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8 October 2008

Pantomime punk

How the godfather of punk turned into a pantomime figure advertising butter. Herring tries to reconc

By Richard Herring

So how do I feel about my boyhood hero, Johnny “Rotten” Lydon, appearing in an advert for Country Life butter?

Is it against the principles of punk rock? Is it the ultimate sell out? It’s not exactly cash from chaos, unless you count the chaos of the milk churn. Is he, as Bill Hicks would contend, removed from the artistic world for all eternity?

I don’t really know what I think about Mr Lydon these days. It is, if nothing else, amazing that the tabloid’s most hated man of the late 70s, a man beaten up on the streets for who he was, is now so much a part of the establishment that he is schilling butter on TV.

But it’s not that much of a surprise. He was on “I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here” and wonderfully entertaining on it too. I think he would probably have won it if he hadn’t walked. Plus him and the Pistols have been touring the world, one would suspect, more motivated by the money than wanting to spread any supposed punk ethos.

He’s become a pantomime figure in the last ten years and I don’t say that in a totally pejorative sense.

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He is an entertainer and he always was. Because Johnny Rotten was a character and a performance. No one was truly trying to bring down the government or the monarchy. It was about expressing frustration and satire and let’s face it making money too.

Even if you think it was a musical political movement, should that mean that the figurehead of punk rock has to stay a punk forever? Isn’t it just as tragic to stay totally true to the stupid things you think at 17, as it is to turnabout and do the opposite?

And does being in an advert mean that you give up all cultural worth?

There are certainly people who believe this, and mainly only because Hicks said it. But even if being in an advert is wrong (and I think at the end of the day, it does upset me to see people I respect saying things that they probably don’t think, just to get some money – especially if they have a ton of money already – I’m talking about you Carol Vorderman), I still find Hicks’s assertion rather arrogant and self-satisfied … though in some versions of this routine he is less forthright and more forgiving and, of course, his intransigence is part of the reason it’s funny … you can still produce great work even if you have chosen to do a commercial.

Yet still I feel disappointment in the pit of my stomach. Because Johnny Rotten was one of those figures that I looked up to when I was younger (though if I am honest, it was my friends who were really into punk – I was too conformist to really rebel). Even as an adult though I admired him for flicking the Vs and spitting on the establishment and now he’s dressing up as a country squire and saying he likes the taste of one spread more than the others. Even the slight frisson at the way he hits the first syllable of “country” can’t make up for the stab of betrayal.

Hicks was of course lucky. He died at 32, long before he might have got to the point where old age and the fears of how he was going to provide for himself and his loved ones in the autumn years of his life. The lucky, lucky bastard. He didn’t get the chance to sell out. Which means he stays as this shining beacon of righteousness.

Lucky, dead bastard.

Even if the 17 year old Johnny Rotten might blanche at his older self – which would be hard for one of the palest faced young men you would ever see – I still somehow love him. He’s taking what he can get and doesn’t give a fuck about whether he’s being cool or doing the right thing. And he spearheaded a movement that did change the world – at least the worlds of entertainment and of youth – and maybe he deserves his butter thousands for all the punches and kicks he took on our behalf thirty years ago.

I wish Hicks was still here to let me down by advertising Taco Bell. I very much doubt he would have done, but it wouldn’t destroy the validity of what he’d done before if he had. Or of everything he did afterwards. Though it would have been a little harder to trust him, I suppose.

Lydon has to make his own choices and that is consistently what he has always done. That’s his job, or the job he has made for himself. And I suppose that’s why I still like him, even with the hot butter of Satan dripping down his chin.

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