Always a pistol

By Jack Aldane Source:Global Times Published: 2013-3-12 19:48:01


The former Mr Rotten John Lydon fronts Public Image Ltd (PiL) at their Yugong Yishan gig March 30. Photo: Courtesy of Modern Sky
The former Mr Rotten John Lydon fronts Public Image Ltd (PiL) at their Yugong Yishan gig March 30. Photo: Courtesy of Modern Sky

John Lydon, formerly Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, now the vocalist of the recently reformed Public Image Ltd (PiL), speaks with a chipper cockney accent down the phone from his home in Los Angeles.

"Have you ever tried making a curry without butter? It's bloody impossible. It just doesn't have the same flavor. Know what I mean?"

Lydon, 57, has a list of points he wishes to set the record straight on. The role of butter in his career marks an interesting one. Another is how thrilled he is to be performing with PiL in Beijing for the first time at Yugong Yishan on March 30. The band's tour follows their latest album This is PiL, released last May.

In 2009, Lydon appeared on British TV advertising Country Life butter, and used the money from that to reform PiL after a 16 year hiatus. Punk fans in China familiar with the 1980 documentary The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle will remember Lydon for his contempt toward the corporate agenda after the breakup of the Pistols in 1978. Yet, Lydon says his audience must learn to let go of the past. He's learned to use lucrative opportunities in order to rip up and start again.

"It's a complicated situation, coming to China for the first time. People are going to have to understand that I'm not the same image I was 35 years ago. If you come to a PiL gig with the Sex Pistols in mind, you're going to end up a bit puzzled," Lydon says.

Reforming PiL in 2009 was, in Lydon's words, an "upward hill climb," beginning with a contractual obligation to his signing label that led to almost two decades of reluctant retirement. PiL's new album, funded by two years of constant touring, now sees the band working independently on its own label, PiL Official.

"We don't have any label backing us up. We're now totally independent," Lydon says.

Lydon, originally from London, says he attributes the freedom he currently enjoys in PiL to his resilience after 38 years in the music business. However, he says the revival of PiL would not have been possible, were it not for his previous TV appearances in the UK.

"There was no aid coming from the music industry until the butter ad. The industry has always loved my influence and inspiration, but unfortunately has never liked me," he says.

"I was financially and musically bankrupt. Then, the commercial came along, and at first I thought, 'No bloody way,'" he says.

Lydon was convinced after Country Life insisted he considered its message more carefully. He even describes the ad's satirical portrayal of British royalism and the jaunty countryside as "strangely anarchistic."

"That money got the band where we are now. There were no real earnings. I just remember thinking about PiL. I realized that it was all I'd wanted to achieve for about 20 years," he says.

Lydon says he greatly anticipates PiL's Beijing performance at the end of the month.

"Coming to a city like Beijing with so many diverse cultures is very 'public image.' It's an honor just to be able to pass through Chinese borders," he says.

Xiao Rong, 33, lead vocalist of Beijing's seminal punk band, Brain Failure, says he first discovered Lydon's music when he was 14. Seeing PiL play in Beijing, he says, is "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

However, Xiao regards PiL as less authentically punk than the Sex Pistols.

"I'm not a big fan of PiL. Their music sounds compromised. The Sex Pistols were white hot and totally unpredictable, whereas PiL seems more withdrawn, less bold," he says.

But Xiao says he does not think Lydon's commercial exploits count as selling out.

"I wouldn't put it past him. They say the punk spirit is against capitalism, but all bands need money. Shooting commercials is a good thing. [We have] done similar ads for jeans and sportswear," he says.

Posted in: Music, Metro Beijing

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