“only the fake survive…” John Lydon
It was announced on Thursday that John Lydon, also known as Johnny Rotten, will be receiving a BMI Icon Award in October for his contributions to music. So I have decided to take a look back at the punk legend.
The singer was born in the rundown Holloway area of North London in January of 1956 to John and Eileen Lydon, two working class immigrants from Ireland. He was the eldest of four brothers, who he was largely responsible for looking after due to his mother’s ill health.
Despite describing himself as shy and retiring, as a child Lydon was part of a local gang of kids from his neighbourhood, who would regularly fight with others, in his autobiography he reflected on them as:
Hilarious fiascoes, not at all like the knives and guns of today. The meanness wasn’t there. It was more like yelling, shouting, throwing stones, and running away giggling.
At the age of seven he contracted spinal meningitis and was in hospital for an entire year, he credits this for the ‘Lydon stare’ and even goes as far as to say that it was “the first step…on the road to [Johnny] Rotten.”
At ten years old he entered the world of employment, working as a minicab dispatcher to help his struggling family.
He went on to St William of York Catholic School in Islington, a school he hated and was bullied until he began to fight back towards the end of his time there. He described the teachers as “oppressive” and “anti-anyone-who-doesn’t-quite-fit-the-mould”. Rebellion against this kind of attitude would be central to the punk movement he would later be such an integral part of. His act of rebellion went a step further after he completed his O-Levels and got into a row with his father over his long hair, agreeing to cut it, he returned sporting a new short but bright green look.
Lydon got into another row, this one with a teacher, that saw him kicked out of school and placed in another state school. This would be a fateful turn of events, as he met and befriended a John Simon Richie, or Sid Vicious as he would later be deemed by Lydon himself after his parent’s hamster. The two stopped attending college, instead squatting in Hampstead, a wealthy area of of the city. He eventually got a job with a children’s play centre after being recommended for the job by friends, but he was ultimately fired after parents complained about someone “weird” with bright green hair teaching their children.
In 1975, guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook and bassist Glen Matlock had already been The Sex Pistols for three years, but they lacked a singer. They were promoted by Malcolm McLaren, although due to his interest being with other bands, they were overseen by his friend Bernard Rhodes. In August that year Rhodes spotted a nineteen-year-old Lydon, who was wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt that he modified with the words “I hate” scrawled above the band’s name and holes scratch through the eyes.
The truth of the story is unknown, as accounts vary, but either Rhodes or McLaren asked him to meet band members Steve Jones and Paul Cook. Jones recalled:
He came in with green hair. I thought he had a really interesting face. I liked his look. He had his ‘I Hate Pink Floyd’ t-shirt on, and it was held together with safety pins. John had something special
When the pub they were in shut, they moved on to SEX, a specialist clothes shop owned by McLaren and Vivienne Westwood that Lydon frequented. They convinced him, despite having no previous history of singing, to sing along with the store’s jukebox to Alice Cooper‘s I’m Eighteen. Though the rendition was apparently awful, McLaren convinced the group to rehearse with their future lead singer. Lydon reflected back on society back then in John Robb’s Punk Rock book:
Early seventies Britain was a very depressing place. It was completely run-down, there was trash on the streets, total unemployment – just about everybody was on strike. Everybody was brought up with an education system that told you point plank that if you came from the wrong side of the tracks…then you had no hope in hell and no career prospects at all. Out of that came pretentious moi and the Sex Pistols and then a whole bunch of copycat wankers after us.
Jones gave Lydon his new name, Johnny Rotten, apparently deemed so due to bad dental hygiene. After settling on the shortened moniker of Sex Pistols the band set to work on original material, with Rotten writing lyrics and Matlock the melody although the credit was shared amongst the four members.
The band began to play gigs, where in December 1975 they supported rock band Fogg at Ravensbourne College, Chislehurst. They played the gig for free, as McLaren said they were turning professional the following year. They were seen at the gig by Simon Barker, friend of Steve Severin, who was enamoured with what he had seen. The two went to watch them again at the Marquee in February 76, and became part of a dedicated following known as ‘the Bromley Contingent‘ along with Siouxsie Sioux and Billy Idol. The people turning up to their gigs would soon adopt the band’s unique cutting-edge fashion sense and was the beginning of a movement. The Marquee gig, where they had supported Eddie and the Hot Rods also garnered them wider attention, even getting reviewed in NME where Jones declared “We’re not into music, we’re into chaos.” John Robb’s Punk Rock described Rotten’s evolution:
[Rotten] was now really pushing the barriers of performance, walking stage, sitting with the audience, throwing Jordan across the dancefloor and chucking chairs around, before smashing some of Eddie and the Hot Rods’ gear.”
The NME review also led Howard Devoto and Pete Shelley to search for the band, who inspired them to go on to create The Buzzcocks. Devoto declared “My life changed the moment I saw the Sex Pistols.”
Jamie Reid, friend of McLaren, began producing Sex Pistols material publicly in the spring, he recalled working with the band in Jon Savage‘s England’s Dreaming:
The Sex Pistols seemed the perfect vehicle to communicate ideas directly to people who weren’t getting the message from left-wing politics.
When the band played at the Nashville for the second time in late April their musical ability had grown considerably, but they “lacked a spark”. This led to Westwood, joined by McLaren and Rotten, starting a fight in the audience. Cook looked back on the moment, describing the band and the moment as a “catalyst” for the violence as “everybody was ready to go.” The fights would soon get the group banned from the Nashville and the Marquee. however.
In June the band would play their first gig in Manchester, arranged by Devoto and Shelley, at the Lesser Free Trade Hall. The gig, voted one of the most important concerts of all time, would set off that “inspired a generation to make their own music, and arguably changed the world forever. Such was the power of punk.”
They returned to Manchester the following month where they premiered a new song, ‘Anarchy in the UK‘. And the next month the band made their first television appearance, on Tony Wilson‘s So It Goes. Despite only scheduled to play ‘Anarchy in the UK’ they continued to play another two in an act of rebellion that the band, and the punk movement, was built around.
In October of 76 they signed a two-year contract with record label EMI (who Lydon will receive his Icon award from). A month later ‘Anarchy in the UK’ would be released, the band’s first single. Even the packaging broke new ground, as it was sold in a wordless plain black sleeve. As last-minute replacements for Queen, the Sex Pistols caused a storm in December, swearing during a live broadcast of Thames Televisions’ Today program. Baited by host Bill Grundy, who later claimed to be drunk, Jones continued to swear at the host.
This sent the media into an uproar, with the Daily Mirror famously running the headline “The Filth and the Fury!” which would later go on to be the title of the band’s autobiographical documentary film.
The media inadvertently made the Sex Pistols a household name, bringing both them and the punk movement into the mainstream awareness. The Pistols, supported by The Clash and New York outfit, The Heartbreakers went on the Anarchy Tour of the UK, with the media covering the band in great detail. This led to only seven of the scheduled twenty gigs to actually take place, as organisers and local authorities cancelled them. The band would ultimately get dropped from their contract with EMI after political pressure following the group’s flight to Holland for a series of gigs there, where they were described as “vomiting and spitting” something which EMI representatives denied.
Matlock left the band in February 1977, who claimed later in his autobiography that his reason for leaving was Rotten’s “inflating ego…once he’d had his name in the papers.” Lydon himself would claim that the punk anthem ‘God Save The Queen‘ would be the breaking point for Matlock who declared the band “fascists” and “couldn’t handle those kinds of lyrics.” Despite disagreeing he didn’t deny the fascist claim, simply to get Matlock out of the band. Rotten replaced Matlock with his long time friend, Sid Vicious despite no musical experience.
A month after Matlock left, the band signed with A&M Records, a move that was announced in a press ceremony outside Buckingham Palace. Six days later, after they brought chaos to the company, they were dropped by A&M and the 25,000 copies of ‘God Save The Queen‘ that had been pressed were all destroyed. In May, they signed with Virgin Records, and after some protests from their workers, eventually released the single at the end of the month. Several major retail chains refused to stock the record, and the BBC and every independent radio station refused to play the song. In response Rotten proclaimed “We’re the only honest band that’s hit this planet in about two thousand years.” The single, released at the same time as the Queen’s silver jubilee, was a major success and despite only officially reaching number two in the UK singles chart, it actually outsold Rod Stewart‘s single which held it’s number one spot for the fourth straight week. CBS Records, who distributed both singles reportedly told McLaren that they were outselling Stewart’s song by two to one.
The band famously performed the single on the River Thames on a privately chartered boat, passing both Westminster Pier and the Houses of Parliament as they did so. The stunt was designed to mock the Queen’s planned procession two days later, and it ended in chaos as police forced the boat to dock and arrested McLaren, Westwood and many of the band’s entourage. The band themselves escaped down a side stairwell with their equipment.
Lydon was attacked by a gang in mid-June, outside the Pegasus pub in Islington, the knife wounds causing tendon damage in his left arm. And three days later he was attacked again. In an interview Lydon said “I don’t understand it. All we’re trying to do is destroy everything.” The band secretly went around the country under the name SPOTS (Sex Pistols On Tour Secretly) to avoid cancellation. They released two more singles, ‘Pretty Vacant‘ and ‘Holidays in the Sun‘ during the year, both of which made the UK top ten chart. They were followed by the band’s first and only album ‘Never Mind The Bollocks: Here’s the Sex Pistols‘. The album reached number one in the album chart.
The band would go on to tour America at the beginning of 1978, in a tour that would ultimately spell the end of the Sex Pistols. Lydon, who was sidelined by flu, was disgusted by his friend and bandmate Vicious’s behaviour on the tour, as he got up to various antics mostly including fighting and his cocaine addiction. At the same time he felt isolated from his other bandmates Cook and Jones who were being distanced from him by McLaren, ultimately leading to him introducing the band’s encore of their final gig with “You’ll get one number and one number only ’cause I’m a lazy bastard.” The song played was a cover of the Stooges ‘No Fun‘, Lydon ended the song on his knees declaring “This is no fun. No fun. This is no fun – at all. No fun.” Three days later the band split and made their own ways. Lydon described the situation:
The Sex Pistols left me, stranded in Los Angeles with no ticket, no hotel room, and a message to Warner Bros saying that if anyone phones up claiming to be Johnny Rotten, then they were lying. That’s how I finished with Malcolm – but not the rest of the band; I’ll always like them.
He flew to New York, where he announced the break-up in a newspaper interview. Broke, he managed to get a flight home by ringing Richard Branson, the head of Virgin Records.
If 1978 Lydon formed Public Image Limited, an innovative outfit that would last fourteen years of which Lydon was the only consistent member. The initial line-up saw him alongside bassist Jah Wobble and ex-Clash guiatarist Keith Levene. The trio released three albums together, with their 1979 album ‘Metal Box’ garnering critical acclaim. Their biggest hit was ‘This Is Not A Love Song’ which reached number five in the charts in 1983.
Lydon would dabble in acting in 1983’s thriller ‘Corrupt‘. The film was received badly, but his performance was praised. He would only act sparsely afterwards.
In ’84 Lydon would collaborate with a band called Time Zone on their biggest single ‘World Destruction‘. The song was an early example of rap-rock and showed Lydon’s musical versatility. In 1986 some of his cohorts on ‘World Destruction‘ would play on Public Image Limited’s ‘Album‘ which featured the anti-apartheid hit anthem ‘Rise‘. Lydon hadn’t left behind his rebellious streak, as an appearance on the American Bandstand show demonstrated, when during performing the song, he ditched the lip-synching to dance with the audience.
He released his autobiography Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs in 1993, which chartered his life up until the end of the Sex Pistols. He described the book as:
as close to the truth as one can get, looking back on events from the inside. All the people in this book were actually there, and this book is as much their point of view as it is mine. This means contradictions and insults have not been edited, and neither have the compliments, if any. I have no time for lies or fantasy, and neither should you. Enjoy or die.
He went on to host Rotten Day, a daily radio feature in the US written by George Gimarc. He then brought out a solo album in 1997 called Psycho’s Path, produced by Virgin Records, on which he wrote every song and played every instrument. The album didn’t really sell and divided critics. A Chemical Brothers remix of one of the songs, ‘Open Up‘ did go on to perform well in both the UK and the US however.
From then his work has mostly been in TV, he hosted the short-lived Rotten TV on VH1 before appearing in ITV‘s reality show I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! which led to 91 complaints received about his language as he labelled the viewers “fucking cunts” during the live broadcast. He hosted a documentary called John Lydon’s Megabugs for the Discovery Channel before going on to John Lydon Goes Ape and John Lydon’s Shark Attack for the channel. He also appeared in Reyenbeau & Rotten, touring Britain with the journalist. In 2008 he returned to British screens as the new face of Country Life butter in a series of adverts, leading to claims of selling out by the media.
Lydon, along with fellow remaining members, sporadically perform Sex Pistols reunions, including a five gig tour for the 30th anniversary of their only album. And in 2006 were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, although they refused to attend the ceremony after being asked for large sums of money to attend. Lydon and Matlock also re-recorded some of the band’s singles for various video games, including Guitar Hero and Skate.
Lydon got into various trouble, both legally and with the media during 2008. In 2009 he reformed Public Image Limited, using all the money he earned from the Country Life commercials to finance their tour.