NEW YORK (Reuters) - Nearly four decades after crashing onto the music scene at the age of 19 as the lead singer of British punk outfit the Sex Pistols, John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) is enjoying being back in the limelight.
Lydon is in the early stages of a North American tour with his long-running post-Pistols band, Public Image Ltd. Trademark orange hair on end - now more of a faded yellow - and with the mixture of ecstatic visionary and escaped mental patient that is Lydon’s stock-in-trade stage presence, he pounded out his lyrics to a sellout crowd in Williamsburg, New York, last week.
There is little hint of the mellowing that besets many other singers as far into their 50s as he is. “I’m not an old codger yet,” Lydon told Reuters in an interview at a Manhattan hotel after the concert.
Lydon is promoting his new album, “This is PiL,” a sprawling, hour-long musical journey that both evokes the PiL of old and pushes into new territory.
The hotel, part of a generic chain, is about as far away from punk rock as one can get. Lydon, wearing bright orange trousers and checked shirt, is an incongruous figure among the business people and families milling around in the lobby.
After overcoming the initial horror of discovering there was no bar and that he was going to have to get through the entire interview without a drink, Lydon settles into an enormous armchair the same color as his trousers.
A couple, obviously from out of town, slink onto a neighboring sofa to eavesdrop, looking for that New York celebrity story to tell their friends back in the ‘burbs. Lydon rolls his eyes.
“Regardless of the obstreperous behavior of corporate record companies, they’ve not been able to keep me down. It’s taken nearly two decades but I’m right where I belong,” he said.
The band reformed in 2009 after a 17-year hiatus, and “This is PiL” is their first studio album in 20 years. The title track, which leads off the album, seems aimed at both proclaiming the band’s return and reminding people who they are.
A mixture of big, bassy, fast-moving tracks, some slower guitar pieces and Lydon’s at times-unaccompanied voice, “This is PiL” has an epic album feel without being overblown.
Or in Lydon’s own words: “It’s those juxtapositions of events pinned down with some gloriously sweltering bass that we can hover around.”
There is also more of Lydon himself on “This is PiL.” “I’m John and I was born in London,” he sings at the start of “One Drop.” He points out the leitmotif of water in the album - something to do with nerve-wracking childhood fishing trips with his grandfather.
“This album truly, truly, truly acknowledges, I think, an absolute highlight in my life,” he said. “The sheer exuberance and exhilarance (sic) we all felt to get in a recording scenario was amazing.”
The album was recorded in the English countryside with little rehearsal. Most of the songs came together through conversations on the bus while touring.
“We more or less worked in a rehearsal barn in the Cotswolds with nothing but sheep for company,” said Lydon. “It was a very quick album, six weeks really.”
PiL formed in 1978, the year the Sex Pistols split up. The band has gone through 49 members by Lydon’s count and has had nine albums in the UK Top 40.
But the band has never reached the iconic status of the Sex Pistols. And Lydon has never really left behind that legacy. The Pistols were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2006 but the band refused to attend the ceremony.
Lydon is synonymous with the irreverence and rebellion he epitomized with the Sex Pistols in songs like “Anarchy in the UK” and his ironic take on Britain’s national anthem, “God Save the Queen.”
But his anti-monarchy stance seems to have mellowed. He calls Prince William and wife Kate (officially known as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge) the “least offensive in an awful long time.” But he adds defiantly: “I still want my money back.”
Yet he said he found the Occupy Wall Street movement an inspiration. I “loved it, loved it,” he said. “It brought debate and issues into people’s heads without violence; superb ... they didn’t resort to rioting.”
Lydon has resided for 20 years in Los Angeles, where - when not touring, writing, or recording - he says he lives the quiet life with his wife, Nora.
He chose L.A. to escape the London weather. “It’s 70 all year round on the beach, and the salt air cleans me right up, and I got used to the vibe of being healthy. I kind of like it.”
Editing by Jill Serjeant and Matthew Lewis