At 19 years old, John Lydon became Johnny Rotten, the iconic frontman of the Sex Pistols. The band imploded after just 2 and a half years, but in that time, they helped change the face of music. In 1978, he formed Public Image Limited, a similarly influential band that’s still around, still touring, and still breaking new ground. Find out more with these 10 things you didn’t know about John Lydon.
1. He owes his stare to meningitis
When Lydon was seven, he contracted spinal meningitis. He spent the next year of his life in hospital, suffering nausea, hallucinations, comas, and severe memory loss. Part of the treatment involved extracting fluid from his spine with surgical needles, a process that left him with a permanent spinal curvature. A hunchback wasn’t the only thing he left hospital with: the illness affected his eyesight, leaving him with what would later become known as the “Lydon stare.”
2. He got kicked out of Joni Mitchell’s house
According to Exclaim!, Lydon once managed to annoy singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell so much, she kicked him out of her house. Richard Branson had invited him to Jamaica to check out some potential new signings to Virgin’s new reggae subsidiary label. Somehow, he managed to wangle an invite to the villa Mitchell was renting. After Lydon complained about the music that was being played, Mitchell cooly informed him it was her new album and promptly booted him out.
3. He foresaw the Jimmy Saville scandal
People nurtured suspicions about Jimmy Saville for decades, but no one voiced them. No one except Lydon, that is. During a 1978 interview with BBC Radio 1, Lydon made reference not just to the sexual abuses committed by the DJ, but to the suppression of any suggestion of those abuses by the BBC and mainstream press. “I’d like to kill Jimmy Savile; I think he’s a hypocrite. I bet he’s into all kinds of seediness that we all know about, but are not allowed to talk about. I know some rumors,” he said, adding “I bet none of this will be allowed out.” He was right. Not only did the interview never get aired, but he found himself blacklisted by the BBC for years after.
4. He wasn’t surprised by Sid Vicious’ death
Sid Vicious died of a heroin overdose on 1 February 1979. His death didn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone, least of all his former bandmate Lydon. “Sid was my mate and all that, but I watched him slowly destroy himself,” he later told The Guardian. “I’ve got to be honest – it came as no surprise. Most people who mess about with heroin, they lose their souls way earlier, it’s just waiting for the body to keel over.”
5. He’s got no regrets about selling out
The last person you’d expect to pop up in a butter commercial is Johnny Rotten. Yet in 2008, that’s exactly what happened after he teamed up with Country Life to promote their range of dairy products. He had a good reason to do it though, as he later explained.‘It’s bizarre and odd, but the only way to buy my way out of the stifling contracts that I was tied into from the Sex Pistols was by promoting British dairy products,” he said. “The working-class chap in me wasn’t going to turn away a gift horse – and it was actually a good piece of work! I brought humor back to advertising.” Weirdly, the ads were a huge success, resulting in an 85% spike in sales.
6. He should be dead
By rights, Lydon should be long dead. Back in 1988, he and his wife Nora were booked on the doomed Pan Am flight 103, which blew up over Lockerbie when a terrorist bomb exploded on board. All 258 passengers were killed, along with 11 people on the ground. The only reason he managed to escape was that his wife took so long to pack, they ended up missing the flight.
7. His teeth inspired his stage name
Despite what some Americans think, not all British people have bad teeth. Lydon did though. His lack of oral hygiene eventually led his teeth to go green. When the Sex Pistols’ guitarist Steve Jones saw the state of Lydon’s less than pearly whites, he explained “You’re rotten, you are,” thus inspiring Lydon’s stage name. Johnny Rotten’s not quite so rotten anymore, however: in 2008, he forked out $22,000 to transform his smile after his rotten teeth began to “seriously corrupt” his system.
8. He’s a one-woman man
He may be punk, but there’s one tradition Lydon has never revolted against: marriage. He and his wife Nora have been married since 1979. They’ve never had children, but Lydon adopted Nora’s daughter Ariane (later known as Ari Up, the lead singer of The Slits), and later, the couple became legal guardians to Ariane’s three children. In 2018, Lydon revealed that Nora was battling Alzheimer’s disease. Last year, he confirmed he had become her full-time career following a deterioration in her condition. He’s said that while she tends to forget most things, she never forgets him, saying “a bit of love goes a long way.”
9. He’s addicted to iPad games
As Time Out reveals, Lydon has spent a fortune on Ipad games after getting turned on to them by his band. “My band recommended an iPad to me – well! That was whisky to the Indians. I got well fascinated with the games: the car racing games, the battleship games, the war games. I love ’em. I suppose you could call it somewhat addictive. You can’t stop and you have to let it run its course, and then when the bill comes in… haha! Reality bites.” It must do… in 2014 alone, he spend a mammoth $10,000 on games.
10. He’s a US citizen
Lydon has been living in the US for years, but he waited until 2013 before applying for citizenship. He says the reason he changed his mind was Obamacare, which he said showed “America has the potential to be a nation that actually cares for its afflicted and wounded and ill and disenfranchised.”