In late-’70s England, there wasn’t a more fearsome creature prowling the streets of London than Ian Rubbish. The levels of bile pumping through his spleen made Johnny Rotten look like Mr. Bean. He advocated stomping policemen in the face. He insulted the queen. He hated everyone and everything, and the British punk movement loved him for it.
Then, in 1979, he committed career suicide.
As Margaret Thatcher swept into power, the U.K. braced for the expected Rubbish evisceration. Instead, he released “Maggie Thatcher,” in which he declared the new prime minister, without irony, “a very special lady.” His fans were aghast. When asked why he admired Thatcher so much, Rubbish responded, “She reminds me of my mum.” In the ensuing controversy, he got booted from his own band.
But with Thatcher’s passing earlier this year, the music of Ian Rubbish has experienced a revival. In May, he issued the comeback single “It’s a Lovely Day” and performed on Saturday Night Live. At MFNW, Rubbish will open Portlandia star Fred Armisen’s variety show. Willamette Week met with the “Living in the Gutter” singer in his natural habitat—the dumpsters outside Branx in Portland’s industrial Southeast—and discussed, well, a lot of things we didn’t plan on discussing.
WW: Thanks, Ian, I appreciate you taking the time.
Ian Rubbish: Matthew, is it? Good to meet you. Thanks for doing it. It’s important people respect what journalism is and ask questions. Because the times happen where it changes and people don’t ask of themselves and other people, and they become complacent, Matthew, when they become non-questioning. What happened to the day when people wanted to know more? They want to know less now. That’s a real tragedy, innit? Because humanity will go down the tubes, won’t it? [Rubbish continues for 10 more uninterrupted minutes, touching on vegetarianism, China, South America, war, drones, street fighting, Saddam Hussein, tennis shoes, Alabama, Kmart and, finally, skateboards.] But we’re all moving forward, ain’t we?
Are those the kind of broad ideas what went into songs like “Cunt in a Crown”?
What that was about wasn’t a person in particular but the idea of monarchy. You’re a cunt in a crown, aren’t you, Matthew? I’m a cunt in a crown. We’re all cunts in crowns if we’re subscribing to a system that goes back that many centuries, which has nothing to do with giving people hope, or giving people a chance. And by the way, it doesn’t mean it should be destroyed. You can change a crown, if you think about it. It could be gold with jewels and things that are meaningless, or it could be made of cardboard and food. It could be made of chocolate.
You were known in the ’70s for your unrelenting anger. What were the things that really angered you at that time in your life?
Well, look, what is anger, is what you got to ask yourself, right? The energy of what anger is, is a kind of happiness, innit? It’s a bit of a celebration, innit? What happens if you go to a football match, or what do you watch here?
Right. When your team is losing, you give a, “Oi! Don’t keep losing! Go score! Get the ball in the basket!” What’re you doing in that moment? You were with your mates, aren’t you? You’re in the stadium. You have your team colors on. You’re doing a dance of celebration, right? “Oi! Get off the court!” It’s a type of happiness, innit?
What was the time in your life when you were most afraid?
Really, the scariest time is when you tell your mum you want to play music. Your mum don’t want you doing that. At the time, they want you to be a schoolmaster, or a ticket inspector. To say you want to play music, you’ve got to be out of your mind. Maybe I am. Maybe we’re all out of our minds. There’s a bit of comfort with lunacy, innit? As long as you’re not hurting anyone, Matthew.
But you wrote songs about kicking cops in the face.
I never meant that you got to physically hurt another person. At the time, we’d go riot, and they’d push us back on horses. Did you ever have a horse in your face? They’re quite a bit larger, and they’ve got a lot of force to them. So the message of [“Hey Policeman!”] was, this is our line, don’t push us back. It’s more of a symbolic thing. My words are my boots.
What makes you angry these days, as an older man?
It’s the same things that make anyone angry. In the service industry, if I call an airline, and they’re just going through the motions—it’s a job, I know, but there’s not a lot of thought put into it. I don’t like apathy.
At MusicfestNW, you’re playing a comedy show. How do you feel about that?
We all like a good laugh, don’t we? A lot of the press have written that I take myself too seriously. That’s not the case. I have a real sense of humor. I have a laugh all the time. The other day I was at the airport, in the security line, and I said, “Would you like me to take off my trousers? If I do, I’m gonna take off my boots, and the smell ain’t too good on my feet.” I had a good laugh at that.
Is that the biggest misconception about you, your perceived lack of humor?
I got slagged off in the press a lot about being too serious. I get passionate about politics and newspapers and all that, but at the same time, I say it all with a smile on my face. You should be happy when you listen to music, even if it makes you mad.
Tickets and official site: musicfestnw.com
SEE IT: Ian Rubbish plays Crystal Ballroom with Fred Armisen at 9 pm Thursday, Sept. 5.