American Culture

Johnny Rotten doing butter commercials: still Punk after all these years

Discussion boards across the UK are a’splodin’ and some Very Serious punk fans are up in arms over the sainted Johnny Rotten’s decision to do a series of commercials for Country Life Butter. Like this one.

One fan is so outraged he swears he’s off to sell all his Sex Pistols records. All of them, mind you.

I’m gratified, though, to see how many fans and media types aren’t ready to grab the torches and pitchforks and head up to Lydon’s manor (Lydon, as in John Lydon – that’s his real name). A number of articles explain that he’s using the cash to fund a reunion with his band, Public Image Ltd., and quite a few fans seem to understand that this is really no big deal at all. It’s not even a revelation about the soul of Punk. Gary Susman, writing for, nails it precisely:

I think if you look closer at the Sex Pistols’ (tiny) body of work, you’ll see that the impulse to sell out and cash in on their fame was present all along, from the take-the-money-and-run ethos behind the song “EMI” to the self-congratulatory movie title The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle (we self-destructed quickly, but we suckered everyone and made a bundle along the way), to the Filthy Lucre reunion tour a few years ago. Besides, what could be a more defiant gesture than spitting in your fans’ faces by doing an ad for a product this prosaic? Anybody can sell out, but to sell out with such deliberate, stubborn banality? Now, that’s punk rock.

I have to extend props to the UK music community in general. While there are obviously plenty of folks rushing to hang “sell out” around Lydon’s neck, the furor is nothing compared to what it would likely be in the US Punk community, such as it is. I always marveled at how comprehensively this side of the pond failed to grasp the organizing principle of the movement. The godfathers of Punk in America (and really, the single most important influence on the movement abroad) were The Ramones. Have you ever listened to a Ramones song? Set aside the frenetic pace of things, the comparative lack of instrumental virtuosity and the urban working class fashion sense and what you had was Pop. Seriously. Look at the themes. Pay attention to the chord progressions and the simplicity of the arrangements. Joey Ramone was really nothing more than Buddy Holly turned up to 11.

On the other side of the pond the standard was set by Lydon and Co. and their fashionista svengali, Malcolm McLaren, who seemed mainly interested in using the band as a prop for his primary concern, which was selling clothes. We should take that movie title seriously – it was a swindle from the git-go. The band was trying to figure out how they could sign simultaneous label deals to squeeze every penny possible out of the machine. Punk was utter brilliance – it was, fundamentally, all about selling out. Critique the system by wallowing in it, expose its excess and corruption by driving it, at gunpoint, to its logical (if absurd) conclusion.

Lydon would probably have done butter commercials in 1977 if there had been a butter brand willing to pay him. Hell, he’d have done commercials for all the butter companies at once. Conflict of interest? Only if you were dumb enough not to understand what his interest really was.

Meanwhile, over here we had the likes of X taking the genre way too fucking seriously. Sure, they got the critique of consumer culture part clearly enough, but these bands decided that in order to be credible they had to stand apart from the system, never cracking even a knowing, cynical smile, never winking once to an audience that was expected to be in on the joke. The whole project came off like a dour academic with no sense of humor whatsoever writing his dissertation on The Three Stooges: 500 pages, zero laughs.

That was American Punk, and nowhere has our cluelessness on the issue been more clear than with Green Day. (Lydon hates Green Day, by the way. I get some of his reasoning – especially the Broadway musical part. But his ranting is noticeably absent the “sell out” trope, you’ll notice.) GD has been hearing “sell out” for years, and I recall seeing them throwing it right back at their critics in a live show circa 1997 or so. “We’re not a Punk band. We’re a melodic California pop band.” Indeed. As if the two were mutually exclusive. I giggled the rest of the night.

Oh sure, there are bands here calling themselves Punks who deserve our scorn. Take the Blink 182s of the world. The thing to understand is this: their crime isn’t selling out and pimping the system. It’s not knowing that they’re exploiting the system. It’s in not realizing that there’s a joke to be in on. They’re the male version of Avril LaVigne – the only thing they know about Punk is what the wardrobe folks at the corporate headquarters tell them.

So it’s good to see, 35 years on, that Johnny Rotten is still Punk, that he’s still flogging the machine as hard as he ever was. And those among us who don’t realize it, well, something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?