As Johnny Rotten, singer John Lydon spread fear into the hearts of middle-class Britain as the volcanic frontman for the legendary Sex Pistols. Lydon's sneering voice and cutting lyrics helped to establish the band as leading figures in the growing punk movement of the 1970s, though their penchant for violence and crass behavior made them among the most loathed musicians in their native country. When the Sex Pistols combusted under the weight of internal tensions in 1977, Lydon formed Public Image Limited, a new outfit whose eclectic approach to rock had a major influence on alternative rock, electronica and industrial music. Though he swore that the Pistols would never reunite, Lydon gleefully announced that the band would come together in 1996 for a series of well-received dates around the world. They would remain semi-active for the next decade while Lydon became an acerbic personality on UK TV. If the John Lydon that plugged butter on commercials or appeared in reality television shows seemed a far cry from Johnny Rotten, the importance of his music with the Sex Pistols helped to cement his position as one of punk's leading architects.
Born John Joseph Lydon in London, England on Jan. 31, 1956, he was the oldest of four sons by John and Eileen Lydon, working class immigrants from Ireland. Raised in the largely impoverished area of Finsbury Park, Lydon's childhood was a difficult one; abused by teachers and students alike at school, he also suffered a nightmarish bout of spinal meningitis at the age of seven, which required a year of hospitalization and left him with a permanently curved spine and an inability to focus his eyesight on objects that in turn, led to his trademark piercing stare. Though a bright, creative student, Lydon grew contemptuous of the British education system, and was bounced from the prestigious Sir William of York Catholic School to a state-run institution, Hackney and Kingsway Princeton College. There, he befriended a fellow student, John Simon Ritchie, whom he dubbed Sid Vicious after a pet hamster. The pair soon left school and began squatting in the Hampstead area while frequenting London clubs and fashion shops.
Among his regular haunts was Sex, a fetish shop owned by social gadflies Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, who had recently survived a disastrous stint as manager of the glam-rock pioneers, the New York Dolls. Lydon's scabrous presence caught McLaren's attention; he requested that Lydon audition for a band he was assembling. He tore through a tuneless but aggressive rendition of Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen," which earned him the frontman position for the Sex Pistols. He was renamed "Johnny Rotten" on account of his green teeth, the result of a dire lack of dental hygiene. Initially comprised of Lydon, guitarist Steve Jones, drummer Paul Cook and bassist Glen Matlock, the Sex Pistols soon made a name for themselves by virtue of their extreme volume and penchant for destroying their instruments. Lydon was perhaps their most compelling presence, hunched at the mic stand and literally seething with anger as he spat out lyrics.
The band's blend of fury and violence soon made them an in-demand act at major London clubs, where future punk icons such as the Clash's Joe Strummer and Howard Devoto of the Buzzcocks were inspired to form their own bands after seeing the Pistols in action. Regular performances honed their playing abilities, which in turn earned them a contract with EMI Records. In November, their first single, the apocalyptic, Lydon-penned "Anarchy in the U.K.," seemed to announce that the Sex Pistols were the English equivalent of the Ramones: vanguards of punk, leading the charge against the complacent culture of the 1970s. Unfortunately, the Pistols were rarely able to rise above the chaos that swirled around them. Matlock was fired and replaced by Vicious who, while possessing the right nihilistic look and attitude, was a woefully incompetent musician. Making matters worse was his American girlfriend, former prostitute-turned-scenester Nancy Spungen, who fed his growing heroin habit. The group soon split into camps, with Lydon and the increasingly incoherent Vicious railing against Jones, Cook and the machinations of McLaren, who sought to play up the group's notoriety as violent, destructive goons.
The tensions overshadowed the band's genuine accomplishments, like landing the savage "God Save the Queen" at No. 2 on the BBC's singles charts in the midst of Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee in 1976. The following year, the Sex Pistols released their sole album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, which received some of the best reviews of the decade for the fury and passion of songs like "Pretty Vacant" and "Holidays in the Sun," which railed against the failures of English politics and society. For most, however, the Pistols were hoodlums, and that attitude carried over to their disastrous tour of the United States in 1978.
The tour, which crossed the Deep South before ending at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, was marked by Vicious' complete descent into drug-addled mania. Lydon, Cook and Jones were no longer speaking to one another, but tensions remained on full blast due to McLaren's attempt to pit the group against Lydon. After completing the Winterland gig, which concluded with Lydon spitting "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" to the crowd, the Sex Pistols disbanded. According to Lydon, he was left in Los Angeles with no money or plane ticket to get home. He eventually made his way back to London, where he announced the band's breakup to the media. Not long after, Vicious was arrested for murdering Spungen in their Chelsea Hotel room on Oct. 12, 1978. Vicious would overdose only months later on Feb. 2, 1979.
After shedding his Johnny Rotten moniker, Lydon formed a new band, Public Image Limited (PiL). The group was inspired by his fascination for progressive and experimental acts like Captain Beefheart and Can, as well as dub and world music, with the addition of grinding noise and Lydon's own brand of vituperative vocals. A massive influence on a wide range of acts, from post-punk deconstructionist like Wire and Gang of Four, to the industrial and electronica movements of the 1980s, PiL featured an ever-shifting lineup of musicians and sounds over the course of its 14-year career. Initially hewing towards the more experimental side of rock, the band would shift gears towards dance music and alternative rock during the late '80s and 1990s. During this period, Lydon would also collaborate with a wide variety of performers, including rap pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, Parliament-Funkadelic keyboardist Bernie Worrell, and even found time to co-star in "Corrupt" (1983), a low-budget thriller about a manipulative, would-be psychopath (Lydon) stalking a crooked New York City detective (Harvey Keitel).
In 1992, Lydon dissolved Public Image Limited to focus on writing his memoirs. Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs (1994) recounted his difficult early years and attempted to extract the truth about the Sex Pistols from the decades of myth and misinterpretation that had settled into the public consciousness after their breakup. Two years later, he surprised many by reuniting with Jones, Cook and Glen Matlock for a six-month world tour as the Sex Pistols. The wildly successful jaunt was followed by a live album, Filthy Lucre Live (1997) and a documentary, "The Filth and the Fury" (2000), which allowed the original members to recount the band's rise and demise in their own words. As a solo act, Lydon would busy himself with a wide-ranging variety of projects, from radio and television talk shows to appearances on the reality series "I'm a Celebrity. Get Me Out of Here!" (ITV, 2002- ).
In 2004, Lydon and the other Sex Pistols publicly rejected their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, stating that their inclusion in a museum would effectively nullify the band's history and impact. The band continued to perform at large festivals and sporadic tours over the next few years. Meanwhile, Lydon set about to reform Public Image Limited through appearances in an advertising campaign for Country Life butter. Pilloried by the media, Lydon defended his decision by citing that he wished to organize the new PiL without major label interference. The newly reformed PiL debuted in a series of Christmas shows in the UK in 2009.
By Paul Gaita