Something is Rotten in the state of Ireland
Sex Pistols legend John Lydon is on the road again with his reformed band Pil and coming here, writes Barry Egan
THREE weeks ago at the Benicassim Festival in Valencia, John Lydon took to the stage in front of 20,000 people and roared that this is "f**king Public Image Limited, and that is not" -- he was referring to The Prodigy who had just gone on, very loudly, at another stage at the other side of the sprawling site in southern Spain.
Within seconds, the onetime Johnny Rotten, former leader of the Sex Pistols, had launched into a thoroughly menacing version of Pil's anti-classic This Is Not A Love Song, complete with Johnny shuffling about the giant stage with a mad glint in his eye.
Lydon's legendary menace onstage -- and on record -- belies the gentle man who bawled his eyes at the death of his friend Sid Vicious on Julien Temple's The Filth & Fury documentary.
This is the man who decries with real passion the aesthetic and architectural destruction of his hometown London on the recent Sex Pistols DVD (again directed by Julien Temple). In a later interview, Lydon, who grew up in North London as the son of Irish emigrants, lashes the brain-dead racism of the British National Party and frontal lobotomised skinhead fascism in Britain, in general, that initially thought the gob-stained anti-establishment anarchy of the Sex Pistols was something they could row in poisonously with.
"If ever anybody got the Sex Pistols wrong, it was that lot," Lydon said, "Britain's an island, it's always had a constant ebb and flow of immigration, it makes it a better place. And there's not a BNP hooligan in existence that can do without his curry on a Saturday night, right?" he added with the withering scorn John Lydon is known for.
Pil, the post-punk group Lydon formed when he quit/was sacked from the Sex Pistols by Malcolm McLaren in 1978, have been hugely influential: their brand of heavy bass and abrasive guitars is something that Massive Attack, Primal Scream, The Prodigy, Leftfield, New Order and to a lesser degree, Radiohead, owe a debt.
Pil had former Clash guitarist Keith Levene and bassist Jah Wobble among its achingly out-of-kilter number. Just don't tell Lydon that they closed the door on the Pistols at the time.
"It wasn't closing the door on the Pistols," he said. "It was just opening a new one and showing where I stood in terms of the world. Above all else, it needed to feel honest. It needed to have integrity, which I found sadly lacking in the management [Malcolm McLaren] of my first band. Pil was a clearinghouse for me. It's always meant absolute freedom. And with freedom comes responsibility. That's why my songwriting is all about the truth, all about trying to find out what emotions really are, and how not to be misled by them.
"I love a good pop song, you know. I love the whole verse/chorus format, but to broach some subjects properly -- with the respect due -- you need to step outside the format. Beyond music, almost. That's a difficult concept for people to understand.
"It's not about me trying to be avant-garde or deliberately 'jazz-fusionist'. It isn't that at all. It's a gut reaction to the subject matter. Like Death Disco is a song about the death of my mother. And it's even more applicable now, as my father died last year. You don't want to wallow in tragedy, but the loss of a parent is a serious thing. It's extremely hard to come to grips with. Like I say in the song, there are times in life when words are useless, where you can't possibly channel an emotion without a guttural yell."
John has done very well out of antagonistic guttural yells, of course. He was born John Joseph Lydon in a Victorian tenement in Finsbury Park in 1956. His late parents were a huge inspiration to him. His labourer father John emigrated to England from Galway with his wife, Eileen (an avid record collector who passed on her love of music to her son) when they were still young. Their son contracted meningitis as a child. He was held back a year at school and considered stupid because he had bad eyesight and was left-handed. The nuns used to whack him on the knuckles for his left-handedness. They thought it was a sign of demonic possession of sorts. In a way, they were right. This was the young man who wrote the lyrics to God Save The Queen at his mum's breakfast table waiting, as he remembers it, for his beans on toast:
Lydon said that people wouldn't now believe the personal consequences that song had for him. "To be discussed in parliament under the Treason Act, which carried the death penalty. Bernard Brook -Partridge laid a motion at the time to debate whether we were traitors!" he said in 2008 (referring to Brook-Partridge proposing the Pistols "would be vastly improved by sudden death").
He added: "On the street there was no debate. I still can't close my left hand properly after getting done in. I got a machete in the knee and a bottle in the face. Mind you, the worst injury was at Barrowlands in Glasgow. Some woman threw a high-heeled shoe and got me in the forehead. I was walking around with a third eye for a month."
And many of us will be similarly walking around with dazed eyes after we see Lydon and Pil play Ireland.
The Electric Picnic takes place on September 3-5 at Stradbally Hall, Co Laois. Weekend tickets are €240. Online: www.ticketmaster.ie Credit card phone lines:
IRL: 0818 719300
UK/NI: 0870 2434455 www.electricpicnic.ie