NEW YORK (Reuters) - “You’re sounding like one of those cynical halfwits.”
John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) sends his trademark cackle echoing into the ears of a journalist who had the temerity to compare Lydon’s revival of the groundbreaking postpunk band Public Image Ltd. to a Las Vegas act.
“This is proper music,” he scolds about the band, who make their first U.S. appearance in 18 years tonight at Club Nokia in Los Angeles.
“I’ve inspired and created all kinds of new genres and yet I still keep coming across spiteful, snipey journalism: ‘Oh, it will be the same old tunes.’ These songs are as valid today as the day I wrote them and they will be until the day I die,” he told Reuters in an phone interview between rehearsals.
Such remarks would sound arrogant out of anyone else’s mouth. But as the man who exploded the possibilities of popular music with punk band the Sex Pistols and who took that music into unknown territory with Public Image, perhaps humility isn’t warranted.
The Sex Pistols defined punk rock in less than two years, 1976 through early 1978, with songs like “God Save The Queen” and “Anarchy In The U.K.” and, in so doing, inspired a generation of bands.
But what is sometimes forgotten is that nine months after the Sex Pistols disintegrated, the man called Rotten reinvented himself as the frontman for Public Image Ltd. and reached the British Top 10 with the song “Public Image.”
In the years that followed, Public Image Ltd. (or PiL, to their fans) combined elements of dub, reggae, dance beats, and rock into a new sound that paved the way for what is now called postpunk music.
But for all of Lydon’s talk about PiL being “an ongoing tour de force,” the band offered no new material at their December shows in Britain.
“I can’t go out and perform an entirely new set before I’ve recorded it,” he said. “Or else, every second-rate two-bit sod will be jumping all over my copyright. I mean, they’re jumping all over it already. Of course, my music’s for sharing but at least say who you’re nicking (stealing) your licks from!”
The 54-year-old Lydon halted PiL in 1993 to concentrate on his autobiography and solo projects, but he kept writing songs.
“The problem is I didn’t want to pass on any new material to a Sex-Pistols type situation,” he said. “It’s a band I love, of course. And from time to time I’ll go out and perform with the Pistols. But PiL is where my songwriting goes.”
Lydon expects that if the self-financed tour is successful, he will use the money to record new PiL music.
“So when I come across these derogatory remarks that this is all some kind of swindle, it really irritates me,” he said. “The ‘swindler’ died recently, ok?”
Lydon is referring to the Sex Pistols’ one-time manager Malcolm McLaren who died of cancer last week at age 64. McLaren had, at various points, claimed that he created the Sex Pistols to swindle the music industry, a claim that Rotten has repeatedly and vociferously denied.
The two were locked in a long lawsuit over the dissolution of the Sex Pistols and, indeed, over the rights to the name “Johnny Rotten.” Lydon has lobbed many a brickbat at McLaren over the years, but when asked about the death of his one-time manager, he gets serious.
“His death came as a complete shock to me,” he said. “We’ve had wonderful arguments over the years. We always liked to get a good rise out of each other — endless forms of amusement for both of us. But we fought the same battle on the same side of the fence against boredom, apathy, laziness and cowardice. That’s how I choose to remember him.”
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte