The Sex Pistols may have given John Lydon a famous name, but Public Image Ltd. has Lydon's heart.
John Lydon calls himself a folk musician. The former Sex Pistol knows how strange that sounds, coming from a punk pioneer.
"Folk is a term that seems to baffle most people," Lydon says with his pudding-thick, working-class English accent, on the phone from his California home. "The word seems to imply — and I'm aware of it, too — some asshole with long hair, a beard and a mandolin. But there is far more to it. Folk music is actually timeless music because it defies categories. It lives out of genre. It is heart and soul. It is true-speak."
Timeless is the word: Lydon's second musical endeavor, Public Image Ltd., first conceived in 1978 (and known also by its logo, PiL), has just kicked off its first U.S. tour since the early '90s. "When I'm onstage with PiL, that is my total heart exposed," Lydon says. "That is a genuine person, a human being. And I will not accept categories or labels to be put around that other than folk."
Historically, PiL has been filed under postpunk. And though Lydon may not like it, postpunk isn't a terrible description. After all, his pseudonym — Johnny Rotten — embodied punk. And only months after the Sex Pistols' 1978 demise, he and his PiL cohorts had left the genre behind.
In many ways, Lydon built PiL's moniker as a means of artistic property control. It was a declaration of independence from famously imperious Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. (Lydon, who had publicly quarreled with his ex-manager for decades, shared these words when McLaren died early this month: "Above all else, he was an entertainer, and I will miss him, and so should you.")
In the late '70s and early '80s, PiL pushed bleak, experimental dance music, a major shift from the Sex Pistols' rudimentary, anarchistic rock. Made up of Jah Wobble (rubbery, dub-drenched bass), early Clash guitarist Keith Levine (impressionistic shards of noise) and Lydon (a carnival of shrieks, warbles and wails), PiL aimed to create a future that sounded abstract and dangerous.
Like the relationship of the Sex Pistols to present-day punk, it's almost impossible to discuss noise rock, art rock, and various strands of grimy electronic music without tracing them back to early PiL.
"I wouldn't say art or noise rock," Lydon says of his band's sound.
What about a song such as "Albatross," the darkly hypnotic, 10-minute opener of the PiL classic Metal Box?
"Oh, that's free-form."
You wouldn't call it art?
"No, definitely not art because it's about a serious subject."
Art isn't serious?
"No, not to me. All art should carry a sense of humor to it. Have you ever seen the Mona Lisa? It's completely laughable."
Whereas the Sex Pistols publicly taunted the establishment, PiL has focused on the personal. Instead of invoking anthem-ready concepts (as in "God Save the Queen"), Lydon explored insular topics such as his mom's death ("Death Disco"), his Catholic upbringing ("Religion"), Sid Vicious' memory ("Flowers of Romance"), and the media's focus on his style instead of his substance ("Public Image").
"To me, Pistols and PiL are like yin and yang," Lydon says. "I like the Sex Pistols a lot, but I like PiL a hell of a lot more. The Pistols' songs were from the heart but not from a personal, inner way. They were more like social problem-solving things, and indeed that can become a little boring and tedious to me in time.
"For me, a PiL gig is a joyous event," he continues. "There are some songs that deeply, seriously affect me. Some make me cry, like 'Death Disco.' Some of the songs are almost like shout therapy — not that I'm shouting," Lydon says. "I'm opening my heart up."
From the mid-'80s on, Lydon — the band's only permanent member — took PiL in a more radio-friendly direction, diving into metal, hard rock and techno, and straying away from the band's cryptic original sound.
Choosing the lineup for this reunion tour, Lydon opted for latter-day PiL members: late-'80s guitarist Lu Edmonds (also an early member of the Damned) and drummer Bruce Smith. (By Lydon's count, the group has included 39 other players.)
Some PiL purists have been miffed by the absence of original members Wobble and Levine. In February, Wobble (real name: John Wardle, a teenage friend of Lydon's) told the BBC that he was asked to play the tour but turned it down because of insufficient pay. Wobble also said large venues and steep ticket prices don't reflect the original spirit of the group, and he accused Lydon of being in it only for the money.
"Oh, yeah, he's gone very silly, that boy," Lydon says. "Seeing as I'm the one putting all the money up and always have been, that's hilarious. I'm not a multimillionaire. We aren't sponsored by anybody. He certainly hasn't grasped who's paying for all this, and that, I think, is a sad indictment of his ignorance of how things are really run. I feel very sorry for him. What a pity."
Lydon says the original members couldn't hack the set list, which includes material from 1978 as well as late-'90s, non-PiL solo material. "If I was going for someone from the very, very first take of PiL, they wouldn't have understood the full range," Lydon says. "I needed someone that had the musical potential to cover all areas."
Indeed, it takes an open, agile mind to confront the wide gamut of styles and eras of PiL, thus Lydon's insistence on folk as the proper, category-transcending nomenclature. But is America's conception of folk music different from Britain's?
"Well, I suppose jazz is a folk music, too," he says. "It just lacks vocals. The first thing I want to hear from a human is his voice, and then he can put a trumpet behind it. Instruments really are the icing on the cake. But the voice is the cake."
Oh, iconic frontmen. How effortlessly they make backing players sound expendable.
"I can't do this interview to you through a trumpet or a banjo," Lydon says. "But I could definitely bump up the interview with those accoutrements."
To say that Lydon has a way with the sound bite would be a grotesque understatement. He'll always be better known as a Sex Pistol, but PiL — with all its moody madness and fearless experimentation — is his most personal statement.
"I'm quite pleased that it was noted that I'm not a one-string banjo," Lydon says, referring to his second act. "A Public Image live gig is a stunning event. It's not just a load of silly sods spitting and pogoing. There's a hell of a lot more going on in this."