John Lydon considers himself to be in an “infuriating” legal bind. And, as the High Court heard on Thursday: “An infuriated Mr Lydon is not something to be taken lightly.”
The man otherwise known as Johnny Rotten is embroiled in a court battle with his former Sex Pistols band mates, Steve Jones and Paul Cook.
On the first day of their London hearing, the court heard that Lydon believes the pair, guided by their manager Anita Camarata, have a “sinister” plan to take control of the Sex Pistols’ legacy.
Lydon is defending a legal action brought by Jones, the band’s guitarist, and Cook, the drummer, after he refused to allow songs from the band’s back catalogue to be included in Pistol, a forthcoming TV series directed by Danny Boyle and based on Jones’ memoir, Lonely Boy: Tales From A Sex Pistol.
Jones and Cook argue that a 1988 legal agreement allows licences to be granted if the majority of band members agree. Lydon claims that any decision must be unanimous, and individual members have the right of veto.
“We are here to have a fight started by the claimants,” said Mark Cunningham QC, counsel for Lydon.
“There is an elephant in the room here. This case is not just about Pistol. My client’s fear is that if the declarations sought are made, it hands to Ms Camarata – and let’s be straight – complete control over his interest and legacy as regards the Sex Pistols.”
A still image from the forthcoming biopic, Pistol, featuring (left to right) Christian Lees as Glen Matlock, Anson Boon as John Lydon and Toby Wallace as Steve Jones
Credit: Miya Mizuno/FX
Mr Cunningham said: “He feels extremely strongly that this is an attempt by Ms Camarata basically to annex him as part of her commercial empire.”
He added that Lydon likened the 1988 agreement to “slave labour” and “prison”.
Ms Camarata is an executive producer on Pistol. Mr Cunningham said in written arguments that Lydon considered the memoir on which it is based to paint him “in a hostile and unflattering light”.
He referred to a passage in the book, which reads: “And as for the annoying little brat with the great bone structure who’s always asking for more… well, let’s leave Johnny Rotten out of this for a while, shall we?”
Edmund Cullen QC, representing Jones and Cook, said the relationship between the band members was “brittle and fractious”.
He said of Lydon: “He is a contrarian. I think he would not disagree that, on some views, he is a difficult and volatile man. He finds the claimants’ reliance on the [agreement] ‘infuriating’, as he puts it. And an infuriating Mr Lydon is not something to be taken lightly, and indeed that is why we are here.
“But whether he regards the agreement as ‘slave labour’ or not, the fact is he signed it, he did so willingly in exchange for the ability to sell his publishing rights for a large sum of money.”
The Sex Pistols in 1976, left to right: Glen Matlock, John Lydon, Steve Jones and Paul Cook
Credit: Express/Express/Getty Images
The court heard that Glen Matlock, the bassist, and Sid Vicious’s estate, support Jones and Cook. The band split in 1978.
This is not the first time that Lydon has objected to use of Sex Pistols songs and imagery.
The court was told that he refused to allow God Save The Queen to be used on The Crown, Netflix’s royal drama, which left Jones and Cook “furious”.
Lydon also refused a request for Madonna to sing God Save The Queen on stage during what Mr Cullen described as her “rather revoltingly titled” Sticky & Sweet tour in 2008/09.
When a clothing company wished to use Sex Pistols imagery, Lydon would not allow the merchandise to be sold in US supermarket chain Walmart on the grounds that it was “too low-rent”.
The trial, which is being heard remotely before the judge, Sir Anthony Mann, continues on Friday when Jones will give evidence from his home in California.
Discussing the prospect of Jones’s evidence, Mr Cunningham said: “What shall we do about swearing?”
It was quickly clarified that he referred to taking the oath, rather than the Sex Pistols’ fondness for bad language.