Sometimes a face gatecrashes the public consciousness with such force that the imprint of the image acquires an immortal permanence; the owner of the iconic countenance in question remains fixed as that face way beyond the point at which the individual recedes into irrelevance and succumbs to mortality. Even when they were frail little old ladies hiding beneath wigs, both Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich were still standing in the shadows cast by their younger incarnations, those glacial goddesses manufactured by the lighting-men of 30s Hollywood. Of course, a premature death can negate the undesirable reality of the ageing process. The world never saw a balding, bloated James Dean or Jim Morrison; nor did it see a menopausal Marilyn Monroe or Janis Joplin submitting to the plastic surgeon’s knife. But for those who survive the first flush of youthful fame or infamy, the inescapable impact of the initial impression can be a hard habit to break.
When a working-class Islington adolescent of Irish stock became an overnight household name thanks to a few choice rude words slipping out onto teatime TV in December 1976, the unforgettable character of Johnny Rotten invaded the front pages of everyone’s lives at a time when rock and pop was still more than a mere leisure industry. Shock and awe was the currency of the age; only three or four years earlier, Alice Cooper was provoking questions in the House and David Bowie was daring to wear his bisexuality as a badge of divine decadence. That a new rock cult should emerge from the underground and upset the cultural apple cart yet again was par for the course.
In 1976, Johnny ‘Rotten’ Lydon was the latest addition to a loutish litany of chic freaks that had transformed the music industry over the previous fifteen years. The strutting, preening cock-rock God as personified by Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant was the formulaic frontman of the mid-70s and Lydon’s dramatic contrast with the norm immediately garnered attention. The pale, skeletal face, the theatrical physical deformity that owed more to Laurence Olivier than Little Richard, the shades of music hall comedy in the Norman Wisdom-esque vocal, the spiky carrot top breaking with the flowing locks that had been de rigueur for a generation, and most of all, that piercing, menacing stare that few realised was a legacy of childhood meningitis. Like Ian Dury, Lydon’s onstage persona owed little to what had gone before and it was this challenge to the orthodoxy of the era that marked him out as a true original.
When bassist Glen Matlock was replaced by Lydon’s old mate Sid Vicious in 1977, the ingredients were in place to ensure The Sex Pistols were the last rock band that mattered to emerge from the era in which rock music represented popular culture’s cutting edge. Their chaotic career embodied every rule in the book – condemnation from the establishment and authority, banned hit records, tabloid front covers, one ferociously invigorating LP (lest we forget) and a seismic generational split before climaxing in a drug overdose death. One critic writing after the shock waves of punk had subsided referred to the brief but brilliant soap opera of The Sex Pistols as the obituary of rock ‘n’ roll, and he was probably right. Thereafter, rock retreated into the profitable playpen of pure entertainment, but the man who had snarled his way into the top ten didn’t rest on his laurels.
The formation of Public Image Ltd (AKA PiL) in 1978, at a time when Virgin were still issuing highly successful singles sung by Sid Vicious under the Sex Pistols name, signalled a great leap forward for Lydon. Their debut single, ‘Public Image’, was light years away from the Eddie Cochran covers his old band-mates were flogging; it burned with the same raging intensity as ‘Anarchy in the UK’ and ‘God Save the Queen’, but rejected the rock ‘n’ roll roots in twelve-bar blues and exuded a more experimental and European sense of alienation. The band’s first two albums took this sensibility even further, recalling the less portentous prog of Lydon’s teenage turntable, such as Can and Van Der Graaf Generator.
During this period, Lydon was still regarded as a man with something to say and he continued to be viewed as a potentially dangerous presence on the British music scene. It was around this time that he gave a Radio One interview in which he obliquely hinted at Jimmy Savile not being quite as wholesome a figure as his children’s TV image suggested; he also announced he’d like to kill Mick Jagger. Few took any notice, particularly the BBC, for after the interview aired, PiL performed on both ‘Top of the Pops’ and ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’, and a lone Lydon made a memorable appearance on the Noel Edmonds-hosted revival of ‘Juke Box Jury’.
As late as 1981, a TOTP PiL performance of ‘Flowers of Romance’ showed Lydon’s ability to unnerve as a performer and songwriter remained intact, but by the time the band scored their biggest hit – 1983’s ‘This is Not a Love Song’ – Lydon’s relocation to the States had piled a few pounds onto that waif frame as well as blunting his capability to break new ground on record. This was the point at which Lydon began to ironically resemble his nemesis, the Sex Pistols’ ex-manager, Malcolm McLaren. Both became regulars on the chat show circuit and with Lydon in particular, reinventing himself as an oracle of eternal antiestablishment opinion seemed to serve as compensation for his diminishing status as a significant musical innovator.
The reunion of The Sex Pistols in 1996, something that led to their sole in-studio TOTP appearance, placed Lydon in the same rock nostalgia bracket as all the old bands he still claimed to despise, and by the twenty-first century his harmless (albeit entertaining) persona as a prickly old uncle carried him into the vacuous universe of reality television and commercials, something that recently reached its natural conclusion with the licensing of the Sex Pistols logo for a credit card. ‘I use the enemy’ indeed.
As if in denial of his irrelevance as anything other than an eccentric oddball from some alternative ‘Carry On’ movie, Lydon insists on harking back to the young man who said ‘shit’ on teatime TV, like one of those old codgers who delighted in telling you how many Germans he killed in the war. He’ll recycle this on everything from the cosy sofa of breakfast telly to the slippery seats oiled by Piers Morgan, and has recently attached his determination to be seen as an upholder of truth to the Yewtree bandwagon by declaring his long-forgotten 1978 reference to Jimmy Savile was some form of soothsayer’s warning. Lydon has proven to be a skilled revisionist in this case, claiming his Savile reference earned him a BBC ban when it did nothing of the sort. No wonder his fellow rewriter of history, S&M’s Liz Dux, has endorsed his opinion.
John Lydon is an intelligent and amusing individual pushing sixty whose reputation rests on what he did between the ages of 19-25, when he gave rock one last kick up the arse before it conked out for good. But as if to confirm his place in the facile hall of fame, he has now – like all those who preceded him – sadly succumbed to the illusion of believing he still means as much now as when he first appeared. He regards himself as the keeper of the flame and a purveyor of indisputable honesty who has never sold his soul to The Man; he’s also someone who exhibits a rather smug sense of his own importance while failing to acknowledge the fact that, by siding with the media consensus on one particular topic, he simply comes across as deluded and desperate.