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Johnny Rotten (born 1956 January 31), also known as John Lydon, is an Irish-English rock musician and individualist anarchist. He was the lead vocalist for Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd. With his sarcastic and provocative public persona, he participated in laying down a new template for rebellious youth and band frontmen. His musical innovations have also been influential. He is currently working on a new album called The Rabbit Song.
His parents were both Irish Catholic immigrants, his father from Tuam, County Galway, and his mother from County Cork. He grew up on a council estate in Finsbury Park, North London with three younger brothers. At the age of seven, he contracted spinal meningitis, putting him in and out of comas for half a year and erasing most of his memory. The disease left him with a permanent curve in his spine. It also damaged his eyesight, resulting in the classic Rotten stare.
He is married to Nora Forster. They have no children together, but Rotten is "grandfather" to the children of Forster's daughter, Ari Up, who herself had been the lead singer in the influential all-female postpunk, dub reggae band, The Slits.
In 1975, Rotten was among a group of youths that regularly hung around Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's fetish clothing shop SEX. McLaren had returned from a brief stint travelling with American proto-punk band the New York Dolls and was working on promoting a new group formed by Steve Jones, Glen Matlock and Paul Cook called Sex Pistols. McLaren was impressed with Rotten's ragged look and unique sense of style, particularly his orange hair and Pink Floyd T-Shirt (with the words I Hate scrawled in felt-tip pen above the band's logo), and he was asked to audition. After tunelessly singing Alice Cooper's "Eighteen" to the accompaniment of the shop's jukebox, Rotten was chosen as the group's frontman. The stage name Johnny Rotten was primarily derived from his rotten teeth.
In 1977, the band released "God Save the Queen" during the week of Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee. The song was a hit, but caused so much controversy that at one point Rotten was attacked in the streets by an angry mob. They stabbed him in his left hand, his leg, and nearly gouged out his eye with a beer bottle. To this day he cannot make a fist properly with his left hand and when recording solo material, is forced to play guitar right-handed even though he is left-handed.
His interest in dub music and his post-Sex Pistols work with Public Image Ltd. (also known as PiL) and artists such as Afrika Bambaataa and Leftfield showed him to be more musically sophisticated than his work with the Pistols had suggested. Indeed, McLaren was said to have been upset when Rotten revealed during a radio interview that his influences included Can, Captain Beefheart and Van der Graaf Generator. Such acts were not in keeping with the punk rock image McLaren wished to see projected.
Tensions between Rotten and bassist Glen Matlock arose. Rotten believed Matlock to be too innocuously white-collar middle-class and "always going on about nice things like the Beatles". As a replacement, Rotten recommended his school friend John Simon Ritchie. Although Ritchie was not a competent musician, McLaren agreed that he had the look the band wanted: pale, emaciated, spike-haired, with ripped clothes and a perpetual sneer. Because that image was the opposite of the quiet, shy Ritchie's personality, Rotten dubbed him Sid Vicious as a joke, taking the name from his pet hamster, a finger-biting creature named Sid the Vicious.
Ritchie's chaotic relationship with disturbed girlfriend Nancy Spungen and worsening heroin addiction caused a great deal of friction amongst the band, particularly with Rotten, whose sarcastic remarks often exacerbated the situation. Rotten closed what was to be the final Sid Vicious-era Sex Pistols concert in San Francisco's Winterland in January 1978 with the now-legendary quip to the audience: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" Shortly thereafter, McLaren, Jones, and Cook went to Brazil to meet train robber Ronnie Biggs. Rotten declined to go, feeling that they were attempting to make a hero out of a violent thug who brutally coshed a train-engine driver and stole "working-class money". Henceforth, Rotten was abandoned in San Francisco virtually penniless.
The Sex Pistols' disintegration is documented in the documentaries D.O.A. and The Filth and the Fury, and, to a lesser degree, in Julien Temple's satirical pseudo-biopic, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, in which the Pistols played themselves. D.O.A. was filmed without permission from either the band or the management, while Rotten refused to have anything to do with The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, feeling that McLaren had far too much control over the project. Although Rotten was highly critical of Temple's The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, many years later he agreed to let Temple direct The Filth and the Fury: the film featured new interviews with the band hidden in shadow, as if they were in a witness protection program, and featured an uncharacteristically vulnerable Rotten choking up and becoming tearful as he discussed Ritchie's decline and death. During the Pistols' heyday the band was slated to star in Who Killed Bambi?, a film directed by Russ Meyer and written by Roger Ebert, but the project eventually fell apart.
Although Rotten spent years furiously denying that the Sex Pistols would ever perform together again, the band did indeed re-unite (with Glen Matlock returning on bass) in the '90s and continues to tour occasionally.
In 2006, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted the Sex Pistols. The band refused to attend the ceremony or acknowledge the induction, complaining that they had been asked for large sums of money to attend. In June 2007, Rotten, Jones and Cook re-recorded 'Pretty Vacant' in a Los Angeles studio for the forthcoming video game 'Skate' and, in a radio interview in the same month, Rotten announced that the Sex Pistols may perform again over the Christmas period.
Public Image Limited (PiL)
In 1978, he formed the post-punk outfit Public Image Limited (PiL) and denounced the Sex Pistols. PiL lasted for fourteen years with Johnny Rotten as the only consistent member. The group enjoyed some early critical acclaim for its landmark 1979 album, Metal Box (a.k.a. Second Edition), and influenced many bands of the later industrial movement. The band was lauded for its daring innovation and rejection of traditional musical forms. Musicians citing their influence have ranged from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Massive Attack.
The band's surreal performance on the dance/concert TV show American Bandstand has become the stuff of legend, with Rotten giving up on lip synching not long into the performance and dancing with audience members instead (see External links below). The group did quite well in the UK charts, but were regularly outsold by Sex Pistols reissues. Despite his tenure with PiL, he is still most well-known as Johnny Rotten.
The first lineup of the band included former Clash guitarist Keith Levene and bassist Jah Wobble. They released the albums Public Image and Metal Box. Wobble then left and Rotten and Levene concocted the The Flowers of Romance. Then came This Is What You Want...This Is What You Get featuring Martin Atkins on drums (he had also appeared on Metal Box and The Flowers of Romance) as well as session artists. Rotten said of this album in 1992 that "This is What You Want is just me giving orders and them receiving them. There was no feedback. If I had a crap idea, the crap idea would go onto vinyl almost immediately". However, despite the dip in quality as compared to their first three albums, it featured their biggest hit, the sarcastic "This Is Not A Love Song", which hit #5 in 1983.
Then in 1986 Public Image Limited released Album (also known as Compact Disc and Cassette). Most of the tracks on this album were written by Rotten and Bill Laswell. The musicians were session musicians including bassist Jonas Hellborg, guitarist Steve Vai and Cream drummer Ginger Baker. It continued the band's foray into accessible dance-pop as opposed to their earlier incarnation as a challenging art-rock ensemble. Like the previous album, this also featured a massive hit, the anti-apartheid anthem "Rise".
In 1987 a new lineup was formed consisting of Rotten, former Magazine, Siouxsie & The Banshees and The Armoury Show guitarist John McGeoch, Alan Dias on bass guitar in addition to drummer Bruce Smith and Lu Edmunds. This lineup released Happy? and all except Lu Edmunds released the album 9 in 1989. In 1992 Rotten, Dias and McGeoch were joined by Curt Bisquera on drums and Gregg Arreguin on rhythm guitar for the album That What Is Not. This album also features the Tower Of Power on two songs and Jimmie Wood on harmonica. Rotten, McGeoch and Dias also wrote the song "Criminal" for the movie Point Break. After this album, in 1993, Rotten put PiL on indefinite hiatus, in which state they remain today.
In 1984, Johnny Rotten worked with Time Zone on their best-known single, "World Destruction". A collaboration between Rotten, Afrika Bambaataa and producer/bassist Bill Laswell, the single was the first real rapcore song; predating Run-DMC and Aerosmith's "Walk This Way". The song appears on Afrika Bambaataa's 1997 compilation album, Zulu Groove. It was arranged by Laswell after Rotten and Bambaataa had acknowledged respect for each others' work, as described in an interview from 1984:
- Afrika Bambaataa: "I was talking to Bill Laswell saying I need somebody who's really crazy, man, and he thought of Johnny Rotten. I knew he was perfect because I'd seen this movie that he'd made (Corrupt, a.k.a. Copkiller and The Order of Death), I knew about all the Sex Pistols and Public Image stuff, so we got together and we did a smashing crazy version, and a version where he cussed the Queen something terrible, which was never released."
- Johnny Rotten: "We went in, put a drum beat down on the machine and did the whole thing in about four-and-a-half hours. It was very, very quick."
In 1997 Rotten released a solo album on Virgin Records called Psycho's Path. He wrote all the songs and played all the instruments. In one song, "Sun", he sang the vocals through a toilet roll. It did not sell particularly well and received mixed reviews from critics. The U.S. version included a Chemical Brothers remix of the song "Open Up" by Leftfield with vocals by Rotten. This song is heard during the title menu of the computer game All Star Baseball 2000 (Acclaim Entertainment). The song was also a club hit in the U.S. and a big hit in England.
Movie, TV and other non-musical projects
In 1983, Rotten co-starred with Harvey Keitel in the movie thriller Corrupt, a.k.a. Copkiller and The Order of Death. While the film was generally panned, Rotten won some praise for his role as a psychotic rich boy. Rotten would act again very occasionally after that, such as a very small role in the 2000 film, The Independent.
In the mid-'90s, Rotten hosted Rotten Day, a daily syndicated US radio feature written by George Gimarc. The format of the show was a look back at events in popular music and culture occurring on the particular broadcast calendar date about which Rotten would offer cynical commentary. The show was originally developed as a radio vehicle for Gimarc's book, Punk Diary 1970-79, but after bringing Rotten onboard it was expanded to cover notable events from most of the 2nd half of the 20th century.
Rotten appeared on Judge Judy fighting a suit filed by his former tour drummer Robert Williams. Rotten won the case, and the judge called Williams a "nudnik", although she did advise Rotten to keep quiet several times.
During an appearance on Politically Incorrect, in response to a statement about "hand lotion" in men's restrooms, Rotten remarked "Well, I'm English - we still have our foreskins".
In 2000, Rotten hosted Rotten TV, a short-lived show on VH1. The show offered his acerbic commentary on American politics and pop culture. In one segment he took Neil Young to task for not appearing on the show, making fun of Young's singing style and pointing out that Young had once proclaimed Johnny Rotten "the king" in the song "Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black)". It was good natured however, as Rotten has been quoted to proclaim his love of Young's albums, On the Beach and Tonight's The Night.
He also was the host of the skateboard film, Sorry, by The Flip Skate Team
In 2003 Rotten appeared as a panelist on an episode of Richard Belzer's ambitious (and ill-fated) conspiracy-themed panel show, The Belzer Connection. The episode in question posed the query, "Was there a conspiracy involved in the death of Princess Diana?" For his part, Rotten proved as witty and scurrilous as ever, responding to suggestions of Royal Family involvement by proclaiming "If the Royal Family was going to assassinate someone, they would have gotten rid of me a long time ago." The series ran for only two episodes.
In an interview previous to the show's first episode, he had described it as "moronic", and throughout the show's run he had displayed an indifferent attitude to staying and threatened to walk out on numerous occasions. 30 hours following ex-football star Neil Ruddock's departure, Rotten left the show for unclear reasons, although he had been very visibly angry both to and about fellow star Jordan.
British newspapers claimed that Rotten had won a Â£100 bet with Ruddock over who would stay in the longest. Rotten, however, stated on air that he felt he would win outright and that it would be unfair to the other celebrities for him to win.
In January 2004, Rotten appeared on the British reality television programme, I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!, which took place in Australia. He proved he still had the capability to shock by calling the show's viewers "fucking cunts" during a live broadcast. The television regulator and ITV, the channel broadcasting the show, between them received 91 complaints about Rotten's use of bad language. However, in a February 2004 interview with the Scottish Sunday Mirror, Rotten said that he and his wife "should be dead", since on 21 December, 1988, thanks to delays caused by his wife's packing, they missed the doomed Pan Am Flight 103., and during this interview, Rotten said that the real reason for him leaving the Get Me Out of Here! show was his fear over the Pan Am incident and the "appalling" refusal of the programme makers to let him know whether his wife had arrived safely in Australia.
After I'm a Celebrity..., he presented a documentary about spiders called Johnny Rotten's Megabugs that was shown on the Discovery Channel. Radio Times described him as "more an enthusiast than an expert". He went to present two further programmes: Johnny Rotten Goes Ape in which he searched for gorillas in Central Africa, and Johnny Rotten's Shark Attack in which he swam with sharks off South Africa.
In 2005, he appeared in Reynebeau & Rotten, a five episode documentary on Canvas, the cultural channel of VRT, which is the Flemish public broadcaster. Johnny Rotten guided Belgian journalist Marc Reynebeau through Great Britain to show him and the Belgian viewers what makes Britain so great. When asked why he was chosen as a guide, he answered that he was the cheapest one available.
After the show had been broadcast on Flemish television, Rotten claimed in an interview with the popular Belgian magazine HUMO that he was very unhappy with the way they handled post-production and was very angry with the way they depicted him in this particular show. He claimed that the creators mainly showed his humorous, sometimes clownesque antics, instead of focusing on his personal opinions and sometimes philosophical conversations he had with Marc Reynebeau. Rotten was also infuriated that the production company used songs from the Sex Pistols' catalogue, without consulting all the remaining members of the band, including him.
Rotten is currently one of the judges in the "Bodog's Battle of The Bands" competition.
Johnny Rotten denounced previous journalistic works regarding the Sex Pistols in his introduction to his autobiography, Rotten - No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, which he also described as "as close to the truth as one can get".
All chart positions are UK.
- Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols (Virgin, 1977) Platinum
Compilations and live albums
- The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle (Virgin, 1979)
- Some Product: Carri On Sex Pistols (Virgin, 1979)
- Kiss This (Virgin, 1992)
- Never Mind the Bollocks / Spunk (aka This is Crap) (Virgin, 1996)
- Filthy Lucre Live (Virgin, 1996)
- The Filth and the Fury (Virgin, 2000)
- Jubilee (Virgin, 2002)
- Sex Pistols Box Set (Virgin, 2002)
- "Anarchy in the UK" - 1976 #38
- "God Save the Queen" - 1977 #2
- "Pretty Vacant" - 1977 #6
- "Holidays in the Sun" - 1977 #8
- "(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone" - 1980 #21
- "Anarchy in the UK" (re-issue) - 1992 #33
- "Pretty Vacant" (live) - 1996 # 18
- "God Save the Queen" (re-issue) - 2002 # 15
Public Image Ltd.
- First Issue (Virgin, 1978)
- Metal Box (Virgin, 1979)
- Flowers of Romance (Virgin, 1981)
- This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get (Virgin, 1984)
- Album (Virgin, 1986)
- Happy? (Virgin, 1987)
- 9 (Virgin, 1989)
- That What Is Not (Virgin, 1992)
Compilations and live albums
- Second Edition (Virgin, 1980)
- Paris au Printemps (Virgin, 1980)
- Live in Tokyo (Virgin, 1983)
- Commercial Zone (PiL Records, 1983)
- The Greatest Hits So Far (Virgin, 1990)
- "Public Image" - 1978 #9
- "Death Disco" - 1979 #20
- "Memories" - 1979 #60
- "Flowers of Romance" - 1981 #24
- "This Is Not a Love Song" - 1983 #5
- "Bad Life" - 1984 #71
- "Rise" - 1986 #11
- "Home" - 1986 #75
- "Seattle" - 1987 #47
- "The Body" - 1987 #100
- "Disappointed" - 1989 #38
- "Don't Ask Me" - 1990 #22
- "Cruel" - 1992 #49
- "World Destruction" - 1984
- Psycho's Path (Virgin, 1997)
- The Best of British Â£1 Notes (Rotten, PiL & Sex Pistols) (Virgin/EMI, 2005)
- Official Johnny Rotten website
- Johnny Rotten on Judge Judy !
- Psycho's Path Micro-Site
- The Best of British Â£1 Notes Micro-Site
- Johnny Rotten on The Hour