The 6 prog bands John Lydon says he loves

Pink Floyd and Hawkwind in the 1970s with an inset of John Lydon
(Image credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Matt Carr/Getty Images/Jorgen Angel/Redferns))

He might have been the figurehead of punk’s original Class Of ’76, but there was always more to John Lydon than three chords and anarchy in the UK. In the aftermath of the Sex Pistols’ break-up, while his erstwhile bandmates were hanging out with Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs and recording ever more rudimentary punk covers and songs for The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle soundtrack, the former Johnny Rotten was putting together Public Image Ltd; a much more musically adventurous project that drew on dub, disco and progressive rock, among other things. Given punk’s anti-‘dinosaur’ proclamations, Lydon’s love of prog is surprising, but it’s always been there, hidden in plain site. Here are six prog acts that have Johnny Rotten’s approval…

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Pink Floyd

At the height of his Sex Pistols infamy, Lydon pointedly wore a customised ‘I hate Pink Floyd’ T-shirt. It was a public statement of sorts but not one that stuck. "You'd have to be daft as a brush to say you didn't like Pink Floyd…Dark Side of the Moon I love," he told The Quietus years later, adding that what he hadn’t liked then was “the pretentiousness”. He also revealed that he had been invited to join Roger Waters and surviving members of the band onstage for part of Dark Side… in the 2000s. He ultimately turned them down but admitted that “the idea thrilled me no end”.

Van der Graaf Generator

There was no such reticence when it came to Lydon admitting his admiration for Van der Graaf Generator and their frontman Peter Hammill, perhaps because they were always at the spikier  end of the prog spectrum. In July 1977 he chose his favourite songs on Capital Radio’s Tommy Vance Show, surprising many with his inclusion of Peter Hammill solo tracks The Institute Of Mental Health, Burning and Nobody's Business. Lydon described the Van der Graaf frontman as a "true original", adding: “If you listen to his solo albums, I'm damn sure Bowie copied a lot out of that geezer…I love all his stuff, it is about punk. He didn’t mean it to be, but it is, it’s true, you’re nobody’s business…”    


Lydon was a fan of space rock godheads Hawkwind before the Sex Pistols were even a pound sign in Malcolm McLaren’s eye. Speaking about ex-Hawkwind (and future Motörhead) bassist Lemmy to What’s On Southwest, he said: “He was one of the very first long hairs that came to a punk gig and I loved him for it… I even knew him before Motorhead, I used to follow Hawkwind around the country and go to all their gigs.” Lemmy had his own memories of the time, telling Spin of the first time the two frontmen met in 1977. He recalled "I was standing at the bar, and this bush behind me said, 'I used to sell acid at all-night shows...' and I turned round and it was Johnny Rotten. I remembered him - he used to have long hair, with pockets full of drugs."

Kate Bush

Lydon saw a kindred spirit in Kate Bush and her non-conformist approach to both music and the music industry. “She went through the same shit I did when she started: ‘Oh, that’s not singing’. Who the fuck wrote the rules about music? Why follow this slavish idiocy?” he told Q. The two would become friends in the 80s and Lydon even wrote a song for her called Bird In Hand, which was apparently about “rescuing parrots from the parrot trade in Brazil”. She rejected it but his admiration remained undiminished. “Her shrieks and warbles are beauty beyond belief to me,” he would later tell the BBC.


French collective Magma have attracted some notable devotees, including Porcupine Tree’s Steven Wilson, snooker player Steve Davis and John Lydon, who told Canadian broadcaster Nardwuar their output was, “Truly, truly masterful. Stunning work.” They invented their own fictional planet and accompanying language (Kobaïan), spawning the niche rock subgenre of Zeuhl in the process. “I found that new language part a little intellectual, a little contrived and conceited,” Lydon admitted, adding: “It’s quite a good thing to be multi-languaged and indeed, open to multiculturalism. It means no more war, you understand?”


Krautrock experimentalists Can perfectly aligned with Lydon’s left-of-centre tastes. “Can were a band nobody tolerated then, or Magma, or NEU, but you know, I wasn't going with that because I was fashionably weird, it's just what I liked,” he told Fodderstompf. The German band inspired PiL’s reunion in 2009 following a lengthy hiatus. “I always wanted to get back to what we did with PiL, but I got caught up in other things,” he explained. “But hearing this absolutely brilliant record [1971’s Tago Mago], in particular Halleluhwah, which lasts an entire side, reminds me of what we were trying to do with PiL. Can is its own thing and so is PiL.

Paul Travers has spent the best part of three decades writing about punk rock, heavy metal, and every associated sub-genre for the UK's biggest rock magazines, including Kerrang! and Metal Hammer