John Lydon Biography

Singer (1956–)
John Lydon, a.k.a. Johnny Rotten, was the lead singer and front man for the English punk rock band the Sex Pistols.


Born in 1956, John Lydon was the lead singer for the groundbreaking English punk rock band the Sex Pistols. Formed in 1975 with Lydon, renamed Johnny Rotten on account of his bad teeth, as its front man, the Sex Pistols rose to fame with anger-fueled singles like “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “God Save the Queen.” After the group disbanded in 1978, Lydon formed a new band, Public Image Limited (PiL).

Early Years

Musician. Known as Johnny Rotten during his days as lead singer of the English punk rock band the Sex Pistols, John Joseph Lydon was born January 31, 1956, in London, England. The eldest of four boys and the son of Irish parents, as a child Lydon suffered through a long bout of meningitis that landed him in a coma and affected his eyesight as well as his memory.

Bright but rebellious, Lydon struggled in school. At Hackney and Kingsway Princeton College, where he'd enrolled after getting kicked out of Sir William of York Catholic School, Lydon met John Simon Ritchie, whom the world would later know as Sid Vicious.

The two fast became friends. After leaving Hackney, they stayed at the homes of various friends as they explored London's fashion shops and nightclubs.

One of Lydon’s favorite stops was a shop called Sex, a fetish-themed store owned by fashion designer Vivienne Westwood and her partner, Malcolm McLaren. The burgeoning punk scene fascinated McLaren, who loved pushing cultural buttons and was fresh from an adventurous, somewhat disastrous run as the in-your-face manager of the New York Dolls, a pioneering glam-rock band.

After the Dolls split up in the early 1970s, McLaren returned to London, intent on creating a new band to manage. In Lydon, whom he met for the first time in 1975, he found his front man. After a quick audition, Lydon, renamed "Johnny Rotten" on account of his bad teeth, was tapped as the band's lead singer. The rest of the band featured guitarist Steve Jones, bassist Glen Matlock and drummer Paul Cook.

The Sex Pistols

Over the next three years, the Sex Pistols would come to epitomize English punk. Their unique blend of fury and violence incited both hatred and deep reverence.

Beginning in November 1975 the group released a string of punk anthems, starting with “Anarchy in the U.K.” and later “God Save the Queen,” “Pretty Vacant” and “Holidays in the Sun.”

“God Save the Queen,” in particular, proved to be especially offensive to a country that prided itself on its manners. Released in 1977, the same year as Queen Elizabeth's Silver Jubilee, the song rose to number two on the British charts. That same year, in late 1977, the group released its one and only full-length album, Never Mind the Bollocks…Here's the Sex Pistols, which quickly climbed to number one.

But the same energy that drove their music and stage performances soon consumed the group itself. Lydon was especially angered by McLaren, who wasn't afraid to market the band as a group of goons.

Following the release of its album, the Pistols, which had replaced Matlock with Lydon's old friend Sid Vicious, headed to America for a series of concert dates lasting just over a week, most of which were booked in the deep South where they played to audiences who were less than receptive to the punk band. The tour locations were a ploy to get free press off the potentially fervent clash of musical cultures orchestrated by McLaren. The tour collapsed, as did the group, when Lydon walked off the stage at the end of their show at the Winterland in the hippie/rock haven of San Francisco in January 1978. "Ever get the feeling you been cheated?" Lydon asked the audience, before exiting.

With that, the Sex Pistols were through.

Later Career

Following the demise of the Sex Pistols, Lydon, who went back to his original name, started a new group, Public Image Limited (PiL). While it never recreated the cultural force the Sex Pistols had managed, the band has endured for more than three decades.

A long, drawn-out litigation fight with McLaren finally allowed Lydon to use the Rotten moniker in 1986. In 1994 Lydon published his Sex Pistols autobiography, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs.

In addition to his recording work, Lydon has also kept busy with a string of television projects, Rotten TV for VH1 (2000), Discovery's John Lydon's Megabugs (2006), and a pair of nature specials: John Lydon Goes Ape and John Lydon's Shark Attack. In 1996, to the delight of Sex Pistols fans, Lydon reunited with Jones, Cook and Matlock for a new tour. They released an album, Filthy Lucre Live, the following year. A documentary about the band, The Filth and the Fury, directed by Julien Temple, debuted in 2000.

Lydon resides in Los Angeles with his longtime wife, Nora.

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