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John Lydon on BBC 6 Music: When he was bad, he was rotten

Antonia Quirke's take on the stand-in presenter for <em>Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service</em> on BBC 6 Music.

Jarvis Cocker’s Sunday Service
BBC 6 Music

John Lydon sitting in for Jarvis Cocker on Sunday afternoon – the first of three shows – was impeccable (16 June, 4pm). Twenty-five songs in two hours that ranged from Burning Spear to Loretta Lynn, Motörhead to Roxy Music and a Chinese trance act called Re-TROS that Lydon decribed as “innocent” but were feverish and dirty and annoyingly not yet available to buy in the UK.

Only now and again did Lydon refer to himself, pompously, in the third person. “Yes, Johnny Rotten loves Abba. OK, with ‘Fernando’ it’s studio production up the whazzoo but its so family, it’s so loving, it really is . . .” If Lydon is famous for being half indescribable dick and half very good person, then, almost entirely, the latter was on display. Eminently reasonable, tender even, speaking intimately but without arrogance about his youth, and making no bones about his choices.

He said he knew the Monkees were crap but he couldn’t get enough of them, especially when they’re singing about BBQs and California and oh how nice it all sounds. With a hoot, he recalled driving all over the country following Hawkwind. “Yeah, well I guess 40 years later listening to them it all sounds a little bit disappointing but no . . . [a sigh]. Bollocks. That was tough stuff.”

The producers must have been spinning in their seats. Who was this charming and droll person, this dreamy, amorous wave tinkling softly across the shingle?

“I don’t hate Pink Floyd! I love Pink Floyd!” But what about the T-shirt you used to wear down the King’s Road with “I Hate Pink Floyd” on it? “I love Pink Floyd! I never hated Pink Floyd!”

What usually turns Lydon on is thinking that he’s being super-speedy and articulate in front of a bewildered audience. Talking incredibly fast, using long and often antique words, unstoppable, oppressing his interlocutor with his fluidity. (Russell Brand’s whole shtick is a rip-off of Lydon.)

But at his most dickish, Lydon is such hard work, thinking it’s his actual job to fly off the handle. A petulant performing porpoise who wants to slap everyone in the face. He can be euphorically punitive – even if in the end it just comes over as contempt and chauvinism.

Except not, it seems, on Sundays. How Game of thrones: Rebecca Ferguson terribly polite.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland