John Lydon: So what's Bangor like – is it hot?
He carries an Irish passport, is the son of Irish-speaking parents and spent 'a lot' of summer holidays on his grandad's farm in Cork, yet pioneering punk rocker John Lydon has never been to the north. Are we ready for him? Is he ready for us? Lorraine Wylie did her best to find out
“DO YOU want, Johnny Lydon or John Rotten?” he enquires in a posh voice before dissolving in a fit of raucous laughter. I’m supposed to be interviewing punk legend John Lydon – stage name Johnny Rotten – ahead of his performance at the Open House Festival in Bangor, Co Down. But I’ve obviously caught him in a funny mood.
“Sorry about that,” he says, without a trace of sincerity. “That’s what bad managers do to you.”
I try again, turning the conversation to the Public Image is Rotten tour and the recent release of a career box-set in celebration of his band's 40th anniversary. It sounds a pretty hectic schedule and Lydon is sounding a little screechy. So how is he?
“I’m just about alive,” he croaks. “My voice is, like, a bit squeaky because we’re in the middle of recording but I really mustn’t grumble. There’s been lots of things going on this year, some bland, some not so. The documentary [a behind the scenes look at Lydon’s career] was just stunning great fun and the box set has been very hard work to put together.
"In between touring, there’s no let up. I’ve been working damn hard actually. But that’s what you do when you celebrate 40 years in the business – you destroy yourself in 40 seconds!”
Talking with Lydon is akin to a verbal boxing match, a constant parrying of puns and jibes. He’s not averse to lobbing some heavy-duty expletives and, despite six decades' maturity, still loves to shock.
He first came to prominence in 1976 when, in the guise of Johnny Rotten, he launched his controversial Punk band The Sex Pistols. Two years later he formed the outfit Public Image Limited. Now it seems only right that the Prince of Punk should celebrate PiL’s 40th anniversary in Bangor, the birthplace of punk music in Northern Ireland.
“I spent a lot of summer holidays at my grandfather’s farm, a run-down kind of place outside Cork. He tells me. “But you know, I’ve never been in the north. Although, I have family there. Listen, I got family both sides of the religious agenda – I mean, why not? You know you can’t be getting involved in all that separatism, its nonsense. I say, let the gods fight it out. I’ll just wait till the winner comes out.
"My dad was from Galway and my mum from Cork so I know all about warring factions. Oh my God, they’d argue over which was the true Gaelic and yet neither would teach me a word. I was brought up by utter confusionists! Of course that might be why I think internationally instead of in primitive localisms. So what’s Bangor like – is it hot?”
I tell him it’s by the sea and has a lovely cool breeze.
“That’s because you’re all eating herrings and farting,” he laughs out loud. “You know, it’s so hot lately. I live in LA, near the beach but now in the UK, there’s no breeze and the heat is really slowing me down no end. It’s very difficult to get the energy that’s required to put into the songs, especially as I hate air conditioning.
"I’m looking forward to visiting Bangor now. Did you know, I used to play Subbuteo when I was young and Bangor was my favourite team. Everybody chose the one they supported, like Arsenal, but I just went for the colours of the kit and I always liked Bangor.”
I point out that it was probably Bangor in Wales.
“No! No!!!!” he shouts. “Oh no, I went for the amateurs!”
Lydon, has always courted and attracted controversy. In fact at one point in his punk career, his music prompted questions in Parliament under the Traitors and Treasons Act.
Ironically, as a child he was a shy lad and "nervous as hell" at school. Far from the cocky extrovert Johnny Rotten, back then kids dubbed him Johnny Dum Dum when an attack of spinal meningitis left him with severe memory loss (he didn’t recognise his parents for four years) and curvature of the spine. He also attributes what he describes as ‘the Lydon stare’ to an after-effect of meningitis.
How did he cope with life following his illness?
“I spent a lot of time in libraries,” he says. “I read everything, all the great classics. Words can be used as weapons. But music has always been therapeutic. It makes us think, takes us to happy places. Record shops used to be wonderful places. I mean, you could go there and see other people, talk about what they were buying, an amazing social occasions, great conversations. In fact, it upsets me that these kind of places are all gone now.
"You know, music has a wonderful way of combining the jagged elements into some kind of unity. How can you not want that in your world? I really miss those record shops.”
Of course, today’s generation has technology. The internet may make music more accessible but Lydon isn’t a fan.
“When I listen to music on the internet, I’m deeply upset by the sound reduction,’ he laments. “The dissipation of the energy that people need to put music together means we’re getting postcard versions of normal.”
Are young people missing out?
“Yes, it’s a tragedy. That’s why they’re so damn confused and Facebook is not the answer. I don’t want to see us all become one bland hip-hop, Nike wearing, sneakers brigade, dictated to by shopping malls. I think our unity is in our differences.”
What kind of thing makes you happy?
"A great night out. A good pub environment with people that wouldn’t normally see each other as friends. I like the idea of bringing them together. I think it’s important to have a sense of empathy with people who see the world differently to myself. I seem to be quite good at unifying people. I’m not negative in any way – I’m really quite positive.”
He does seem to have a knack of bringing people together. Having been to a recent performance, I was struck by the number of young people in the audience.
“I don’t like blowing my own trumpet cos I’m not very good at playing trumpet, but I do have a way of getting round all that ageism thing. If you just tell it as it is, then people will want to know you. That’s it.
"We’re open minded and we have no judgment in us. Our audience is incredibly diverse. It’s an incredible sight to see audiences of all different ages. We’re breaking the barriers and I’m so pleased you noticed.”
As our interview draws to a close, punk’s enfant terrible tries his hand at an Irish blessing
“May the road rise up to meet you...” is as far as he gets before we both fall about laughing. He may have an Irish passport but his accent is like nothing I’ve ever heard.
:: Public Image Limited (plus The Undertones, The Outcasts and XSLF), Open House Festival, Bangor Seafront, Saturday August 25; tickets £29.50 via openhousefestival.com