. Their new album is plainly titled "This Is PiL."
"I love PiL," he says. "It's the heart and soul of me. When the Pistols fell apart, I wanted to do something completely honest and open and sharing and generous for the world."
His tone is soft, cooing, positively wistful. Lydon isn't really that Rotten. He's quick-tempered and a live-wire on TV chat shows, no doubt, but at heart he's a pussycat -- a devoted husband of 30 years and a loyal father figure (taking time out to help raise the children of Nora Forster's daughter, Ari Up, herself the lead singer of a band, the Slits, before her death in 2010).
"I don't make commitments lightly," he purrs, about his marriage to Forster. "I picked the right woman, and she picked the right man."
Precious, no? But have no fear, Lydon's still as mouthy as ever, and during our chat he sounded off on numerous topics while celebrating the welcome return of his dear PiL:
On punk's unoriginality: "Punk has to learn to progress and stop imitating itself. That's a direct dig at punk bands out there at the moment, trying to live in our shadow. They don't understand. They keep doing this same bit over and over. I don't need whippersnappers to tell us what's what -- again. I know the price of cheese."
On the Occupy Wall Street movement: "I love the Occupy thing. It was legalist, but what it did was passive resistance, like one of my old political heros, Gandhi. It raised questions, made you think things. The climate in the news shows was one of sarcasm. That's unfortunate. There's much to consider, and they were raising the questions that needed asking. ... No, I didn't join them. I'm not one for the tents. Johnny's literally not a happy camper."
On Russian punk band Pussy Riot: "Well, it got very dangerous when Madonna got involved. That could have upped the ante on their sentencing. One thing the Russian government wasn't prepared to listen to was a spoiled pop star ranting at them. You've got to be careful supporting these issues. She should put her crucifix away and put her knickers back on. ... But really, what they did wasn't very smart. It's no good running into a church screaming and shouting. It's pointless, really. I know what I'm talking about. I was discussed in Parliament under the Treason Act [for the Pistols' recording of 'God Save the Queen'], which carries the death penalty."
On the future of the Sex Pistols: "I can't write for them. I love them as friends and all, but I just can't go back to that space in time and create anything new. As a band, we never progressed beyond that period. I was just talking last night with [drummer] Paul Cook; we're really good friends. We just don't feel the need to do that ever again. ... We're all up to different things now. No plans to trot the boards with the boys."
On recording the new PiL album live: "We've all been around long enough to know how to use a studio properly. One thing we don't ever want to get caught with is studio trickery. If we can't play songs in somewhat of a live format, then we shouldn't waste time in recording them. ... These tracks proved well worth the decade wait, arguing with record labels who wouldn't let me out of their contracts."
On playing new shows: "We have to get out and play live. That's the bread and butter of what PiL is. We view ourselves as a live band, and we're trying to bring back the concept of live music. How much longer can you watch Las Vegas performers jump up and down with disco dancers? I've had enough. There's no humanity in it -- no sharing, no give, no take, just money. It's become very ugly. 'American Idol' is part of this nonsense of removing you from your humanity. I don't want to be part of the sh-- storm."