My review of this book, his second autobiography, is found here.
INTRODUCTION MAY THE ROAD RISE WITH YOU Anger is an energy. It really bloody is. It’s possibly the most powerful one-liner I’ve ever come up with. When I was writing the Public Image Ltd song ‘Rise’, I didn’t quite realize the emotional impact that it would have on me, or anyone who’s ever heard it since. I wrote it in an almost throwaway fashion, off the top of my head, pretty much when I was about to sing the whole song for the first time, at my then new home in Los Angeles. It’s a tough, spontaneous idea. ‘Rise’ was looking at the context of South Africa under apartheid. I’d be watching these horrendous news reports on CNN, and so lines like ‘They put a hotwire to my head, because of the things I did and said’, are a reference to the torture techniques that the apartheid government was using out there. Insufferable. You’d see these reports on TV and in the papers, and feel that this was a reality that simply couldn’t be changed. So, in the context of ‘Rise’, ‘Anger is an energy’ was an open statement, saying, ‘Don’t view anger negatively, don’t deny it – use it to be creative.’ I combined that with another refrain, ‘May the road rise with you’. When I was growing up, that was a phrase my mum and dad – and half the surrounding neighbourhood, who happened to be Irish also – used to say. ‘May the road rise, and your enemies always be behind you!’ So it’s saying, ‘There’s always hope’, and that you don’t always have to resort to violence to resolve an issue. Anger doesn’t necessarily equate directly to violence. Violence very rarely resolves anything. In South Africa, they eventually found a relatively peaceful way out. Using that supposedly negative energy called anger, it can take just one positive move to change things for the better. When I came to record the song properly, the producer and I were arguing all the time, as we always tend to do, but sometimes the arguing actually helps; it feeds in. When it was released in early 1986, ‘Rise’ then became a total anthem, in a period when the press were saying that I was finished, and there was nowhere left for me to go. Well, there was, and I went there. Anger is an energy. Unstoppable.
There have been conversations here in the United States about why every ex-President opens a library when politicians do not read the books. Hello, America! Kind of explains your politics. For me, reading saved me, it brought me back.
So, here’s My Life Uncensored. There should be a caveat to that – Even Though They Try. Censorship is something I’ve always been against. It’s the kind of ordinance that comes down from people that don’t like to think very hard and aren’t prepared to analyze themselves, just judge others, and are scared of the future. The future’s unknown, let’s leap in, see where it takes us. There’s an old quote but it’s absolutely true: ‘There’s nothing to fear but fear itself.’
I never felt Irish. I always felt, ‘I’m English, this is where I come from, and that’s that.’ Because you’d be reminded of that when you went to Ireland: ‘Ye’re not Oirish!’ the locals would say. So it was like, ‘Bloody hell, shot by both sides here.’ I still love that Magazine song – so relevant to me, those lyrics.
Trying to blend back in was very difficult. That was a friendless first year, very friendless, and kind of lonely, because of the kids’ attitude – ‘Oh he’s sick, keep away from him!’ I hated school breaks and lunch because it meant I had nothing to do. No one would talk to me; the rumour ran around the school that I was a bit ‘out there’, and so that’s exactly where I found myself, cast out on the outside. I know what that loneliness is, it’s very, very fucking damaging. The only people that talked to me at break time were the dinner ladies. They were very kind Irish women – ‘We heard you were ill – how are you?’ I didn’t even really remember being ill, just – ‘Why am I here?’
One of the nuns one day called me ‘Dummy Dum-Dum’. That nickname stuck around the school. It’s deeply shocking, what them bitches put on you. From the boy who could read and write at four, to Dummy Dum-Dum. It was a real challenge to break through that, but I did. Within a year or two, I was back up in the A grade. Those fuck-arse hateful nuns made life punishing, so I educated myself. I just got on with it. If there was a book about, I’d pick it up and read. I loved reading. Not newspapers, they bore me. It’s yesterday’s opinion – I’ve always felt that. No, it was books, books, books – anything and everything. After my illness, I got onto a course at the local library after school, and I’d go there and paint till nine at night, then take home a load of books and read them until I fell asleep, fighting off sleep all the time. I had that constant fear of not waking up, or waking up and not knowing who I was again. I tell you, that’s absolutely the worst thing that can happen.
I expected everybody else to tell me what was what, when I had no memory. It was vital to me that what they said was true, as I was desperate for the answer. I’m still like that; I want to believe what people tell me. I’m very open and trusting, but some people can push that too far, as we know in life – people who have their misguided selfish directions that they obscure from you.
Quite frankly, I don’t have very much fantasy going on in my head. I don’t have room for it. Maybe that’s why I’m mistaken sometimes as being a bit blunt. I really don’t like time-wasting. It takes an enormous effort for me to get up in the morning, but absolutely tenfold to get to bed. I don’t like sleep. It frightens me, in case I don’t wake up, or don’t remember myself. That will be with me, I suppose, for the rest of my life. That won’t go away, so I’m rather prone to the ‘stay awake and alert’ side of life. I may’ve had some ‘assistance’ doing that, over the years, ha ha.
Her hysterical behaviour really freaked me out – how adults sometimes can put so much pain on you when they should be taking responsibility at that particular point.
There was a school field trip to Guernsey, and a Geography trip to Guildford. Guildford was an awful long way from London in them days – a murderously boring coach journey down very windy little country lanes, and it would take for ever. It was a week in these awful huts on Box Hill – which I referenced years later in PiL’s ‘Flowers Of Romance’ – and you’d have to deal with the PE teacher threatening to slipper you unless you took a communal shower. ‘Ah, thank you, I love the slipper!’
The Beatles – yeah, a couple of good records there, but my mum and dad had driven me crazy with their early stuff, so by the time they’d turned into Gungadin and his Bongos, there wasn’t much there for me. The people surrounding them were pretentious, with flowers painted on their faces and rose-tinted oversized sunglasses. The whole thing was too silly for words. I remember watching them on Top of the Pops doing ‘All You Need Is Love’, all that ‘la la la la-laaaa’ – oh, fuck off! No, I need a hell of a lot of other things as well. Don’t make me feel selfish for acknowledging a truth at a very early age.
Oscar Wilde I found outrageously funny. Way ahead of the game, that fella, and wouldn’t be ground down, and led what was a very dangerous lifestyle at that time. Not delving too much into exactly what it was he was doing, because there are no hardcore details, but it was the fact that he mocked the class he came from so well; he got at all the faults that were there. He was really criticizing himself at the same time, and I liked that, I learned from that. We’re not perfect. And if I’m approaching things in my working-class way, I’m damn well sure I’m going to be mentioning all the negatives along with that. And there are many.
Sid went to Kingsway too, and within a week or two, I’d met another John – John Wardle, whom Sid named Jah Wobble one night when he was so pissed he couldn’t talk properly.
My trouble was, you know how they say a salesman should never sample his own wares? Here’s one that did, so I wasn’t very good at selling anything. I’d sit by a big bag and feel very glad of myself until it was gone and not think of moving. Speed doesn’t make me get up and run out around the world, it makes me sit down and think and enjoy whatever it is I’m doing. Even if it’s cutting my fingernails. I’m enjoying it. It get me into the state of not being constantly tired, which again is all back to meningitis.
And in the middle of that kind of affair, I’d also be off to sit cross-legged listening to Nico waffle on about the ‘janitor of lunacy’. Fantastic, completely Queen Vampire! It was John Gray who said, ‘Oh, we must go see her!’ Everybody knew she was a smackhead, like that’d be an enjoyable concert experience, but it was. It was the creepiest thing, her and her harmonium for an hour and a half, groaning away slightly out of tune, which made it even better, because you could feel the angst in her. The tragedy in the voice was just overwhelmingly powerful for me. I’ve learned a lot from them very early years of going to concerts, that it really isn’t about perfect pitch, it’s about the emotion.
Malcolm was incredibly witty and well read. He understood the dilemmas of the time, but he was an English teacher who didn’t quite know English. He came from that attitude of presumed knowledge, and that position will never work on me, ever.
All his friends used to tell the same story about going with him to the Grosvenor Square student riots in 1968: they said, as soon as the trouble started, he vanished. He was all for yelling and screaming the big-mouth slogans beforehand, but as soon as they all led the charge, he was mysteriously absent. That’s what I wrote about in the PiL song ‘Albatross’ a few years later: that lack of commitment, him always running away.
We were an odd bunch of fellas that had started hanging out there. John Gray was very effete, shall we say; Sid was like an oafish model, and me – I don’t know how I came across – probably a bitter, twisted fuck. Quiet but fuming. An ‘angry yooong man’, as Morrissey would say.
I can from time to time be a creature of excessive stupidity. I’m well aware of the warning signs and yet I’ll dive in and just go with it, but overdo it. I tend to lack subtlety. Maybe in later years I’ll catch onto that one, the idea of being subtle.
Chrissie Hynde tried to help me on the music side. She used to hang around the shop a year before I did, maybe even a couple of years before. She and Vivienne used to be close but they fell apart. One of the most delicious lines she said to Chrissie one day was: ‘The thing I don’t like about you, Chrissie, is you go with the flow – well, the flow goes that-a-way,’ pointing to the door. Chrissie would be in fits of laughter. The delivery was so funny, that she had to go, ‘Fine’. Vivienne can definitely deliver a good one-liner – no doubts about that mouth.
On his way out, Malcolm had said, ‘I’ll give you some ideas – submissive, as in the bondage theme, if we could have that kind of topic?’ Me being me, I took it literally for a laugh and then put a twist in it. I called it ‘Submission’, but the line went, ‘I’m on a submarine mission for you, baby’. Anybody who suggests things to me, I’ll sneer, but I’ll see a possibility in it. And off we went.
Football’s the kind of game where, if your team’s doing really badly, it gets you into the mode of having a laugh at losing. You can actually enjoy looking forward to the next tragic defeat. And there’s nothing else that gives me that ability. It serves an absolutely brilliant, beautiful purpose. It’s the theatre of emotions, not dreams. The biggest joy of being a football fan is that there is ultimately no joy in it at all. It can always get worse. Years and years ago, when West Ham got kicked down to the second division, I remember their fans singing this glorious chant: ‘Que sera sera, whatever will be will be, we’re going to Bu-uuurnley, que sera sera.’ The humour was fantastic.
That’s the joy of football – it’s total fucking pain, and when you do actually win anything, it doesn’t last long enough. The pubs close too early, and it’s all over. Everybody goes home, and you’re left standing there – whaaaaa-uuurgh! It’s like trying to get through them apps on your iPad. They’re so unsatisfying, they should just be called ‘soccer’. Guaranteed to disappoint, and they all require you to put money in to get anywhere.
That line, ‘I wanna destroy the passer-by’ – I’m full of pleasantries, I know – I was talking about all those kinds of people, the complacent ones that don’t contribute, that just sit by and moan and don’t actually do anything to better themselves or the situation for others. The non-participating moral majority. I just thought ‘passer-by’ was a better phrase, gets to the point quicker. Rather than use twenty-two words, just one nailed it rather well.
I’ve always loved Steve Jones’s approach to guitar. It’s borderline falling apart, which I find thoroughly fascinating. How he just manages to pull it back. The closest I can connect to that with any other musician would be Neil Young on Zuma, where the song is just teetering on the edge of total collapse and that’s a most dynamic point.
A lot of the reporting got taken over by events surrounding the NME journalist, Nick Kent. He’d thought he was a Sex Pistols member at one point – he’d partaken of the odd rehearsal situation long before I joined. He’d subsequently set himself up as the mouthpiece of dissension about the Pistols, and it just felt a bit like ‘Get John’ when he turned up. That night, he got beaten up by Sid. What can I say? I’m amazed he’d even be mentioning it, because to be beaten up by Sid is pretty near impossible. If you’re gonna be a bad-mouth, sooner or later, someone is going to try and tell you to shut your bad mouth. A lot of people had a lot of issues with Nick Kent. You can’t go around just being that spiteful and inaccurate in what you write, and think that somebody isn’t going to do something about it. Sid wasn’t in the Pistols at that time; he was just angered by what he was reading.
By now, the girls that would come to the gigs had their own creative genius just in the way they’d be dressing. There was a whole mob of girls that started wearing bin-liner bags, long before the press caught on. Because of the strikes, the garbage on the streets, it was the natural thing to evolve into. The authorities had run out of black bin-bags, so they started to make bright green and bright pink. Astounding colours, and perfect if you couldn’t afford topnotch alleged punk – you’d wrap one of them on, a few belts on it, and studs, and bingo, ready to go! ‘Right, where’s the boys?’
We didn’t even ask for the Bill Grundy Today show thing. It came as a surprise. We only got it because the band Queen cancelled at the last minute, and they were on EMI. Half an hour later, I’m in a TV studio, and I’m enjoying my days off here, and I’m challenged by this fuckwit drunkard. I’m not having it. If you look at the Grundy interview nowadays, you’ve got to understand the context of it then, how disciplined everyone was, so overtly, Britishly polite, and everybody knew their place. That was the thing at school: know your place, you were always taught that. We didn’t know our place, and we were the real deal. There’s no showmanship in that, that’s an accurate portrayal of young men trying to make it in a world that’s absolutely dead set against the truth. If I do anything, it’s by truth. All’s I want is the truth. John Lennon. Thank ya!
We had to be there at four, then wait around – the show aired live at six. The green room was full of free alcohol, and I’ve got to say, Bill Grundy led the charge. ‘Drink up, everyone, drinks for everyone!’ He had a few himself, and he wasn’t shy of overtly leering at Siouxsie Sioux and the Bromley girls, because we’d rung them up and said, ‘You wanna come to this?’ We turned it into a party, thought it would be a bit of a hoot, and it turned out to be exactly the kind of hoot that we needed – a severe dose of, ‘There may be trouble a-head!” It was actually me that swore first. Grundy goes, ‘What was that?’ ‘Er, a rude word!’ I didn’t really want to be the first arsehole out the door with it, but there you go – he goaded me into it, so there it is. ‘You asked for it. It’s not my fault at this point onwards, your honour. I am innocent.’ If you really understand the way the conversation’s going, it’s deeply fascinating. It should be in a psychology course, because of all the different things going on in all of our minds at the same time. It amounts to this Harold Pinter kind of scene. Quite frankly, you look at it, and you see the spots on my face? You see how deathly white I was? That’s telling you I’d been up for two days speeding. Poster boy for amphetamines! Grundy, on the other hand, was the representative of the moral majority, and showbiz. Let’s just say he was robust in his cynicism, and yet very corrupt and clearly not giving four working-class lads a fair shake of it. And he should’ve done because he was from that kind of background, and so in the long run his bitter resentment towards us really just renewed the public’s faith that we’re all right after all. We weren’t up there selling you no crock. We weren’t trying to pretend we were from outer space, or flogging you an esoteric angle.
Listen, my enemies are not human beings, regardless of people liking me or not, my enemies are institutions.
I first saw Nora at Malcolm’s shop in 1975. She came in with Chris Spedding, who was playing guitar with the likes of John Cale and Bryan Ferry at that time. He was very shy, and Nora wasn’t. He was worried about his flamenco shirts not quite fitting. Nora was fussing around, and somehow the screen in the fitting room fell, and there was Chris Spedding with his belly bursting out of a far-too-tight shirt. That was very typical of Vivienne’s clothing. She would never make them to fit, so you’d always have to order them a couple of inches bigger. Nora already had a daughter, Ariane, who’d been born and brought up initially in Germany, where Nora originally came from. Nora used to promote gigs in Germany, people like Wishbone Ash, Jimi Hendrix, and Yes. Then she ran away from the confines of German society, which was far too restricting and nosy. Everybody’s in your business. During punk, Ariane became Ari Up, the singer in the Slits. Her father was Frank Forster, a very popular singer in Deutschland, in a Frank Sinatra way. Germany after the War was very influenced by the American air bases, and that dictated a lot of the music that was popular. Over here, Nora brought up Ari really well, and got her to learn all sorts of musical instruments, which were always lying around. Ari was only about thirteen or fourteen when I first saw her bouncing around. Nora, I soon discovered, is a guiding light, and a creature of utter chaos. She was a very odd and different soul. Not at all like one of the average old hippie birds, who weren’t quite sure what punk was about. There were loads of them. That, or working-class girls out of the estate, full of ‘fack you’s. None of them seemed like options to me. But Nora – God, she shone in a room. From way across the other side, she shone, she glowed. Nora loathed me at first sight. At least, that’s what I thought. It was because of what everyone was saying to her. ‘Oh, you don’t want to talk to him, he’s awful’, propagating a myth around me. She was short, sharp, brutal, and very intelligent with her remarks, and a lot of that was based on what people had told her about me. But Nora being Nora, she was inquisitive. If people are telling her not to talk to anyone, she’ll talk to them, and I’m exactly the same way. I was told she was stuck-up, and so I found her deeply fascinating. Once we started talking, all of that nonsense came to light and we realized we had both been lied to. Everybody told lies, then. Shocking. I always loved the way Nora understands how to dress. She has a completely individual, incredible style, and that style is reflective of her personality. That drew me in. To the point that I never smoked cigarettes until I met Nora. She used to smoke Marlboro, so I started smoking Marlboro, too. So the afterglow ruined me for life. But then Nora gave up smoking completely, and here I am, still to this day! It was a topsy-turvy situation, for sure. We didn’t waltz straight off into the stars of romanticism. There were all kinds of heated arguments, but in those heated moments we discovered each other as human beings. I’ve got to be honest, before we met both of us played the field, but we found the field to be full of moos. And those moos turned out to be nothing more than muses, and that’s nothing to base a solid lifestyle on. It’s too vacuous. I don’t personally get the rewards of one-night stands at all. Just don’t get it, never did. I always left those situations feeling empty inside, and rolling over and going, ‘Oh my God, do you really look like that?’, and knowing that’s exactly what they felt too. I’d gone through the one-nighters period, but there was a point where it became a futile, boring, repetitive procedure. I didn’t know it at the time but what I was really looking for was a proper relationship, and that was slowly forming with Nora. There were girls leading up into that, longer than a week, shall we say, but something really good happened and clicked with Nor’, very seriously. We learned to really know each other, and that’s the best that any human being can ever look for, I think – the right person who truly accepts you for what you are, warts and all, and doesn’t make you feel ashamed of yourself for any reason at all. So self-doubt is gone, and that’s what the right partner teaches you.
Of all people, it was Lemmy from Motörhead, amongst others, who tried to teach Sid to play bass. Lemmy was really funny about it; he said, ‘Sid has no aptitude at all, no sense of rhythm, and he’s tone deaf.’ Sid always fancied himself as a drummer. I think that was the Can Tago Mago influence, because that was Sid’s favourite record of all time. He’d always be making psssh-shut-pfft-pfft-pfft noises, and pretending he was doing a drum roll. That would be his frequent behaviour, which not many people understood. They thought he might just be a bit backwards. We assumed that he’d just find his way with it, like we had. And there’s the danger in that word: when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me. As it turned out, Sid wasn’t actually plugged in at most of our live gigs, and he barely played on the album, if at all.
Sid was introducing an angle into the Pistols which, I immediately realized, fucked us royally up the wazoo. He introduced the drug angle, and I never thought he would do that. I thought he was smarter. I never realized how insecure he really was, and he used drugs to cover up his sense of inadequacy, and he introduced this warfare of heroin into us in such a calamitous, arsehole way. It was difficult, difficult times, dealing with him. He was really lost – and I should have realized this far earlier – because of his mother, the woman that gave him heroin as a birthday present. He’d always said, ‘Hurgh hurgh, I’m not getting like my mum.’ He was always proud of the fact that he could do that – dabble, and then be all right and not require more. But when Nancy Spungen came into his life, it became different; he bought totally into his Lou Reed schtick. Poor old Sid, he couldn’t have sex with anything. He was rubbish. But I loved him because he was rubbish! He wasn’t a big-stiffy kind of fella, he was just confused and funny and hilarious and brilliantly comedic. He could parody anything instantly. But the shame was, because of that quality, he was now trying to parody a New York lifestyle.
Back then, I suppose I was the prime target of the moment – and still am, in many ways, that’s never gone away and I have to be aware of that. It’s jealousy, ultimately. Jealous of what? God, if only they knew! Being Johnny Rotten was never easy. To maintain the integrity that I think I have is a daily grind.
There was a time there where punk was really exciting. X-Ray Spex, the Adverts, the Raincoats, the Slits – those bands had different approaches that were fascinating to me. They had the feminine influence, which is interesting musically. It was different social learnings going on, different sharings of thoughts, which would normally have been closed to music. Fellas and girls in the same bands, it was an amazing thing. They came across as level – it wasn’t just, ‘Now sing something pretty over the top.’ They were full-on equals, very entertaining and it opened up so many possibilities in the songwriting. What a great time! And that side of it wasn’t competitive, none of us were competing against each other. To me that was punk properly developing into something really awe-inspiring.
To my mind they’d wrecked everything that was brilliant and glorious about the Sex Pistols, which was unity, and they tore the arse out of that through selfish shit. And it all ends up in what? Celebrating a train robber? At my cost, my expense? Then I have to run a lawsuit against them going, ‘Hello, don’t I count? Remember me? I wrote the songs!’ – at least the lyrics, and quite frankly, being real honest with myself and everybody else, I don’t think anybody ever bought a Sex Pistols record because of the lead guitar solo or the drums or the bass – although I couldn’t have done those lyrics without those three things. But I never got the respect and love that I think us as a band truly should have had for each other. So eat shit and die, you cunts.
A song like ‘Born For A Purpose’ by Dr Alimantado was just life-altering for me. The lyrics, I thought, were genius, and particularly fantastic if you feel you have no reason for living. Like, don’t determine my life! ‘Whoah! Hello, Jamaica! You’ve got some good brains going on there.’ For me it was utterly one of those moments when you hear a song, and it’s an affirmation of the highest order. Like, ‘Aaah, we’re out there together – people who care and really consider what it is they do, and who know that they’re on this planet to do something positive.’
There was a great record out then called ‘Ain’t No 40 Leg Pon Di Dread’ by George Nooks, which was answering this horrible urban myth that was spreading around, about how a Rasta was found dead on the beach, and they found centipedes in his dreadlocks. They obviously weren’t in there before he died, but we all know how headlines can take over, and reality is turfed out the window for sensationalism.
My favourite people were probably the Congos, a vocal group who recorded one of their greatest albums at Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s Black Ark studios. I loved them and their families, and just their generosity in life. It was inspiring to be honest and really frank with them. All judgement went out of the window, as soon as you’d sit and talk with these fellas, truly classic examples of passive resistance at its finest. Meant no harm to no one – superb, my kind of people.
Being open-minded to all kinds of music was Lesson One in punk, but that didn’t seem to be understood by many of the alleged punk bands that followed on after, who seemed to be waving this idea of a punk manifesto. I’m sorry, but I never did this for the narrow-minded. I was horrified by the cliché that punk was turning itself into. I didn’t – and still don’t – have too many punk records in my collection, because I never really liked them. Buzzcocks, Magazine, X-Ray Spex, the Adverts, the Raincoats – those, I liked. They were skirmishing on the outside of it rather than the typical slam-dunk bands that drove me nuts, because they all sounded the same, all chasing the same carthorse. I’m not impressed by macho bullshit bravado. It doesn’t have any content and it’s not actually aimed at anything other than trying to show off your masculinity. Failed! You had all these males-only bands trying to out-threaten each other. To me that’s the lowest common denominator. There were so many of them all doing the exact same thing, all of them completely stupid, not understanding Rule Number One: there are no rules. And yet this lot rigidly adhered to rules and regulations. They became the new Boo Nazis.
It was very cheeky of me to begin with ‘Public Image’, the name of the band. I’d taken it from a beautiful book called The Public Image by Muriel Spark – her wot wrote The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. A very small book, but it’s a great storyline, about how the publicity machine turns an average actress into a monstrous diva and she wrecks everyone around her. I didn’t want that happening with me or my imagery. In Public Image Ltd (aka PiL) I wanted to keep the Johnny Rotten side of things well out of it. I’d moved fully and very comfortably into the persona of John Lydon, who didn’t need scandal to flog a record. It wasn’t so much that we would earn our rights wherever we were in terms of sales, but by the quality and the content. The ‘Limited’ part of the name was about limiting our public image, to not allow the scandal rags access to us. To keep our private lives private, thank you. Keep a definite distance away from a scandal-mongering publicity machine. Which would’ve been what Malcolm was treasuring and I found to be detrimental. It’s bad for your health that angle, it really is.
‘Religion’ was the only one that predated PiL – the one I’d tried to work up with Steve and Paul in America. It’s very much the last time I ever took a Sex Pistols kind of approach in a song. It met with a negative there, so I moved it into PiL and shapeshifted it into a far more enterprising piece of work. I’d experienced the Catholic Church from an early age, so I knew where I was coming from on this. In PiL we could separate the music from the voice, and we did it with ‘Religion’, between the left and right speakers, so that you had the option of both together, or one at a time. There’s all that echo on my voice, so it sounds like I’m sermonizing. Well, isn’t that what they do to us? They preach at us. Yes, it’s theatrical, but those are the tools used against a congregation. Sometimes you just turn the gun around. Point the cannon in the other direction and see how they enjoy that. Hellfire and brimstone.
Mum had always been loving in a very quiet way. There wasn’t much said, but that’s all you need from your parents, the right kind of attention. Before she went, she asked me to write her a song, which became ‘Death Disco’. I only got to play her a very rough version. She knew what I was up to. I had to curtail it a bit, because what I wrote is very directly about death, so I wanted her to feel it was more about the challenge of an illness. A rough demo of it, with indistinct lyrics, would be slightly milder than the full clarity of ‘You’re dying – urgh!’
It’s only by researching these areas of your psyche that you’re going to free yourself up. Don’t separate music from anxiety and pain, and thereby you’ll find a solution. I’ve never come to grips with death, but through music I kind of found a way of dealing with it. I’m questioning myself very seriously in songs like that. It’s borderline mental breakdown. It’s me howling in bitter agony. Grief, grief, grief, but at the same time you’ve got to give joy for those you’ve loved. Not wallow in the self-pity of it, but rather celebrate the good things about them when they were alive. When we released ‘Death Disco’, it caused great confusion. Was it a dance record? What was it? It certainly didn’t mean ‘death to disco’, as some people interpreted it. In fact, when Morrissey came out with ‘kill the DJ’, I thought he was making a misguided reference. Me? I’d loved my nights down at the Lacy Lady in Ilford, and all the music that went with it, but you can’t be laying down a bog-standard typical disco pattern. It doesn’t mean you need to imitate or duplicate. You advance or destructuralize or whatever it is you need to do, in order to adapt the journey to the content. And Johnny don’t sing in Michael Jackson stanzas.
The tracks getting longer was something that evolved quite naturally: ‘There isn’t any point in stopping this, because we haven’t run out of ideas yet.’ It wasn’t any great analytical study about it: ‘Oh, I think we should do a ten-minute one!’ ‘Albatross’, the one about Malcolm’s cowardice, ended up at that length, if only because that’s all we could fit on the record. It deserved that length. You let the song dictate the pace and the time, rather than you trying to master it and control it and make it all note-perfect. I find those kind of approaches to be stifling, a contamination.
For all of the problems that caused – such spontaneous behaviour didn’t fit with their usual cosy format – Dick Clark, the host of the show, who was a massive star of US network TV, became really friendly afterwards – even though Wobble had messed around with his wigs. We found Dick’s room backstage in the make-up department, and hanging on hooks were all of these different hairpieces which, you know, got assaulted. But in the end it played out really well because when Dick Clark did a rundown of the greatest ever performances on American Bandstand, Public Image were up there in the Top Ten. And he’d been running that show for decades – almost half a century.
As an aside, this idea of what a singer’s voice should be or shouldn’t be, is revolting to me. American Idol, X Factor – they all expect singers to do all the trills and all the runs, that singing instructors require – the gospel background. What a load of bollocks, man. Why can’t you just sing the way you FEEL? It doesn’t actually have to be what you would call musical, just how you feel in the moment, communicating something. The concept of tune, or tuneless, to me is bizarre. I know when I hear someone, it doesn’t have to be a G Flat Minor, perfect, but it has to be accurate. The emphasis of the words, and the tonality, and the pain in the sound that they’re procuring, and the message. If those things come across, tuneless doesn’t exist. Where being in tune counts very much, of course, is on boat cruises. That’s what American Idol is really trying to procure! Boat cruise singers! My God, hahaha! I always enjoyed this story about the Cure, because the singer, Robert Smith – he can’t bear aeroplanes. So the band took the QE2 to New York and the rumour – I don’t know what truth is in it – was that they played on there. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I love the idea!
On my arrival, the warders decided to make an example of me. They stripped me, threw me into the yard and hosed me down. But you know, you can strip me, cover me in flea powder and laugh at the size of my penis, it doesn’t matter. It – does – not – matter. Over the years I’ve noticed that when these institutions get hold of you, the one thing they’re trying to embarrass you about is your nakedness, and your penis. Let me tell you, Johnny’s got a perfect penis to laugh at, and he don’t care. That’s not ever going to be a problem.
I was so full of ideas, because I was free! The prospect of spending six months in Mountjoy – that was a bit of a harsh reality.
Out in New York, there was an early reminder of London life, when the Clash came over to play at Bond’s on Times Square, for their residency in May–June ’81. So they followed me to Jamaica, now the fuckers had followed me to New York! I’m dealing with me PiL problems and in waltz this lot. I can’t remember how many nights they played there – was it something like seventeen? – and apparently filled them out every single night. Bearing in mind that their songs didn’t have any content, and they really didn’t seem to stand for very much at all other than this abstract socialism, they still pulled that off.
Once I make that commitment, it’s forever. That’s how me and Nora are and were. It’s quite brilliant how it worked out. I can’t imagine living without her, not at all, and it doesn’t matter what people tell her about me either; here we are, and here we will be.
It struck me as deeply strange just how little music there was in the charts with any kind of relevance or political meaning. To me, someone like Boy George was the rare exception. All the people I like in music are the ones that have done something completely original, with a touch of genius, and I put Boy George in that bracket. He came up with something really great and challenging. At a time when punk had got staid and boring, out comes Culture Club. Fantastic. George would wear Indian menswear in a feminine way. The boy can sing, and he comes from the same background as me – the same hardcore rubbish. He’s someone that stood up for himself, no matter what he got into, and he’s intelligent, and therefore I like him. More respect, more power. He was the kind of guy there wasn’t really enough of to make the ’80s bearable.
We got very close with the Sugarcubes; that was a band I loved and adored. I used to go to their gigs, long before we ever worked on the same stages together. I think I’ve got just about every Sugarcubes record ever made. I’m not so much of a Björk fan now. I find it borderline classical pretension; it’s not interesting to me. Einar, their male singer, was a problem. Einar was a bit of an Einar, and he’d hit on me at every chance he got. I really liked him, but I couldn’t bear the – ‘John! You must hear my new poem!’ This was very difficult, backstage. Great fella, though – creative, bouncy, and sorely missing now in Björk’s work. She’s now left to wearing swans and making pretentious squeals and squeaks.
Martin actually played little bits and pieces on the album – we all did. The producer, Mark Saunders, played little bits. One day, he brought in a very strange guitar. He was a difficult fella to fully comprehend or understand. The draw for me was he’d worked with Neneh Cherry, and Neneh and me, we’re mates. We know each other from way back when, from even before Bruce Smith, who was married to her briefly in the early ’80s. When Neneh first came over to England, she stayed with Nora at Nora’s place and hung around with the Slits. She kinda grew up around us – she was only thirteen or fourteen – and so I always viewed Neneh as family. And so: you’ve worked with Neneh, this must be good.
The song ‘Psychopath’ is based on John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer – the famous one, the clown. How many hundreds he must’ve murdered. In my darker moments I’ve thought, ‘But for some kind of inner sensibility, I could quite easily be that way. I could go and kill people, aimlessly and pointlessly, and take some kind of gratification.’ I’m analyzing myself here and seeing that it is possible to be a serial killer, as indeed it is possible for any human being to be exactly the very thing that you think you hate and despise in someone else. What you’re really doing when you’re over-judgemental about those things, is you’re taking it out on yourself because you know your inner possibilities. We all are capable of the most ultimate evil. And because we are also capable of analyzing that, that is exactly why we’re better.