The one-time Sex Pistol is set to play four shows in just those kinds of venues in Wiesbaden, Düsseldorf, Hamburg and Berlin in May, the mid-point of a European tour that will stretch from Spain to Ukraine before a slew of dates in his native UK.
Public Image Limited, the band Lydon has fronted since 1978 – with a 17 year hiatus from 1992-2009 – will bring their new album, What The World Needs Now, to venues that hold just a few hundred people crammed right up against the stage.
“You see the eyeballs and draw them in. People connect with the emotions, that’s what I want. I want to share, I want to know that I’m not alone in my thoughts,” Lydon explained with a passion that’s still strong after decades of performing.
Although he’s a veteran producer of what his generation called “rave” music of the kind that wouldn’t be out of place in a Berlin warehouse club, Lydon is glad to be performing with live musicians in the German capital.
“It’s always a pleasure to play in foreign lands and then realize they’re not so foreign at all,” he said.
The atmosphere at his German gigs has always been “very very friendly, very warm and very excited… they’re going, look, real people holding strange boxes and things that make noise,” rather than sound emanating from speakers controlled from an anonymous, smoke-shrouded DJ booth.
Long love affair with Germany
Lydon has loved Berlin ever since he visited with fellow Sex Pistol Sid Vicious long before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
They picked the German capital almost by chance as their destination after being kicked off the island of Jersey in the English Channel – an experience that inspired the Pistols’ song Holidays in the Sun.
“That was the most excellent holiday, I love the way Germans eat, drink and enjoy themselves, it was wunderbar,” he said.
“Everytime I go back [to Berlin] I feel like it’s part of my psyche. I’m really impressed with the DJs there, the sound on the dancefloors, even before Kraftwerk it was electronic and very, very groovy.”
Beyond Berlin, Lydon has long been a fan of Munich’s Oktoberfest, recalling one year when he was told off sharply for not speaking German.
“I was very happily chatting away with people and a very old German came up and started yelling at me, asking why I was speaking English and pretending to not be German,” he remembered.
“Is that a compliment, to be called a fake American? I must have something of a German look about me.”
John Lydon with his Public Image Limited bandmates. Photo: Paul Heartfield
He bemoaned the lack of German beers, “all draft and fresh”, in his new home in California – local alternatives are more like “dishwater”.
And there’s no escaping the fact that Lydon’s wife of more than 30 years, Nora, is herself a native of Stuttgart.
“Put [Brits and Germans] together and you have the making of a really good human being,” he mused. “The two approaches tend to balance each other into one perfect character.”
That might be one reason why he jumped at the chance to talk about the looming possibility of Britain quitting the European Union – not an obvious topic for an elder statesman of punk.
“What a silliness,” he exclaimed. “You can’t leave a sense of unity. Isolation will be the end of Britain.
“It’s the modern world, you’ve got to get to grips with trade, otherwise isolation will get the better of you. You’ll become a very small, silly, insignificant hellhole with no friends.
“If I hear a party going on across the street I want to go to the party, and that’s how I think about the EU.”
‘I hope music still has power’
Not that Lydon is filled with unqualified enthusiasm for the way the world is going in 2016.
“There’s been too many lies been told to us for far too long,” he said.
“We’re looking at a world now where we all know politicians are liars, and we’re looking at a butthole surfer like Donald Trump offering a business alternative, and I think that’s far more poisonous and dangerous.”
In fact, What The World Needs Now is in some respects Lydon’s paean to his father, who died in 2008, and whose “deeply ironic sense of fun, very caustic, very dry and brittle,” are what Lydon sees missing in the world and in people’s reaction to it since.
As his eyes meet the fans’ through the smoke and lights around Germany, he believes that some of those qualities will resonate through the music.
“I hope music still has that power. I know energy has dissipated in what we call the youth and has been going for a long time.
“There’s a general lacklustre approach to the world, people asking ‘oh, why do we bother?’ Well, do bother! It’s people who think that way that got us into this.”
Public Image Limited are playing four gigs in Germany:
Schlachthof, Wiesbaden, May 10th
Zakk, Düsseldorf, May 11th
Hamburg, Markthalle, May 12th
Huxleys, Berlin, May 14th