Bluefat Archive August 1997

There Is Something Johh Lydon in the State of California

Recently, I sat myself down and had a little talk with the Antichrist. You remember him 行 he went by the name of Johnny Rotten when he fronted an English punk band called the Sex Pistols back in the late '70s. The Sex Pistols were not the first punk band, but they were the punk band, the crystallizing blast of youthful anarchism that signaled, at least temporarily, an end to all bloated and boring things Rock.

After the Pistols had disintegrated and punk had devolved into a style, Johnny Rotten once again became John Lydon, wicked wit, lover of good music, iconoclast. He, along with guitarist Keith Levene and bassist Jah Wobble, formed Public Image Ltd., whose experiments in rhythm-based avant-garde sonorities were yet another major breakthrough in popular music's consciousness, setting the course for many of the post-punk electronic, trip-hop and ambient artists who would follow in their wake. That made two big ones in a row for our Johnny. 

Public Image Ltd. has slogged along with moderate success right up to the present day, and along the way, Lydon has moved to L.A., written an autobiography, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, and, of course, streaked back into high profile with last year's celebrated Sex Pistols reunion tour. And now he's released the first solo album of his 22-year career, Psycho's Path. A fascinating collection of moodily protean yet succinct, finely crafted songs, the album was completed over a three-year period (interrupted by the Pistols' tour) and, interestingly, performed almost entirely by Lydon himself on a variety of instruments.

Lydon didn't have a solo album in mind when the songs started coming together. "What I really wanted to do," he says, "was build my own studio, because in the long run that would save me a small fortune. Working in recording studios and rehearsal rooms over the years has really caused serious financial problems, and limits you to other people's time frame. Building in my own front room, as pieces of equipment were coming in, I started to work on them, and because there was no band about, I was forced into, like, enjoying my own big bad self."

The result is a batch of songs that, while retaining the urgency of Lydon's best work, take great care in the ways individual notes are selected and combined. The novel textures and beats on the album, and the unconventional way the songs are constructed 行 as if by discovery 行 make it all sound like Lydon was inspired in part by the machines themselves. "I've always loved tampering around with computers and drum machines and all of that stuff," he says. "It's a bit hilarious to me when I read some of the reviews of this album 行 they're saying I've 'gone techno.' In fact, this album is less technical than many things I've put together in the past." The critics, he says, "don't know what techno means."

Lydon's album is awash in the latest sampling and sequencing devices, but he doesn't use the factory-preset sounds, preferring instead to make his own samples, a partial explanation for the album's evocative timbres. "There are a lot of analog sounds," he says, "and then I've put it into the machine. But I mess about with everything from toilet rolls to accordions and everything in between, anything I can lay my hands on, that I can either bash a beat out on or blow a tune through.

"Because I love textures, and I like the idea of notes clashing 行 they're tones that you really couldn't put notes to. It's not an album that a musician could limit to 'F sharp, G-flat minor.' It's nothing to do with that stuff."

Lydon sings his new tunes in a vast array of voices (he has become a thrillingly ambitious singer, and quite a charming one), from a jumble of perspectives, adopting different personas, like an actor, to fit the songs' scenarios. Though his caustic lip pervades the album, the subject matter ranges from the miseries of menages a trois to the vagaries of war to the importance of taking a moral stand. The songs reside for the most part in the personal rather than the political; Lydon seldom writes in response to topical events. "Well, one news article generally blends into another," he says. "As someone who's been steadily watching the news at 6 o'clock every evening, I'm amazed how stories seem to be repeating themselves. Nothing changes, really, but the names."

Nevertheless, his song "Psychopath" is based on the story of serial killer John Gacy, and it has such genuine drama about it 行 awesome shifts of psyche, wry to bone-chilling ("The most evil thing I can do/is to give my body to yo...") 行 that the logical next step for Lydon might be scoring film soundtracks. "That's been said, and in a way it is kind of the way I work. Everything does have a visual to it; I know what sounds should look like." But he has no interest in acting. "I've done that and I hated it. It was too long, too stressful; two minutes' working day and 12 hours' fear and nausea. And no improvising; you're just a hired robot. That might be all right for people that don't have any kind of personality, but if you have anything going for your own self, it's very, very frustrating that way."

Chief among the joys of Psycho's Path is that Lydon doesn't just proclaim on behalf of individuality, he demonstrates it with the music itself; since musicians are often all talk or theory, that's a rare achievement. "Well, you know," he says, "you gotta put your money where your mouth is."

While Lydon's new CD is an example of a very personal way of using technology, he also includes remixes by such current dance-hypes as Chemical Brothers, Leftfield, Moby and Danny Saber. They pale in comparison to his original works, though; in fact, they seem like a bit of classic Lydon sarcasm, as if he's one-upping the remixers on his own album. "They were done as more something to do," he says. "I just thought, well, put them on as bonus tracks. They sound weak next to the real thing [laughs], but, in a way, that is the nature of remixes...unless you're U2, of course 行 it would be your highlight! [Laughs]

"I've always loved dance music, it's always been part of me, so I'm always checking out for that stuff." There was a time when one had to take sides 行 if you liked punk music you couldn't like disco. "Yeah, I know. [Laughs] You must be aware that this caused me great difficulty in the early years, because I loved disco, and I see no shame at all in admiring the Bee Gees and being a Sex Pistol. And, well, the Carpenters, there's another band that I absolutely adored."

After 13 years in L.A., Lydon seems to have settled in. "I like it here. If it could be conceived as a downside, the British press absolutely hates me for living here. But, you know, they didn't have to deal with the constant police harassment that I had to put up with, and all of that nonsense. And that ridiculously over-the-top 75 percent tax bill that would hit me every year, which would make living practically impossible. That kind of jealousy of America that they have really underpins the bad reviews from across the water."

And privacy hasn't been an issue. "People are fine in L.A. It's 'Hello, John,' if you're recognized. I don't think there's any Versace complex going on. [Laughs] This is the place I love the most. In marvelous ways, musically, this helps me the best. You're only bored in Los Angeles if you're boring."