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John Joseph Lydon (born 31 January 1956), also known by the former stage name Johnny Rotten, is a British singer-songwriter, best known as the lead vocalist and lyricist of the punk rock group the Sex Pistols during the 1970s, and of the post-punk group Public Image Ltd. in the 1980s and 1990s, sporadically reforming both in recent years.
Lydon became a notorious and controversial figure in the media during the 1970s as a figurehead of the punk movement, and for his stance against the musical establishment, religion in general and Christianity in particular, the class system and the British monarchy. He has since become a television personality, appearing on television shows in both the UK and elsewhere, and Q magazine remarked in 2005 that "somehow he's assumed the status of national treasure."
John Lydon was born in Islington, North London to Irish Catholic immigrants. His father, John Christopher, from Tuam, County Galway,was a crane operator; his mother Eileen (née Barry) was from Shanagarry, County Cork. He grew up on a council estate in Finsbury Park, London with three younger brothers: James, Robert and Martin. At the age of eight, 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 and also damaged his eyesight, resulting in his characteristic stare. He attended St. William of York School in Islington, London.
1975-1978: Sex Pistols and the punk movement
In 1975, Lydon was among a group of youths who 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 he was working on promoting a new band formed by Steve Jones, Glen Matlock and Paul Cook called Sex Pistols. McLaren was impressed with Lydon's ragged look and unique sense of style, particularly his orange hair and modified Pink Floyd T-shirt (with the band members' eyes scratched out and the words I Hate scrawled in felt-tip pen above the band's logo). After tunelessly singing Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen" to the accompaniment of the shop's jukebox, Lydon was chosen as the band's frontman. In 1977, the band released "God Save the Queen" during the week of Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee.
Lydon was also interested in dub music. McLaren was said to have been upset when Lydon revealed during a radio interview that his influences included progressive experimentalists like Magma, Can, Captain Beefheart and Van der Graaf Generator.
Tensions between Lydon and bassist Glen Matlock arose. The reasons for this are disputed, but Lydon claimed in his autobiography that he believed Matlock to be too white-collar and middle-class and that Matlock was "always going on about nice things like the Beatles". Matlock stated in his own autobiography that most of the tension in the band, and between himself and Lydon, were orchestrated by McLaren. Matlock quit and as a replacement, Lydon recommended his school friend John Simon Ritchie. Although Ritchie was an incompetent musician, McLaren agreed that he had the look the band wanted: pale, emaciated, spike-haired, with ripped clothes and a perpetual sneer. Rotten dubbed him "Sid Vicious" as a joke, taking the name from his pet hamster, named Sid the Vicious. According to Kit and Morgan Benson's biography, Ritchie got his name after Sid the hamster bit him on his hand, and he exclaimed: "Sid is really vicious!"
Vicious' chaotic relationship with girlfriend Nancy Spungen, and his worsening heroin addiction, caused a great deal of friction among the band members, particularly with Lydon, whose sarcastic remarks often exacerbated the situation. Lydon closed the final Sid Vicious-era Sex Pistols concert in San Francisco's Winterland in January 1978 with a rhetorical question to the audience: "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" Shortly thereafter, McLaren, Jones, and Cook went to Brazil to meet and record with former train robber Ronnie Biggs. Lydon declined to go, deriding the concept as a whole and feeling that they were attempting to make a hero out of a criminal who attacked a train driver and stole "working-class money". Lydon was abandoned in San Francisco virtually penniless.
The Sex Pistols' disintegration was documented in Julian Temple's satirical pseudo-biopic, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, in which Jones, Cook and Vicious each played a character. Matlock only appeared in previously-recorded live footage and as an animation and did not participate personally. Lydon 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 Lydon was highly critical of the film, many years later he agreed to let Temple direct the Sex Pistols documentary The Filth and the Fury. That film included new interviews with band members hidden in shadow, as if they were in a witness protection program. It featured an uncharacteristically emotional Lydon choking up as he discussed Vicious' decline and death. Lydon denounced previous journalistic works regarding the Sex Pistols in the introduction to his autobiography, Rotten - No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, which he described as "as close to the truth as one can get".
In 1978, John Lydon formed the post-punk outfit Public Image Limited (PiL). PiL lasted for 14 years with Lydon as the only consistent member. The group enjoyed some early critical acclaim for its 1979 album, Metal Box (a.k.a. Second Edition), and influenced many bands of the later industrial movement. The band was lauded for its innovation and rejection of traditional musical forms. Musicians citing their influence have ranged from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Massive Attack.
The first lineup of the band included bassist Jah Wobble and former Clash guitarist Keith Levene. They released the albums Public Image (also known as First Issue), Metal Box and Paris in the Spring (live). Wobble then left and Lydon and Levene made 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); it featured their biggest hit, "This Is Not A Love Song", which hit #5 in 1983.
In 1983, Lydon 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, Lydon won some praise for his role as a psychotic rich boy. Lydon would act again very occasionally after that, such as a very small role in the 2000 film, The Independent, and as the host of the skateboard film, Sorry, featuring the Flip Skate Team.
In 1984, Lydon worked with Time Zone on their best-known single, "World Destruction". A collaboration between Lydon, Afrika Bambaataa and producer/bassist Bill Laswell, the single was an early example of "rap rock", along with Run-DMC. The song appears on Afrika Bambaataa's 1997 compilation album, Zulu Groove. It was arranged by Laswell after Lydon and Bambaataa had acknowledged respect for each others' work, as described in an interview from 1984:
The single also featured Bernie Worrell, Nicky Skopelitis and Aïyb Dieng, all of whom would later play on PiL's Album; Laswell also played bass and produced.
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 Lydon and Bill Laswell. The musicians were session musicians including bassist Jonas Hellborg, guitarist Steve Vai and Cream drummer Ginger Baker. Like the previous album, this also featured a hit, the anti-apartheid anthem "Rise".
The band's performance on the dance/concert TV show American Bandstand saw Lydon giving up on lip synching not long into the performance and dancing with audience members instead.
In 1987 a new lineup was formed consisting of Lydon, 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 Lydon, 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. Lydon, McGeoch and Dias also wrote the song "Criminal" for the movie Point Break. After this album, in 1993, Lydon put PiL on indefinite hiatus, in which state they remain today. Recently Lydon has agreed to revive PiL to do a UK tour in December which coincides with the 30th anniversary of the Metal Box album.
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