John Lydon: The Story Of A Style Icon

Remembering the rise of Johnny Rotten, 40 years on

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If you want to know where Johnny Rotten came from, don't realy on anachronistic documentaries about air strikes and the dole and Thatcher. 

Instead watch the original 1967 Peter Cook and Dudley Moore movie Bedazzled, and specifically the scene (it's on Youtube) where comedian Cook performs as Spock-haired pop star Drimble Wedge. Brilliantly blank, studiously remote and almost motionless, Cook radiates a contempt for the entire bogus pop business that's all the more potent for his obdurate lack of animation.

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You'll recognise someone in the stare, the stance and the unsettling lyrics: "You fill me with INERRRTIA." It's John Lydon, Johnny Rotten, Sex Pistol and future butter salesman, pop's own nightmare child. This was style as anti-style, persona as anti-persona.

Lydon acknowledges a debt to Peter Cook, a fellow master of chaoes, but of course there's much more to the Rotten/Lydon look.

Appearing in 1976 as a tabloid outrage as much as a music proposition, Johnny Rotten was a Pandora's box of British fears. 

Here was a drape-suited, Fifties rock'n'roller fallen into hideous, grinning decay - fear the Walking Ted - and a Bash Street Kid come to life, gleefully vandalising his clothes and hairlike a phone box or a bog wall. 

Here too  was a modern Richard III, a stooped and scheming anti-hero in trousers like calipers who gave succour to everyone not born to the beautiful people.

Lydon/Rotten remains one of very few pop artists - see Bowie, Kate Bush, Morrisey - where the style and the art are indivisible. You could not sing these songs, or say these things, looking any other way.

There were reasons for this. A childhood bout of spinal meningitis had left Lydon with a permanently curved back, a piercing glare and agonising headaches. An upbringing among the dirt-poor London Irish made him an outsider both in County Cork, where his mother came from, and at home in then-deprived Islington.

Congenitally unsuited to employment, Lydon instead revelled in his wrongness. From a Dickensian childhood, he forged a Dickensian self, an untouchable urchin king beyond the reach of punishment.

It was Lydon's look rather than any immediately apparent musical talent that got him into the Sex Pistols. Of all the dead-end youths hanging around Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood's King's Road boutique Sex in 1975, Lydon was the one who drew McLaren's eye. (Supposedly it was Lydon's self-modified "I hate Pink Floyd" T-shirt that did it.) 

In three short years, the student outgrew outgrew the svengali, leaving the Rotten name and the pantomime aspect of punk behind. The name of Lydon's next band spoke volumes about his understanding of the pop business: Public Image Limited.

If nothing that he's done since has quite matched the seismic effect of "God Save The Queen" or Anarchy In The Uk", that's because nothing ever could. You can only destroy the world once.

But Lydon still stands for the best of what punk meant. Not the gobbing or the bondage trousers or the safety pins (all of which he'd quickly abandoned), but the idea that the most revolutionary thing you can do is to create yourself - and then be yourself.

Taken from the Esquire style icons issue, out now.

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