Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The rotten politics of John Lydon

Johnny Rotten has cheated on me.

OK, I don’t expect that statement to elicit much sympathy. But I can’t have been the only one to feel queasy reading the interviews John Lydon gave ahead of this week’s British tour by his band Public Image Ltd (PiL). The erstwhile Mr Rotten believes that now his ads have boosted sales of Country Life butter, he should be courted incessantly by marketing executives. “It amazes me that people don't get the opportunity of me,” he told The Guardian. “I sell."

As I was only five at the time of its release in 1976, I wasn’t conscious of hearing Anarchy in the UK until nine or ten years later. Fashion might have moved on in that time – not that I had any knowledge of fashion – yet it is no exaggeration to say that The Sex Pistols’ debut single was liberating and educational, not least because it prompted me to look up “anarchy” in the dictionary. Here was an exotic creature from London telling a young Irish boy that it was cool to defy authority.

Call me naive for clinging to teenage illusions but I never thought I would learn that Lydon has gone from bellowing “I am the antichrist” at the establishment to “I sell” at an unappreciative marketing industry. It might be daft to ascribe an ethos to a shambolic musical genre like punk rock, yet it seemed to represent values at odds with those espoused by the two political figures who defined the decade after Anarchy in the UK: Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The punk lexicon had no shortage of slogans but“greed is good” wasn’t one of them.

There were plenty of others politicised by punk. Billy Bragg has told of how he set up the Jail Guitar Doors initiative – which provides musical instruments and tutorials to prisoners - after hooking up with admirers of Joe Strummer following his death in 2002. “Although we may have hung up our leather jackets, those of us who were touched by the fire of punk have held onto our anti-fascist ideals,” Bragg said. “We were amazed to find that many of us were involved in activism in one way or another - union organisers, environmental campaigners, documentary filmmakers.”

Whereas Strummer was more obviously left-wing than Lydon, both have proven inspirational to numerous musicians who reject the silly notion that pop and politics shouldn’t mix. The often fabulous Asian Dub Foundation are among those known to have blared PiL’s Metal Box album on their tour bus speakers.

A few months ago Lydon claimed he’s “well-known for being a pacifist” and named Mahatma Gandhi as his all-time hero. Surely, then, he would be open to supporting one of the most impressive examples of Gandhi’s principles being put into action in today’s world: the weekly demonstrations in the West Bank village of Bi’lin, where unarmed activists are regularly fired at by Israeli forces. Surely, too, he would be sympathetic to the call made by numerous Palestinian trade unions and other campaign groups for a cultural and economic boycott of Israel.

Not a chance, I’m afraid. Lydon has vowed to go ahead with a PiL concert in Tel Aviv, scheduled for late August. "If Elvis-fucking-Costello wants to pull out of a gig in Israel because he's suddenly got this compassion for Palestinians, then good on him,” Lydon told The Independent. “But I have absolutely one rule, right? Until I see an Arab country, a Muslim country, with a democracy, I won't understand how anyone can have a problem with how they’re treated.”

How can Lydon so callously disregard the suffering of a people under colonial occupation? The answer is easy. PiL will be performing in Tel Aviv as headliners at a festival sponsored by Heineken. Along with giving him all the free beer he can swallow, Lydon can be sure the brewers will help to swell his bank account. Finally, he has found a corporation that gets “the opportunity of me”.

•Originally published by The Guardian (, 21 July 2010

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