Everyone loves to bag on John Lydon and his confrontational, arrogant attitude in interviews. But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Reporters would get ready to interview him, and they’d go in with a “let’s make Johnny act like a punk.” Aside from the Bill Grundy “say something outrageous” interview, one of Lydon’s most infamous appearances was the PIL interview for Check it Out on Tyne Tees TV in July 1979. The clip that’s usually shown begins with the band glaring angrily at the hosts before John says “we’re facing a cheapskate comedy interrogation act and it just ain’t on, pal,” then takes off his mic and walks off. What they edit out is the several minutes before, where the hosts grill John over whether he’s sold out by moving from punk to PIL’s new sound, and play tape of Mond Cowie slagging off the Pistols and Johnny Rotten specifically. The entire show feels like a set-up to provoke the band, right from the moment they didn’t give them enough chairs for everyone to sit on.
But from time to time, a clip turns up with an interviewer who actually wants to treat Johnny with some respect, and talk to him like a normal human being. He comes through as funny, affable, even charming despite himself. We’re looking at a kid just barely out of his teens, thrust into the middle of a media storm and surrounded by people who pile their expectations and projections onto him. Of course he’s going to get tetchy. In these interviews where he’s actually allowed a moment to be himself, we get a John Lydon that I wish I could have hung out with in the 1970s.