Johnny Rotten Biography

Johnny Rotten Biography
John Lydon (born January 31, 1956, Finsbury Park, London - although according to his autobiography this cannot be confirmed as his birth certificate was lost), also known by the moniker Johnny Rotten (a nickname deriving from the state of his teeth), was the iconoclastic lead singer of the S-- Pistols and Public Image Ltd (PiL). With his leering, swaggering and sarcastic manner he laid down a new template of rebellious youth and band frontman that continues to be imitated today.


Johnny Rotten Biography

His interest in dub music and his post-S-- Pistols work with PiL and artists such as Afrika Bambaataa and Leftfield showed him to be far more musically sophisticated than his Pistols persona suggested.

Johnny Rotten's book for "Rotten - no Irish, no Blacks, no dogs"In January 2004, Lydon 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 "f---ing cunts" during a live broadcast. The television regulator and ITV, the channel broadcasting the show, between them received 91 complaints about Lydon's use of bad language.

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, Lydon left the show for unclear reasons.

British newspapers claimed that Lydon had won a 100 bet with Ruddock over who would stay in the longest. Lydon, 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 a February 2004 interview with the Scottish Sunday Mirror, Johnny Rotten said that he and his wife "should be dead", since on December 21, 1988, thanks to delays caused by his wife's packing, they missed the doomed Pan Am Flight 103. During this interview, Lydon said that the real reason for him leaving the Get Me Out of Here! show was the "appalling" refusal of the programme makers to let him know whether his wife had arrived safely in Australia.

In 2004, he publicly refused to allow the Rhino record label to include any S-- Pistols songs on its box set No Thanks! The 70's Punk Rebellion, a compilation of songs by influential punk rock bands.

In 2005, he appeared in 'Reynebeau & Rotten' , a five episode documentary on Canvas, the cultural channel of VRT, which is the Flemish public broadcast. John Lydon 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, Johnny Rotten answered that he was the cheapest one available.

The S-- Pistols


Despite their short existence, the S-- Pistols were perhaps the quintessential British punk rock band. Whilst The Clash were both more articulate and politically motivated, and The Buzzcocks had more astute pop sensibilities, no other group better exemplified the punk movement's spirit and inherent contradictions.

The S-- Pistols were formed in 1975 by Wally Nightingale, Paul Cook and Steve Jones. They recruited Glen Matlock and Johnny Rotten who were among the clientele of the 's--' boutique in Kings Road, Chelsea. This shop (previously known as Let It Rock) was owned by the situationist influenced Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren who became the group's manager. The name no doubt was intended to bring to mind the male s-- organ, but McLaren has stated that he wanted the band to be "s--y assassins" (the band has frequently accused McLaren of both cheating them and making revisionist history). The band was initially influenced in part by the style of The New York Dolls and Television, who were doyens of the New York City new wave music scene, although McLaren claimed that he wanted them to be "the new Bay City Rollers".

Following a showcase gig as part of London's first punk festival at the 100 Club in Oxford Street, the S-- Pistols were signed (for a large advance) to the major label EMI. The Pistols' first single, "Anarchy in the UK", released in November 1976, served as a statement of intent, full of wit, anger and visceral energy.

However, in December 1976 the group and their close circle of followers, the Bromley Contingent, created a storm of publicity in the UK when, goaded by interviewer Bill Grundy, guitarist Steve Jones used the word "f---" on Thames Television's early evening television programme Today, as well as calling Grundy a "rotter" after he made a rather inept attempt at 'chatting up' Siouxsie of Siouxsie and the Banshees (MP3 clip). Although the programme was only seen in the London ITV region, the ensuing furore occupied the tabloid newspapers for days and the band were shortly after dropped by the label. After a short and disastrous period spent with the A&M record label, The Pistols were picked up by the at that time independent Virgin Records. A shambolic tour of the UK followed, with the majority of the concerts cancelled by local authorities and many of the rest ending in states of semi-riot.
In February 1977 bass player Glen Matlock departed from the band to be replaced by Rotten's friend and "ultimate S-- Pistols fan" Sid Vicious, famously chosen by McLaren for his looks and "punk attitude" rather than his somewhat limited musical abilities - according to Jon Savage's biography of the S-- Pistols, Englands Dreaming - at live performances his amplifier was often turned down, and most of the bass parts on the band's later recordings were actually played by guitarist Steve Jones or Matlock, who (according to Lydon's autobiography Rotten: No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish) had been drafted in as a session musician.

The group's second single, eventually released by Virgin in May 1977, was God Save the Queen, a swingeing attack on the British Royal Family, and by extension the institutions of Britain, delivered in Rotten's trademark sneer. Coming at a time when deference to royalty was still a predominant trait in both the establishment and the country as a whole the record was quickly banned from airplay by the staid BBC, whose Radio 1 dominated music broadcasting.

Nevertheless, in the week of Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee, the record officially reached number two in some UK charts (although many people believe they actually reached number one and the charts were rigged to prevent them topping it), although the title and artist were replaced with a blank space in many publications. Meanwhile, The S-- Pistols decided to celebrate the Jubilee, along with the success of their record, in their own way by chartering a boat, upon which they sailed down the Thames, past Westminster and the Houses of Parliament, performing their live set. As usual, the event ended in chaos; the boat was raided by the police, and Mclaren, The Pistols and most of their entourage were arrested and taken into custody. Arguably all good fun and a great publicity stunt, but matters took a distinctly uglier turn when young punk followers of the S-- Pistols became victims of physical attacks in the street by 'pro-royalists', and Rotten himself was assaulted by a razor wielding gang of 'Teddy Boys' in Finsbury Park who, it seems, didn't see the funny side of the Pistols' antics.

The promise of the S-- Pistols' early singles was eventually fulfilled by the group's first album Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The S-- Pistols, released in October 1977. The album also included singles "Pretty Vacant", an ode to apathy, and "Holidays In The Sun". Again the band faced controversy when a record shop in Manchester was threatened with prosecution for displaying the album's 'obscene' cover, although the case was overturned when defending QC John Mortimer produced expert witnesses who were able to demonstrate that the word "bollocks" was a legitimate old English term originally used to refer to a priest, and that in this context it meant 'nonsense'.

The S-- Pistols' final UK performance was at Ivanhoes in Huddersfield on Christmas day 1977, a benefit for the families of striking firemen. Despite the band's state of disintegration by this time, the gig was considered by some as a vindication of their anti establishment stance when they were, for once, united with what might be viewed as their true constituency, the dispossessed English working class. They played two shows, a matinee and an evening show. Tickets for the latter were furtively sold for a secret venue, announced shortly before the gig as a tactic to avoid the attentions of local councilors and the like, who had cancelled many of the Pistols' other shows. Those waiting outside for the second show were given turkey sandwiches from the remains of the meal laid on for the strikers' families. The atmosphere in the evening show was counter to the negative publicity that had been generated towards the band by the tabloid press; Before the show, Johnny Rotten mingled with the crowd wearing his pith helmet, and the good humor of the matinee (which was a benefit played for free) lingered on. Years later the promoter of the evening show confessed that the Pistols never cashed his cheque.

Early in 1978 an American tour was booked by McLaren. This was a sapping experience for all concerned, and on the final date at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco on January 14, the disillusioned Rotten quit, famously asking "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" from the stage before walking off. The remainder of the group soldiered on for a short time, trading on their reputation and gimmicks, such as recording with notorious British criminal Ronnie Biggs and Vicious releasing a version of "My Way", but after the release of the movie The Great Rock And Roll Swindle, they finally split.

Rotten, now using his given name Lydon, went on to form the group Public Image Ltd. Vicious was arrested for the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen in New York but died of a heroin overdose before coming to trial. A fictionalized account of Vicious's relationship with Spungen was later recounted in the 1986 film Sid and Nancy (dir. Alex Cox), which toned down much of the band's outrageous exploits. For instance, the movie's Sid Vicious wears a red shirt with a hammer and sickle, rather than the swastika worn by the original Sid.

The S-- Pistolsremain influential however, both for the musical style they were pivotal in helping to define, and in terms of their influence on the British cultural landscape, helping to change the cultural climate. Whereas previous challenges to the class system had come mainly from within, such as the public school and Oxbridge dominated satire boom of the 1960s or the socially realist theatre of the 1950s, the Pistols communicated directly with a much wider audience and, to some extent, the resulting shock waves can still be felt.

It can be argued that the S-- Pistols are the most influential band ever in punk rock. Their chord progressions and pounding, primal bass lines can still be heard in the music of bands such as Rancid, The Libertines, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and other revivalists. The surviving members of the S-- Pistols have performed reunion gigs in 1996 and 2002, and embarked on a US tour in 2003.


  • Johnny Rotten (born John Lydon), vocals
  • Steve Jones, guitar
  • Glen Matlock, bass guitar, replaced by Sid Vicious
  • Paul Cook, drums

Further Reading

  • The Boy Looked At Johnny-Julie Burchill & Tony Parsons
  • The S-- Pistols- Fred & Julie Vermorel
  • Rotten- No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish- John Lydon
  • England's Dreaming- Jon Savage
  • I Was A Teenage S-- Pistol- Glen Matlock
  • Please Kill Me- Legs McNeal
  • God Save The S-- Pistols - A Collector's Guide To the Priests Of Punk - Gavin Walsh
  • Destroy - S-- Pistols 1977 - Dennis Morris
  • I Swear I Was There - S-- Pistols And The Shape Of Rock - David Nolan
  • Vicious - Too Fast To Live - Alan Parker

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