In 1997 John Lydon's drummer sued him for lost wages and assault: it was a case only Judge Judy could resolve

Robert Williams and John Lydon facing Judge Judy in the courtroom
(Image credit: Getty Images)

“The people are real. The cases are real. The rulings are final. This is Judge Judy.”

Judge Judy was a reality television courtroom series which ran from 1996 until 2021, where former Manhattan Family Court Judge Judith Sheindlin presided over small claims hearings at Sunset Bronson Studios in Los Angeles.

Over the course of 25 seasons and a staggering 6280 episodes, one case stands out in particular. Former Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited vocalist John Lydon appeared on the show in late 1997, defending himself against a $5000 claim for lost earnings and "civil battery" filed by drummer Robert Williams.

The story goes something like this: In June 1997, John Lydon released his one-and-only solo album, Psycho's Path. Lydon, best known as a singing frontman, played most of the instruments on the album, including the drums.

For that tour that followed, Lydon would need a band and a musical director, and he turned to drummer Robert Williams, who'd played on Captain Beefheart's late career highlights Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) and Doc at The Radar Station. It was a relationship that did not end well.

"I worked for him seven days a week from noon until one in the morning for six months, preparing the musicians and arranging the set," Williams told Perfect Sound Forever. "The day before the tour, the management informed me that my pay was cut by a third and that I'd be sharing one hotel room with the other band members and the crew so I filed a small claims suit against him."

Ahead of the taping, Lydon's label Virgin Records released a press release giving their side of the story.

"During rehearsals, Williams' behaviour became increasingly provocative, adversely affecting the camaraderie of the band," wrote Virgin. "Under intense time pressure with confirmed concert dates looming, replacing Williams was not considered an option. 

"Instead, Lydon's representatives scheduled a dinner meeting with Williams several days before the first concert date, hoping to discuss the situation and resolve various issues in a peaceful, rational manner. During the dinner – attended by Williams, Lydon, Lydon's manager, Eric Gardner, and tour manager – Williams became increasingly agitated. When Lydon excused himself to use the restroom, Williams continued to argue with Lydon's manager and tour manager in Lydon's absence.

"Just as Lydon was returning to the dinner table, Williams announced that if his demands were not met he was quitting the tour. As Williams made his announcement, he leaped to his feet and bumped the top of his head into Lydon's chin. Williams immediately left the premises on his own accord, leaving behind a stunned Lydon & Co."

Williams would claim that he'd been head-butted by Lydon – police charges were dropped through lack of evidence – and that rather than leaving the tour, he'd been fired. Virgin, once again, begged to differ.

"Faced with Williams' unexpected resignation, Lydon was forced to cancel the first tour date while frantically hiring and rehearsing a replacement drummer," they wrote. "The canceled show cost Lydon $6,000 in lost revenue, not to mention lost promotional opportunities and goodwill among disappointed fans. Rather than pursue Williams for recompense, Lydon considered the matter closed."

For Williams, the matter was not closed, and when the producers of Judge Judy learned of the dispute they approached both parties and offered to adjudicate. But unfortunately for the drummer, the result did not go his way. Judge Judy – who gave Lydon's remarks and somewhat theatrical defence short shrift in the courtroom –didn't feel that Williams' claim was strong enough and threw the case out, ruling in the vocalist's favour.

Following the court case, the Public Image Limited frontman spoke to the show about his legal victory.

"This is an insane business and people tend to be a bit... wack," he said. "I understand 'no', Judge Judy understands 'no'. Mr. Williams doesn't. I think he'd be better as a painter and decorator."

As for Williams, he regretted taking part altogether. 

"I foolishly agreed to appear on Judge Judy for her to hear the case and I lost," he said. "I can only speculate that the ruling was not in my favour to make her appear trendy and because Lydon's management arranged the media circus following the case. It's not one of my most pleasant memories, so I'll leave it at that."

Simon Young

Born in 1976 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Simon Young has been a music journalist for over twenty years. His fanzine, Hit A Guy With Glasses, enjoyed a one-issue run before he secured a job at Kerrang! in 1999. His writing has also appeared in Classic RockMetal HammerProg, and Planet Rock. His first book, So Much For The 30 Year Plan: Therapy? — The Authorised Biography is available via Jawbone Press. 

With contributions from