John Lydon knows a thing or two about cancel culture.
In March 1977, when he went by the name Johnny Rotten as lead singer of the Sex Pistols, the band’s record company EMI not only ripped up the Pistols’ record contract six days after they signed it, the label also destroyed all 25,000 copies of their first single, “God Save the Queen,” a sendup of the royal family released to coincide with Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee.
To add insult to injury, the song was also banned from radio, but “God Save the Queen” (now released by Richard Branson's Virgin Records) kept flying off the shelves anyway, and the record made it all the way to No. 2 on Billboard’s British charts. You wouldn’t have known that from looking at those charts, however, as the banned song was represented instead by a blank space, right below Rod Stewart's "The First Cut Is the Deepest."
But wait, there's more!
A few months later, when the band's first full-length album "Never Mind The Bollocks, Here's The Sex Pistols" was displayed in a store window, the band was charged with indecency based on the album's title, with authorities citing an obscure law passed in 1889. (The Sex Pistols won.)
“Actually, it was fantastic,” Lydon recently told Fox News in a FaceTime interview from his home in Venice, Calif., which was built by another legendary provocateur, Mae West. “It proved that I was on the right track and I was actually achieving something here. That's power to the people. That's how we win.”
So began Lydon’s lifelong dance with power, politics, and controversy. First with the Sex Pistols, and then with his post-punk band Public Image Limited (PiL), Lydon’s career and persona have been synonymous with questioning authority -- any authority.
Once you once you go down that current Democratic Party way, there's no return from that
“I like to debate. I like to discuss it. And I like to consider very different points of view,” Lydon said, “All of my friends are very varied in this respect, and I want it that way. I want healthy discourse in everything, because how on earth am I ever going to learn?”
That fascination with competing viewpoints is on display in Lydon’s music (13 studio albums and counting), as well as his new book, “I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right,” (A Way With Media, 2020) whose title comes from a lyric in Public Image Limited’s best-known song, “Rise.”
“You have to tell it honestly and share those experiences and indeed endure the criticisms, because it is like you put your head on the chopping block each time you declare a needed truth about yourself,” Lydon said. “The gift of sharing comes with consequences.”
[Trump] broke that system, that Washington criminality that's caused the problems for all of us in the first place
Lydon has been experiencing some of those consequences recently with his criticism of some parts of the Black Lives Matter movement and his embrace of President Donald Trump. Lydon has been a U.S. citizen since 2013, when he supported a very different candidate.
“I became an American citizen because I believed that Obama could change the world for a better place and I truly believed that at the time,” Lydon explained. “I was very disappointed in eight years how little was actually achieved.”
Since switching his allegiances, Lydon has suffered his share of slings and arrows. While some fans see his embrace of the Republican president as a continuation of his punk-rock, shock-and-awe ways, many -- on social media at least -- are disappointed, calling Lydon among other things “about as punk as a game of golf,” “sadly irrelevant,” and “the bougie punk Rotten turned into.”
Lydon says he is used to it, and is sticking to his guns.
“I think that the rule books must be thrown out. Once you go down that current Democratic Party way, there's no return from that," Lydon said. "It's slowly but surely rule after rule after rule that will stifle the living daylights out of you."
In Trump, Lydon sees an alternative to that route.
“I met him once. I know, what an offensive fella. But he went into politics as the complete individual. That's what we want,” Lydon explained. “I don't like politicians really, generally speaking, not many of them at all. I don't trust of them. He broke that system, that Washington criminality that's caused the problems for all of us in the first place.”
Lydon also sees Trump’s battles with the mainstream press as much the press' fault as it is his.
“I mean, from day one, I remember like CNN were b---hing about Donald Trump’s tie length. ‘Oh, look at that length, that's obviously indicating something,’” Lydon quipped. “It's not an issue. Then as time went by the criticisms became more and more personal. And I have to say, of course, his responses are personal, because he's being attacked daily on a personal level. More power to him.”
If I don't adapt and I stay rigid to one particular philosophy, then I'm nothing more than an idiot
Lydon also sees a fellow traveler in the combative leader of the free world beset by bad headlines.
“I feel for him in that respect because I've enjoyed the same hate, the same misunderstanding. You know, we go back to early punk -- Pistols, PiL, everything I've done in my life. I know what it's like to stand up for what you think is right and to have to endure that that continuous barrage of self-righteous, smug, pompous, condescending, ‘We know better’ nonsense. I know what that's like.”
Lydon feels the same way about his dealings with the entertainment industry in Los Angeles. He has several screen credits, including a co-starring role with Harvey Keitel in 1983’s “Order of Death.”
“Hollywood's never done me any favors. They've always found me very difficult to cope with, that particular Democrat clique,” Lydon said of his love-hate relationship with showbiz. “I've been to their parties, their fundraisers years ago and they just they will not be questioned on anything at all. The presumption of the moral high ground is so defaming of truth.”
A combination of the coronavirus crisis and caring for his wife Nora Forster, who has Alzheimer’s, has kept Lydon off the road and out of the studio in recent months, and he says that has given him even more time to think about America’s widening divide.
“The issues make me have to adapt. If I don't adapt and I stay rigid to one particular philosophy, then I'm nothing more than an idiot,” he said. “And that's the problem with being all or nothing, and that's the great divide we're now facing at the moment, the idiocy of it all to the left, all to the right.”
His extended time at home has also given Lydon, 64, the opportunity to finally shepherd his 2017 PiL documentary “The Public Image Is Rotten” across all major digital streaming services just this week, and to write and produce "I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right," a limited edition, hand-signed and cased hardbound coffee-table creation filled with opinions, life lessons, and stories from his youth.
“I love books,” he said. “They’re the very thing that helped me in my youth to recover from a serious illness where I lost all my memories. And so forever since, I worship libraries and worship books, and I treat them at the same respect I do as music.”
Who doesn't love a woman that dismisses them. Oh, come on, fellas! They become instantly intriguing
Lydon contracted viral meningitis as a child and spent a year in the hospital, much of it in a coma. He has credited that health scare with everything from his distinctive singing voice to his “Rotten stare.” He also said that his illness, combined with caring for his ailing mother and younger siblings in his own youth, gave him a capacity for caring and empathy that has served him well with his wife, who has suffered with her progressive disease for several years.
“It's just my natural way. And those are the gifts that God gives you. I like helping. I hate taking help because I think it takes away the personal freedoms," he said. "But at the same time, there are so many people that do need your attention, so give it to them willingly.”
And now, that attention is going to his wife, whom he met in his Sex Pistols days when the then-promoter took him down a notch about an outfit he was wearing.
"Who doesn't love a woman that dismisses them. Oh, come on, fellas! They become instantly intriguing," Lydon marveled. "And that's that's the fascination and the adoration I have for us as a species. We love our differences. It's what makes us better. If two people that have a similar mindset ever tried to form a relationship, that's one tuned to boredom. Come on, this is life, not rhetoric."