Published May 28, 2012California definitely agrees with John Lydon. And that's not just because the Public Image Ltd. front-man's natural attention-grabbing personality is ideally suited to the L.A. media jungle. At age 56, a large part of Lydon is still the same Johnny Rotten that first shocked Britain, then the world, out of a social malaise with the Sex Pistols in 1976, even though he has spent the better part of the past three decades in the Golden State. On the eve of releasing PiL's new album on its own label - the band's first since 1992, aptly entitled This Is PiL as a declaration of independence - he sounds more at ease with himself than ever before. That is, until you ask him a direct question about, say, current recording techniques. "The amount of gadgetry that people put on their voices is astounding to me because the one thing that we as human beings rate most highly is clarity of message, and that absolutely gets in the way," he says. "If you start altering the human voice to the point where it becomes a cross between Mickey Mouse and a robot, what is the point to that? I might as well listen to the toaster. There is a new toaster out right now that speaks; I think Bosch makes it. It's hilarious! [In robotic voice] 'Your toast will soon be ready.' Put that to a beat, sir!"
This Is PiL was made as soon as the band wrapped up its widely praised 2010-2011 world tour. It wasn't exactly a reunion, but the current line-up consisting of long-serving members Lu Edmonds on guitar and drummer Bruce Smith, along with newcomer bassist Scott Firth, appears to be the most stable one so far. Lydon, who has seemingly careened from one volatile situation to another his entire life, couldn't be happier. "When we decided to do this again two years ago, there were some really long conversations," he says. "All of us wanted to know clearly what it was we were doing. Now we're in a universe where we don't lie to each other about anything. We're free of the restrictions of major labels; we've somehow managed in two years to raise enough money just through touring to be able to record a new album and set up our own label. Our own label! Let me tell you, that's a 24-7 thing too. I get one or two hours' sleep a night, but at least you're refreshed and you've got a sense of joy and willingness to get back and work. Uncontaminated."
1956 to 1972
Eileen Lydon gives birth to John Joseph Lydon on Jan. 31, 1956, her first of four sons. Both she and husband John Christopher Lydon are Irish immigrants, and frequently move around southern England whenever Lydon Sr. finds work as a crane operator. At age seven, while living in the tough north London Finsbury Park area, Lydon contracts meningitis. He spends a year in hospital, often slipping in and out of a coma. Part of Lydon's treatment involves drawing fluid from his spine on a regular basis, which leaves him with a noticeably hunched back. The disease also permanently affects his eyesight, leading to what is later called "the Lydon stare."
"I've had some serious life-threatening, debilitating illnesses," Lydon says. "So what? It made me a better person really. It might strike many people as odd, but I'm grateful because I came out the other side of it. I was physically damaged by many of those things, but I'm mentally astute, so these are the gifts." Following his recovery, Lydon has trouble readjusting to life at Catholic school and starts working odd jobs at age ten, including taxi dispatcher and rat killer on his father's building sites. Although Lydon's parents don't object to him growing his hair, or his fondness for experimental psychedelic rock by the likes of Hawkwind, Captain Beefheart and Can, his rebellious nature gets him expelled from school at 15. By law, Lydon needs one more year of education, so he is enrolled at a state school, where the more diverse student population tolerates his attitude. Among Lydon's first acquaintances there is John Simon Ritchie, who lives with his mother in poor conditions near the school. They bond over Ritchie's sense of humour, even though Lydon initially finds Ritchie naïve and slow-witted. Lydon ends up calling Ritchie "Sid Vicious," a name he's already bestowed upon his pet hamster.
1973 to 1975
Lydon is kicked out of his family home and moves into a squat in the more upscale Hampstead area of London with Vicious, and several others including John Wardle, later known as Jah Wobble. All of Lydon's circle have aligned themselves with the glam rock movement led by David Bowie and T. Rex's Marc Bolan, and begin taking their clothes and hairstyles more seriously. Lydon cuts his hair off in chunks and dyes what's left green. This doesn't prevent him from getting a job at a day care centre, although he is soon dismissed after parents complain about his look. For amusement, Lydon and Vicious busk in subway stations, most often playing Alice Cooper's "I Love The Dead" on acoustic guitar and violin. At night, they and the other squatters go to gay discotheques or reggae clubs, any place where they feel they won't be judged. Lydon's fashion sense is certainly distinct; he favours cutting up his clothes and reattaching them with safety pins or making tops out of garbage bags. It's partly out of admiration for the style of London street people, but mostly a reflection of his social standing.
"We came from a world of no privilege at all - London council flats, and a working class background of depravation," Lydon says. "So, our world experience was bad architecture, hopeless housing, and no prospects for the future. I don't ever speak of that with a sour tone. It's just reality, but you also have a brain, get to using it." At the same time, Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's recently opened clothing shop Sex, located on London's King's Road, is stirring controversy for selling bondage and fetish gear. McLaren is equally determined to establish himself in the music business, having become the de facto manager of the New York Dolls after seeing them on a trip to the Big Apple. The group briefly become guinea pigs for Westwood's designs, and fall under the sway of McLaren's anti-establishment ideas borne out of the 1968 general strikes in France, that were fuelled by the revolutionary group Situationist International. McLaren is particularly fond of the SI concept of detournement, or putting highly recognizable capitalist and pop culture images into new visual contexts to devalue them. That philosophy fails with the Dolls, leading to the original line-up's dissolution in early 1975. McLaren sets his sights on managing a more malleable group and finds them in the Strand, a trio of local teens that includes vocalist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook, then hoping to be managed by McLaren associate Bernard Rhodes. McLaren's first move with the Strand is to add Glen Matlock, a part-time Sex employee, on bass. He then fires guitarist Wally Nightingale, deeming him unsuitable for the band's new image, and convinces Jones to play guitar. McLaren rebrands them as QT Jones & His Sex Pistols - the name a blatant promotion for the store - but he soon becomes dissatisfied with Jones as a front man. The search begins for a new singer. Among those who audition are Midge Ure, later of Ultravox, and Kevin Rowland, later of Dexy's Midnight Runners, while McLaren unsuccessfully tries to rope in Television's recently departed songwriter/bassist Richard Hell. One day Rhodes spots Lydon walking down King's Road wearing a Pink Floyd T-shirt with "I Hate" scrawled across the front. He implores Lydon to meet the band and McLaren. Their interest in Lydon is purely visual, and his innate mistrust of people makes for a tense initial encounter. They eventually convene at Sex where Lydon is persuaded to sing along to Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen" as it plays on the jukebox. His over-the-top performance leaves everyone in stitches, although at their first scheduled rehearsal, only Lydon shows up. McLaren has to convince the others that Lydon has star quality and they start to forge a sound that incorporates Jones' and Cook's basic level of power chord riffing, Matlock's British Invasion melodicism, and Lydon's avant-garde flair. Lydon doesn't bother to tell anyone his last name, so Jones christens him "Johnny Rotten" in reaction to the state of Lydon's teeth.
The Sex Pistols debut on Nov. 6, 1975 at Saint Martins College. Matlock is enrolled there and sets up the gig as the opening act for pub rockers Bazooka Joe, whose members include Stuart Goddard, later known as Adam Ant. The Pistols' set is mostly a ramshackle collection of cover songs such as the Who's "Substitute" and Paul Revere & the Raiders' "I'm Not Your Stepping Stone," but the group's aggressively negative attitude is immediately noted. Their connection to McLaren and Westwood draws in a small but devoted suburban art school crowd, and every gig soon becomes an event - often to see how long it takes before things collapse into chaos. Lydon also unintentionally inspires "gobbing" - audience members spitting at the band - although his penchant for expelling excessive mucus as he sings is another lingering meningitis side effect.
The Sex Pistols get their first press in February after a gig opening for Eddie & the Hot Rods at London's Marquee Club. The NME review catches the attention of two Manchester students, Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto, who come to London to see the next Pistols gig. They form the Buzzcocks soon after. In April, the Pistols open for pub rockers the 101ers, led by Joe Strummer. Within weeks, he quits that band to join the Clash, an offshoot of Bernard Rhodes' ill-conceived response to the Pistols, London SS, a short-lived group that also spawns the Damned. The brewing violence surrounding the Pistols finally erupts at a late April gig when Westwood starts a fight in the audience that escalates into full-scale brawl. It's widely reported in the music press, with future Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant writing in the NME, "So how do the Pistols create their atmosphere when their music has failed? By beating up a member of the audience. How else?" The final cornerstone of the British punk scene is laid on July 4 when the Ramones play their first UK gig at London's Roundhouse club, after which nearly every budding punk musician in attendance starts to mimic their go-for-broke sound. A month earlier, the Pistols had a similar effect in Manchester when they headlined a gig organized by Shelley and Devoto. Despite only about 70 people showing up, these include future Joy Division/New Order members Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, Morrissey, and Factory Records founder Tony Wilson.
The Pistols play Manchester again on July 20 and debut "Anarchy In The UK," their first original song to meld Lydon's anger with McLaren's revolutionary stance. The band's initial attempt to make a demo with noted session guitarist Chris Spedding proves insufficient, but their second, with soundman Dave Goodman at the controls, gives McLaren better ammunition with which to seek out a record deal. There are no takers though, prompting McLaren to put on an outdoor gig in London with the Clash and Buzzcocks also on the bill as a ploy to lure label reps to see the Pistols live. A few days later, the band is back in Manchester, performing "Anarchy" on Tony Wilson's So It Goes television variety show. A further string of dates culminates with the McLaren-organized 100 Club Punk Special, a two-night event at a small London venue that features all notable British punk acts, the latest being Siouxie & the Banshees, fronted by Siouxie Sioux, one of the Pistols' original fans, and featuring Sid Vicious on very rudimentary drums. These concentrated efforts finally kindle label interest for McLaren, and offers arrive from Polydor and EMI. McLaren opts for the latter, an $80,000 non-refundable deal on advance royalties. The group members are not consulted on the contract, a fatal mistake it turns out, since it solidifies McLaren's complete control over all aspects of the Sex Pistols' career. They record "Anarchy" with Roxy Music producer Chris Thomas and it's released as a single on Nov. 26. With EMI's press corps fully mobilized, the Pistols and the growing punk movement get mainstream media coverage on British radio and TV. On Dec. 1, they are asked to appear on a London live dinnertime news program as a last-minute fill-in for EMI signees Queen. The show's host, Bill Grundy (reputedly drunk), goads them into saying something outrageous and Lydon obliges by dropping the word "shit." Jones follows suit by calling Grundy a "dirty bastard" and a "fucking rotter" after he makes a pass at Siouxie, also on the set. The incident sparks national outrage through inflammatory headlines the next morning, causing many dates on the Pistols' Anarchy Tour to be cancelled.
With "Anarchy In The UK" stalled in the lower reaches of the Top 40, and the press taking aim at EMI executives, the label informs McLaren at the start of the year that it is cancelling the Sex Pistols' contract. Word comes as the band plays Amsterdam, Glen Matlock's last shows. The bassist's forced departure is said to stem from a long-simmering feud with Lydon, but all parties later concede that Matlock's attitude is no longer in line with what the Pistols represent. Lydon, needing a trusted ally now that he is public enemy number one, stands firm to bring Vicious in as a replacement. No one is concerned that he has never played bass before, since ongoing studio sessions are essentially the domain of Jones and Cook, with Lydon adding vocals when needed. McLaren goes so far as to hire Matlock for a few sessions, but Jones ends up handling most of the bass duties in the studio.
Several labels get in line to pick up the Pistols' contract, and McLaren agrees to a two-year deal with A&M Records with a $150,000 advance. The contract is signed during a hastily assembled press conference outside Buckingham Palace on March 10, a foreshadowing of the next Pistols single, "God Save The Queen," another tour de force social commentary from Lydon. Just before its scheduled release, Vicious gets into a violent confrontation with BBC host Bob Harris, who afterward vents his rage at A&M executives for signing the Pistols. Other A&M artists back Harris, and the label cancels the contract, leaving McLaren with the advance as a settlement. Desperate to have "God Save The Queen" available in time for Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee, McLaren strikes a deal with Richard Branson's Virgin label, whose only real success up to then has been Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells. Yet, Branson is a self-styled anti-establishment figure with no qualms about media backlash against the Pistols.
Meanwhile, the band are unable to play live as Vicious is recovering from a bout with hepatitis. It's a result of his first dalliance with heroin, introduced by his new girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, a New Yorker who was part of Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers' entourage for the Anarchy Tour. Everyone in the Pistols' camp takes an immediate dislike to Spungen, but she is determined to remain with Vicious after Lydon rebukes her initial advances. Vicious recovers in time to take part in McLaren's stunt to mark the official Jubilee Day: Having the Pistols play on a boat on the Thames River. Police arrive after only a few songs and McLaren is arrested. "God Save The Queen" is the biggest selling single in Britain that week, but for the only time in chart history, all information about the song is blacked out, and it is deliberately placed at #2 behind Rod Stewart's "I Don't Want To Talk About It."
The public furor over the song boils over on June 21 when Lydon is assaulted outside a pub, suffering a stab wound to his arm that severs tendons. Lydon lays much of the blame on McLaren for not protecting him, and their growing rift widens as McLaren becomes engrossed in making a Sex Pistols movie. The Pistols do a largely uneventful Scandinavian tour before a run of unannounced dates under the catchall heading SPOTs (Sex Pistols On Tour) due to the number of British cities that have banned them. The album Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols is released Oct. 27 and heads to the top of the UK album chart. At the same time, a bootleg hits stores entitled Spunk comprised of all the Sex Pistols' demos, some of which are more powerful than the Never Mind versions. The band caps off the year with another headline-grabbing British tour, the most memorable date coming on Christmas Day when they play a well-received afternoon set for 500 children of striking firefighters. "That [period] was the deep end of everything negative, but somehow I think I made it a positive," Lydon says. "That's my point of view. I never stepped in the wrong direction once. Every single word was true. I stand by that, and I'll sink or swim by that."
The Pistols play their first U.S. show on Jan. 5 in Atlanta in front of 500 people. Their arrival in the country is delayed by visa problems, forcing several dates in major cities and an appearance on Saturday Night Live to be cancelled. McLaren's response is to book the band in roadhouses in the Deep South where confrontation is guaranteed. Vicious does not disappoint in this regard, baiting and attacking audiences at every opportunity, and engaging in self-mutilation as he copes with heroin withdrawal. The tour marks the end of Lydon's direct dealings with McLaren. At the final show in San Francisco on Jan. 14, the singer ends the performance by saying, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" McLaren's plan is to take the band to Rio de Janeiro to record a single with notorious British train robber Ronnie Biggs, but Vicious ODs after the concert and his minders take him to New York where he is immediately hospitalized. Lydon, broke, comes along and announces to the New York Post on Jan. 18 that the Sex Pistols are over. "Our management was hopelessly and chaotically out of touch with us," Lydon says. "In spite of that, we somehow muddled our way through. But there was an intrinsic good nature to the Pistols; there was a sense of fun in us. I don't know if that ever traveled well outside of Britain."
As an olive branch to Lydon, Richard Branson invites him on a trip to Jamaica in February to assess potential signings to Virgin's new reggae subsidiary label. While there, Lydon and some others are invited to a house where Joni Mitchell is living. They object to the music being played, and are told it's her new album. Furious, the Canadian songstress kicks them out. A month later, McLaren attempts a reconciliation with Lydon in L.A. in order to appease the Sex Pistols' U.S. label, Warner Bros., but upon his return to England, Lydon initiates legal proceedings against McLaren to recoup money the manager has withheld from the band. On May 27, Lydon tells the NME that he's forming a new band with original Clash guitarist Keith Levene and Jah Wobble on bass. Jim Walker, drummer for Vancouver band the Furies, rounds out the line-up after answering an NME ad shortly upon arriving in the UK. Lydon christens the band Public Image Ltd. after the title of the song that becomes their first single.
On Oct. 12, Vicious is charged with murder after he wakes from a stupor to find Spungen stabbed to death in their New York hotel room. It is never determined whether she was killed by Vicious, someone else, or committed suicide. Virgin releases the "Public Image" single the next day and it hits the top of the British chart. Critics coin the term "post-punk" to describe the sound, and a young Irishman going by the name the Edge soon adopts Levene's innovative guitar style. PiL's full-length debut, First Issue, is released in the UK in December, but Warner Bros. deems the album's heavy reggae influence unsuitable for release in North America. Lydon's mother dies from cancer, around the same time that he marries Nora Forster, a German publishing heiress 14 years his senior, and mother of Slits singer Ari Up. Over the next several years, she suffers two miscarriages, forcing them to abandon the prospect of having children together.
1979 to 1980
Vicious dies from a heroin overdose on Feb. 2, 1979. He's found in bed the morning after a party at his new girlfriend's New York apartment celebrating his successful bail hearing. His mother later admits to buying the heroin. Five days later, Lydon's case against McLaren goes to court. The judge finds in Lydon's favour, although McLaren has ploughed nearly all of the Sex Pistols' earnings into his Julian Temple-directed film, The Great Rock 'N Roll Swindle, the soundtrack to which is rush-released immediately after the court decision.
"It's like this," Lydon reflects, "the longer you continue inside what we call the wonderful world of music, you either come out of it thinking like Einstein, or you're a drug addict. There doesn't seem to be any other way. And you will learn. I had good teachers, shall we say." Jim Walker leaves PiL in Feb. 1979, unhappy with the band's direction. A series of new drummers take part in sessions throughout that year, which result in Metal Box, released in Nov. 1979. It is originally packaged as three twelve-inch 45 rpm records housed in a metal film can, but after 60,000 copies are sold, it is released as a double vinyl album in Feb. 1980 under the title Second Edition. Although it fails to crack the Billboard album chart in North America, its relentlessly cold, corrosive sounds - and Lydon's ever-confrontational lyrics - make it a touchstone for the emerging industrial music genre. PiL does its first U.S. tour in the spring, including an appearance on the television show American Bandstand. Lydon refuses to comply with the show's lip synching policy, making a mockery of the band's performance and raising the ire of host Dick Clark. In November 1980, the live album Paris Au Printemps is released, credited to Image Publique S.A. Recorded on a simple reel-to-reel machine the previous January at two Paris concerts, Lydon makes no apologies for its quality, explaining that the intention was to get a $60,000 advance from Virgin in order to cover the outstanding costs from Metal Box. Wobble leaves PiL shortly after the release of Paris Au Printemps citing creative differences, and embarks on a solo career.
1981 to 1983
The Flowers of Romance is released in April 1981. With Wobble gone, Lydon and Levene put nearly all the focus on percussion, and the results are PiL's most deliberately challenging work to date. The band permanently relocate to New York and at a show there in May, PiL play from behind a projection screen while their records are played simultaneously through the PA. The chaos provokes a violent reaction from the audience, and the next night's scheduled show is cancelled. The band's contract with Warner Bros. expires in October 1981 and is not renewed. There are reports that PiL have split in the midst of making a new album that winter, but Lydon issues a press release denying them. He spends part of 1981 in Italy co-starring with Harvey Keitel in the film Copkiller. Drummer Martin Atkins rejoins in May 1982 and PiL set to work again on a new album, purportedly a soundtrack to the film. Sessions instead drag on into 1983, whereupon Levene leaves the group. As the single "This Is Not A Love Song" is released by Virgin - hitting the UK Top 5 - Levene takes the unreleased tapes from the previous year and puts out the full-length album Commercial Zone on his own Public Image Ltd. label. By then, Lydon and Atkins have assembled a new PiL line-up with members of a New Jersey band called Westside Frankie and the Inglewood Jerks; they make their recorded debut on the lackluster Live In Tokyo. "The police harassment was excessive and unnecessary in Britain [at that time]," Lydon says. "It made it nearly impossible to begin PiL there because we couldn't get any gigs. There was still the old legacy, and that created a tension among the members. They're still kind of embittered and bitching about it to this day, some of them. But that's alright, it gave them a career. You'll find in life that not many people know how to be grateful."
1984 to 1986
Lydon's re-recorded versions of the Commercial Zone material are released as This Is What You Want...This Is What You Get. Its best-known track, "The Order Of Death," is a holdover from the aborted Copkiller soundtrack and is later heard in an episode of Miami Vice and on The Blair Witch Project soundtrack. Back in New York, Lydon is asked by Afrika Bambaataa to sing on his Time Zone project's single, "World Destruction." It's an early combination of rock and rap, and introduces Lydon to producer Bill Laswell. Soon after, they begin working on a new PiL album, with Laswell assembling an all-star cast of musicians including guitarist Steve Vai, keyboardist Bernie Worrell, bassist Jonas Hellborg, and drummers Tony Williams and Ginger Baker. Album (or in its other formats, Compact Disc and Cassette) comes out in January 1986, and becomes the first PiL release to chart in North America, aided by the single "Rise," which receives steady video play. "I've worked with rank amateurs to jazz aficionados over the years, and I find everyone to be basically on the same level," Lydon says. "We're all just striving to be as honest as we can musically, and for the words and the music to be part of the same picture; to express the emotions that you're trying to portray as accurately as possible. Once you start dabbling with studio trickery and fakeness, it's a never-ending problem." That same month, a British judge awards Lydon and the other Pistols full control of McLaren's Sex Pistols assets, including The Great Rock 'N Roll Swindle. Later that year, Alex Cox's film Sid & Nancy, is released. Although Lydon later admits to admiring Gary Oldman's portrayal of Vicious, he dismisses the film overall as glamourizing heroin addiction and missing the point of the punk movement. Ominously, a young Courtney Love makes a cameo in the film.
1987 to 1992
Lydon forms another all-new PiL line-up, this one featuring former Damned guitarist Lu Edmonds, and Siouxie & the Banshees guitarist John McGeoch. He taps Gary Langan, known as a founding member of Art Of Noise and producer of New Romantic acts ABC and Spandau Ballet, to produce Happy? It's the closest PiL have come to making a commercial record, mainly due to Langan's heavily processed '80s approach in the studio. Lydon attempts to work with Laswell again on 1989's 9, but the producer is not impressed by the latest PiL incarnation and stands firm to bring in hired guns as he had with Album. Lydon rejects this and teams with Stephen Hague, who ironically made his name producing Malcolm McLaren's single "Madame Butterfly." Lydon describes 9 as having a more positive outlook than its predecessor, and the single "Warrior" performs respectably on the charts, both in its original form and as a dance remix. The Greatest Hits, So Far arrives in the fall of 1990. Two years later, That What Is Not is released, but almost universally ignored at the height of grunge. Soon after, Lydon announces that PiL is on indefinite hiatus.
1993 to 1995
Lydon ventures into the electronica world, recording the track "Open Up" with Leftfield. Lydon's lyrics are based on his failed audition for the film Burn Hollywood Burn, and it hits #13 on the UK singles chart. Lydon's autobiography, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, is published in March 1994. Covering his life up to the Sex Pistols' break-up, the book includes long passages from others in Lydon's life, some of whom contradict his version of events. In 1995, Lydon is approached to host a daily syndicated U.S. radio segment based on George Gimarc's Punk Diary books. Rotten Day debuts in September and is an immediate hit, with each two-minute episode featuring Lydon's abrasive comments on an event from that day in music history.
1996 to 1997
In January 1996, Lydon records a vocal on a version of the early rock standard "Route 66" for use in a Mountain Dew television commercial. He says plainly that he did it for the money and to test out his new home studio in L.A. where he is beginning work on a solo album. "I do consider myself a Californian," Lydon says. "And I hope that annoys a lot of Californians! But really, home is where the heart is, and I find this to be a very generous state. It had to be, because I was basically run out of Britain." On March 16, the original Sex Pistols line-up holds a press conference at the 100 Club to announce their reunion. Lydon explains that the 72-date "Filthy Lucre" world tour is the first time the Pistols have been able to operate on their own terms. A June 23 show at London's Finsbury Park, near where Lydon grew up, is recorded and released as Filthy Lucre Live. Again, Lydon makes no apologies for doing the tour for the money, and reviews of the performances are generally mixed. Lydon's solo album, Psycho's Path, is released in July 1997. It's a highly diverse collection of sounds and ideas, exemplified by the single "Sun," which features accordion and Lydon singing through a toilet paper roll. Lydon's solo tour is set to kick off Aug. 3 in New Orleans, but the show is cancelled after Lydon fires drummer Robert Williams during rehearsals. After a handful of dates with a new drummer, the rest of the tour is scrapped because of lack of support from Virgin. Williams' breach of contract suit against Lydon is bizarrely settled on Judge Judy in September. She finds in Lydon's favour, even after chastising him for several outbursts.
1998 to 2000
With Rotten Day wrapped up, Lydon strikes a new deal with VH1 to do Rotten TV, a half-hour program featuring interviews and filmed location segments. Just prior to its debut, VH1 has Lydon host its 1999 Grammys red carpet pre-show. Classic moment: Lydon hands retro rocker Brian Setzer a calendar to remind him what year it is. The PiL retrospective Plastic Box is released in March 1999. Lydon has little to say about it, explaining in one of his few interviews at the time that he feels anything with his name on it guarantees disapproval. A month later he does contribute liner notes to an Alice Cooper box set. Rotten Radio launches as a weekly four-hour online program in the lead up to Rotten TV, which debuts in January 2000. Although only three of the planned seven episodes are aired over the course of the year, it presents Lydon as a compelling host. This is further displayed on his radio show, which features interviews with notable authors and activists, and he also becomes a regular guest on Bill Maher's nightly group talk show Politically Incorrect. "Language is one of the greatest things we as a species have achieved," Lydon says, "and through those words we can communicate all manner of thought. Some negative, lots positive. And so, for a political organization to impose the cutting or elimination of certain parts of human dialogue is absolutely insane." Julian Temple's Sex Pistols documentary The Filth And The Fury, debuts at Sundance and is hailed as the definitive visual record of the band. Lydon's interviews in the film are shot in shadow, and he is captured in a rare moment of grief when discussing Sid's death.
2001 to 2002
Lydon reports that he's working on a new solo album, while also starring in a couple of unsuccessful television pilots. In one, he plays Death, who regularly consults a man with terminal cancer, and in the other he's cast as a "heavy metal Dad," to an aspiring musician. The latter is retooled to become the WB series My Guide To Being A Rock Star. Early in 2002, Virgin announces it will release a Golden Jubilee edition of "God Save The Queen," including a dance mix by Leftfield's Neil Barnes, along with a Sex Pistols box set. Lydon does the media rounds in Britain to promote it, and the Pistols do a well-received one-off show on July 27 in London. In a BBC poll later that year, Lydon is listed number 87 on a list of Top 100 Great Britons in history, although the Pistols are snubbed at their first opportunity to be inducted in to the Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame.
2003 to 2005
The Pistols embark on a North American tour Aug. 20 and receive more favourable reactions than their previous outing. At the end of 2003, it's announced that Lydon will participate in a British television show called I'm A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, in which he and other notable names are placed in a remote location in Australia, and asked by viewers to perform unpleasant tasks. Lydon leaves the show a few weeks into its run after producers refuse to tell him if a flight his wife is on lands safely. His concern stems from the lingering fears of flying they share since 1988 when he and Nora had been booked on, but arrived too late to board, the doomed jet that exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland. In June 2004, Lydon signs on to host two nature specials for British television, John Lydon's Shark Attack and John Lydon Goes Ape, both filmed in Africa. This leads to a further series for the Discovery Channel, John Lydon's Megabugs, filmed at various locations in the southern U.S. At the same time, Lydon remarks that sessions for his next solo album have stalled due to disagreements with engineer Nick Launay. Instead, in October 2005 Virgin releases The Best Of British One Pound Notes, a career-spanning singles collection, including new track "The Rabbit Song." Later in October, a Belgian television network broadcasts Rotten & Reynebeau, a five-part series consisting of Lydon and historian Marc Reynebeau driving around Britain discussing notable landmarks and cultural institutions. Lydon is furious over the end results, saying it was edited to make him seem like comic relief, on top of the producers using Sex Pistols music without permission. The head of the show's production company resigns in the wake of Lydon's anger. "I take a lot of time on my choices of work," Lydon says. "I don't do things lightly, and I don't do things just to be on TV. I love what it is I do. I've been given one chance to have a good life, and I'm determined that's what it will be."
2006 to 2008
The Sex Pistols are inducted into the Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame in 2006, but none of the members attend the ceremony. In a hand-written statement posted online, Lydon calls the Hall a "piss stain." "When you allow yourself to become incorporated like that, then you've become deaf, dumb, blind, and oblivious to the real world," Lydon says. "You're allowing yourself to become precious about everything about yourself, and the machinations of the shit-stem. When they absorb you into these things, they cut off your legs, clip your wings and seal up your mouth." In January 2007, Lydon confirms his participation as a judge, along with Bif Naked and the Cult's Billy Duffy in Fuse TV's Bodog: Battle of the Bands. The Sept. 5 finale crowns Seattle band Fall From Grace the winner. Later that month, Lydon states that the Pistols have re-recorded "Anarchy For the UK" and "Pretty Vacant" for the video game Guitar Hero III-Legends Of Rock. The Pistols go on to play a handful of UK dates in November to mark the 30th anniversary of Never Mind The Bollocks. The sets include a new version of "Belsen Was A Gas" entitled "Baghdad Was A Blast." Lydon's father dies of a heart attack in January 2008 and the Pistols resume touring in April 2008, concentrating mostly on Europe and Japan, as well as their first ever show in Russia. To coincide with the tour, the DVD Sex Pistols: There'll Always Be An England is released, filmed at a Brixton Academy show the previous November. At one festival date in Spain, Bloc Party front man Kele Okereke claims that three members of Lydon's entourage hurled racial epithets and physically assaulted him. No charges are laid, and Lydon denies the allegations, although Super Furry Animals' leader Gruff Rhys stands by Okereke's story. Lydon also makes headlines at the time for allegedly accosting British singer Duffy at an awards ceremony. Reports later claim it was one of Lydon's assistants that was involved.
2009 to 2010
Plans get underway in summer 2009 to reassemble PiL for a tour. Virgin declines to back the venture, apart from issuing limited editions of Metal Box and Plastic Box, prompting Lydon to raise money by appearing in a British TV ad for Country Life butter. Lydon explains, "If I'm asking people to contribute financially, then they are definitely going to get their money's worth, and come away with something extra special on top. In our world, you will be treated well, with full respect, and hopefully you will learn how to be an individual and to think outside the box, which is the best possible place any of us can ever be." The new PiL line-up of Edmonds, Smith and Firth kicks off its first tour in 17 years kicks off in December 2009. On the eve of the North American leg, Malcolm McLaren dies from cancer on April 10, 2010. Lydon's official statement calls his former manager "an entertainer. I will miss him, and so should you." The tour finds PiL in top form, but things quickly fall apart at the July 17 show in Spain, when technical problems lead the band to abandon Lydon during the encore. The press jumps on the incident saying the band has broken up, but the UK leg of the tour commences two days later. Some of these shows draw protestors angry about the scheduled PiL concert in Tel Aviv, which defies an artist-imposed boycott of performing in Israel over its treatment of Palestinians. Lydon shrugs off the protests, saying he supports no governments. On Oct. 20, Lydon announces through his website that stepdaughter Arianna has died from a "serious illness." The Slits' vocalist was 48, and Lydon and Nora assume custody of Ari's three children. At year's end, Lydon publishes Mr. Rotten's Scrapbook, a collection of original drawings, paintings, and poems that sells for $750.
2011 to 2012
As the PiL tour continues, Lydon suffers another personal blow when his London home is ravaged by fire. The cause is said to be faulty wiring in the kitchen, but no one is injured. In September 2011, the film Sons Of Norway premieres at the Toronto International Film Festival. Lydon makes a cameo in the story about a 14-year-old Oslo boy whose life is transformed after discovering Never Mind The Bollocks in the late '70s. The filmmakers say they ambushed Lydon with a script after a PiL gig and were shocked when he agreed to become the film's executive producer. Work begins in the fall of 2011 on This Is PiL, the band's first original album since That What Is Not. The sound reflects the new line-up's undeniable chemistry, and hearkens back to the raw live energy of the early PiL records. Lydon creates his own Public Image Ltd. label to distribute the album worldwide, the first time he has worked without the support of a record company. "The stifling regime of the corporate record labels is finished," Lydon says. "I found myself attached to that, and I couldn't detach. I couldn't function anymore because of a constant state of debt. That was eating me up for nearly two decades. Music's the thing I love most, and to know that I was part of the agenda of an accountancy firm was a terrible, terrible thing to tolerate. But luckily I managed to not use that in a nasty, angry way, but to let the rage and the anger bubble into something constructive. Anger is an energy. I said it years ago, and I still mean it."
The Essential John Lydon
Sex Pistols Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols (Virgin/Warner, 1977)
An essential album by any definition, and one of the 20th century's most influential works of art. Lydon's performances channel generations of British working class fury, which continue to inspire those hearing them to question authority.
Public Image Ltd. Metal Box/Second Edition (Virgin/Warner Bros., 1979)
If the Pistols represented destruction, PiL was all about creation. Lydon's true musical persona emerges here on this sophomore release, aided greatly by guitarist Keith Levene and bassist Jah Wobble who shared similar goals of redefining what a rock band could be.
John Lydon The Best Of British One Pound Notes (Virgin, 2005) Although never known for his chart placings, this career-spanning singles compilation is surprisingly rich in material that's had a lasting impact. From the anthemic "Rise" to the landmark rap/rock hybrid "World Destruction," Lydon proves time and again that when he's on message, he's untouchable.