by Margaret Chrystall
IT takes some guts to ask Public Image Limited’s mainman John Lydon if he’s mellowed.
But one-time Johnny Rotten, frontman of ultimate punk band the Sex Pistols, owner of the best sneer, challenging stare and siren wail of a voice, is still fiercely-passionate about his music.
Speaking from Los Angeles where he lives, he laughed: "There are times in the evenings where I’m damn well exhausted being me and there is some mellowness involved but no, no!
"Even when I’m stationary on the couch for two weeks watching nothing but TV, my brain – won’t – stop – burning."
The meningitis he suffered as a child – and which he talks about in 2014’s second book of his lifestory – has a lot to do with it, he feels.
"When I go to sleep at night I worry I might wake up not remembering who I am again and that terrible loneliness – I don’t ever want to go through that ever, never again.
"That complete isolation and feeling apart from the entire human race – is a terrible thing.
"And on top of that of course you had teenage anxieties – and septic spot syndrome!" he laughs.
"It was all piling up on me, but I don’t approve of self-pity.
"I don’t have the time to sit down and think ‘Woe is me!’.
"I make things happen. I think positively."
Hence his apparently bizarre move in 2009 fronting an English butter ad – but that raised money to revive PiL, independent of labels.
John said: "We run our own label and thrive on live performance – and are the healthier for it."
And with two albums since, there’s also plenty of work ahead such as the PiL tour and their Inverness debut on Saturday.
Afterwards, the line-up will follow last year’s successful album What The World Needs Now.
"I’m in the business of making music, it was a gift that came to me – to be in a band and to write songs – and I’ve never disrespected that opportunity.
"So I won’t write cack or rubbish. I’m not interested in being a preening pop star."
Ask John about the impact of picking himself up from the Sex Pistols split to form PiL and he says: "I just thought ‘Great – song material!’
"No, but you have got to get on with it in life – it is terrible, though, you do miss people.
"Even in bad band situations, you still miss them and always will.
"So I keep a really nice warm place in my heart for everyone I’ve had to work with, really.
"It’s a waste of time hating me, you get nothing but love in return," he laughs.
Looking back at the Sex Pistols era, John lists lessons.
"It instantaneously got me out of the impression that I should never and cannot sing.
"And from there on in I went on to do bigger and better things, once I’d expressed all my viewpoints on the institutions and powers that be that dictate to us and run our lives. "
Story of PiL
After the Sex Pistols, John Lydon formed post-punks Public Image Ltd in 1978 and it continued till 1992 with a changing line-up and unique sound incorporating rock, dance, folk, pop and dub.
They clocked up five UK Top 20 Singles and five UK Top 20 albums with John reviving the band in 2009 together with former members Lu Edmonds on guitar and miscellaneous instruments, drummer Bruce Smith and new bassist Scott Firth.
They released a new studio album, This Is PiL, in 2012 and last year the band released their 10th studio album What The World Needs Now… positively received by press and public. It peaked at number 29 in the official UK album charts, got to number three in the official UK indie charts and number four in the official UK vinyl charts. The album was self-funded by the band and released on their own label PiL Official via Cargo UK Distribution.
He confirms that a ladies white tennis blazer, sprayed pink and customised by him with "God Save The Queen" written in magic marker inspired the song.
The book reveals that the signature Lydon stare came from the meningitis which damaged his eyes.
"It was trying to focus," he says.
And he’ll happpily take the pain now of doing better.
His book ends wanting to hit the highest note possible – everything still to play for.
"I almost tore my tonsils out on the last tour," he laughs.
"It’s a screaming wall of pain sometimes, sometimes it’s just sheer ecstasy and love of life – not proper ecstasy, interpret that whatever way you will.
"But I’m chemically-free and alsohol-free when I perform. It’s not an act.
"I just open my heart and stick the pins in it, if you want. Like a voodoo doll."
It doesn’t sound 100 per cent healthy?
"But that’s what the public eye is," John replies.
"Basically I could say the Pistols was my childhood, the only childhood I had really."
He didn’t talk about his childhood illness until the book: "I didn’t want to base a career on ‘the poor boy’. It explains a lot of the alleged ferocity of my early years.
"It was me crying in the wilderness – with very good results, apparently," he laughs.
At 10, to get his mind working again, John started work as a taxi dispatcher.
"I’d not fully recovered my memory yet, but I could organise and structure that in my mind.
"That kind of willingness to take on really complicated procedures has paid off in PiL.
"I’ve got a great band and a great bunch of fellows, it works and it’s in areas I could never be good at.
"My mediocre talent blends well with that – and my tuneless lack of singing is well-substantiated by Lu’s Middle Eastern influences."
He confirms they have their adventures on the road, drily adding: "Yep! If we can scrape the money togther for a burger."
Speaking to John, it’s the humour that comes first.
"When I had to relearn how to read and write, I suppose British comedies on the TV helped no end. They were my role models, that’s what I focused on – I’m a Carry On chap.
"I believe in comedy and a bit of sauciness and it’s all right, it’s healthy."
The photos of the angry young punk bring memories.
"I’d say I was like a volcano waiting to erupt! There was so much pent-up energy and problems from being so seriously ill.
"So when there was an opportunity to be in a band – bang! Everything opened and that was it – here comes the lava!"
John enjoys the offstage world immensely too, he reveals. Reading and writing are favourite pastimes, he’s fascinated by politics, has strong opinions on Donald Trump and relishes the chance to vote in the US elections in November.
"But I’m very much like people saw me on I’m A Celebrity ... – I just get on with it. I’m not one to sit around."
Back to the old days and he confesses: "I used to take amphetamines to slow down!"
PiL play the Ironworks, Inverness, on Saturday, June 11.