John Lydon is happy. And he’s not quite sure how that makes him feel. For decades, his work has been fuelled by disfunction: from the quick-to-implode Sex Pistols to PiL, the band that he’s led since 1978 but which, until recently, never had the same lineup for two records in a row. Now, he’s preparing to step into the studio for a third time with Bruce Smith, Lu Edmonds and Scott Firth. It’s a novel feeling.
“I’ve never been able to make two albums [with the same people], let alone three,” he says. “I’ve always wanted it to be this way. There’s something great about camaraderie and having respect for each other. Adversity can be a thrilling topic, but it can wear you down eventually.”
This stability comes after a period of reflection. Before PiL toured China in 2013, the government insisted that Lydon supply the lyrics of every song he’d ever written, so they could be vetted for inflammatory, anti-authoritarian messages. “To our horror – approved,” he cackles. “I thought, what have I done wrong here?” While compiling them, Lydon realised that they’ve never been gathered together before. “And each song has it’s own picture in my mind, a visual interpretation shall I say. So I started doodling on the pages and it turned into a book.”
The result, Mr Rotten’s Songbook, collects every lyric Lydon has ever written, illustrated with the odd, often frightening imagery each conjures in his mind. To mark its release, we spoke to him about how he visualises songs, losing his memory and being inspired by noise.
Each of the songs has a picture in the book. Does that relate to what was happening in your life when you wrote them?
Directly. I tend to remember things quite graphically then fill it in from there. When I was young I had an illness that took my memory away for a few years. And now I’m able to remember things very very accurately and rigidly. A colour could inspire a memory for me.
What are some of the images that stand out in your mind?
Cowboys or Indians on horses. Elephants. Rhinoceroses. The colour red. The colours blue, gold on black. If there’s a shape of a coffin, I find it utterly fascinating and for me there’s something to do with a dead body that is a really intelligent shape. Quite hard to draw accurately, so there’s a thrill for me.
There are a fair few songs you don’t perform anymore. What was it like going through them?
I was quite shocked by some of the things I had written. And then I traced my memory back to them and went, ‘Ah yes, of course’. They’re very accurate about the circumstances that I trace them back to. I mean that’s the biggest thrill of all, being able to remember things in full detail.
Has your approach to songwriting changed over the years?
I hope I’ve gotten better. I mean, it’s the subject matter, really. The same set of values are there as they always have been, it’s the topics and it’s more about self-analysis. At the beginning I was just raging at the institutions and religions at the time. Once I had blown the cobwebs of that, I went into, ‘What is this popstar malarkey? Why is it turning me into such a horrible big head?
So after that and PiL it was a journey; I was travelling through the emotions that human beings can create and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get bored with that. It’s a much larger palette to work with and it’s more personal, and causes great pain or great joy sometimes. That’s what PiL is: we all respect each other and with a bit of luck we’re making a third album.
Is that in the pipeline?
We’ll play a few live shows first.
How has the stability changed the way your write and the way our make the music?
It means you can explore the topic much deeper than usual. You’re not in a mad rush to finish it before everyone decides to quit. You can use the time more wisely. With PiL being PiL, we would much rather rush off to the pub.
Do you think some of the energy goes when you settle down?
Well this is my third album now, so I think I have the ability to write on both sides of the fence. I was on tenterhooks there and I do appreciate the question – for a time I was thinking, ‘This lovefest is going to be the death of me.’ It was actually the making of me. It was probably one of the strongest challenges I’ve ever had. It’s an area of myself that I’ve never actually explored, figuring out what I actually do like.
Does that change the lyrics?
I hope so. Well, it has to. Because it’s the subject matter that’s most relevant. And you have to write as accurately as you can. It doesn’t change me totally. If I’m performing something like ‘Death Disco’, I still break out in tears, because it’s about the death of a mother. And I’ll never lose that sadness and there are songs that shape you over the years.
When you’re performing these songs, do the emotions –
I’m riveted back to those moments.
Almost like a time capsule?
That’s the gift of meningitis. I came out of a coma [aged seven] and lost my memory for something like four years. When I remember things, I remember them. I cling to memories, because I was aware of what it was like to lose your own personality. You spend your childhood trying to figure out who you are.
Your vocals are full of growls, yelps, odd intonation. Is that planned when you’re writing the lyrics?
I shape my body to how the word feels for me. Some call it spasticated dancing. Some people are just jealous. On stage, I’m going through the deepest emotions possible. That’s me, everything just laid out there. I die a death of fear before I go on. All day long I get tense. Once on, that’s it. It’s the gift you’ve been given, don’t fuck it up.
With the new stuff, what’s the lyric writing process for that?
For me it’s always running things in my head. I have to be inspired by a noise before being committed to putting pen to paper. That’s how we all feel, we all have loads of ideas and rush into the recording studio and end up yelling at each other. And there it goes and then we’re off. It’s a happy place, full of tension and stress and anxiety.
You mentioned earlier that it’s more inwards facing now.
When I started, it was about tearing down institutions and anyone who would dare assume my loyalty. Then it progressed into self-analysis because of the shape-shifting from the Pistols into forming PIL, which was something completely different, a totally different beast that deserved a different approach. A lot of self doubt was in my mind, because through the Pistols, being turned into a pop star – which I did not want and I found myself very uncomfortable amongst friends and working that way. It’s not selfish analysis, it’s finding empathy in other people and sharing my pain and whatever the topic is in my mind. It’s about other people as much as it is about me. I’m good at that writing side of it. I can put things into words. I’d make a horrible lead guitarist.
Does the immediate political climate not fire up the old you?
Trump as a catalyst gets everyone here in America really thinking about what politics means and the role of politicians. This is what we asked for, this is what we got. It’s a great moment of self-analysis, again. For everyone. People are beginning to find themselves getting more and more involved instead of thinking that someone else will be taking care of it. That’s very healthy.
Are there lyrics that you’re particularly proud of?
They all interplay with each other. To put it properly, they’re all pieces of the jigsaw puzzle and if I were to take one piece out, you’d miss the big picture. There’s no one favourite. They all work well with each other. It’s one way of looking at myself and I thought, ‘Bloody hell, John, this book reads like a monologue’. If I were to compare it to anything it would be James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s an insane book and I remember reading it when I was younger and giving a review for school. I got into it and realised that’s the way I am, that’s the way we all are, it’s how we run our thoughts that way. Sometimes you don’t have the words to express the thoughts that we have in our head at the time. I find when I put the words with music, it kind of creates a third vision of things. That’s the closest yet I’ve been to complete and total accuracy.
Do the lyrics come before the music.
It’s bits and pieces of everything. At the moment I have 30 songs floating around my head and I’m not ready to write them down. I don’t want to be tied down to the written word and lose the spur of the moment. I never want to lose that improvisation element that we have about PIL.
You speak of James Joyce, which lyricists inspire you?
Ray Davis. And Bryan Ferry too, there’s chunks of everybody in there from Neil Young onwards. Dolly Parton, I’ve got to say.
I read that you have Spice Girls dolls.
Yeah, that’s one of the things I wanted at the time, they’re the most insane action dolls. I had an Action Man when I was young, but hello, a whole band? Yippee. I still look at them every now and again, I think they’re just great. And years later, we ended up with Scott [Firth] in the band and he played with the Spice Girls. That was fantastic. Everything has a reason and a moment. All it is is patience.
Do you see punk existing anywhere now?
Me. I’m true to myself. I’m still following the same ethics and points of purposes as I always have. Do it yourself. If you wait for someone else to do it, it’ll never happen.
So what’s coming up over the next year?
We’ll be touring and the songwriting process to me is internal in my head. Each one of us approach it very very differently. You’re gagging at the bit really to get back into the studio. We can all meet in the middle of the room and yell ideas and then go from there. None of us are ever short of ideas, it’s how to curb the enthusiasm and find the connections with different approaches. Either that or somebody drops an accordion down a staircase.
Do you communicate between records.
We’re mates so we’re very good with each other. We’ll talk about anything and everything. We’re connected socially and I like it like that. You don’t have to work at that. It happens quite naturally. It took many many decades for us to get to this point but it’s been worth it. I found I can write on the other side of adversity. These situations have always been challenges to me. You don’t just shape shift completely differently for no point of purpose or reason. The situation dictates that and you have to make sure you land on the good foot each and every time. The brain has to not stop working.
When might new stuff be out?
We tend to record around Christmas, that’s my way of avoiding a bleeding public holiday. Any institutionalised way of having fun, I’m finding my way out of.
I can’t really see you around the Christmas tree.
Why would you want to murder a perfectly healthy tree?