AKA John Joseph Lydon
Birthplace: Holloway, London, England
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Executive summary: Sex Pistols and Public Image, Ltd.
A primary culprit behind the style and attitude that is associated with the punk movement of the late 1970s, John Lydon -- known in his early career as "Johnny Rotten" (a nickname inspired by the dismal condition of his teeth at the time) -- is certainly one of the most recognizable performers of the punk era, despite his relatively short-lived involvement in the genre. Perhaps even more significant is his role in establishing the direction of post-punk, "alternative" music in the 1980s, which combined avant-garde and world music into the raw approach developed during the previous decade. He has certainly come to define one of the oddest contradictions created by the post-1950s music industry: the rebellious, anti-establishment outsider turned established, internationally-known celebrity.
John Joseph Lydon was given his start in the world in the North London district of Holloway, although there is a possibility that he was actually born in County Galway, Ireland before his parents emigrated to England. He spent his childhood in poverty, living in a council estate with his two younger brothers -- a situation that was worsened in his seventh year by a serious bout with spinal meningitis. Several months in the hospital and periods of coma took a severe physical and mental toll on the young boy, at the end of which he had lost most of his memory and was forced to learn how to talk for a second time. This obviously made school especially difficult for him, and the resentment and frustration of his situation (combined with the abusive tendencies of Catholic school nuns) ultimately led to his expulsion by age 15.
Lydon resumed his education at Hackney & Stoke Newington College of Further Education, and it was during this period that he met many of his future bandmates, including John Simon Ritchie (whom he later dubbed Sid Vicious) and John Wardle (later known as Jah Wobble). By this time he had adopted the style of dress that would become a trademark of the punk movement -- a style that was also being promoted by the SEX clothing shop established by Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood. Inspired by the New York garage rock scene, McLaren was attempting to assemble a band in the mold of The New York Dolls; the trio of guitarist Steve Jones, bassist Glen Matlock and drummer Paul Cook was already in place when Lydon was approached to audition as a possible lead singer. His outlandish histrionics (while performing along with Alice Cooper's Eighteen) immediately landed him the job. Originally called The Swankers (a hold over from Jones' and Cook's previous project), McLaren re-christened the new line-up with the provocative name The Sex Pistols towards the end of 1975.
As the frontman for the Pistols, Lydon/Rotten was quickly transformed from an anonymous punk working construction jobs and living in a squat into a subject of nation-wide attention and controversy. After a series a gigs at colleges and clubs (and a one-off show in Paris), the band took part in the first "International Punk Festival", staged at the 100 Club on Oxford Street. Sharing the bill with other early punk acts such as Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Damned and The Clash, the Sex Pistols created enough of a stir to rouse the unsavory attentions of EMI executives, and were signed to the label shortly afterwards. Their debut release Anarchy in the U.K. followed in November of 1976, but the first significant public stir would be the result of the band's irreverent and profane appearance on Bill Grundy's Today program -- an incident that created enough of a media frenzy to push the single into the top 40. Despite this promising start, the constant turmoil and destruction that plagued the Pistols' subsequent tour prompted EMI to drop the band (and the single) after little more than three months.
With the departure of Glen Matlock from the Sex Pistols in February of 1977, Lydon brought in his old schoolfriend and squat-mate John Ritchie, formerly of The Flowers of Romance and a member of the Banshees' line-up at their 100 Club appearance. Provided with the stage name Sid Vicious by his friend, Ritchie did not contribute much musically to the Pistols, but more than lived up to their standards for anti-social behavior and fitted in perfectly with their "look". A quickly-aborted arrangement with A&M was replaced by a contract with Virgin in May, the latter releasing the single God Save the Queen a few weeks afterwards and the album Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols in October. The single in particular effectively served to increase the hype surrounding the band, managing to both force it's way up to the #2 position on the charts and to enrage the country's conservative population through its apparent disrespect of their beloved national figurehead; the album did its part for the cause by instigating an obscenity trial with its irreverent title. The escalating negative atmosphere (aggravated by Vicious' drug-fueled unreliability) would ultimately bring about the disintegration of the Pistols two weeks into their first U.S. tour. Lydon announced his departure three days after a performance at Winterland in San Francisco, and was subsequently left behind without funds by the rest of the band and their management.
In the wake of the Sex Pistols' collapse, Lydon returned to England and began assembling musicians for a new project. Enlisting former squat-mate John Wardle (now Jah Wobble) and ex-Flowers of Romance/ex-The Clash guitarist Keith Levene, he created Public Image Limited, which would take the immediacy of punk and infuse it with a broader range of influences. The new band debuted with the fairly conventional single Public Image in October of 1978 and quickly found themselves in the UK top ten. Most of the other tracks that were featured on the full-length, UK-only collection First Issue, released in December, moved into more unusual territory, incorporating aspects of dub, world and avant-garde musics. The band's second effort (which came to be known as Metal Box (1979) due to the fact that it was 3 12" records housed in a circular metal canister) took this approach to an even more uncompromising extreme. A US edition titled Second Edition was released in 1980 as a double-LP in a regular paper sleeve.
Although it had left the musical style of the Sex Pistols behind, PiL maintained the unstable, anarchistic atmosphere that had surrounded Lydon's former project, rarely performing and rehearsing even less. Sometimes this chaos would bring about interesting results -- such as the band's unique approach to miming their songs on American Bandstand in 1980, which completely punctured the illusion such "performances" usually attempt to create -- but it also kept the line-up in a state of perpetual near-collapse. By the time of their third release (the live collection Paris au Printemps, 1980) an irregular sequence of drummers had already come and gone (and, in the case of Martin Atkins, come back again); by the third studio album The Flowers of Romance (1981), the core membership was down to just Lydon and Levene. The band's popularity remained largely unaffected by this instability, however, and they returned themselves to the top 30 with the album's title track.
PiL managed to endure throughout the entirety of the 1980s -- although, after a second live album Live in Tokyo (1983) and a fourth studio effort This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get (1984), the only original member to still remain would be Lydon, his support musicians changing between nearly every successive release. The same year as the latter release, Lydon recorded World Destruction, a groundbreaking collaboration with hip-hop performer Afrika Bambaataa issued under the name Time Zone. As the decade progressed, PiL's sound developed along similarly danceable lines. The generically-packaged Album (1985) found Lydon adopting a more polished sound and enlisting the help of established industry names such as Bill Laswell, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Steve Vai and Ginger Baker; 1987's Happy embraced a dance-oriented approach fashioned with the production assistance of the Art of Noise's Gary Langan, while the 1989 release 9 moved the material even farther in this direction through the involvement of dance-pop producer Stephen Hague on many of the tracks. The band eventually returned to a rock sound with 1992's That What Is Not, but soon afterwards Lydon decided to suspend his involvement with the group in favor of other projects.
In 1994 Lydon published a memoir titled Rotten: No Irish - No Blacks - No Dogs, a book primarily concerned with correcting what he felt was an inaccurate public perception of the events surrounding the existence of the Sex Pistols (a perception in large part created by Malcolm McLaren's 1980 film The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle). Two years later, the Pistols (with original bassist Matlock) staged an improbable reunion tour unashamedly called The Filthy Lucre World Tour; the reunion was resumed once again for a pair of shows in 2002, and for a second tour (the Piss Off Tour) in 2003. Lydon's first solo album Psycho's Path finally materialized in 1997, its electronica-based sound having origins in the one-off dance hit Open Up he had recorded in collaboration with house duo Leftfield in 1993. In the late half of the 1990s, his career began to involve somewhat more typical celebrity activities: hosting a series on VH1, participating in the British "reality" series I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here! and assuming presentation duties for one of the Discovery Channel's nature documentaries. This did not equate to a wholesale embrace of the establishment, however, and in 2006 Lydon and his Sex Pistol bandmates made the rare decision of rejecting their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Father: John Christopher Lydon
Mother: Eileen Barry
Brother: Bobby (younger)
Brother: Martin Lydon (younger)
Wife: Nora Forster
Daughter: Ari Up (stepdaughter)
High School: Hackney and Stoke Newington College of Further Education
The Sex Pistols Vocalist (1975-78)
Public Image Limited (1978-)
Time Zone 1984
Coma 1963 (menignitis)
Disorderly Conduct 6-Oct-1980 (arrested in Dublin, Ireland)
Endorsement of Dairy Crest Country Life butter (2008)
Risk Factors: Meningitis
FILMOGRAPHY AS ACTOR
Song to Song (10-Mar-2017)
Beware of Mr. Baker (10-Mar-2012)
The Independent (12-Mar-2000)
The Filth and the Fury (25-Jan-2000) · Himself
D. O. A. (12-Sep-1980) · Himself
The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle (11-Sep-1980)
The Punk Rock Movie (1978) · Himself
Rotten Library Page:
Author of books:
Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs (1994, autobiography)
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