John Lydon talks lyrics, art, record sleeve design and punk’s legacy

John Lydon has a new book coming out. Not an autobiography in the traditional sense, it nonetheless tells a story of his life, this time through his song lyrics. He has collated all of them – from the early days of the Sex Pistols to Public Image Ltd – in the tome, where they sit alongside artworks and other reflections from the singer.

Mr Rotten’s Songbook is styled as an art book, and rather than featuring scans of the original lyric sheets and other memorabilia, Lydon has transcribed all the songs fresh, many by hand. It is released in an expensive limited edition run of just 1,000 copies, making it broadly pitched at fans, though he hopes it will also offer a chance for people to make sense of his life’s work.

“There’s all them songs and if anybody wants to fit the pieces of the jigsaw together, that’s the best way for them to do it,” he says on the phone from Los Angeles, where he lives. “I’m hand drawing little details to each one, so you get a picturesque view of what goes on in my mind when I put a song together. Hopefully that might make sense to some people who might be interested.”

a portrait of John Lydon
John Lydon

Songwriting has been the most consistent element of Lydon’s music over the past 40 years, going right back to the beginning with the Sex Pistols. “There was no instrument playing on my behalf in the Pistols – although I could ruin a violin, that wasn’t really the band for that – so I took it over to be the lyricist and the main man to present those lyrics. I found my own voice, and I think if that be a craft, that’s where I excel…. It’s poetry with music, without the effete silliness of poetry.

I’ve always got ideas floating around in there, and sometimes they cross collide. Sometimes what I think is the genesis of one song can spiral off into five or six different things….

“I usually keep them in my head ‘til I’m good and ready,” he says of his songwriting process. “I’ve always got ideas floating around in there, and sometimes they cross collide. Sometimes what I think is the genesis of one song can spiral off into five or six different things…. When I’ve been refreshing my memory with them [for the book], it’s really great, I think ‘oh my god, yes I remember exactly that frame of mind’. To me, they’re like my real memories. In fact, they are real memories, the songs are about real subjects, situations that happened around me.”

As a child, Lydon suffered spinal meningitis, which resulted in periods of coma and extreme memory loss. He now credits the illness with gifting him a photographic memory, however. “It taught me how to preserve memories, which helped no end,” he says. “I’m very, very grateful for the illnesses I’ve had because they’ve somehow steered me correctly.”

Clamshell and book by John Lydon
Book and slipcase

While he says his illness makes oblique appearances in the early songs, it’s only recently that he’s more explicitly tackled the experience in his lyrics. “It’s in there, it was always in there, but kind of subdued,” he says. “As of late, in the last album I go into it in a little more detail, I feel freer about it actually…. Those memories are really, really, really sad. It’s a terrible thing to know that you should remember things, that you know are possibly there but you somehow can’t get to them. That’s a lot for a child to endure. I suppose, looking at it favourably, it would be harder as an adult to deal with that so there’s a great fear in me, of losing my mind again. Because I’ve got so much more now to lose.”

Lydon says that his memory loss sometimes reappears when he’s on stage, meaning he always takes a lyric book with him as a prompt. Yet, despite this, and despite periods of stage fright (he cites reading about Laurence Olivier and Alec Guinness’s stage fright battles as helping him get over it), he evokes an almost blissful picture of performing now.

“It really is, it’s painfully, tortuously blissful,” he says. “It’s like all things in life, the good comes with the bad, and you have to understand that the bad is vitally important to give you the energy to get to the good.

There’s no act, once I’m on stage that’s it, that’s total abandonment. Every bit of self-control that I have in my normal life, that’s just all gone

“There’s no act, once I’m on stage that’s it, that’s total abandonment. Every bit of self-control that I have in my normal life, that’s just all gone. That’s it – sink or swim time, and see how I stand completely, utterly alone with only me to blame if I screw it up. I like that pressure. That’s that completely lovely Johnny Rotten world. That’s my major, major joy in life, that I’ve found a place where I can just drop the shame and fears and self-doubts. Leave them in the dressing room and just see how I am as human being in front of others. And I’m quite alright. Not perfect, but working on it.”

Along with the music, the Sex Pistols and then PiL both gave rise to striking imagery and artwork, which took on a cultural significance, particularly in the case of the Pistols, far beyond the bands themselves.

Jamie Reid, Trevor Key and Brian Cooke were behind the bulk of the Pistols sleeve design and advertising, while Dennis Morris designed for PiL as well as taking many iconic photographs of the Pistols in their pomp. But Lydon claims a role in the genesis of the ideas that fed into the work. “They’re all ideas from [me],” he believes. “But it’s not a big deal, and I’ve never made a big deal of it. For me the cover must be as important as the songs inside it, otherwise you’re wasting your time. You want a visual representation of what you’re about to hear, that’s how the two combine.

A spread from Anarchy in the UK
Anarchy in the UK spread from the book

“Everybody’s claimed their own tuppanceworth haven’t they over the years, and rewrote history affording themselves a bigger place in it,” he says of the punk years. “The truth be, I’m continuing to work that way, and many of these people have not.”

Lydon says the idea for the ransom note style that features so heavily in the Sex Pistols aesthetic was inspired by a TV show that examined blackmail letters. “It was a TV show that was the corny-arse inspiration for it,” he says. “It used to deal with things like blackmail notes so we hooked into that, I can’t remember the show.”

For PiL, by contrast, the band’s striking look was defined by a recognition that the punk style was already starting to be co-opted by the mainstream, even then. “It happens, and that’s why I moved away from the clichés very, very early on,” he says. “And went into Public Image and approached everything in a completely different way.”

Psycho's path
Psycho-path spread from the book

PiL’s branding featured a striking logo, designed by Dennis Morris, which was “brazenly corporate in its approach,” says Lydon. “We were looking at ICI and companies like that and admiring the cold, poker face, isolationist specialism of it. The drab concrete and glass dictatorship…. It was putting a human touch on the corporate thing that at that time seemed to be overtaking the world.”

The stark contrast, in both music and style, of PiL compared to the Pistols caused some confusion for Lydon fans. “There was a great difference between what would be a Pistols audience and a PiL audience,” he says. “And some in-house fighting about that. Verbal fighting. ‘Why do you want to change?’, ‘That’s not punk’. Who the hell is it to tell me what is or isn’t anything? You start and create something from nothing yourself and then somebody comes along and dictates to you what you should and shouldn’t be doing with that. It’s idiotic. Suddenly the punk manifestos came out of nowhere and really these were for the cliché-ridden.”

Of the commercial machine that has built up around punk’s legacy – which has seen its style appear on everything from estate agents’ cars to tote bags – Lydon is surprisingly sanguine. “In a curiously odd way, I think all this ‘village’ that’s built up around us should be looked at with a sense of humour,” he says. “In life, you’ll find that if you do anything good at all, somebody’s going to come along and parody it.”

Death Disco spread from the book
Death Disco spread from the book

But he is fiercely protective of the Sex Pistols itself, and pulls no punches about criticising those figures from the period whom he sees as overly benefiting from it now. “For me, they’re parasitical in nature, these are people who weren’t great contributors at the time, and they’re looking back and they’re rewriting it according to their own specific agendas. I see that as a drop of poison in an uncontaminated ocean.

“We began all this very openly and honestly,” he continues, “and tried to tell it like it really is and now we’re constantly fighting a world of clichés. I’ve spent as much time on anything else as I do continuously making sure that the brand – if you want to use that term – Sex Pistols isn’t polluted with nonsense…. You have to, you can’t abandon it, or else you’ve abandoned everything you’ve stood for. I don’t want the sense of values that I wrote these songs [with] to be translated into pap…. The heart and soul is pure and I hope that the fan base knows that and I hope the wider extremes know that too.”

We began all this very openly and honestly,and tried to tell it like it really is and now we’re constantly fighting a world of clichés

It might be hard to quantify this purity with Lydon’s forays into reality TV on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here and those butter ads, but it’s clear that Lydon’s legendary status as a pantomime punk hero doesn’t always translate into cold, hard cash. On his decision to publish Mr Rotten’s Songbook as an expensive limited edition, for example, rather than a more accessible paperback, Lydon expresses his sense of still being an outsider figure.

“You have to go this way,” he explains. “It’s still, to this day, very difficult for us to convince any publishing house, or record label to put any money into us at all, or show any support or backing. And it’s been that way ever since I first started.”

Songbook cover
Cover from Mr Rotten’s Songbook

He hopes the new book will bring some clarity to the body of music he has created over the years. “I hope I’ve given a much clearer view of where it is I’m going in life, and what my sense of values are. And let me emphasise, I don’t have morals, morals are for the religious, they don’t work with me.

“My values are basically be honest, be true to the self, and tell it like it is. I think I’m quite clearly there. None of this has been done for money or greed or self-aggrandisement or trophies or anything like that.”

Despite his ongoing position as a provocateur-in-chief, it is occasionally rumoured Lydon might one day receive mainstream recognition by way of an honour from the Queen for his services to music. But he laughingly slaps away any such suggestion. “No! None of that please,” he says. “I’m not letting her near me with a sword! Off with his head … the imagery is beautiful.”

Mr Rotten’s Songbook by John Lydon is published on March 31, but is available for pre-order here,

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