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Public Image Ltd

+ {John Lydon}

The brainchild of one John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), London’s PUBLIC IMAGE LTD were in stark contrast to the singer’s former punk band The SEX PISTOLS. Equally confrontational and menacing, Lydon’s experimental quartet – initially local chums Keith Levene on guitar, Jah Wobble on bass and Canadian Jim Walker on drums – were the thinking man’s new wave noise-mongers. From their inception in July ’78 to their unceremonious disbandment some fifteen years later, the ever-evolving PUBLIC IMAGE LTD (or PiL) struck a cord with the disconcerting post-punk/alt-indie scene.
Kick-starting their career with the classic `Public Image’ Top 10 hit, a raucous slice of post-Pistols sonic energy and coming wrapped in a mock-newspaper sleeve, PiL set their stall out from the get-go. The parent debut album, PUBLIC IMAGE (1978) {*9} followed it into the Top 30 by the end of the year, hardly a departure from punk rock but a convincing statement of intent nevertheless; dismissing respective drone-fuelled and playful bookend epics `Theme’ and `Fodderstompf’, the set’s highlights were undoubtedly the aforementioned 45, `Religion II’ (`Religion I’ was an intro poem), `Annalisa’ and `Attack’ and `Low Life’.
Preceded by the bizarre `Death Disco’ single, METAL BOX (1979) {*10} was a strikingly different beast, its pristine packaging (three 12” 45s inside a metal film canister –
something rarely copied by record company marketing departments in the years to come) rather deceptively encasing a dark, often disturbing set of experimental, Eastern-influenced material.
Filling in for temp Dave Crowe (replacement for Walker), former 101’ERS sticksman Richard Dudanski had been added to the fold alongside keys/synths twiddler Jeannette Lee. As far from punk as the singer has ever ventured, the record utilised monotonic repetition, Levene’s shards of splintered guitar dissecting the vague structures of Wobble’s rubbery bass-lines, while Lydon wailed and ranted like a damned soul. John Peel was a particular champion of the record, play-listing virtually all its disturbing but accessible tracks `Careering’, `Poptones’, `Graveyard’, `Swan Lake’, `Bad Baby’ and the segued `Socialist – Chant – Radio 4’ highlighting what came to be regarded as the last classic “post-punk/alternative” albums of the 70s. Surely one of the most avant-garde releases to ever grace the Top 20, the record even hit the charts a second time (Top 50) when it was re-issued in double-LP format (“Second Edition”) at the turn of the 80s.
Following a patchy live album (featuring Martin Atkins on drums), PARIS AU PRINTEMPS (1980) {*5}, JAH WOBBLE departed on a sour note, leaving Lydon and Levene to mastermind THE FLOWERS OF ROMANCE (1981) {*7}. A comparatively weaker studio effort by their high standards, the record nevertheless bubbled just outside the Top 10; the more contrived moments were interspersed with a handful of disjointed gems, notably the Burundi-esque Top 30 title track single, the opener `Four Enclosed Walls’, `Track 8’ (actually track 2), `Go Back’ and `Banging The Door’.
Former CLASH original Levene was next to leave in less than pleasant circumstances following the success of PiL biggest hit single to date, the compelling Top 5 smash `This Is Not A Love Song’; 1983 also saw out the tenure of Lee; Ken Lockie (keyboards), Pete Jones (bass) and the returning Atkins (aka Brian Brain) were now in place. But not for long. Both Lydon and Atkins were joined by US session people from New Jersey, Joseph Guida (guitar), Tom Zvoncheck (keyboards) and Louis Bernardi (bass) for an ill-timed second concert set, LIVE IN TOKYO (1983) {*5}.
Lydon and Atkins subsequently completed the lacklustre opus THIS IS WHAT YOU WANT… THIS IS WHAT YOU GET (1984) {*4} with the help of session musicians, disbanding the group around the time of the album’s release; Levene’s part scrubbed, the former member had his own “bootleg” version (`Commercial Zone’) available several months earlier. The results of PiL’s rather brassy and dance-orientated production failed on every level, even the tones of their most recent single `This Is Not A Love Song’ somewhat destroyed during John’s mix – only `Tie Me To The Length Of That’ and `The Order Of Death’ saving Lydon from a further savaging from the public.
By this point, Lydon had moved to Los Angeles and his career slowed up somewhat, although he subsequently re-formed PiL late in ‘85. Using such respected (and glaringly un-punk) musos as producer/co-writer/bassist BILL LASWELL, guitarist STEVE VAI, keyboard player RYUICHI SAKAMOTO, drummer GINGER BAKER, etc. John recorded the minimally-titled ALBUM (1986) {*6} – aka “Compact Disc” or “Cassette” depending on the buyer’s format preference. The accompanying “single”, `Rise’ almost reached the Top 10, a driving, resonating, infectiously commercial example of John doing what he does best (although “I could be wrong, or I could be right”). To tour Europe, Lydon recruited yet another fresh line-up through alt/indie alumni Lu Edmunds (guitar, keyboards), John McGeogh (guitar), American Allan Dias (bass) and Bruce Smith (drums, percussion). At least these backers remained in tact for PiL’s sixth album, HAPPY? (1987) {*6}, although many were of the thought that Lydon was content to churn out formula Rotten-to-order type material that often incorporated a bland, arena-rock fare. This only served to further entrench him in the mire of self-parody, although one could see there was meaning to his madness in `Seattle’ (a minor hit), `The Body’ and `Angry’.
Minus only MEKONS-bound Edmunds, 9 (1989) {*6} achieved only minimal commercial success, as did the accompanying single `Disappointed’; PiL recovered momentum slightly in 1990 with `Don’t Ask Me’, the punk veteran’s Top 30 comment on the topical subject of the environment. The single was cannily included on the group’s THE GREATEST HITS, SO FAR {*8} compilation, which could only really scratch the surface of their early inspiration works.
Turning out to be the final nail in the coffin of what seemed from the onset to be punk’s saviour, studio album number eight THAT WHAT IS NOT (1992) {*4} was indeed not what is was, and that was a good album. Tracks such as `Cruel’ (a Top 50 hit), `Covered’ and `God’ were PiL-by-numbers.
But just as John looked to be a spent force, he proved he could still cut the mustard with the LEFTFIELD/LYDON collaboration hit, `Open Up’. When LYDON lets rip, as he does here (a blood curdling wail of “Burn, Hollywood, burn”), he was still the most frightening man in rock, no contest. Just to prove it, he hooked up once more with the original SEX PISTOLS line-up for the aptly titled “Filthy Lucre” tour, appearing on Top Of The Pops and scaring young children all over again with his gravity-defying hairdo.
With all this renewed interest in the man, he could afford one last stab at stardom through a solo album, PSYCHO’S PATH (1997) {*4}. But once again, JOHN LYDON’s insular ambitions through electro rants were out of the sync with both his critics and his once loyal following; only the accompanying `Sun’ single proved worthy of a Top 50 place. More in line with the man’s worthy wit and sense of spirit and freedom, was his 1993-published autobiography, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, an insight into what makes the star tick, his early life (at seven he lost his memory after contracting meningitis) and all his “grumpy old man” gripes.
Not exactly shunning the limelight, LYDON – and his spectacularly foul language! – featured in the reality TV show, I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! (early 2004); he left abruptly before the votes and subsequently presented a documentary on insects and spiders. Always willing to cut anyone who “sells out”, the man was also part of a Country Life butter commercial, spreading his message another way one could say. One could find the media man on all sorts of television talk shows in recent times, while the PiL company was back in full swing (after several SEX PISTOLS reunions from 2007 onwards) in 2012.
Offering much of the same retro-alt-punk motif, 2015’s WHAT THE WORLD NEEDS NOW… {*7} was PiL’s Top 30 answer to mediocrity and musical austerity. Nihilistic in a domestic application, whether euphemistic or not, the lively Lydon plumbed the depths of his blocked toilet tirades by bellowing out rhetorical nagging on tongue-twisting opener `Double Trouble’. From then on in, the mind-pounding `Know Now’ won hands down over the waxing lyrical diatribe (and crooning) of `Bettie Page’, which ironically and sarcastically slagged America. Pronouncing each syllable with lip-smacking aplomb, Lydon and his trusty team pick up pace on the glorious `I’m Not Satisfied’ and `Spice Of Choice’, or dumb it down by way of `C’est La Vie’ and concluding title-track-themed blasphemous piece `Shoom’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Apr2012-Sep2015

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