It started with a look.
John Lydon was wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt that he had modified to read “I Hate Pink Floyd.” It was this piece of anti-fashion that brought him to the attention of Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood, owners of the King’s Road boutique SEX. Malcolm and Vivienne were conjuring up plans for a new band that would fuse fashion and music, and Lydon’s tee-shirt suggested the right kind of attitude the pair were looking for. Lydon was asked to audition for the band, so he mimed to an Alice Cooper number and won the role of lead singer with The Sex Pistols. He looked the part, you might say.
It may have started with a look, but for John it was never about the image, as he later explained to Melody Maker in 1978:
”The rest of the band and Malcolm never bothered to find out if I could sing, they just took me as an image. It was as basic as that, they really were as dull as that.
“After a year of it they were going ‘Why don’t you have your hair this color this year?’ And I was going ‘Oh God, a brick wall, I’m fighting a brick wall!’”
We all know The Sex Pistols, they were “a damned good band,” as Lydon recalls in this interview from That Was Then This Is Now in 1988, ten year’s after the band’s demise.
“And to be quite frank, how right it was we ended when we did, because it would have been really futile to have continued with it. We all knew that…
“When you feel you’re running out of ideas you must stop, and go onto something else, which is precisely what all of us did.
Lydon went on to form Public Image Limited with Keith Levene (guitar), Jah Wobble (bass), and Jim Walker (drums). PiL was “different,” and “experimental without being arty-farty about it.”
Their first release “Public Image,” partly written while Lydon was in the Sex Pistols, dealt with Lydon’s frustration at being only seen for the clothes that he wore. Lydon has always been aware that he is an individual, and as can be seen from his interview on That Was Then This Is Now—love him or loathe him—he has always been consistent in being true to himself, and saying whatever he thinks.
Such honesty makes Lydon good for quotable sound bytes, which fits well with the format of That Was Then This Is Now, where information was served up like the ingredients of a recipe.
For example, he tells us how he moved to America because of police harassment. His home was raided on four separate occasions, his belongings damaged or destroyed, his pet cat killed by overzealous police dogs.
While next, Lydon tells us how he considers himself to be an Englishman, and resents paying his hard-earned cash in taxes to pay for Fergie’s (Princess Sarah Ferguson) frumpy tents.
However, no matter how funny, amusing, insightful and inspiring the answers, having them all cut together, one-after-another, reveals the problem with That Was Then This Is Now: information is arbitrarily doled out as sound bytes, signposted by graphic captions, with no connective structure other than the answers given by the interviewee. It’s a nice research tool, and certainly one for future biographers and archivists, but the form lacks any sense of engagement between the audience and Lydon, as there is no possibility of knowing how rigorously he was questioned about his life or his beliefs.
Of course, there are plenty of highlights, including Lydon’s rallying call to the teenage viewer about intelligence:
“All kids should learn this in school—this is the weapon the Tories use against you.
“They want to keep you stupid. They want to keep you down.
“If you do not learn how to beat this system intelligently, you never will.
That is the only lesson really in life to learn. Period.”
Recorded in 1988, That Was Then This Is Now presented the great, the good and the oh-no of Punk, New Wave and the New Romantics, discussing their musical careers in entertainment.