Is John Lydon still a punk?

The Trump-supporting former Sex Pistols frontman isn’t enamoured with the young people of today - but is that at all surprising?

I’ve just finished reading the full Sunday Times interview with John Lydon, and, for once, at least we have someone who doesn’t hold back on what he believes. In the interview, the former Sex Pistols frontman and general punk god decries young people, wokeness and a forthcoming Pistols biopic. He also details the challenges of being a full-time carer for his wife Nora Forster, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. So don’t worry, this column is going to contain something none of us have heard in years: nuance. Remember that?

When I saw Lydon being interviewed on Loose Women a few weeks back (I lost all my work, OK?), Zooming in from his California residence with Trump merch purposefully in shot, I was initially dismayed. Then when I read the cropped quotes of him badmouthing young people (“it’s just horribly, horribly tempestuous spoilt children coming out of colleges and universities with shit for brains”) it became clear: yes, I was starting to feel that I’d been cheated.

Full disclosure: I’m not claiming to be a Sex Pistols super-fan – I know the big songs, I know what they stood for and I know they changed the cultural landscape with a DGAF attitude that’s all rather mainstream now. But I decided, given our ever-increasingly polarised cultural landscape, to read his Sunday Times interview in full. These quotes can’t be the totality of Lydon’s opinions in 2021, can they?

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sex pistols
Johnny Rotten and guitarist Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols perform their ‘last’ concert in Winterland on January 14, 1978 in San Francisco, California. (Picture: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Lydon, of course, has never been short of opinions – that’s why we’ve been listening to him for so long. He’s currently enraged that Danny Boyle is making a Sex Pistols TV drama without his permission, and says he can only see it going one way: to court. Most people would be flattered that someone wants to create a show about their life, but not Lydon. Quite where the line is in terms of artistic integrity when you’re probably more famous in recent years for a butter advert, I don’t know – but it’s there somewhere.

In the interview, Lydon is “critical of wokeness” because he believes “it’s a device used by the privileged to keep the working-class in their place”. I don’t totally agree with this: hateful views that perpetuate misogyny, racism or hate of any kind, no matter what section of society you align yourself with, should be challenged. But you can see how he’s arrived at that conclusion – Lydon is frustrated by the lack of anger in today’s youth. We flimsily protest on Twitter, march when we can and berate those who we perceive have crossed a line politically, while Lydon has long belted out that “anger is an energy” and created songs so anti-establishment they were banned from being played.

He adds that he would refuse a knighthood – “why would I allow that woman to have a sword in her hand over my head?” – and he’s right. There’s something awful about past rock stars (Sir Mick Jagger?), disruptors and one-time challengers of authority suddenly embracing the establishment. Like a dog coming back with its tail between its legs after running away, saying it wanted to be part of your club after all.

The “shit for brains” comment was, I think, also levelled at what he perceives to be the upper classes, saying that today’s culture, far from what it protests to be, is actually more intolerant than tolerant. He’s referencing ‘Cancel Culture’ and public figures being de-platformed for holding what are deemed to be the wrong viewpoints, and calls the rest of us “spoiled children coming out of colleges and universities with shit for brains. And I put that in the most polite way”. It’s always sad when yesterday’s rebels don’t understand that every generation fights their battles differently. There were people in your generation with shit for brains too, John!

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The issue in Lydon’s life that you’d think he would be most frustrated about, his wife’s health condition, is one he is extremely compassionate on. He is Nora’s full-time carer and self-funds everything she needs. He speaks with so much warmth and love about her throughout the interview, but there’s also a sadness in knowing that she will never recover from this condition. His advice to people in a similar situation is to “eliminate self-pity and deal with an obvious tragedy open-mindedly. Know what it is and accept it. This is what it is. This is your future. You will have a life afterwards”. What an inspiring way to look at things.

John Lydon
John Lydon (Picture: Emma McIntyre/Getty Images)

Lydon is a firm believer in the NHS and was in favour of Obamacare, but now supports Trump, who he saw as the working-class candidate: “The mainstream media depicted Trump supporters as redneck, gun-toting, moronic race haters and that is absolutely not the truth. It’s regular working people, people who own businesses, people who own little corner stores or gas stations.” I personally think that Trump’s biggest triumph was duping the working classes into thinking he had any interest in their wellbeing whatsoever, but I can also see how your average American can look at the upper echelons of the Democratic Party and feel ignored.

After all the hoo-ha, Lydon, like all great frontmen, still has the power to make you sit up and listen. Usually it’s someone I agree with whole-heartedly, or detest and mock accordingly, but Lydon is someone who says exactly what he thinks, and doesn’t mind what people shout back – he has enough to care about in his life without holding back. He self-published his latest autobiography, the aptly titled I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right, so that he wouldn’t have someone else controlling and diluting what he wanted to say.

John Lydon is someone you can’t put into one camp or the other: love him or hate him, he couldn’t give a fuck. Pretty punk, I suppose.

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