Music

John Lydon on his Irish roots and returning to Belfast with Public Image Ltd

Richard Purden chats to former Sex Pistol John Lydon about returning to Belfast with his band Public Image Ltd, his family connection to the city and how his Irish parents' listening habits helped inform his own musical taste...

John Lydon and Public Image Ltd come to Belfast next month. Picture by Rob Browne.
Richard Purden

JOHN Lydon is sporting a smart red tartan waistcoat during our chat. Tartan has been a significant element of his sartorial style since the Sex Pistols but he suggests his love for the material began long before punk.

"My mum used to make tartan waistcoats for me when I was a kid, she was very good at making them and would doll us up, I've got that affection for tartan from my mother," he reveals.

A picture of Lydon wearing the garment was featured in his 2014 autobiography Anger Is An Energy, a follow-up to Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs.

The son of Galway-born father Jimmy and Cork-born mother Eileen, now deceased, Lydon's Irish links remain strong with one of his three brothers now living in Belfast. The ex-Sex Pistol will soon arrive here to perform in June with Public Image Ltd (or PiL for short), this time travelling with an Irish passport.

"It's not for romantic reasons, because I was fed up being anally examined at Heathrow – I'd had quite enough of that," he remarks.

Lydon, who was known as Johnny Rotten during his time fronting the Sex Pistols, will be travelling in better circumstances. His last journey from his home in California meant having to leave his wife Nora, who has Alzheimer's, "with strangers", in order to attend a court case involving the Sex Pistols. This time, she will be looked after by family.

Lydon lost the case under the 'majority rules basis' allowing guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook to release what Lydon describes as "inferior product" with the support of bassist Glen Matlock.

He suggests being out-gunned by Disney, who will release the mini-series Pistol directed by Danny Boyle on their Disney+ streaming service on May 31.

"I didn't have enough money for a case long enough to bring out all the foibles," says Lydon.

"They are hooking up with dodgy heavy metal merchandise and trashing the artwork. It's just so wrong; the Sex Pistols is its own universe, you don't need to water the well.

"I was the boy that kept it clean and they've bitterly resented me for it and put this film together, it was three years in the planning and one year with Boyle.

"You tell me what that secrecy is about; it's a vendetta and I can't see any truth coming out of it because you've left the man out who created the image and wrote the songs."

He adds that the Sex Pistols, which formed in 1976, was "music hall in the proper working-class way", while adding that his relationship with the Pistols' seminal LP Never Mind The B******s hasn't changed.

"I play the whole thing through [on vinyl] and that's how it's supposed to be," he insists.

"From the sleeve onwards I was heavily involved in everything."

Perhaps the only person Lydon feels some tangible affection for from the period is the late Sid Vicious.

"He was a wonderful chap to hang out with - senseless and a bit of a coat-hanger really, but a good piss-taking imitator. If you had the slightest blemish on your face he would crucify you all day long; 'Oh look; here comes Spotty Muldoon'."

Lydon's brother, Jimmy, was involved in several punk records, perhaps most famously Why Don't Rangers Sign A Catholic? by Pope Paul and The Romans.

And one fateful Irish gig in October 1980 by Jimmy's band 4" Be 2" stopped Lydon from playing in Ireland for nearly 30 years.

"That band got me locked up in Dublin, I never made it to the gig; I was arrested for attacking two sets of policeman's fists with my face," he explains.

Lydon would write about the experience on PiL's 1981 single Flowers of Romance.

The incident discouraged him from playing in Ireland for almost 30 years, but shows with both the Sex Pistols and PiL since have helped build a strong Irish following.

The latter's live performances are known for creating a sense of catharsis. After two years in lockdown, he anticipates an emotional release at PiL's Belfast show at the Limelight next month.

"It's all about eye contact with the audience, they are the fifth member and they supply us with a hall full of people crying with joy, the emotion in the songs is a full-bodied thing. [PiL tune] Death Disco is about the death of my mum and it's since gone into the death of a few friends and the death of my father. It's an open book because there's more to come."

To his credit, Lydon refuses to take the fashionable point of view on many subjects.

He suggests he was given a BBC ban in 1978 for speaking out against Jimmy Savile.

In another recent interview, he put politics aside to criticise those celebrating Margaret Thatcher's death.

He also has some sympathy for the Queen, describing her family as "seriously stupid and highly self-righteous at the same time, what a dangerous combination".

PiL's hit Rise proved to be another controversial single for Lydon, as it criticised Nelson Mandela: "It was originally about the interrogation technique used by Mandela: he would put a tyre around someone's head and set fire to it.

"The record never got played much because I was having a word about murdering people. When you do that, you don't have a cause, because I don't condone anybody murdering anybody... that's not acceptable for me."

Lydon's problems with censorship go back a long way. God Save The Queen was said to have entered the UK charts at Number 1 but then removed from the top spot after another BBC ban.

"You shouldn't put a gag on anyone; that is a great evil. One of the greatest gifts of nature is our ability to communicate through words, to think and have empathy with other humans. If you censor someone that is a greater evil and should be exposed as such because if you can't argue against something then don't censor it, because that's spite.

"This 'woke' nonsense is seriously f***ing stupid. We all want to be equal, but if you are trying to censor someone and change words to suit your selfish ideology, that's unacceptable."

For Rise, Lydon also drew inspiration from the traditional Irish blessing May The Road Rise Up To Meet You.

"I wanted to work with Irish folk melodies and I love a lot of African rhythms. The more I studied Irish traditional music I found it to be very close to African traditional and I loved that sonic weaving in the melody, it flowed naturally.

"I got my music taste from my mum and dad and they were very open-minded about everything, really. Where I grew up in London there was reggae, Greek, Turkish and Irish folk – chuck in Petula Clark and Jimi Hendrix and you're rocking in the free world."

:: Public Image Ltd play The Limelight in Belfast on Friday June 10. Tickets £32.50 via openhousefestival.ticketsolve.com

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