John Lydon On Anarchy, Politics And 'Mr. Rotten's Songbook' In a new book, the former Sex Pistol — better known as Johnny Rotten — collects the lyrics to every song he's written over a provocative 40-year career.
NPR logo

John Lydon On Anarchy, Politics And 'Mr. Rotten's Songbook'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/521816347/522151977" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
John Lydon On Anarchy, Politics And 'Mr. Rotten's Songbook'

John Lydon On Anarchy, Politics And 'Mr. Rotten's Songbook'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/521816347/522151977" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Does the name Johnny Lydon ring a bell? OK, what if I gave you the name of his alter ego, Johnny Rotten?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD SAVE THE QUEEN")

SEX PISTOLS: (Singing) God save the queen, the fascist regime.

MARTIN: That is the voice of the lead singer of the 1970s British punk band the Sex Pistols. Now, John Lydon is channeling Johnny Rotten in a new way. He has published a book with the words to every song he has ever written. NPR's Mandalit del Barco caught up with the musician.

JOHN LYDON: Hello. How are you?

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Johnny Rotten is now 61 years old. He may be a bit rounder than he was in his youth but still has an impish glare and spiky hair. He's still punk rock.

LYDON: I'm a natural born anarchist (laughter). I've never in my life supported any government anywhere and I never will.

DEL BARCO: He was born John Lydon, the son of working class Irish immigrants in London. When he was 7 years old, he contracted spinal meningitis.

LYDON: Which damn well nearly killed me. Apart from surviving that, it was the lack of memory when I came out of the coma. And it took me some four years to fully recover properly.

DEL BARCO: He says that experience fueled the turmoil he felt as a teenager in the 1970s, when he was recruited to join the Sex Pistols as Johnny Rotten.

LYDON: It's my nickname. It was given to me because I had green teeth.

DEL BARCO: Lydon railed against the establishment, religion and politics, singing, anger is an energy. You can hear it in his lyrics, which he's collected into "Mr Rotten's Songbook." He flips through the 300-page limited edition book that he illustrated himself with doodles and sketches.

LYDON: So I could put myself right back in the moment and know what it was that was thundering away between me ears to make me write these lyrics. And here we are, yes, "Anarchy" to be sung with love. And I've got nice little anarchists running around with swords and the black and red anarchist flag and then, of course, the union jack.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANARCHY IN THE U.K.")

SEX PISTOLS: (Singing) Anarchy for the U.K. is coming sometime. And maybe I give a wrong time, stop a traffic line. Your future dream is a shopping scheme.

DEL BARCO: Lydon wrote "Anarchy In The U.K." in 1976, a week before writing his sarcastic "God Save The Queen."

LYDON: I think I hit on the right note and tone of a country that was on the verge of a, yeah, a political collapse. You know, very rigid conservative government who were just not open minded about anything. Beginning to sound familiar, isn't it?

BRIAN COGAN: He wrote songs that were really designed to impress shock and also challenge.

DEL BARCO: Brian Cogan is the author of "The Encyclopedia Of Punk."

COGAN: Lydon has always been sort of a trickster fellow that is there to disrupt.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLIDAYS IN THE SUN")

SEX PISTOLS: (Singing) I didn't ask for sunshine, and I got World War III. I'm looking over the wall, and they're looking at me.

COGAN: His lyrics had insight. They were witty. They were biting. And he was always trying to upset people in a lot of ways and trying to get them to rethink what they thought about the world.

DEL BARCO: After the Sex Pistols broke up, Lydon formed Public Image Ltd. He wrote songs like "Death Disco" which he says was a tribute to his late mother, and "Rise," an anthem against apartheid in South Africa.

LYDON: This is my international letter to the world. It's about decency to your fellow human beings. Your time has come, your second skin. You could be black. You could be white.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RISE")

PUBLIC IMAGE LTD: (Singing) I could be right. I could be wrong. I could be white. I could be black.

DEL BARCO: Lydon's songbook is electic and includes words to "Psycho's Path" about serial killer John Wayne Gacy, and "Out Of The Woods" about Confederate General Stonewall Jackson.

LYDON: Me war epic.

DEL BARCO: In "Deeper Waters," Lydon documented his underwater adventure wearing an old-fashioned diving suit to see sharks up close.

LYDON: Going blub-a-lub (ph), you know, 500 pounds of iron wrapped around your head. I could not move not one inch. Monstrous sharks were hovering around.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEEPER WATER")

PUBLIC IMAGE LTD: (Singing) I will not drown.

DEL BARCO: Lydon says he was inspired to compile the songbook after playing a gig in China a few years ago. He says government officials there insisted on reading his lyrics before allowing him to perform.

LYDON: I felt the Chinese would be most wicked on censorship. No, welcome arms. So, you know, I don't need to yodel on about Tibet. I need to, like, sing my stuff to the peoples out there.

DEL BARCO: These days, Lydon lives with his wife in Los Angeles near the ocean. And over the years, he's made changes.

LYDON: I really liked what Obama was promising. And that's when I became an American citizen.

DEL BARCO: When the conversation turns to President Trump, Lydon is provocative as always.

LYDON: (Laughter) I think he's absolutely magnificent. He's a total cat amongst the pigeons. It's got everybody now involving themselves in a political way. And I've been struggling for years to get people to wake up and do that.

DEL BARCO: As he heads off to promote his songbook at a record store, John Lydon - Johnny Rotten - bids farewell.

LYDON: May the road rise with you and your enemies always be behind. May you scatter, flatter, batter and shatter.

DEL BARCO: Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PUBLIC IMAGE LTD SONG, "RISE")

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.