John Lydon’s Eurovision entry is a logical next step for the Widow Twanky of punk

Hugh Linehan: Public Image Limited’s Hawaii is unlikely to find favour with televoters

Johnny Rotten on The Masked Singer. Photograph: Fox via Getty

A grizzled veteran of the punk wars emerging from the jungle after 44 years might be forgiven for being taken aback by this week’s news that John Lydon and Public Image Limited (PiL) will vie for the honour of representing Ireland at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Liverpool. In darkened corners of benighted rock dives, a few leather-clad dinosaurs may stir uneasily at the thought of the former Johnny Rotten joining a list that includes Brotherhood of Man and Celine Dion. But there’s no excuse for the rest of us who’ve paid any attention to the man’s career trajectory. He’s appeared on I’m a Celebrity. He’s advertised butter. It’s a surprise he hasn’t done panto yet, although this comes pretty close.

There’s a long tradition of enlisting moth-eaten pop stars to represent their nation at Eurovision. The UK has had Cliff Richard, Katrina and the Waves and Blue. Ireland has called on Brian Kennedy and Nicky Byrne to do their duty. Unlike Lydon, though, all of these cleaved to a traditional pattern: inoffensive MOR entertainers slipping smoothly from chart success into the warm embrace of TV light entertainment shows and onward to Eurovision, all within the space of a decade.

Lydon is a little different, because of the sheer passage of time involved (the only parallel is when Britain put forward septuagenarian belter Engelbert Humperdinck in 2012) and the rather different backstory. He may have spent decades as the Widow Twanky of punk, but the snarling urchin who launched a thousand tabloid headlines during the Silver Jubilee still casts a shadow.

John Lydon: ‘I’m not the world’s most perfect person’Opens in new window ]

In 1979, just a year after the implosion of the Sex Pistols and the formation of PiL, Neil Young – then a sprightly 33-year-old but already relegated to the ranks of Boring Old Farts by Lydon’s spiky-haired fan base – released Rust Never Sleeps, a proto-grunge rumination on the transitory nature of rock’n’roll fame. On one song, Hey Hey My My (Into the Black), inspired by his own experience of the punk insurgency against all things hippyish, Young sang: “The king is gone but he’s not forgotten. Is this the tale of Johnny Rotten? It’s better to burn out than to fade away.”


How wrong he was. Forty-four years later, Young is still touring and still sticking it to The Man with his boycott of Spotify. Meanwhile, 66-year-old Lydon, who will bring a very mild touch of surreality to the Ryan Tubridy-presented competition on February 3rd, has expressed support for pretty much every position on the political spectrum, settling in recent years into a grumpy old man’s enthusiasm for Brexit, Trump, Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Although if you read the actual interviews, he really just seems to be trying to get up the noses of the journalists he’s talking to, as if he’s still on the couch with Bill Grundy.

The song, like most of PiL’s output of the past four decades following a brief period of post-punk innovation, is pretty terrible

Lydon was always an odd fish, the product of a hinge moment in pop culture history. In the Sex Pistols days, he understandably chafed against the way the band’s manager, Malcolm McLaren, treated them as mannequins plucked from obscurity to be manipulated for his great Situationist prank. And yet to this day, his mannerisms and attitudes still hark back to the template set by McLaren and Vivienne Westwood on the King’s Road in 1976. Westwood, who died in December, said last year that he “was a sensation ... The way that song Anarchy in the UK begins, it’s absolutely blood-curdling and I’ve never heard anything like it since.” She added: “Once the Sex Pistols folded, he didn’t have any more ideas.”

How good a fit is Lydon for Eurovision 2022? I’ve listened so you don’t have to. There’s actually something of Young’s reedy quaver about his vocal on Hawaii, PiL’s competition entry. Unfortunately, despite laudable sentiments (it’s addressed to Lydon’s wife, Nora, who is living with Alzheimer’s) the song, like most of PiL’s output of the past four decades following a brief period of post-punk innovation, is pretty terrible.

On the websites and YouTube channels where Eurovision obsessives discuss these matters, reactions have ranged from the dismissive to the appalled. The younger demographic, skewing female and LGBTQ+, which drives the narrative around the competition these days and dominates televoting, is unlikely to have ever heard of PiL or the Pistols. All of which relegates Lydon to that saddest of Eurovision categories, the novelty act.

Not that he’s likely to make it to Liverpool; betting sites rank PiL fifth out of the six entries in this year’s competition. The whole thing looks like one of the increasingly desperate stunts McLaren pulled with the decomposing corpse of the Pistols. Not so much Anarchy in the UK as Flogging a Dead Horse.