The announcement, no doubt, turned more than a few heads, the most esteemed honoree’s among them.
“John Lydon is a true icon whose influence on music, fashion and art has been felt around the world,” said Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) president/CEO Del Bryant, when he announced that the music rights management society would present its most prestigious BMI Icon Award to the legendary frontman of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd (PiL) at its annual BMI London Awards on Oct. 15 at London’s Dorchester Hotel, Park Lane.
“We are very pleased to recognize his impact on popular culture and his outstanding musical contributions with the BMI Icon Award,” Bryant further noted.
For the ever colorful, if not always controversial when not altogether misunderstood Lydon, the award came like “a sneak attack.”
“It was absolutely a surprise,” he says. “I’ve never really said a nice word about the music industry in any way, but I felt that this was genuine. Someone in there said, ‘Look. This bloke shouldn’t be left out. He’s given an awful lot to the world of music’–a lot more than I’ve taken back. It’s a proper pat on the back–with no child molestation involved!”
His remark presumably pertains to recent child-abuse scandals in England. Then again, Lydon’s primary residence has long been Los Angeles.
“That’s where work takes me,” says the outspoken songwriter, who is being honored for landmark rock titles like “God Save The Queen” and “Anarchy In The U.K.” “But I love living in America. In fact, I’ve become an American. Now that the entire world hates America, it’s perfect for me to become one.”
As for the current state of his work, Lydon is extricating himself from “all my [music] publishing quagmires”—the remnants, he relates, of problems deriving from the Sex Pistols’ slight but complicated recording output (one studio album’s worth of songs repackaged endless times, along with a multitude of live releases on countless labels).
“I’m highly tangled up in the world of accountants and lawyers,” says Lydon. “All my record contracts are connected to that band–and it’s a terrible confusion. I’m happy to say that I’ve been part of two of the world’s most famous bands–and now both are broke. What an achievement! But these songs are important and valid, and this coming recognition is some official evidence to that.”
The charmingly irascible singer-songwriter concedes that he’s hardly “one of those kind of toe-the-line characters.”
“I’m independent and really unwilling to be bound to record companies that hold me back,” he says, “and I never thought anyone in the industry was paying much attention. I just felt resentment all the time.”
But the artist, who with his Sex Pistols cohorts famously refused to show up for their 2006 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, is unexpectedly proud of his iconic BMI achievement.
“I’ve surprised myself,” he admits. “I’m more than willing to accept it. It must have been something to do with the free hotel room, since I’m a mercenary!”
And Lydon is happy to join the company of previous U.K. BMI Icons including Queen, Ray Davies, Steve Winwood, Van Morrison, Donovan and Bryan Ferry.
“I’m glad Bryan Ferry is there,” he says. “He’s someone I’ve always rated. I love the way he puts a song together, and he’s someone who’s been somewhat ostracized and bitterly resented, and ever so wrongly.”
Informed that he’s up there now, too, with country music BMI Icon Kris Kristofferson, Lydon responds, “Most excellent!” But such awards, he notes, are “very few and far between”—though he “generally hates and resents” them conceptually.
“The occasional thing perks my interest,” he says, “But I’m very pleased we turned down the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It was a very good move, and why people began to pay attention that I’m serious about what I do rather than run like a silly baby to candy—which is the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. I’m really impressed with my big, bad self, and ever since so many others are following suit!”
But Lydon emphasizes that his career was both unplanned and unstructured.
“I found myself in music,” he says. “I didn’t plan to be in it, and decided at the very start to just be honest and try to live that way.”
He and PiL are now set to tour the U.K. in October, during which he’ll receive “an award thing we’re apparently discussing here.”
Then he’ll “open the coffers and make a new record with the band I love most in my entire caereer,” he says of PiL, adding, “It’s the most important part, even though I’ve suffered depression for two decades being stifled and bankrolled out of my own industry.”
PiL had indeed lain dormant from 1992 until 2009, when Lydon financed a reunion with money earned from a U.K. TV commercial for butter.
“It had been physically impossible for me to work,” he said, citing his music business financial entanglements. “I had to claw my way back and build up financial resources outside of the music business–with great difficulty. I started doing nature documentaries–which I loved–and found a love of nature that I wasn’t quite aware I ever had. It opened up my mind to new possibilities of songwriting.”
Lydon notes that his insect documentary John Lydon’s Megabugs was “put up for an award, and my competition was [renowned naturalist Sir] David Attenborough—so you know that there was no way I could go to the event! He’s one of my heroes, and utterly changed people’s perceptions of wildlife, and it was appalling to have my name brought up in the same sentence The idea of winning something that firmly belonged to that man was unconscionable!”
But Lydon has developed a love of TV work, he says, and is “constantly looking at that side, and programs that are important and relevant and not just fodder, that can raise a few eyebrows.”
The important thing is, “I’ve survived!” Lydon declares. “I’m at the peak of my old game, and I love it. I’m making the best music I’ve ever made and working with friends and people who respect me and I respect them—which is something that’s been sadly lacking. And here’s an award, and for me it’s appropriate: Somebody out there is saying, ‘Thanks, John.’ They’re paying attention, and it must be a delicious embarrassment to my ex-labels!”
But he still feels “a weird mistrust and repulsion to us,” and notes that he “really has to fight” to get PiL booked at music festivals.
“I know it all comes from the connection with them large labels,” he says. “They really did poison the waters for me. So this award comes at a most convenient time. It’s a complete shock, but a very pleasant one.”
“Knowing me,” he concludes, “I’ll turn up and ruin the whole thing! No doubt that’s what some people expect, but expect the unexpected—and don’t be disappointed!”
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