John Lydon: The filth and the fury

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The Independent Online

As really shocking behaviour goes, it ranked some way behind Rimbaud stabbing Verlaine through the hand during a pub argument; but it was still pretty good. John Lydon, formerly Johnny Rotten, the Baron Samedi of the punk revolution, dropped in on the Q Awards in London last week and made a few waves.

Q is the nation's top rock'n'roll magazine; every year the awards reliably feature some ill-considered and boorish behaviour from attention-seeking alcoholics and playground show-offs; the 2001 list of attending celebrities featured perhaps a dozen rude boys, tough guys and monkeys (Liam Gallagher's term) – but the unanimous verdict of press was that John Lydon eclipsed them all.

What did he do? It wasn't the usual rock-star behaviour. He arrived in a horse-drawn cart, and a new haircut in screaming orange with a black mohican stripe. He was accompanied by his elderly father, John, who wore a sensible suit with a V-necked sweater, and his wife Nora, who is 58 and was attired for the ceremony in a purple velvet coat, a lime-green frock and comfy sandals. (Afterwards, while the A-list rockers drank bourbon through the afternoon or departed for a tryst with narcotics entrepreneurs, the Lydon family rather sweetly tucked in to a full meal, including second helpings and pudding).

Lydon met up with a posse of friends who sat at Table 22 heckling, cat-calling and barracking throughout the presentations. Lydon himself was the most vocal contributor. He chanted Arsenal slogans during the speeches. He loudly booed Damon Albarn as the Blur front-man collected the award for best video. When the new boys of Starsailor went up to collect their best new act gong in their trademark hooded anoraks, he sneered: "Nice to see you boys dressed up for the occasion." The portly Johnny Vegas was trying to give the Manic Street Preachers their best live act award when he was distracted by shrill cries of "Who let the Teletubby in?".

Vegas reportedly rounded with fury on the ageing punk and his entourage, saying: "You bitter and twisted lot over there, can you stop talking so loudly? I've been listening to you all afternoon and I've had enough." The audience cheered. It was like a popular teacher ticking off the class troublemaker. But minutes later, the audience were cheering the miscreant Lydon even more noisily. "Shut up" he screamed at them. "I've got a few words for you. This is for all the working-class English amongst us. I'm one of them. All you posh bastards, you know where it comes from. I'm the real deal." The proletarian hero then abused Keith Allen, the actor, in the front row, congratulated Kate Bush on her award in uncharacteristically luvvie tones ("I love you, Kate Bush, your music is fucking brilliant") threw in a burst of retro-anarchy by waving his award and saying "Who wants this? – because it doesn't mean anything to me", and with a final peace sign and a valedictory cry of "Peace off!" regained his seat.

The honour he'd come to pick up is given each year to "artists who have left their mark on the industry, and influenced the direction of today's music scene". It's the inspiration award.

For a period of about 26 months, Johnny Rotten inspired a generation. He was the soul of revolt. He was anti. He was counter. He was a big No. Marlon Brando in The Wild One, asked by an admirer, "what are you rebelling against?" replies shortly: "What have you got?" Johnny Rotten would have replied the same, but thrown in "you c***" as well. In 1976 and 1977, his long, pale, goofy face was everywhere, his sharp seagull eyes scrutinising audiences, record companies and the whole bland, blancmange-like texture of modern culture, his eyes widened in defiance against anyone who would look at him, his voice honed to a thin, clever, disbelieving sneer. Once, some idiot producer put him on a late-70s version of Juke Box Jury, throughout which he maintained a running commentary on the crappiness of all the records, then turned, delirious with contempt, to the viewer and sneered: "Pretty mediocre-looking camera..."

On stage, he was electrifying. Slumped over the microphone stand like a skinny drunk in a disintegrating straitjacket, he didn't perform like a pop star who'd learned stage technique. His persona was all his own. He behaved like a mad, jerky marionette who couldn't sing for toffee and couldn't give a toss if you minded.

He was an inspiration to the musically ungifted, a walking advertisement for three-chord chart success. He was a shocking inspiration to the business community after the Sex Pistols were named young businessmen of the year by the Financial Times in 1976

Permanently outraged, bored and disgusted, he was an inspiration to anyone feeling victimised, and a testament to what can be achieved simply by being annoying. Hair-raisingly articulate, he inspired the schoolkids of the late Seventies to demand straight answers from their teachers. He took the piss out of the music business, the fashion business, the whole moribund British entertainment circus. He was the classic British outsider: a searing intelligence from a working-class culture that had no time for intelligence, he had infiltrated a middlebrow rock culture, as vindictive and destructive as Ridley Scott's alien growing in John Hurt's soft white belly...

John Lydon was born on 31 January 1956, the eldest of four sons of an Irish crane driver called Jim, from Galway, and his wife Eileen, from Cork. He is therefore first-generation London-Irish, like Shane MacGowan of the Pogues. At eight he contracted meningitis and stayed home from school for a year, nursed by his mother (who'd had the disease at 11). It fuelled an abiding mistrust, insecurity and dislike of human society. "I used to hate my mother's clothes," he told Jon Savage, author of England's Dreaming, the classic history of punk. "She used to wear this Crimplene stuff that was fashionable then, a huge beehive hairdo, and the smell of hairspray used to repulse me. I remember the smell of sweaty corsets and all the men had stinking armpits". When John was 11, the family moved to a council flat in Finsbury Park, north London. John attended the local Catholic comprehensive school, a nasty Victorian pile near Pentonville jail.

Predictably he hated it. "I learnt hate and resentment there," he said. "And I learned to despise tradition and this sham we call culture." At 14 he was a rebel in green hobnail boots and a leather jacket. Thrown out of school in 1972, he went to Hackney Technical College to acquire more O-levels and met Sid Vicious. (Sid was born John Simon Ritchie, but was christened "Sid" after Lydon's pet hamster).

The genesis of the Sex Pistols has gone into punk mythology. How Steve Jones and Paul Cook, two west London drifters and would-be rock stars linked up with Malcolm McLaren at his King's Road shop SEX and talked about starting a band. How Lydon was first spotted by Bernard Rhodes, a friend of McLaren's, as he shambled, green-haired, down the King's Road with his north London mates, wearing a T-shirt that read "I HATE PINK FLOYD". One night McLaren asked if he could sing. "What do you mean?" he responded ungratefully. "What for? No – only out of tune and anyway I play the violin." None the less he was persuaded to come to the shop, hold a shower attachment as a microphone and mime along to Alice Cooper singing "I'm Eighteen" on the jukebox. Nervous and (he confessed) terrified at his first audition, he invented, there and then, the spasmodic jumping and random hunchback posing that became his stage manner and the Sex Pistols were born, in what Jon Savage describes as "a miasma of antagonism, misunderstanding and mutual suspicion".

What McLaren had originally wanted was an alternative Bay City Rollers. What he got, with John Lydon, was a genuinely transgressive spirit, with no beliefs, no ideals, no interest in tunes, simply a lot of unfocussed anger. In finding a form to express and encompass the ferocious nothingness of his aesthetic, he was the Beckett of rock'n'roll. He offered you (as Harold Pinter once said of Beckett) nothing from the bargain basement. He wanted noise and madness, shrieks of pain, sneers of disgust. "The kids want misery and death," he said. "They want threatening noises, because that shakes you out of your apathy."

When the Pistols fell apart after a disastrous tour of America, culminating in a dismal concert in San Francisco, Sid Vicious's murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen and his own death by heroin overdose shortly afterwards in prison, Lydon quit and went quiet for a while. He reappeared as front man of Public Image Ltd, a sporadically interesting avant-garde rock outfit with his old mate Jah Wobble on bass. Apart from the songs "Public Image" and the he-doth-protest-too-much "This is not a Love Song" it was work that Pistols fans had trouble dragging into their new hi-fi towers. Lydon went his own sweet way, linking up eclectically with some odd bedfellows – for "Time Zone" with the rap maestro Afrika Bambaataa in 1985, for "Open Up" with the techno dance outfit Leftfield in 1993. In 1996, the Pistols reformed for a brief tour, whose cash-hungry impulses were reflected in its name, Filthy Lucre. "I'm fat, 40 and back," he told the crowd, before inviting journalists present to climb on stage and be "dealt with". It was all a bit sad, specially for journalists who'd seen them first time round, but it netted each of the quartet a cool million.

Rotten has for the last decade resembled a man at a loose end, trying various solo projects with mixed results. His autobiography, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, came out in 1994 and was considered an ill-organised triumph. His 1997 solo CD, Psycho's Path, as musically awkward as its title, was critically mauled and shockingly ignored by punters. For years he has lived in Marina del Rey, outside Los Angeles, with Nora, his German wife. They have no children but do not rule out adopting. Lydon is now a rich man, in a rich $2m home. He has made a late fortune out of property speculation. "I'm still working for the working class, but I've made my money out of the housing market," he said this week. "It's a very easy way to make money and fortunately I've done all right".

You could legitimately ask if Lydon has always been so focussed on the working class as he would have us think. In "Anarchy in the UK" he might curse the appearance of "another council tenancy" but would never be so uncool as to volunteer debating points about inner-city deprivation. Now, 45 and a Californian millionaire exile, he is using his dismal, unhealthy, peripatetic childhood in a slightly desperate bid for authentication. It was never class solidarity that pumped his adrenalin; it was a massive reservoir of generalised loathing for everyone around him. "Anger is an energy" he chanted, over and over in the 1986 Public Image song "Rise". Anger was always the point, the rock'n'roll core of Johnny Rotten. No wonder he's keen to get it back in poolside middle age.

Biography

Born: John Joseph Lydon, 31 January 1956, in Finsbury Park, London; brought up in a two-room flat with an outside toilet.

Parents: John, a labourer from Galway, and Eileen.

Family: Married to Nora Forster, now 58, since 1977. They were introduced by her daughter Ari-UP, of the female punk band the Slits; no children; lives in Los Angeles's Marina del Rey district.

Albums: Never Mind The Bollocks – Here's the Sex Pistols (1977); Public Image (1978); Metal Box (1979); That What Is Not (1992); The Psycho's Path (1997); Plastic Box (1999).

Singles: "Anarchy in the UK"; "God Save The Queen"; "Pretty Vacant"; "Holidays in the Sun".

Groups: The Sex Pistols 1977-78 (Filthy Lucre reunion tour 1996); Public Image Ltd 1978-1992.

Collaborations: Afrika Bambaataa (1985) Leftfield (1993)

Films: The Great Rock 'N' Roll Swindle (1980) and The Filth and the Fury (2000), both directed by Julian Temple.

Television: Rotten TV on VH-1

Publications: A volume of autobiography – Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs.

Hobbies: Reading history books, scuba diving, skiing in St Moritz. Drives a Volvo; avid Arsenal fan.

He says: "Do you ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" (at end of final Pistols concert in San Francisco); "You don't create me... I am me, there is a difference" (to Malcom McLaren)

They say: "I can't help thinking sometimes how Johnny Rotten had so little compassion for Sid"; "He sang like the Hunchback of Notre Dame with a handkerchief over his head" – (Malcom McLaren)

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