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 bassistJah 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
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
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."