The music that inspired the Sex Pistols: Punk icon Johnny Rotten listed his 12 favourite albums of all time
The enigmatic, phlegm-filled, gobtastic, lead singer of the Sex Pistols, Johnny Rotten (John Lydon) had an auspicious climb to the Top of the Pops. The singer was an antagonistic leader of the band and spent much of his life in the headlines for his actions more than his music—but while the musical credentials of punk is often maligned, nobody can doubt that music has run through every moment of Lydon’s life.
Reflecting on his life in music, Rotten sat down with both The Guardian and Pitchfork to discuss the influential musical moments of his career and, therefore, give us a sneak peek into the life and times of one of punk’s undeniable icons. We’ve brought most of those answers (we avoided the inclusion of singles and his own work – which he adds to almost every list!) to one home so that we may hope to be as inspired by them as Lydon was.
The singer who found fame with the Sex Pistols, who made a name for themselves for upsetting mainstream televisions, stealing David Bowie’s instruments, and spitting on one another as a sign of affection, would take his inimitable style on to his next project Public Image Ltd.
It would be that project which would show off Lydon as a musician far beyond the confines of the three-cord bliss he had conjured up with the Pistols. It all adds up to an interesting character as buoyed by legend and mythology as he is by the swell of pounding drums. We were thrilled to have a view into the inspiration which made Johnny rotten.
We’ve gone one step further and are bringing you a perfectly compiled playlist of the selection. You can thank us later, but please, keep your gob to yourself.
Kicking things off on a high point, Rotten started with the self-titled debut album by English rock band the Kinks, originally released in 1964. Speaking about ‘You Really Got Me’ specifically, Rotten said:: “Somebody’s elder brother had it, I remember it was on Pye Records, and my God, that insane guitar started it all for me. But I have to be careful about sharing my tastes in music because it comes back to haunt you.
“I said once that I liked Van der Graaf Generator and before I knew it I was accused of ripping them off. Perhaps it’s safer to state that I like Steeleye Span. Mind you, I shared an Irish coffee with them in Vienna once and left them with the bill, so maybe not.”
For Your Pleasure – Roxy Music (1973)
Lydon spoke about his favourite song on the album ‘In Every Dream Home a Heartache’: “I get what Bryan Ferry is trying to do – experimenting in a bizarre world and then couching what he finds in the style and language of the hunting set. It’s an exotic, intriguing concept and he’s the only one doing it.
“This song [about a love affair with a blow-up doll] reveals a corner of your psyche that not many people would like to admit exists: that the mind wanders into dark places and the body follows. It’s a romantic delusion and it’s fascinating material for a song.”
The Raincoats – The Raincoats (1979)
“I cared deeply about what we were doing with the Pistols and it was hurtful to be put in a ‘punk’ package alongside lesser mortals,” Rotten explained. “But the Raincoats offered a completely different way of doing things, as did X-Ray Spex and all the books about punk have failed to realise that these women were involved for no other reason than that they were good and original.
“It’s a million miles away from the blancmange that is Green Day, where you have a Johnny Rotten first verse, a Billy Idol chorus and a Sham 69-second verse. Preposterous!”
Taco Mago – Can (1971)
Detailing his selection, Lydon said: “I always wanted to get back to what we did with PiL [Publice Image Ltd], but I got caught up in other things. The Sex Pistols were back on the road and no regrets: those people are my mates. Then it was all the TV work, which I loved. I discovered that nature is not something to be scared of, and best of all, that animals seem to like me! They don’t want to put me on the menu.” Lydon reflects on his not-so-punk appearance on the reality TV show ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of here’
He continued: “But hearing this absolutely brilliant record, in particular Halleluhwah, which lasts an entire side, reminds me of what we were trying to do with PiL. Can is its own thing and so is PiL. The only way to file these records is alphabetically.”
The Kick Inside – Kate Bush (1978)
Perhaps a surprise inclusion, Rotten detailed his admiration for the great Kate Bush when he said: “It’s very hard for me to prepare for something like this because I collect non-stop, discover new things every day, and take music very seriously. I hate the technological rip-offs that pass for music formats these days, and go back to vinyl to hear a good record because the sound is always so much fuller.
“I don’t even like listening to music in the car. But iIt would be ridiculous not to mention Kate Bush as someone who creates a powerful dreamscape and a great mood, but I also love Traffic, the pop textures of Marc Bolan, and all kinds of techno.”
Trout Mask Replica – Captain Beefheart (1969)
“There’s just so much on this: It’s a double album and by the time you finish it—if you can finish it—you can’t remember what you heard at the beginning. I liked that,” he said of Beefheart. “It was anti-music in the most interesting and insane way, like kids learning to play violin—which I was going through at the time. So all the bum notes I was being told off for by the teachers were finally being released by well-known artists.
“That was my confirmation. From then on, there was room for everything.”
Move It! – Cliff Richard
Bet nobody saw this one coming. Lydon, the uncompromising man of punk, explained his admiration for Cliff Richard: “My parents had a fantastic collection. It wasn’t just Irish folk tunes and accordion diddly-doos, there was early Beatles and lots of Cliff Richard too. The first record I would have ever wanted to buy was “Move It!” by Cliff Richard. It was a really good song at the time and still is.
“Early Cliff was a riotous assembly of sorts, and he had moves that left a good impression on a 5 year old.”
OK – Tavil Singh (1999)
“People who make their own aural tapestries have always intrigued me. Talvin Singh took his classical training into new places, and that’s no bad thing. But my musical tastes are down to happenstance: I’ll go into the library and discover something I may have had for years and never got round to listening to, which is what happened the other day with Talvin Singh.”
Pretties For You – Alice Cooper (1969)
“At 7 I contracted meningitis. It affected my brain, and I slipped into a coma. I spent a year in hospital, and during that time music didn’t play much of a major part. It was very, very hard to get to grips with myself, and it took a good four years to recover my memories. Music wasn’t really there.
“By 10, though, I was running a mini-cab service, doing the bookings, which was the best job ever. The money was great so I started buying music.
He added: “I was going to two record stores at that time: one in Finsbury Park, run by a sweet little white-haired old lady, that used to have nothing but Jimi Hendrix and big, deep, dense, dark dub—it was always full of Jamaicans. The other one was run by two long-haired chubby fellows who had great taste. That’s where I picked up Alice Cooper’s Pretties for You. It was a long time before he became popular. Pretties for You is a really good example of bad artwork.”
Raw Power – The Stooges (1973)
“I’d never seen the Stooges as early punks or anything—that’s media manipulation of facts; I loved them, but I was always appalled with their long hair. By this time my record collection was enormous and expanding, and my tastes were extremely varied. During the punk years, I really loved the Raincoats and X-Ray Spex and the Adverts, groups that were doing things way out on their own. There was plenty of experimentation going on musically in all areas, particularly reggae.”
“I lack prejudice except for music that I find to be reminiscent of somebody else’s work—I find no need for endless Chuck Berry versions, which was very popular at the time. And I had little time for what was coming out of America; bands like Television never really grabbed me, I just couldn’t connect. It was all too clever for its own good and wrapped up in too much Rimbaud poetry: Get over it and write about your own life, not what you find in books.”
The Man-Machine – Kraftwerk (1978)
“I met one of the members of Kraftwerk last year and was very surprised—they weren’t at all how I imagined them from looking at the album covers. They were in what I would call Beach Boys shirts. In an odd, twisted way they were saying I had an influence on them. I didn’t believe it for a second but I’ll take it.
I loved anything by them. Their cold, emotionless way of presenting a pop song was always entertaining to me, so novel and so deadpan and cynical and kind of heartwarming. So ahead of its time.”
Killer – Alice Cooper (1971)
“This was the mid-’80s, around the time PiL made Album. On that record, I was referring to the heavy metal scene, which had crawled up its own backside. It was endless bands imitating each other, the same nonsense that punk turned into. But great achievements were made in music around then too. Everything from madder folk outfits and pop music itself was becoming very interesting then. I was always pleasantly surprised that oddball stuff would creep in the charts from nowhere. Someone like Gary Numan gave pop music a very distinctive and clear tone that was all his own.
“At this stage, I would have been buying everything that was being made, but Alice Cooper’s Killer never left me. That easy way of growling he had was always impressive.”
Take a listen below to the record which Johnny Rotten deems good enough to not trash. And that is some high praise indeed.