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Sex Pistols' Johnny Rotten On The Real Meaning Of Punk

Johnny Rotten with the Sex Pistols in 1977
Johnny Rotten with the Sex Pistols in 1977
Stéphane Davet

His provocative texts and venemous singing with the Sex Pistols helped spark the punk explosion. It was only natural for the “Euro Punk” exhibition in Paris to hope that John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, would pay a visit. Before an Oct. 23 concert in the French capital with Public Image Limited, the band with which he invented post-punk in 1978, the man who wrote “God Save the Queen” and “Anarchy in the UK” and who now lives serenely in Los Angeles, rekindles a few memories.

What do you think about the punk movement being turned into a museum piece?
JOHNNY ROTTEN: I’m aware of what’s at stake and the problems it can represent. Punk has been misinterpreted so many times, especially in Britain, under the influence of Rupert Murdoch’s rags. I don’t know the organizer or the content of the exhibition, but I hope elements of truth will come out of it. If not, I’ll have to have a quick word with him. After all, I’m supposed to be the king of punk. No, I AM the king of punk!

What were the most common misinterpretations about punk?
It was neither a manifesto nor a fashion. Punk is a state of mind open to new ideas, with a desire to constantly evolve, to find the next step, not only in music but also in the world around us. When I wrote songs for the Sex Pistols, I wasn’t talking about chaos for the love of chaos. I was saying that the government and the institutions were misleading us.

For some people, the fact that you sang about “No Future” and another punk slogan, “Do It Yourself,” was contradictory…
How is that contradictory? There can be no future unless you do things yourself. At the end of “God Save the Queen,” the chorus repeats “No future for you” because it’s what awaits you if you do nothing. There’s lots of irony in there, like in “Pretty Vacant.” I’ve never considered myself pretty, nor vacant!

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John Lydon in 2010 — Photo: Shell Smith

Were you aware that you were changing people’s mentalities?
I wasn’t particularly trying to. I was mostly trying to change my own life, not accepting that I’d have no prospects. “No future,” that’s what the government had in store for people like me, from the working class. The school system kept you in the same social condition. “Content yourself with the few jobs available,” they said. Well Mr. Rotten did not content himself with that….

The monarchy and the government are still in place. Are you disappointed about punk’s poor political impact?
I’m a realist, not a preacher. The most important thing is to learn how to properly take in information and recognize your enemies.

At the time, you appeared to be more of an individualist or a nihilist than motivated with a social conscience…
I’ve always enjoyed playing the egocentric, but again it’s always with a large dose of irony. I grew up in a very multicultural community. We could count on one another, whatever the origin or religion. We shared very diverse music: Irish folk, reggae, progressive rock, Hendrix, Captain Beefheart…. I’ve kept these values my whole life. The slogan “Do it Yourself” doesn’t mean you should ignore everyone else. It’s the opposite, there’s some sort of spirit of generosity. I’ve never wanted to accumulate huge wealth or collect sports cars. Not when so many people are suffering. I’ve actually always given a part of what I earn to charity.

Which ones in particular?
Orphanages. When my mother died, my father volunteered to shelter orphans at home on weekends, so they could enjoy a family atmosphere. That was during the Sex Pistols, but I often spent my weekends there. When the authorities realized his son was Johnny Rotten, they forced him to stop, saying I was a bad influence.

Don’t you think that the punk movement has fallen into cliché and caricature?
In life, there are those who do things, and followers. I constantly try to deliver this message: “Admire someone’s work, but don’t imitate it, don’t lose your personality.” That’s why I founded Public Image Limited when I felt the Sex Pistols were turning into a caricature, reduced to the “public image” that Malcolm McLaren, our manager, was looking to give us.

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With the Sex Pistols in 1977 — Photo: Nationaal Archief

Was money the main reason the Sex Pistols reunited in 1996?
We also wanted to rebuild a friendship. Sadly, these concerts lasted too long and the animosity came back among us. So we decided we would never play another Sex Pistols gig. We prefer staying friends.

Why did you wait 18 years before releasing another Public Image Limited (PIL) album?
I lost all my money to the music industry because it wouldn’t give me any advances for new projects, but also refusing to free me from my contract. This kept me away from Public Image for 18 years. I made the most of it by doing other things, particularly documentaries on nature and wildlife. This opened my eyes on the planet and regenerated me musically when I came back to PIL.

Do you think your story would have been different if you didn’t catch meningitis when you were a child?
The illness changed me physically. It bent my spine and weakened my eyesight. If Johnny Rotten has this wild look in the eyes, it’s because I had to open them wide to be able to see. When I got out of coma, I also had to learn how to speak. This gave me this particular voice that deliberately emphasizes my pronunciation. But the most important impact was my amnesia. It took me four years to gather my memories. This terrible experience forced me to analyze myself and made me understand the temporary nature of a personality. That’s when I started hating lies. I had to desperately rely on other people’s word so much to know the truth, that the smallest dishonesty traumatized me. So I decided I would never lie. Even if that meant making enemies.

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