Daily Mail | 28 May 2016
When comedian Ronnie Corbett died in March he was mourned by millions, none more surprising, perhaps, than John Lydon, aka former Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten.
“He did this punk spoof when he was younger,” says Lydon, “and the image of him and Ronnie Barker in punk gear was absurd but very funny. I ran into him a few years back at the Comedy Awards and I had to say hello, even though he looked surprised.
“He said, ‘You’re not angry with me then?’, and I said, ‘Of course not. I loved you to death, silly!’ Humour’s always been one of the major influences for me,” he adds. “I don’t take myself too seriously.”
For a man described in the 70s as “the worst threat to our kids since Hitler”, a sense of humour has proved a valuable asset to Lydon. Though in his youth spiky-haired and rotten of teeth (hence the stage name), the John Lydon of today is incredibly warm and dentally magnificent thanks to the orthodontic skills of his adoptive Californian home.
He also laughs far more than someone who once sang of being an antichrist should. He’s in Britain on a UK tour with Public Image Ltd, the band he formed after the Sex Pistols. “I love it,” he says. “I love that up-close-and-personal contact. And I’m alive! Who on earth would have predicted that?”
Certainly others in his orbit haven’t fared as well. Fellow Sex Pistol Sid Vicious died in 1979 from a heroin overdose at 21 after being charged with the murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, while Malcolm McLaren, the Pistols’ manager once dubbed “the most evil man alive” by Lydon, died six years ago from cancer.
“I felt sad when Malcolm died,” he says. “He was rather silly, but so what? The world needs silly people. I still miss Sid too and always will.”
It doesn’t take long to realise that John Lydon is a bit of a softie. His entertaining appearance on I’m A Celebrity… in 2004 did much to alter people’s preconceptions of him before he stormed off the show.
The reasons why weren’t clear, but he later claimed the producers had refused to let him know his wife Nora’s flight had landed safely in Australia, where the show is filmed. “Years before, Nora and I had been booked on the flight brought down by the Lockerbie bomb,” he says, “and it was only because Nora hadn’t packed her bag in time that we didn’t get on it.
“Ever since it’s been vitally important to know the other person is safe. I lost all respect for the producers when they didn’t do that. They wanted me to throw a hissy fit for TV ratings, so I just said goodbye.”
Being straightforward is something Lydon requires at all times – the reasons for which stem from his childhood. In his 2014 memoir Anger Is An Energy, he describes his upbringing in 1960s north London – a Dickensian nightmare of overcrowding (he lived with his three younger brothers and parents John and Eileen), drunks passing out in the outside toilet and rat-infested backyards – which was brought to a halt when at 7 he contracted meningitis. John was in a coma for seven months, and when he came to he’d lost his memory.
“I couldn’t recognise my own mother and father and it was the loneliest I’ve ever felt,” he says. “I had suicidal thoughts. I wanted to jump off the balcony at the hospital because I was thinking, ‘Why doesn’t anybody know me and why don’t I know anybody?’ I had to learn how to love and learn to trust my parents, and once I began to trust, things started happening for the better. But the fallout is I can’t bear people lying to me: I can forgive all manner of bad behaviour but you have to be straight.”
His honesty has led to more than a few problems in the past. In 1978, when the Pistols had been causing maximum outrage and when Jimmy Savile was at the height of his fame, fronting shows for BBC radio and TV such as Top Of The Pops, Lydon gave an interview to Radio 1 in which he called Savile a “hypocrite… into all kinds of seediness… that we’re not allowed to talk about”. Though the segment wasn’t broadcast, hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse against the DJ came to light after Savile’s death in 2011.
“If you said anything you’d be off playlists, but that didn’t bother me as I was doing a good job of that independently,” says Lydon. “But first-hand experiences were reiterated to me by young girls who went to Top Of The Pops and said he was touchy, feely, creepy, urgh… Doctor Death. I told them to report it but it would have been seen as grassing then. I knew all about it and said so and got myself banned from the BBC. Family values, eh?” he laughs. “Turns out I was the only one who had any.”