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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!

[rebelmouse-image 27087433 alt="""" original_size="433x598" expand=1]

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.

[rebelmouse-image 27087434 alt="""" original_size="800x1201" expand=1]

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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Geert Wilders, The Europe Union's Biggest Problem Since Brexit

The victory of Geert Wilders' far-right party in this week's elections in the Netherlands shows that politics in Europe, at both the national and European Union level, has fundamentally failed to overcome its contradictions.

Geert Wilders, The Europe Union's Biggest Problem Since Brexit

A campaign poster of Geert Wilders, who leads the Party for Freedom (PVV) taken in the Hague, Netherlands

Pierre Haski

Updated Nov. 28, 2023 at 6:15 p.m.


PARIS — For a long time, Geert Wilders, recognizable by his peroxide hair, was an eccentric, disconcerting and yet mostly marginal figure in Dutch politics. He was known for his public outbursts against Muslims, particularly Moroccans who are prevalent in the Netherlands, which once led to a court convicting him for the collective insulting of a nationality.

Consistently ranking third or fourth in poll results, this time he emerged as the leader in Wednesday's national elections. The shock is commensurate with his success: 37 seats out of 150, twice as many as in the previous legislature.

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The recipe is the same everywhere: a robustly anti-immigration agenda that capitalizes on fears. Wilders' victory in the Netherlands reflects a prevailing trend across the continent, from Sweden to Portugal, Italy and France.

We must first see if Wilders manages to put together the coalition needed to govern. Already the first roadblock came this week with the loss of one of his top allies scouting for coalition partners from other parties: Gom van Strien, a senator in Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) was forced to resign from his role after accusations of fraud resurfaced in Dutch media.

Nonetheless, at least three lessons can be drawn from Wilders' far-right breakthrough in one of the founding countries of the European Union.

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