The Sex Pistols were a tough act to follow, even for Johnny Rotten. After that band’s entropic dissolution, Rotten reclaimed his civilian surname, Lydon, and started Public Image Ltd., supposedly more a way of life than a mere band, “rock” or otherwise.
The first of PiL’s many lineups featured Keith Levene (guitar), Jah Wobble (bass) and Jim Walker (drums). The group’s opening salvo, Public Image (aka First Issue, thanks to the album’s arch magazine-cover design) couldn’t seem to make up its mind between more-or-less straight rock (the unnaturally likable guitar drive of “Public Image”) and musical endurance tests. “Annalisa” could be a Led Zeppelin backing track, but other cuts (“Theme,” “Fodderstompf”) are excruciating and/or self-indulgent. Lydon knew he wanted to annoy, but was still working out the best way to do it.
He hit the green on Metal Box, a brilliant statement in packaging — originally three 12-inch 45s in an embossed circular tin — to performance. Jah Wobble’s overpowering bass sets up throbbing lines around which Keith Levene’s guitar and keyboards flick in and out. Lydon wails, chants and moans impressionistic lyrics. A disturbing and captivating milestone. The limited-edition Metal Box wasn’t cheap to produce, and so the music was reissued as Second Edition: two LPs in a gatefold sleeve. Second Edition benefits from printed lyrics and funhouse photos, but has inferior sound — this is tactile music — and a running order that makes less sense. (Metal Box came full conceptual circle in 1990 when it was issued as a single CD in a five-inch tin.)
The live Paris au Printemps (Paris in the Spring) offers no new material, and may even have been released primarily to stifle a bootleg from the same concert. The band plays well, with drummer Martin Atkins — later the solo artist Brian Brain — more noticeable than on Metal Box. But the Parisian audience is barely perceptible. All cover type (title,songs, etc.) is in French. Get the joke?
PiL shows a healthy desire not to repeat itself on The Flowers of Romance. With Wobble gone, Lydon relies on other resources; compared to this, Metal Box could be played in supermarkets. Lacking a bass, the “band” centers its “songs” around drum patterns and little else. Lydon’s romantic imagery dabbles in ghostly apparitions (“Under the House”) and Middle East chic (“Four Enclosed Walls”). He also serves up customary rants against hangers-on (“Banging the Door”), women (“Track 8”) and Britain (“Go Back,” “Francis Massacre”). But the music is so severe as to lend credence to a record executive’s statement that The Flowers of Romance is one of the most uncommercial records ever made — at least within a “pop” context.
Never a comradely bunch, PiL seemed to unravel beyond repair when Levene left in 1983. But the band had just scored a surprise comeback demi-hit with “(This Is Not a) Love Song,” so Lydon rounded up some unknown New Jersey accompanists and went to Japan. Only two of the ten tracks on Live in Tokyo are new songs; the faceless recruits are shoved in the back of the sonic mix; the album stretches about 45 minutes of material over two 12-inch 45s without Metal Box‘s punch. Forget this one.
PiL started work on This Is What You Want before Levene’s departure; his guitar parts were wiped off the finished product, leaving them spiked only by Lydon’s glum caterwauling. Levene saw to the release of his own version of the session tapes under the name Commercial Zone; the music here is considerably more interesting — perhaps even lively. By taking PiL seriously as a career, Lydon committed heresy against punk anomie. But at least he’s still excruciating.
The same can’t be said for the eminently listenable Album (aka Cassette or Compact Disc, depending on your format of choice), which is either the worst sell-out of Lydon’s career or the first pop-friendly PiL album. Dispensing with noise, free-form aggression and anti-music production, a stack of uncredited musicians play powerful, highly organized, prickly but accessible rock (and, on the brilliant “Rise,” demi-pop) while Lydon masterfully bleats in near-tuneful harmony on top. The studio sound (courtesy Lydon and Bill Laswell) is live and virile; the seven tersely named songs (“FFF,” “Home,” “Ease”) are as intelligent and captivating as any in PiL’s past. Album. Great.
Happy? (co-produced by Gary Langan), hindered only by not-quite-as-good material, continues PiL’s productive gambit of playing self-amused footsie with the rock audience. Despite conscious concessions to formal structures and traditions, the record maintains an unbending undercurrent of off-center subversion, manifested in skewed melodies, bizarrely contrapuntal instrumental figures and dub-styled percussion. Joined by a wonderful, tight band — guitarists Lu Edmonds (ex-Damned, etc.) and John McGeoch (ex-Magazine, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Armoury Show), drummer Bruce Smith (Rip Rig + Panic, Float Up CP) and New York bassist Allan Dias — Lydon (or Rotten, depending on his fluctuating preference) is in peak form, creating captivating dance rock (“Seattle,” “Hard Times,” “The Body,” “Fat Chance Hotel”) that holds back the bile and intentional aggravation in favor of first-rate musicianship and invention.
If Album and Happy? were accommodating, the sound of 9 is downright loveydovey. Under the production guidance of Stephen Hague and Eric Thorngren, a four-piece PiL (Edmonds co-wrote the songs but doesn’t play on the record) magically channels Lydon’s irascible iconoclasm into prickly minor-key rock’n’roll songs that meet timorous listeners more than halfway. In spots, thick layers of guitar, keyboards, close-formation female backing vocals, strings and horns challenge the supremacy of Lydon’s declamatory howls, but he rises from the hubbub with wavery aplomb. It may be difficult to take Lydon seriously when he describes himself romantically as a “Warrior,” but there’s no questioning his sincerity in the venomous “Disappointed.” From the electronic dance gimmickry of “Just Like a Woman” (no, not that one) to the galloping, Gang of Four blueprint of “Same Old Story,” 9‘s shifting balance of content and presentation makes it a great record.
Opening the 1990 career compilation with the eponymous song that introduced Public Image to the world, Lydon vehemently casts every last bit of baggage overboard, and then climbs onto the rail to follow it: “I’m not the same as when I began…the public image belongs to me…it’s my entrance, my own creation, my grand finale, my goodbye.” From that encouraging beginning, The Greatest Hits, So Far proceeds through the adventures of a band born in opposition, maintained in flux and fueled by Lydon’s animus towards everything that tampers with his acute intelligence. Although a single disc is inadequate to fully ventilate PiL’s claustrophobic closet, the fourteen songs — five of them remixed, one of them new (the useless environmentalism of “Don’t Ask Me”) — sketch its four walls of warped disco, caterwauling post-punk, ingenious anti-pop and worldbeat cacophony with enough detail to guide further investigation by intrigued parties.
PiL’s first new album since the brilliant commercial advance of 9, That What Is Not is a thorough comedown. Less notable for its musical contents than the dare-you-to-see-vulgarity joke of its furry-triangle cover, the record’s halfhearted stab at commercial acceptance steps squarely in the traps its predecessor smartly avoided. Produced with scant personality by Dave Jerden, the mix occasionally leaves Lydon (who sounds like a self-parody anyway) to compete for attention amidst thick clouds of guitar, drums and such unfathomable ephemera as the Tower of Power horns, a harmonica player and backing singer Bonnie Sheridan. Stabbing at some version of rock-pop normalcy, the songs display either a loss of conviction, an absence of inspiration or a grave lack of effort. Although Lydon has a few things on his agenda (deities, drug abuse, soldiers), he can’t make anything of them, and his quixotic humor doesn’t exactly help: There is no discernible purpose in his quoting “God Save the Queen” at the end of “Acid Drops.”
Lydon published his autobiography in 1994 and then released a godawful solo album, Psycho’s Path. He reunited the original Sex Pistols in 1996 for a tour and a live album.