In an interview recently, John Lydon somewhat ambitiously told me he’d been in the music game for over 40 years – and he’s still got 40 years left. And even though for many he’ll always be the sneering punk figurehead Johnny Rotten, if he’s still around in four decades it’ll be with Public Image Limited and not the Sex Pistols.
As leader of The Sex Pistols, Lydon was behind one of the most iconic albums of all time in Never Mind the Bollocks — and the Pistols’ snotty demeanour, slashed-up style and situationist pranks have become the go-to template for scandalising The Man.
But Lydon changed the face of music twice, and he always maintains that PiL is his real legacy. After the Pistols imploded in squalor on a US tour in 1978, Lydon formed PiL in London with guitarists Keith Levene, bassist Jah Wobble and drummer Jim Walker — the first actual post-punk band if we’re being pedantic.
And if he had it in for the establishment in the Pistols, PiL was set to stick a knife in rock music itself.
While on the face of it, punk is basically sped up rock’n’roll, PiL was a radical departure — channelling Lydon’s love of Can, Neu!, Captain Beefheart, dub and anything else off the rock scale. Levene and Wobble shared his disdain for anything in the rock or blues canon, with their knife-slash non-riffs and proto-dub ambient bass one of the most distinctive mixes of the era.
They set their stall out from the opening of debut album First Edition on Theme — with Lydon’s squalls buried under a thundering dirge, as twisted as anything on Swans’ early albums.
There was the odd punk-ish moment on First Edition — the track Public Image was a ringer for EMI on Never Mind the Bollocks. But their second album Metal Box was the true game-changer, an hour of abstract guitar stabs, synth shrieks and rumbling reggae basslines, with Lydon retching out his personal demons — notably on Death Disco, a song he wrote for his mother who’d just died of cancer.
1981’s The Flowers of Romance took the abstraction even further, adding more noise, discord and effects that felt like the worst nightmares of the BBC Radiophonic Orchestra.
Ever the contrarian, Lydon spent the mid 80s as something of an actual pop star, with synth-based stompers like This Is Not a Love Song and the anthem Rise still up there as some of the greatest hits of the decade — and the minimal cover of ‘Album’ is still a design classic.
After many personnel changes and a conventional enough alt-rock album That What Is Not in 1992, Pil went on a classic ‘indefinite hiatus’, with Lydon getting the Pistols back for several patchy Pistols reunions — even having the brazen cheek to call one of the tours ‘Filthy Lucre’, as if we didn’t know.
But Lydon’s other infamous filthy lucre deal with Country Life butter had an ulterior motive — funding a PiL reunion, and they played their first gig in 17 years in London in 2009. The band is now a full going concern, with Lydon managing to keep Bruce Smith, Lu Edmonds and Scott Firth together as a solid band for nearly 10 years. He also joked in the Star interview: “We’ve had 49 members of PiL, I’m not too difficult to work with, it’s just too difficult to work with me long enough!”
Their recent albums This Is PiL and What the World Needs Now will never be a ‘return to form’ of those early years that helped shaped the next few decades of post-punk and experimental rock music. But Lydon is still taking no prisoners and spilling his soul on stage.
“Honesty and integrity… if you don’t get them by all means complain,” he says. “But you won’t need to complain.”
- Public Image Ltd play Vicar Street in Dublin on Sunday, August 26