John Lydon Unveils ‘Antireligious’ Art for New Public Image Ltd. Album
“I don’t think what the world needs will be Donald Trump,” Public Image Ltd. frontman John Lydon says with a laugh when asked about the title of the group’s upcoming record, What the World Needs Now…. “Wow, what a wack.”
The former Sex Pistol’s long-running art-rock group is set to release its 10th studio album on September 4th, and today, Lydon is revealing the cover art, which he drew himself. The album cover sports his interpretation of a different kind of “wack”: a Hopi Kachina clown doll. The singer has long been fascinated by Native American art and cites the “joker or the fool or the idiot,” depicted in his painting, as his favorite.
“He brings fun and he’s always used in a corn festival,” Lydon says. “Not to say the album is corny.” He laughs. “I thought as a purveyor of good tidings, he would be very apt for this cover. And the title, What the World Needs Now…, is exactly that kind of approach. In lieu of how everybody’s ever so eager to departmentalize themselves and kill each other because of their differences, how I see the world is vastly different. Our differences are what make us so complete, not the other way around. So it’s an antireligious statement, really, of sorts.
“Muslim, Christian, any of them, they’re problem givers not solvers,” he explains. “They all end up crusading in their mentality and are all about eliminating opposition really. Nothing that ISIS or what this lot are up to at the moment is any different from what the Crusades were, bearing in mind the 10-century gap.”
The vocalist does praise the Hopi religion — while also calling the culture passive — because it was “not quite as fairy dust as ours.” “Theirs seems to be about something better and deeper in solving a problem, rather than creating a new one, which I’m afraid all of the current religions are definitely up to.” He’s also quick to go on a tangent to assert that he does not collect Hopi figurines, despite his admiration of how they depict the tribe’s culture. “In an odd way, I have something similar myself, representing our alleged culture: I’ve got a set of Spice Girl dolls,” Lydon says with a laugh. “I paid for them, too and I’m very glad I have them.” Why? “They’re hilarious, and just so worth looking at every now and again.”
The album itself is a similarly manic affair, finding Lydon fashioning scabrous screeds and heartfelt toasts over his bandmates’ dubby, jagged post-punk tableaus. But the first single – “Double Trouble,” set for release in August – is one of Lydon’s more humorous rants in recent years. “It’s about an argument that my wife and me had over a broken toilet,” Lydon says.
“The toilet’s fucking broken again?” he says over an upbeat rhythm, before an elastic riff kicks in at the song’s start. “I repaired that. I told you, ‘Get the plumber in again and again and again and again and again.’”
The singer says the tune’s “Get the plumber” line was his in real life and that the row sparked because he had once successfully repaired a toilet himself. “That was my fatal mistake,” he says. “It was presumed from there on in that I would repair it every single time, every toilet I came in sight of. ‘Don’t volunteer for nothing, young man.’ That’s what I say. There will be times when you can’t do things and you’re like, ‘Let’s waste the money on a plumber.’ I’m not Johnny Perfecto in the toilet department. I know how to break them.”
And what does Mrs. Lydon think of “Double Trouble”? “She loves it,” he says. “It’s beautifully played and hilariously sung.”
The flipside of the “Double Trouble” 10-inch will contain his slinky, spacey ode to Fifties pin-up Bettie Page (“She had the courage to do something no one else was doing, and I admired that so it’s a song of adoration,” Lydon says) and a very short, non-album dance-punk rant dubbed “Turkey Tits,” which he calls an “indirect reference” to clothing designer Vivienne Westwood, who was once in a relationship with Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren.
“Sid [Vicious] used to call her ‘Turkey Neck,’” the former Johnny Rotten explains. “I once seen her change into a rubber outfit, and ‘Turkey Tits’ it was.” He laughs.
Lydon hopes Westwood will take the new song “with a great sense of fun.” “Indirectly, it’s about the clothes and her partner at the time, who was Malcolm – rest his soul in peace and all that – and how they presumed they can manipulate our young souls for their ambitions and manipulate us into being exotic creatures just to sell clothes. It’s from the point of view of young and angry. It’s all a bit silly. As adults, you shouldn’t be messing around with young people like that.”
The last time he saw Westwood, and also likely the last time he saw McLaren, was at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art for its AngloMania exhibition in 2006. “They were gonna have a punk section there and they asked me if I had any items of clothing for it, and I did. And I had a big row with them because they were going to credit it all to Vivienne Westwood design, so us lot went to great lengths to point out that that’s my design. She just made it for me and charged me full price. There is a difference.” He laughs. “And I met her in the lobby. And I said, ‘What do you think of that? She was like, ‘That’s quite right, John. No problems.’ And we seemed to be all right with each other.
“Malcolm [McLaren] was locked outside. I waved to him from the balcony. ‘Hello! Fancy not seeing you here.’”
“The fun of that evening, of course, was Malcolm was locked out and he couldn’t get in,” he continues with a laugh. “He was running up and down the street outside, shouting. I waved to him, of course, from the smoking balcony. ‘Hello! Fancy not seeing you here.’” He laughs, and adds, “I think things have a way of working themselves out in the end when people give themselves false credit for things. I’ve always been opposed to thievery in any shape or form.”
On the subject of art, the singer – who credits Wassily Kandinsky and “anybody who’s colorful” as his favorite painters – bemoans the fine-art industry where corporate investors “dictate what is good art and bad art.” “It’s much more exaggerated than the music industry, which is basically run around vanity,” he says. “As soon as the looks go and the beer belly turns up, well, tough times flogging a record there.”
Other tracks on the album include a mid-paced, dubby number called “Corporate,” in which he skewers corporate culture by repeating the word “murderer” (“The message is, ‘Don’t get manipulated,’” he says. “We don’t all have to wear the same sneakers”) and the sparse, dancey “Shoom,” which finds him ranting about how everything is “bollocks” – e.g., “Humans? All bollocks” – and answers his own question, singing “What the world needs now is another fuck off.” “It’s a character song,” he says of the latter tune. “I disagree with that lyric entirely…. The song is done from the point of view of sitting in a pub, English-style, and chatting with friends. There’s always that one person in the corner who’s got not a lot of good to say about anything. And they’re usually dead right but very irritating for it. It’s an ironic song, but irony, I’ve found, to be the best form of humor.”
Incidentally, Lydon recently revisited a piece of irony from his past when he made PiL T-shirts with his old “catchphrase,” “It’s awful. I hate it.” “The idea for that phrase came from an old comedian, Dick Emery,” Lydon explains. “He used to dress in drag and say, ‘You are awful, but I like you.’ I thought I’ll play on that…. Before that I used to walk around and go, ‘It’s dismal.’ But I picked up on that and I just use it. ‘What do you think of this, John?’ ‘It’s awful. I hate it.’ And it would be my favorite curry at the time, right in front of my face.”
The singer began reflecting on his life, old phrases like his T-shirt quip and all the “bollocks” in “Shoom” (“I don’t like repeating myself, but it is a catchphrase I made popular some years back and it really is part two,” he says of the latter) and the circularity of his themes while working on his recent memoir, Anger Is an Energy. The creation of the book played into the album and vice-versa.
One element of déjà vu that he’s especially happy with is his band, which contains former Public Image Ltd. members Lu Edmonds on guitar and Bruce Smith on drums, both of whom played in the band in the mid Eighties. “This is the first time in my life I’ve ever been in a musical situation where I’ve truly enjoyed the company of the people I’m working with,” Lydon says. “I was brought up really to believe that it was all a situation of animosity and contempt for each other and anything else that came within earshot.” He laughs.
It’s been only with this lineup in which Lydon feels like he has been able to let go of some of the fears he had from his Pistols days and even throughout most of Public Image Ltd.’s first run. “I don’t feel shy or ashamed or embarrassed about myself anymore, and that’s quite amazing,” he says, adding that he’s eager to tour the U.S. this fall. “Johnny Rotten definitely felt all those things, but he’s grown into Johnny Lydon, who will take on anything vocally now. If my band wants me to, I’ll be there for them.”
Ultimately, he’s grateful for the musical inspiration and easygoing inner-band atmosphere, since it led to the creation of what he considers the best album he’s ever made. An album on which he asks the big questions seriously. “The biggest question is, what does the world need?” he reiterates. “It’s one that I can’t answer on my own. I think it needs all of us to sit down and work that one out.”