Raunchous, Rugged & Great: John Lydon on PiL and playing Glasgow
It’s a good week to be in Glasgow: John Lydon and Public Image Ltd are coming to town. When the writer Damien Love recently caught Mr Lydon for an interview, he managed to ask him for us about some of his memories of playing in venues in the city over the years, among other things…
“You make it sound such fun!” John Lydon hoots, when I gently suggest that, over the years, Public Image Ltd has sometimes proved a quite volatile mix of people.
Still, the numbers don’t lie. Factoring in fleeting studio musicians and live accomplices, over 50 people have now passed through the continually shape-shifting group with which Lydon revolutionised people’s minds for the second time, following the implosion of The Sex Pistols in 1978.
“Well, because of how things started for me,” Lydon says, “I’d always presumed that that was what making music was like: being in a band meant you all hated each other. With the Pistols, there were too many rows with the management, and the management not speaking to any of us, or selecting what bits of truth he’d pass out, which created enormous tensions.
“And in PiL I’ve had some murderous times with people. But they’ve had murderous times with me, too, no doubt. Let’s be fair. In the world of creativity, you’re gonna get battles. But I always try to look on the positive side, I’m not one for despondency and looking back and saying, ‘Oh what if…’ I never wanted PiL to be a dictatorship. But, oddly enough it can end up kind of like that. Of late, I’ve found a way not to be like that. And it’s not so much hand-picked members, as the people in the group themselves, by their very behaviour, it becomes obvious those are the people to work with.”
As it is, the roots of the “new” PiL with which Lydon returned to the fray in 2009 go back a long way. Drummer Bruce Smith (formerly of The Pop Group and The Slits, the fantastic femme-punks fronted by the late Ari Up, daughter of Lydon’s wife, Nora) and guitarist/ multi-instrumentalist Lu Edmonds (ex- The Damned) first came aboard back in 1986. The other current member, Scott Firth, has played with everyone from John Martyn to, as Lydon positively delights in pointing out, The Spice Girls.
Following the often-explosive chemistry of previous manifestations of PiL, Lydon enthuses about the camaraderie inside the present incarnation. “You have to have a mutual respect society going on in a band really. Well, at least for now we do. It’s been a long journey to get to this stage. And this stage might not last long – who knows, the way human beings are?
“But this is something I’ve always strived for: a healthy working place. I ran at the studio making the new album. Great fun. Listen: we’re all childish. Everyone in ‘the entertainment business’ is. But we can also be innocent. So leave the seven deadly signs outside, don’t bring it into the workplace… Unless, of course, it’s good song material.”
From short, spiked pop (The One) to long, strange, thick, jammy fields, (C’est La Vie), there’s plenty of good material on evidence on the new album, What The World Needs Now… adding to the mighty, awkward arsenal of songs that ensure that PiL remains one of the most extraordinary live experiences in music.
With the tour for the new record kicking off in Glasgow this Friday night, I took the opportunity to ask Lydon about his favourite venues in the city over the years. Regular readers of this blog might not be surprised to learn which is top of the list:
“Playing Glasgow? Well, the most fabulous place always was The Apollo. Yeah. The atmosphere in there was very old music hall – which is, indeed, kind of what I grew up with. And, indeed, I view the Sex Pistols as music hall.
It was a very raunchous place, The Apollo, and I remember that the balcony used to always shake and vibrate, so it seemed like a very dangerous place, too. And everybody in Britain in bands knew that, if the audience decided they didn’t like ya, well, you were in for a bad time. The stage was well too high, and well too narrow, also, so very dangerous. You had to keep your mind on what you were doing and where, because if you fell off of that, that would be one cracked skull. And, of course, The Glaswegian bouncers and security were notorious thugs. They were big lads with dickie-bows, and well chiselled. But I always got a smile out of them, you know, because they were people, too. And if you ever talked with people like that before the gig, they get it, and then they’re not so aggressive, and they start enjoying it, which is what you want to do in life. I heard from many bands that had been there and had a very bad time of it, but I’m kind of convinced it’s because they asked for it to be a bad time.
I played Barrowland, too, of course. That’s a nuthouse. Unfortunately, in them early years, there was always that one clown out in the crowd that had to throw something or do something nasty, and Barrowland I remember because I got a billiard ball thrown at me. And also, up the road in Edinburgh there was a girl – and I know she meant well– but she threw her high heel, and it hit me right crack in the middle of the forehead, the metal tip. And, wow, I saw stars.
But places like The Apollo, Barrowland: you can feel the atmosphere in these places. It’s tangible. I’m looking forward to Glasgow. It’s gonna be rugged and great.”