'The BBC blacklisted me over Savile': Sex Pistol John Lydon tells what happened when he tried to blow the whistle on 'creepy' Jimmy Savile in the 70s
- John says that he heard many confessions from Savile's abuse victims
- When he tried to raise the alarm he claims he was banned from the BBC
- Here he recounts the 'creepy' presenter who John always suspected
John says that he tried to warn the BBC about Savile but he banned him from the network
When comedian Ronnie Corbett died in March he was mourned by millions, none more surprising, perhaps, than John Lydon, aka former Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Rotten.
‘He did this punk spoof when he was younger,’ says Lydon, ‘and the image of him and Ronnie Barker in punk gear was absurd but very funny. I ran into him a few years back at the Comedy Awards and I had to say hello, even though he looked surprised.
'He said, “You’re not angry with me then?”, and I said, “Of course not. I loved you to death, silly!” Humour’s always been one of the major influences for me,’ he adds. ‘I don’t take myself too seriously.’
For a man described in the 70s as ‘the worst threat to our kids since Hitler’, a sense of humour has proved a valuable asset to Lydon. Though in his youth spiky-haired and rotten of teeth (hence the stage name), the John Lydon of today is incredibly warm and dentally magnificent thanks to the orthodontic skills of his adoptive Californian home.
He also laughs far more than someone who once sang of being an antichrist should. He’s in Britain on a UK tour with Public Image Ltd, the band he formed after the Sex Pistols. ‘I love it,’ he says. ‘I love that up-close-and-personal contact. And I’m alive! Who on earth would have predicted that?’
Certainly others in his orbit haven’t fared as well. Fellow Sex Pistol Sid Vicious died in 1979 from a heroin overdose at 21 after being charged with the murder of his girlfriend Nancy Spungen, while Malcolm McLaren, the Pistols’ manager once dubbed ‘the most evil man alive’ by Lydon, died six years ago from cancer.
‘I felt sad when Malcolm died,’ he says. ‘He was rather silly, but so what? The world needs silly people. I still miss Sid too and always will.’
It doesn’t take long to realise that John Lydon is a bit of a softie. His entertaining appearance on I’m A Celebrity... in 2004 did much to alter people’s preconceptions of him before he stormed off the show.
John says that he had many young girls confess to him the actions of Savile but they were too worried to report it themselves
The reasons why weren’t clear, but he later claimed the producers had refused to let him know his wife Nora’s flight had landed safely in Australia, where the show is filmed. ‘Years before, Nora and I had been booked on the flight brought down by the Lockerbie bomb,’ he says, ‘and it was only because Nora hadn’t packed her bag in time that we didn’t get on it. Ever since it’s been vitally important to know the other person is safe. I lost all respect for the producers when they didn’t do that. They wanted me to throw a hissy fit for TV ratings, so I just said goodbye.’
Being straightforward is something Lydon requires at all times – the reasons for which stem from his childhood. In his 2014 memoir Anger Is An Energy, he describes his upbringing in 1960s north London – a Dickensian nightmare of overcrowding (he lived with his three younger brothers and parents John and Eileen), drunks passing out in the outside toilet and rat-infested backyards – which was brought to a halt when at seven he contracted meningitis. John was in a coma for seven months, and when he came to he’d lost his memory.
‘I couldn’t recognise my own mother and father and it was the loneliest I’ve ever felt,’ he says. ‘I had suicidal thoughts. I wanted to jump off the balcony at the hospital because I was thinking, “Why doesn’t anybody know me and why don’t I know anybody?” I had to learn how to love and learn to trust my parents, and once I began to trust, things started happening for the better. But the fallout is I can’t bear people lying to me: I can forgive all manner of bad behaviour but you have to be straight.’
Once his memories returned he was struck with ‘a sense of guilt that I couldn’t remember my parents. It caused problems with my dad because he thought I blamed him, and I thought he blamed me for forgetting him. We sorted it out eventually and became good friends until he died in 2008.’
His honesty has led to more than a few problems in the past. In 1978, when the Pistols had been causing maximum outrage and when Jimmy Savile was at the height of his fame, fronting shows for BBC radio and TV such as Top Of The Pops, Lydon gave an interview to Radio 1 in which he called Savile a ‘hypocrite... into all kinds of seediness... that we’re not allowed to talk about’. Though the segment wasn’t broadcast, hundreds of allegations of sexual abuse against the DJ came to light after Savile’s death in 2011.
John (centre back) with his band members in the Sex Pistols in 1977
‘If you said anything you’d be off playlists, but that didn’t bother me as I was doing a good job of that independently,’ says Lydon. ‘But first-hand experiences were reiterated to me by young girls who went to Top Of The Pops and said he was touchy, feely, creepy, urgh... Doctor Death. I told them to report it but it would have been seen as grassing then. I knew all about it and said so and got myself banned from the BBC. Family values, eh?’ he laughs. ‘Turns out I was the only one who had any.’
Indeed, for someone who incited moral outrage in the 70s, Lydon, now 60, appears a model of small-c conservatism. He’s been married to Nora Forster, 74, a German publishing heiress, for almost 40 years and claims never to have been unfaithful. ‘What on earth for?’ he says, aghast. ‘Self-gratification? I’m a giver, not a taker. We sowed our wild oats before we came together. I thought she was the most beautiful individual I’d ever seen, and I still do.’
The pair never had children. ‘We very much wanted to,’ says Lydon. ‘But we had an accident decades ago that put an end to it. So I feel sadness about it. But there’s always been children around. The neighbourhood kids wander in and out because they know there’s someone to play Lego with.’ Nora already had a daughter, Ariane (aka Ari Up of British punk band The Slits), and before Ari’s death from cancer six years ago, Lydon helped raise her twins, Pablo and Pedro. ‘It was hell!’ he laughs. ‘They were in their teens so it was a battle, but worth it. They’re like all grandkids, though – the only time we see them is if they want money!’
It’s comforting to know Lydon can still shock. Two years ago he was planning to play King Herod in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar before it was cancelled (‘Me, in a musical!’) and he even professes a liking for Cliff Richard. ‘I liked Devil Woman,’ he says, ‘and it was heartwarming when he sent out feelers to me a few years ago – if the chance arose I’d have worked with him. I hope the police investigation into his alleged involvement into historic sex abuse is over and they decide there’s no case. With witch-hunts they tend to grab everybody, but innocent until proven otherwise.’
His band’s tour kicked off a month after the Queen’s 90th birthday. As the chap who sang about anarchy in the UK, what present would he give Her Majesty? ‘Ten more years,’ he says. ‘Maybe 20. She’s fantastic. She was born into an institution not of her making, and while I won’t support the institution, I support her fully.’
Does he realise that he himself is in danger of becoming a national treasure, or worse still, seriously huggable? ‘Oh, I wouldn’t recommend that,’ he laughs. ‘I’m actually just a big bag of nails.’ n
PiL’s UK tour runs until 18 June, see pilofficial.com. Their album What The World Needs Now… is out now. John’s autobiography Anger Is An Energy is published by Simon & Schuster.
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