Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Johnny Rotten in vintage form in the studio

A transcript of a 1979 show with John Lydon, when BRMB had big audiences and let their DJs do weird stuff on air.

This is a radio story from over thirty years ago. It shows how commercial radio has changed, and it’s funny as hell. Well, I think so, because I’m part of it.

We're at the very end of the punk era. I was doing rock shows on Birmingham’s commercial station, BRMB. I was offered a John Lydon interview. Lydon was on his second band, Public Image Limited, after the dissolution of the Sex Pistols. I approached the interview idea with caution. Punk and post-punk artists famously took pride in being awkward sods on air. I had been exquisitely roasted over a slow fire by the Stranglers a few months earlier, and I wasn’t keen on playing media patsy all over again. But Lydon was too interesting to pass up, so we settled on turning the show's music over to him, as part of an extended interview. The music was great: lots of deep Roots Reggae. But predictably, it was a barbed conversation. Lydon was uncompromising, mildly truculent, and provocative. He also talked a lot of sense. In between the music, the challenges flew. I only lost my temper and swore the once…

The show itself does not survive. BRMB was terrible at archiving its output: see my UB40 post for notes on how and why. But the verbal exchanges and music details have survived, lovingly documented and transcribed by the excellent Fodderstompf, who cover all things PiL. My role here is incidental: the transcript exists because Lydon did a show and Fodderstompf documented it. Merry sniping and tetchy badinage, along with relevant links, awaits you …

You're listening to Robin Valk now through till 11. And in this hour Johnny Rotten is picking the music. John welcome to BRMB Radio. What we are going to hear, over this coming hour or so, is what you're playing at the moment, rather than any other stuff. How much of a collection have you got at the moment?
I don't buy rubbish. So it's not that huge. I suppose it escalates over the years. It's enough to humour me, but not enough really.
Have you been able to buy more recently, or has it just gone at the same rate as before? 
It's slumped lately.
A lot of things you are going to play, as you explained to me, won't exactly be current, they will have been bought from JA, because they came over in limited edition. The first track I Jah Man Levi, the first version of 'Jah Heavy Load', has got a fairly checkered history. There are two different versions. Why do you prefer this one as opposed to the re-recorded version?
Because the re-recorded version is like cocktail jazz, I don't like it. I prefer this. It's just better. I don't see why the original single was never released, officially. Like most reggae.
Do you feel that British record companies who get into reggae, as a corporate decision, are doing it in the right way? Considering the way both Island Records and Virgin Records made deliberate decisions to get into reggae in a big way, and sign up everything they could. Have they gone about it the right way…
[interrupts] It's not true they signed everything they could. There are several records in that little pile there, they could have signed up but didn't. Probably because they had too much talent. You find that, well, Virgin tend to sign up the weakest kind of reggae. The sort they hope will get in the charts and make a bit of money for them. That's the wrong attitude. You should always stick to the real stuff.

We're with Johnny Rotten tonight on BRMB, you've just heard 'Jah Heavy Load', the first version, by I Jah Man Levi. Leaving aside what you are doing at the moment, if you wanted to, would you want run a record company simply releasing music you believed in. Would you like to do that, has that ever crossed your mind?
No. Why the hell should I? It's nothing to do with me. I don't want to know about that end of it. I don't see why I should be expected to do it for them. I'm sick of that attitude.
That wasn't quite the angle I was looking at, it's just you are in a position now, where if you wanted to, you could get things done.
Am I? I think you'll find that's not strictly true.
Well, I still have to scrape and beg for tuppence off the record company. That's the usual story.
The next track Black Uhuru and 'No, No, No.'
That's someone Virgin could have signed but didn't. Sly Dunbar production. They signed Sly, they'll release the rubbish he puts out, but not the good stuff. It's the same with the Gregory Isaacs thing, they could have signed him, they could have signed Ken Boothe, they could have signed a lot of them.

On BRMB talking with Johnny Rotten tonight. Do you recognise there's almost a two tier level of production, whereby Jamaican reggae artists release the real stuff, then the mass-market stuff. Dilute it down a bit for the white market. Do you reckon that happens?
It's not done deliberately in Jamaica. It just so happens that when the masters arrive here the companies tend to cut the bass and lower the treble, and chuck out something that sounds nothing like the original. Something similar happened to our first album. There was a confusion over the masters, I really shouldn't mention all of this, but I can prove it with matrix numbers. The production of our first album mysteriously changed in the cutting of the discs.
As a result it didn't come out the way you wanted?
Ha. It didn't come out the way they wanted. I insisted on the masters we handed in. Otherwise the record would not go out at all.
You've obviously picked up, by virtue of necessity, a fair amount of studio knowledge just to protect what you've got, and what you've done. Do you want to apply that more in the future with Public Image, whatever you wind up doing next?
What do you mean?
Well, just now you're talking about what you've done, and talking about studio techniques, watering things down, and cutting things back, altering it, softening it. And you've had to put that whole side of the business…
[interrupts] I've had to stop it. We've had to stop it. In our personal situation, it is an everyday story, it's no lonely heartbreak. It just means that you should produce your own records, and you should never have anyone tell you how you should sound. You should take your own masters to the cutting rooms. You should make your own acetates. You should deliver them to the record company and make sure that the test pressings that arrive back from the record plants are exactly the same as your acetates. It's simple. If you don't do that you'll never get what you wanted, you won't recognise it.
The next track The Normal 'TVOD'. The Normal - what do you know about them?
I know nothing [laughs]. They seem to be a very discreet bunch. Isn't it something to do with a geezer called Thomas Leer, is that right? [sic: Daniel Miller] He's made a few records, they're alright. I like that sound.

The next track is Gregory Isaacs & Christine. This is about a domestic situation, as opposed to…
[interrupts] A situation I didn't create that's for sure! [laughs] I love acting as judge and jury!
Gregory Isaacs is doing stuff nationally, as well as doing his own thing, is this is on his own label from Jamaica or what?
That's stuff that like… Gregory Isaacs is now released through Virgin, but a lot of those songs are old songs or are renditions of somebody else's. They are nowhere near as hard as they could be. And certainly stuff like that single would not normally be released through a nice establishment type record company. They don't like it, it's too heavy.
Lets assume, hypothetically for a moment, an establishment record company, one of the labels, whether it be independent or whatever, decides to issue straight undiluted, unvarnished Jamaican reggae, without cutting it or cleaning it up. Putting it out straight. Wouldn't that in itself be almost seen as a cop-out as be taking it and emasculating it?
How! Surely the reason for making any music is to get the message, that you are trying to get over, to as many people as possible, otherwise you are being a pretentious little snot.
Granted, but at the same time there's a certain tendency for records to be… well, the whole British marketing of the New Wave came about partly through 12" discs and coloured pressings, and exclusive limited editions and all that kind of garbage.
If you've got that kind of marketing mentality already installed, by the time that something that was available exclusively, simply because the guys couldn't afford to give it a bigger pressing, a bigger run, national distribution, if it does get to the mass audience then…
[interrupts] Look, look, like Virgin have opened up a chain of record supermarkets. The latest one in Oxford Street you can't even hear a record in there. You're not even given the chance, they're just in racks. You're merely shown what it is, and that's it. You either buy it or don't, you certainly can't hear the thing. That attitude is wrong. Records should be available freely, you should be able to hear them constantly. Radio's are wrong for a start. The fact that they only play the Top 30 records that are selling is pointless waste of time. I mean, if your record is selling and people are buying it, they don't want to hear what they've got day after day, after day. Surely you should be able to hear what you haven't got. And so on, and so forth.
I'm not going to disagree with you, because basically I feel that way myself.
And what are you doing about it?
I'm not playing the god damn Top 30, Jesus!
[interrupts] I never said that did I. I'm not attacking you personally. But if you want to take it that way that's fine, I'm sure you can have a very decent intellectual argument.
I doubt the BRMB listeners want to hear me intellectualising on whether I personally am doing the right thing spreading music, what I'd like to do is talk to you, rather than get into the ins and outs of my own stuff.
Well, I mean the marketing, lets go back to the marketing the records at the moment. Different coloured vinyl, all sorts of gimmicks thrown at you. I mean you can only get away with for as long as an audience tolerate it. And the problem of all those situations is the people buying the stuff. They don't complain, they seem to like it. That's why it continues.

Next one up is Ken Boothe and 'Got To Get Away'. The three versions that you went through, we're going to play the first one, which in a way, is almost the straightest of the three versions.
Well, I think the words in it are really quite good, and I'd like people to hear them. Ken Boothe is a man of talent.

And finally tonight, from Kraftwerk 'Showroom Dummies', the last track picked out tonight by Johnny Rotten. Kraftwerk, again, getting back to the similarities of electronic synthesisers, we touched on electronic rock earlier with The Normal, Kraftwerk are slightly more easier identifiable, Kraftwerk have changed direction quite radically over the past couple of years, certainly of the 'Showroom Dummies' track.

How do you work that out? They've always been pretty robotic.
They've got shorter and sharper and it's got crisper and…
It's 6 minutes 10 seconds long.
As opposed to 15 minutes of slightly more flowing music…
Well, you're on about very long album tracks then. They can have very short singles at the same time too.

On BRMB Radio tonight my guest Johnny Rotten, one of the topics we haven't raised yet is Johnny Rotten's present group. Can you really be worried about lack of airplay if you…
[interrupts] Yes, of course I can. I think it's essential that as many people as possible hear us. That is essential. Otherwise how is anybody gonna be able to discriminate. I mean it's too easy to condemn something without hearing it, and like, lets face it I've faced a lot of that. I get that all the time.
Are you getting tired of being a whipping boy, or has it gone on so long are immune to it?
It's very easy to make me a scapegoat now isn't it.
I mean, look at the competition there really isn't any.
Yeah, but how do you feel about it personally? It seems to happen about every other week, that you wind up in a situation, that someone is going be firing at you. You seem to half relish it and half hate it at the same time.
Well, of course I like it. That's practically what I want. At least its a reaction. I mean it's better than 'Crossroads' is it not? I don't go out of my way to shout and scream blue blooded murder, that would be pointless, I just want a bit of difference in attitude from people. I don't like the way people accept roles. Lets see, the term punk that really did make me ill. The way the whole host of morons freely accepted that tag given to them by the media. That was where that movement went wrong, and that is why I had to get away from it. I will not be put into an army for anyone. [long pause] No uniforms.
Johnny Rotten thank you kindly.


Many thanks to Johnny Rotten for the past hour of conversation, and music, and arguments…

My thanks to Fodderstompf for taking the time to transcribe the recording someone made, and to Beshara Muzic: This post is here because Beshara Muzic, inheritors of the mantle of Birmingham Reggae greats Beshara, spotted the Fodderstompf post and tipped me off. I'm really glad they did. My link with Beshara Muzic was forged as a result of working on 'Handsworth Evolution' - blog post here - a 2010 documentary I produced about Reggae in Birmingham.


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