John Lydon Recalls Risk of Death Penalty for Sex Pistols Songs
John Lydon rejected the idea that “there was much glory” in fronting Sex Pistols, recalling that he faced the risk of the death penalty over some of the lyrics he’d written.
At the time of the punk icons’ rise to fame, capital punishment remained on the statute books for the crime of high treason even though it had been abolished for all other crimes. While it’s unlikely Lydon and his bandmates would have been charged with that offense, media speculation called for them to be accused of treason for the lyrics to “God Save the Queen” in 1977.
“I don’t know that there was much glory. It was mostly hell on earth,” Lydon told the Metro of the period of his life. “There was constant pressure, but I got to write the songs I wanted to write, got those lyrics out to Joe Public, and Joe Public was very nice and appreciated it. ... But then I had a media and a police force who did not appreciate it. I was discussed in the Houses of Parliament under the Treason Act. And you go, ‘Ooh, ha ha’ … but that carried a death penalty! For words! A few soppy little pop songs like ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ and you can be dead. Off with his head!”
He admitted that some of his comments were designed simply to force a reaction. “I cannot help but be contentious," he noted. "I’m a free thinker and, yes, you can rub people up the wrong way … but we’re God’s gift to the universe, us awkward ones, because it challenges you and it wakes you up.” Asked if he was surprised to be seen as “still so current” he responded: “No. It shows I’m right!”
Lydon is currently undertaking a spoken-word tour, reading from his 2020 memoir I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right. He described the experience as a “sink-or-swim feeling." “Sometimes the banter can be so wonderful it’s like stand-up comedy, and at other times it can roll in pathos and sadness because there are memories there that hurt deeply," he explained.
Those negative memories likely include his recent legal battle with his former bandmates. “I just went and matched them, bullet for bullet,” he said. “That’s put me in a bit of a financial hole right now. It won’t kill me – people like me are resilient.”