Viewed by many as an icon of punk rock, John Lydon, known as Johnny Rotten when he fronted the legendary Sex Pistols—some say because of his fragrance, others because of his oft-repeated expression “You’re rotten, you are”—has become nearly synonymous with that musical movement. He mocked, snarled, and raged with a fury that had not been seen in rock and roll before and rarely since. Nonetheless, as early as 1976, a year after the formation of the Pistols, Lydon felt trapped, sickened and confused by his audiences’ expectations, his own deterioration, and his manager’s exploitive antics.
“Before the Pistols began, English music was very bad, we tried to change all that but… before I realized what was happening, it had run away from us,” Lydon told Jeff Hays of Creem in 1980. “As soon as they’d see anything with our name on it, they’d buy it—that’s stupidity. I was accused of selling out when I became famous—now, who made me famous? The audience.”
In 1978, slightly damaged but fundamentally undaunted by his misadventures with the Sex Pistols, Lydon dropped “Rotten” and formed the aptly named Public Image Ltd. with ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene. Experimenting with throbbing dance rhythms, Asian and Arabic modalities, dense guitar layering, and angry, obtuse lyrics, Public Image Ltd., or PiL, succeeded in heralding and defining the post-punk era. To those who believed Johnny Rotten would engender cataclysmic changes in the social fabric, Lydon was an art-rock sell-out. But to those who merely sought redemption through art, Lydon delivered passionate, challenging music—that you could dance to.
Early incarnations of PiL were collaborative efforts. Lydon and Levene were joined by the dub reggae-influenced Jah Wobble on bass and Jim Walker on drums. The band attempted to work as a cooperative in which each member would share equally in the responsibilities of band business. (In reality, a later member, Jeannette Lee, seems to have handled much of PiL’s business).
The group’s first single, 1978’s “Public Image,” attacked people’s perceptions of Johnny Rotten: “You never listened to a word I said/You only see me for the clothes I wear/Or did the interest go so much deeper/It must’ve been the color of my hair.” The song and LP that followed backed Lydon’s lyrical assault with an
For the Record…
Born January 31, 1956, in Finsbury Park, London, England; known as Johnny Rotten, 1975-78; son of a crane operator.
Vocalist for group the Sex Pistols, 1975-78; formed group Public Image Ltd., 1978; group signed to Virgin Records and released first single, “Public Image,” 1978. Appeared in film Cop Killer, 1983; author of autobiography, St. Martin’s, 1993.
equally vicious sonic attack of loosely structured guitar patterns and pounding minimalist rhythms, Wobble’s bass lines acting as backbone. Most pointed amid the din were Lydon’s vocals—vehement ranting and terrifying chanting. Roundly panned, Rolling Stone called the record “post-nasal drip monotony.” Perhaps to bolster its claim, Rolling Stone also recalled the New Musical Express appraisal of PiL’s first album: “a zen lesson in idolatry.” Worst of all, the band’s American record company, Warner Bros., refused to release it. “It was self-indulgent, non-simplistic, and non-rock and roll; and those are the good points,” Lydon told Rolling Stone. “But that’s the kind of music we intend to make.”
By the time PiL unleashed their second album, Metal Box— originally packaged in a round 12-inch metal container—the critical climate had shifted favorably toward the burgeoning trend of British bands experimenting with noise and dance rhythms. The enormously influential Metal Box, released as Second Edition in the U.S., found PiL more confident in their trance-like dirges and dub-reggae disco, aided by the work of new drummer Martin Atkins. Downbeat contributor Michael Goldberg reported, “PiL incorporates a bass sound that rattles teeth; melodies, when there are any, are strictly of the down-by-the-power-plant genre. Levene’s lead guitar repeats slightly varying patterns that bore right into the brain. This is a rough, raw rock album and there is little instrumental expertise evident. Yet PiL have managed to create an emotionally and intellectually powerful record.”
There was a formlessness to the music that Lydon attributed to improvisation. “We just do it. We don’t talk about it. We don’t think about it. There’s no intellectual reason,” the singer told Creem. “Maybe Wobble will come up with a bass line, then the drums, singing, and Keith’s guitar, and then we go to the mixing board. That’s where all the fun is.” That process gave way to the pulsating bog that intrigued audiences and critics and eventually became PiL’s trademark. Rolling Stone elucidated the sound and its power to enthrall: “It begins by driving the listener away, offering murk, dopey horror sound effects, unexamined images of bad news. Yet the murk is artful—even arty—the self-pity merely the first face, the unexamined images often an entry into trance music. Obsessively danceable, once glimpsed [it] has to be pursued.”
PiL had managed to achieve the unique status of pioneering artists, but it wasn’t enough for Lydon to fully escape the shadow of Johnny Rotten. Audiences continued to cry out for Sex Pistols songs at PiL’s critically acclaimed live shows. John Rockwell of the New York Times commented of such a performance, “Public Image’s music is already so different from early punk that any kind of growth is possible. In its own strange, vanguardish way, this concert was as brilliant a moment as rock has seen in years.”
PiL’s follow-up LPs, Paris au Printemps and The Flowers of Romance, were no less challenging for listeners, even as the band’s sound became more formalized. Both albums, however, reflect the gradual disintegration of the group: Flowers of Romance was recorded without Wobble, and Atkins appeared as a session player rather than a full-fledged bandmember. On the live album Paris au Printemps, Lydon, his stage presence unapologetically contemptuous, vociferously taunts the audience, who jeer and spit back at him. That Lydon released an album graphically depicting his confrontational relationship with his audience is testimony to how far he will go to present raw honesty and how willing he is to accept his uneasy public image. In keeping with his brazenly bad behavior, Lydon was arrested in October of 1980 for assault after a pub melee in Dublin; he was sentenced to three months in jail for disorderly conduct but was eventually acquitted on appeal.
On Flowers of Romance, PiL introduced Eastern influences and relied on a thunderous minimalism of vocals and percussion to transcend the murk, while Levene, according to Robert Palmer of the New York Times, went “to great lengths to avoid playing anything that sounds like a melody or chords on his guitar.” In Rolling Stone Mikal Gilmore described the record as “the most brutal, frightening music Lydon has ever lent his voice to.” Despite PiL’s devoted following, Virgin balked at releasing Flowers because of its intrinsically uncommercial nature; Warner Bros., which had also declined to release Paris au Printemps, agreed to only a small pressing.
In 1983 Lydon and cohorts relocated to New York City, started their own short-lived label, and recorded the single “This Is Not a Love Song.” With this release, PiL entered a new phase—one of unabashed accessibility and an ironic, spiteful commerciality. Downbeat’s Jim Brinsfield called the single “the closest thing to straight rock PiL has recorded. The band is in top form, at ease in turning the simplest format into a series of searing climaxes that grow into aching intensity.” The crude commercialization of PiL, however, was puzzling to many critics. New York Times contributor Palmer observed, “Lydon talked about wanting to destroy rock-and-roll, but he really seems to belong in front of a rock band. He seems to have decided that fronting a rock band as persuasive as Public Image isn’t such a bad thing after all. “And Jon Pareles, reviewing a PiL concert for the Times, revealed that “[Lydon] demanded more applause and urged fans to buy more souvenir T-shirts, making overt what some performers keep to themselves.”
Then suddenly, Lydon and Levene ended their six-year collaboration; Lydon went on a ten-stop tour of Japan with Atkins and some New Jersey session musicians, covering the gamut of the band’s history and even some Sex Pistols songs. The recorded result was the poorly received Live in Tokyo. Melody Maker’s Michael Senate opined that the release “was in the best tradition of flogging a dead horse.” Downbeat’s Brinsfield relayed, “Lydon goes through his set in the most perfunctory manner, Atkins plays as though he’s unfamiliar with his own tempos and cues, and the band—they aren’t bad, but they aren’t convincing.”
Shortly thereafter, PiL released This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get, which had been recorded before Levene’s departure. Lydon, however, had the guitarist’s tracks erased and rerecorded. For those who accepted PiL’s perpetual evolution, this album stood “in comparison with the best of the Public Image canon,” according to Melody Maker’s Lynden Barber. “And it is certainly the most consistent. This is what you get: bangs, balls, brass that’ll tear the roses off the wallpaper and, in tune with the times, an appealing populism.” But for some, Lydon’s new support unit was a betrayal of the old PiL, much in the way some viewed the original PiL as a betrayal of the Sex Pistols. Musician’s Scott Isler concluded, “Unlike earlier editions of PiL, this band is technically competent and not too inspired. Then again, Lydon would probably sack musicians who tried to assert themselves.”
And sack them he did. For his next album, titled Album —the cassette version was titled Cassette— Lydon assembled some of the most innovative musicians of his time including Ginger Baker of Cream and jazz legend Tony Williams on drums, Ryuichi Sakamoto on keyboards, and Steve Vai on metal-guitar acrobatics. The contributions of these players were convincingly blended into one of the most powerful versions of PiL by producer Bill Laswell, who also played bass. In Downbeat, Roy Trakin called Album “the strongest selection of pop tunes Mr. Lydon has turned out.” The record also featured the hit single “Rise,” with its chant “Anger is an energy.” A myriad of international stylistic influences, dense, guitar-heavy rhythms, and Lydon’s enraged caterwauling merged to create PiL’s first heavy metal record and certainly one of Lydon’s most successful efforts.
The singer returned to a highly collaborative format for his next three records, teaming with former Siouxsie and the Banshees and Magazine guitarist John McGeoch and bassist Allan Dias. On Happy?, 9, and That What Is Not, Lydon solidified his reputation as the granddaddy of “alternative” rock. Critics found each album accessible but consistently edgy, containing many good songs and some great ones. McGeoch’s guitar was noted for its ability to both shimmer ethereally and assail brutally. Although many critics remained stunned by the commercial nature of these releases, they were frequently equally stunned by the quality of the material and intensity of the production.
In 1992, after the release of That What Is Not, PiL appeared on MTV’s 120 Minutes Tour with former Clash member Mick Jones’s band Big Audio Dynamite II. True to form, Lydon and company disappointed those who longed for the difficult experimentalism of early PiL or the iconoclastic anarchy of the Sex Pistols.
In the increasingly predictable and formulaic world of pop music, John Lydon’s constant betrayal of expectations can be viewed as an achievement in itself. As punk anarchist, primal artist, willing self-parody, or as career musician, he has continued to deliver his unique expressions of rage. If he maintains this committed betrayal of expectations, his best work may still be ahead of him.
With Public Image Ltd.
Public Image Ltd. (includes “Public Image Ltd.” ), Virgin, 1978.
Metal Box, Virgin, 1979, reissued as Second Edition, Virgin/Island, 1980.
Paris au Primtemps, Virgin, 1980.
Flowers of Romance, Virgin/Warner Bros., 1981.
“This Is Not a Love Song”/“Blue Water” (single), Virgin, 1983.
Live in Tokyo, Virgin, 1983.
This Is What You Want … This Is What You Get, Virgin/Elektra, 1984.
(With Afrika Bambaataa) Time Zone (includes “World Destruction” ), Celluloid, 1984.
Album (includes “Rise” ), Elektra, 1986.
Happy?, Virgin, 1988.
9, Virgin, 1990.
Greatest Hits So Far, Virgin, 1990.
That What Is Not, Virgin, 1992.
Rees, Dafydd, and Luke Crampton, Rock Movers & Shakers, ABC-CLIO, 1991.
Stambler, Irwin, The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, St. Martin’s, 1989.
Creem, August 1980.
Down Beat, July 1980; May 1984; July 1986.
Entertainment Weekly, May 29, 1992.
Melody Maker, September 24, 1963; July 28, 1984.
Musician, December 1984; July 1992.
New York Times, April 22, 1980; September 30, 1982; November 5, 1984.
Rolling Stone, May 29, 1980; May 28, 1981; May 14, 1992.
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