He’s among the greatest iconoclasts of rock ’n’ roll, the voice behind classic punk anthems and a sneering figure of nonconformity. And he’s long overdue for a Sacramento visit.
John Lydon, formerly known as Johnny Rotten, plays Ace of Spades on Saturday with Public Image Ltd. aka PiL. It’s the band’s first Sacramento show in nearly three decades, when PiL performed at the Crest Theatre. Lydon and his band return with a new batch of songs from “What the World Needs Now …,” a self-funded record released in September.
The new album houses some of the most expansive music of PiL’s career. Rotten’s anger and signature surlish attitude are still at the forefront, through such new tracks as “Double Trouble” and the album-closing “Shoom,” with its litany of F-bombs. But the album’s sounds shoot in all kinds of directions, including electronic flourishes, deep reggae-styled bass lines, tension-filled guitar lines and much more.
At age 59, Lydon hasn’t lost much of his up-yours kind of attitude. In recent interviews, Lydon simply has hung up on music reporters when he thought the questions were too inane. But in a recent phone call from Lydon’s hotel room, the voice behind the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.” was in an especially chatty mood, punctuating his words with many laughs. Over the course of a half-hour, Lydon reflected on PiL’s new album, a childhood bout with meningitis which caused him to lose years of memories, and dedicating his career to defying boundaries.
Here’s an abbreviated transcript of what Lydon had to say:
Q: You’ve had a lot of expectations surrounding you since forming the band, when some people were taken aback that PiL didn’t sound like Sex Pistols. The new album really sounds like PiL stretching even further.
A: We loved making this record. The pressure was on for the previous album because we knew there would be high expectations. This time out we didn’t give a damn about what people wanted. It’s what “we” wanted to be the predominant driving force, and we enjoyed it enormously. I’ve worked in complete adversity and found that to be a useful tool, but this is the most enlightening environment musically I’ve ever been in.
The potential is vast. There’s such an enormous well for us now to dip into, and the trust issues are no longer a problem. We know each other really, really well. There’s no egotistical nonsenses going on which I’ve had to deal with from band members in the past.
Q: The track “Big Blue Sky” sounds unlike anything PiL has recorded. It’s eight minutes long. There’s such a range of sounds and moods. It even feels uplifting at times.
A: I suppose if it’s related to anything, it’s a love of the desert and that vastness of the American Midwest. It’s a stunning, remarkable geographical feature and deserved a song – and of course you have to mention the indigenous populations who were slaughtered there. But I suppose if it was related to anything it would be “Soldier Blue,” a film when I was very young I loved with Candice Bergen. When I was very young my dad loved anything to do with Westerns, and so they were always on the telly. So, I suppose there’s all of that too.
Q: The track “Shoom” really feels like you’re flipping everyone off from the other side of the speakers.
A: It was Bruce the drummer. He has this little drum machine box, which he loves, and it wasn’t playing properly. It was making this ridiculous “shoom” noise, and we carried it on from there. Eventually I came up with the idea of writing it into a requiem for my deceased father. I was just remembering his sense of humor when you’d sit in the pub with, what brilliant timing he had in that Irish-English working-class way. It’s really my dad talking through me with me trying to show some love for him. I miss him very much.
Q: Was your father always supportive of your music career?
A: Yes and no. He was a very different father when I was young. The day he kicked me out of the house finally, I came home with green hair and “looked like a Brussel sprout,” according to him. After that we began to talk and became actual friends, and I could hang out with my dad as you would any one of your mates.
Q: The illness you suffered as a child (spinal meningitis) sounds just awful. But is the silver lining that it helped you form a worldview and attitude that’s driven so much of your work?
A: The biggest achievement in my life was recovering my memories, and in surviving a major illness, which almost killed me when I was 7. Because of that, that’s really what gave me the equipment and tools to be Johnny Rotten, my sense of individuality in all things. When you’ve had your memories taken away for something like four years, you become very independent. For me it was a blessing in disguise. It’s like all things in life. If you have the patience, the good will come through in the end.
Q: I get the sense that your career has always been about seeking freedom. Even the term “punk” can be restricting with its own set of rules about what you should and should not wear, what kind of music is OK to listen to.
A: I don’t buy records according to “style.” I buy records according to what I like. And most of these I call them “stylists.” A lot of the punk bands are stylists, too. They’re imitating something that somebody else has already done for them, and therefore I haven’t got much time for that.
I’ve always bitterly resented the categories the world of music has thrown up. Well, my god, I had the worst title of all: “King of Punks.” But there’s so many people out there wanting to claim that title, and damn I’m not going to give it up, either – because at least I’ve earned it. (laughs)
Public Image Ltd.
When: 7 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 28
Where: Ace of Spades, 1417 R St., Sacramento