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John Lydon on the art of a blistering performance

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As part of our 'Greatest'-themed 400th issue, ShortList meets the greatest living frontman to find out his tips...

I still get nervous. When I first started I thought it was just me. I’d watch other bands and think: “What confidence these singers have got!” Gradually you learn it’s normal. What you don’t learn is how to deal with it. I read books by actors on stage fright. I learned that nerves are an important gift. That’s what you need to get your adrenaline.

Laurence Olivier was one of the fellas I studied. People used to say: “Johnny Rotten, where did you get that image from?” I said: “Him as Henry V!” I wasn’t joking. It wasn’t based on the characters he portrayed as Henry V or Richard III, but how he dealt with stage fright. Alec Guinness was another one. It didn’t quite solve the nerves, but it taught me that they’re useful once you’re on stage.

I can’t eat before I go on. The whole day is one of nerves. Fear of letting people down, fear of letting myself down. Once on: bingo! It’s like the curtains open in the mind. It’s a complete relief, and you become yourself. It’s a strange process, but there it is.

Every stumbling block is a useful tool. I come from the school of hard knocks, me. I’ve got no time for self-pity. There’s a mountain you’re given to climb, so get
your boots on, baby! You aren’t going to get there any quicker pontificating.

I’ve never looked at what other singers do. Everything I bring on stage is all from inside. There’s no external thievery at all. There’s a serious reason for that: the childhood illness that nearly killed me and almost stole my memories. It took my personality away for four years. When it returned I realised I was a self-made human being. I’d had to fight for my right to be me. Nothing was going to alter me from that day on. The concept of lying, cheating, faking or defrauding is not in me.

John Lydon

I instinctively have complete respect for anybody who stands on the stage. That goes back to school plays when you’re five years old. I remember the horror of being picked to be one of the angels. I hated it! My, how times have changed. But it’s always there. It’s still in me just before I go on: that little five-year-old hoping his wings don’t fall off.

To describe the best gigs, the word you’re searching for is ‘empathy’. Public Image Ltd endures because of those moments of empathy when crowd and band are on the same plain. That’s magical. It’s probably the highest moment you can experience. It’s possibly better than sex.

In my normal life I’m quite a shy person. I hate parties. There was a silly dance song many years ago that meant a lot to me: You’ll Always Find Me In The Kitchen At Parties. It sums me up lovely.

On stage is very, very different. One of the most frightening gigs I ever did was in Estonia before the wall came down and the Russians moved out. It was a festival celebrating the idea of independence. There were 178,000 people in the crowd. The first three songs were me just struggling to breathe, let alone sing. There were Russian tanks on either side of the stage with the turrets clearly pointing at us, but I overcame that.

It can actually be worse when there’s just 10 people in the crowd. All 10 of them might really not like you, at all. That’s a challenge to overcome without it turning into something silly and vicious. The problem is eye contact. Eye contact was a very difficult thing for me when I first started out, so I took to staring. I also have very bad eyesight. To focus I have to really look at a thing for quite some time. When I was younger it was eyes wide open. These days, because of internet porn, I have to squint.

I first started expressing myself using clothes. It was my garb that got me into the Pistols, oddly enough. Then they had to deal with the fact that I couldn’t sing. I had to quickly find a voice. The reason I couldn’t sing was fear of priests. Catholic school, you see. If you could sing it meant you had to join the choir, and that meant the priests had direct access to you. Indirectly, the priests are responsible for Johnny Rotten. The irony is not lost on me.

I have a love of clothes and hair. Anything that will expand my personality. In the height of punk I’d go out as a Teddy boy. These two were allegedly warring factions. Well, not in my world. My dad comes from the Teddy boy era, so I had a great deal of respect for those fellas. They were early rebels, and should be appreciated as such. These wannabe punks weren’t listening to the king of punk at all!

When I joined the Pistols, my voice had to fit the clothes, the hair and the attitude. I had to put it all together quickly, but I think I did well when I look back.

One final thing, the key to life: learn to laugh at yourself. It really helps. May the road rise, and your enemies always be behind you. Peace!

The album What The World Needs Now by PiL is out now; pilofficial.com

(Images: Craig Mulcahy/Getty)

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