He was the flame-haired, foul-mouthed punk figurehead-in-chief who shocked and appalled a nation.
Enfant terrible. Rock icon. Court jester. Provocateur. Reality television star. Butter brand ambassador. Celebrity. National treasure. Pantomime villain. Sell-out. Curmudgeonly right-wing crank. John Lydon is all this and more.
His first single in 1976 put it bluntly: "I am an ANTI-CHRIST!" His vocal at the start of Anarchy in the UK is memorably described by Greil Marcus in Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century as "a roaring earthquake of a laugh".
It is undisputedly one of the most incendiary and influential debut singles of all time. Its visceral sucker punch has only intensified over nearly half a century. When the result of the Brexit referendum broke in 2016, I put on Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols. On that tumultuous and disorientating morning it sounded more prescient than ever before.
Playing live is a like a psychological work out, which is amazing to share with an audience. I wear my heart on my sleeve these days
"They made you a moron," Lydon snarls, cutting right through to the unvarnished truth. "A potential H bomb." "I never asked to be the poster boy," Lydon explains from his home in Los Angeles, reportedly originally built by screen goddess Mae West. "I just stood up when it mattered and said what needed to be said. I'm still doing that but doing it in a much more heartfelt and deeper way."
Resplendent in a fetching red tartan suit for our Zoom call, and still possessing a thousand-yard stare due to contracting spinal meningitis as a child, Lydon was once voted one of the one hundred greatest Britons of all time.
He turned down an MBE and became an American citizen in 2013. The first born child of Eileen from Cork and Jim from Tuam, Lydon refers to his identity as Irish, English and American at various points during our conversation.
F Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives. Lydon clearly didn't get this memo. He re-wrote musical history yet again with Public Image Ltd (PiL), a pioneering post-punk group he formed with Keith Levene, Jah Wobble, and Jim Walker. Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth described their 1979 double album, Metal Box, as The White Album for the underground.
Today, the term post-punk has never been so ubiquitous. “These are different times with different sets of circumstances,” Lydon says. “It is not just cheap theatre for someone to appropriate willy nilly, but having said that, there are some great bands out there making a ferocious racket and good on them. Those are the ones I want to hear. I don’t give a damn what they look like.”
On Rise, featuring the memorable refrains of May the road rise with you, and Anger is an energy, Lydon wrote about South African apartheid, but the lyrics were also partially inspired by allegations of torture by the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland ("They put a hot wire to my head 'cos of the things I did and said"). Other PiL songs broach ghastly subject matter. Poptones is about a horrific rape and murder.
Death Disco is one of the most haunting songs ever written about grief. “In Public Image I’ve been allowed to explore more painful emotions like love, tragedy and death,” Lydon says. “Playing live is a like a psychological work out, which is amazing to share with an audience. I wear my heart on my sleeve these days, so when I go out there the sadness takes over. Music more often than not these days is very trivial and full of flashing lights.
“There is no heartfelt serious tragedy in it, which you must endure and share in order to move on in your life. It is not a great pleasure to write songs like Death Disco. It’s absolute agony. The pleasure is doing them onstage.”
Lydon hasn't toured in years and not solely because of the pandemic. He has been married to Nora Forster since 1976. In 2018, she was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. He believes he and Nora narrowly averted death in 1988 by missing Pam Am Flight 103 that was blown up over Lockerbie, Scotland. His stepdaughter, Ari Up, of The Slits, died from breast cancer aged just 48.
John has become Nora’s full-time carer, so touring presents a challenge. “It was so hard after I did the book tour to come back and fit back in with her because she was mystified why I would be gone so long,” he says.
“This time around my brother and his wife, who live in LA, are going to move in and look after her properly so it’s family. A bunch of strangers left her very shaky and unsure about herself. There were lots of issues with intimacy that had to be dealt with in a solid way. She was frightened going to the toilet. Somebody hurt her. This is what happens, but I’m in a much safer frame of mind this time around.”
Lydon then launches into an unprompted tirade against his former bandmates in the Sex Pistols. “The worst disaster of all was that hideous and disastrous court case with those unpleasant f**ks I used to work with and what they dragged me into,” he spits.
"It was very difficult and I didn't have enough time to get anything organised to take care of Nora properly. They knew that full well because the year before the drummer Paul [Cook] came to see us and knew all about Nora's illness so when they dropped that bomb on me with Disney corporate money they knew exactly how damaging it would be.
"That's the story of their life. All I did was write all the songs and come up with the image, so I'm not worthy to be involved in a documentary with Danny Boyle on the bum bum."
Pistol, directed by Danny Boyle, will stream from Disney+ from May 31st. The Trainspotting director recently claimed that he had been trying to reach Lydon before filming commenced but never got past his manager.
"I hope he finds how much we admire him as an artist, as a figure as unique in our culture as Oscar Wilde himself," Boyle has said. The entire project appears to have been a red rag to Lydon. The Pistols burned briefly and brightly, sending a shock wave through popular culture, but since then their story and relationship appears to be highly acrimonious.
On a more positive note, despite her medical condition. Nora’s happiness is a enormous source of comfort for Lydon. “Her true personality shines through and that’s what you get with Alzheimer’s,” he says.
“If people are miserable, horrible and nasty in normal life, then that’s what you’re going to get, but she is very balanced mentally and always up for a laugh. She finds everything funny and loves to contribute. Unfortunately, she can’t get the sentences together, so she finds it very difficult to communicate because for her it involves both English and German. She can’t co-ordinate the words in either language, let alone the two together.”
Lydon’s love, commitment and adoration for his wife is very moving. “It helps that I can look into her eyes and we are so soulfully connected,” he says. “She can read ticker tape that runs along the bottom of news channels really fluently, so when we watch TV we have subtitles on all the time. She has such a sweet nature.
“Oh my God, I just love her so much. I dread what the future holds, so I’ll enjoy what we have now. There will be a song in there sometime that will absolutely tear me apart. It’s like a new verse in Death Disco. That song is my mother, my father, and many, many friends who have passed. They turn up in my head when I sing it onstage. They are all there with me.”
Is Death Disco the song he is proudest of writing? “Yes,” Lydon instantly replies. “My mum asked me to write a song for her when she was dying in hospital. I told her I couldn’t possibly do it but I did anyway. I came back to the hospital and sang it to her to the theme of Swan Lake and started screaming.
“She just burst out laughing. It was such a precious moment that will last forever. She was putting on a brave face for everyone. I see grown men crying whenever I play that song.” Lydon has no intention of slowing down as he approaches 70. “I’m only 66,” he says cheerfully. “I’m working on a new thing. The anti-Christ has returned and he won’t go away.”
Public Image Ltd play the National Stadium, Dublin on June 9th and the Limelight, Belfast on June 10th with support from Brix Smith