Fat ‘n’ Happy:
Leading a Revived Public Image Ltd, John Lydon Keeps Smiling in the Face of Adversity
“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
With that question posed to an audience at San Francisco’s Winterland on January 14, 1978, visibly unhappy vocalist Johnny Rotten (neé Lydon) ended his tenure with the Sex Pistols. Not counting relatively brief reunions in 1996 and 2007, that gig marked the effective end of the band, though the three remaining members (guitarist Steve Jones, bassist Sid Vicious and drummer Paul Cook) would continue for awhile without Rotten, taking part in a largely ill-advised film venture that yielded The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle.
None of the Sex Pistols was known as anything like an instrumental virtuoso; the most talented musician in or around the group at the time was original bassist Glen Matlock; as the story went at the time he was sacked after admitting an affection for the music of The Beatles. (That tale, like most others coming from the Pistols’ cynical, self-styled svengali Malcolm McLaren, was a fabrication.)
After the implosion of the Sex Pistols, few expected great things from any of its former members. So it was quite unexpected when the member of the group who – it seemed – didn’t even play an instrument surfaced with a new band. That group – Public Image Ltd, often abbreviated as PiL – would go on to release eight studio albums and two live albums. With constantly shifting personnel, and Lydon as the sole constant, PiL was active from 1978 to 1992. The band went inactive for 17 years, returning in 2009.
Since coming back together, the group has released two more albums (This is PiL in 2012 and 2015’s What the World Needs Now…) and has enjoyed a stable lineup. Backing Lydon are guitarist/keyboardist Lu Edmonds, bassist Scott Firth and drummer Bruce Smith. Both Edmonds and Smith had been in pre-hiatus lineups of PiL as well. 2018 sees the release of a documentary film and six-CD career retrospective, both titled The Public Image is Rotten. In October, the post-punk group embarks on a North American tour. The October 10 date at Atlanta’s Variety Playhouse is the second show in an 18-city run.
Public Image Ltd’s 1978 debut album was abrasive and unfamiliar-sounding; it didn’t follow on from the sound of the Sex Pistols. Lydon’s caterwauling seemed anything but commercial; still, the single “Public Image” reached #9 on the UK charts. But Warner Bros. Records decided Public Image: First Issue was indeed too uncommercial for American audiences, and canceled a Stateside release.
Today the album retains much of its power, but – like Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols – it sounds a bit less revolutionary. That may be explained by the fact that many other groups took influence from PiL and recast it in a more commercially palatable form.
Lydon would agree. “Everything I’ve done has been copied two or three years later, watered down, filtered, put through a wringer and then became acceptable,” he says. “If that’s what people like, then that’s fine. At least I’m influencing music in a positive way, even though to me the results from lesser bands are negative.” He grudgingly admits that those “lesser bands” nonetheless represented a step in the right direction, “explor[ing] the possibilities of sound and not limiting it to categories.” He calls that musical pigeonholing “the biggest shaming, damning factor of modern pop music. It’s accepted as manifesto, but it’s not their creation and we shouldn’t adhere to it. It’s like politics: ignore the lot of them and we’ll be a lot better off.”
If there are clear antecedents to the music of early (and even later) PiL, some of them are found in reggae. Lydon bristles at any suggestion that Public Image Ltd was ever even remotely a reggae group. “That [idea] was masterminded by idiots in the British press,” he hisses. “They’re responsible for some of the most inaccurate statements ever made in music. The British music media is astounding in its ignorance.” But Lydon freely and proudly admits to reggae’s influence, as well as other inspirations like pop music and even Jimi Hendrix.
“I was brought up in reggae,” he says. “It’s a natural background to me. The place I grew up in, Finsbury Park, is a melting pot; there are so many different cultures there. Greek, Turkish, Irish, Jamaican, African, Muslim … English, even.” He’s adamant that PiL’s embracing of reggae textures – most obviously in original bassist Jah Wobble’s dub approach to his instrument – is not cultural appropriation. “Reggae as much belongs to me in my childhood as anybody else. And maybe that’s a lucky mixed bag of affairs.” He does warn against others doing it, though. “If you don’t come from an area like that, then don’t try to dabble with it. You have to have a cultural rooting in it really to be able to understand it au naturel,” he says.
Lydon says that the musical distance between Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd isn’t something he consciously set out to create. “That’s just the way it twisted and unfolded,” he says. “When I formed PiL, nobody was really expert at anything. But what we wanted to do was have our own voice, and the very first song that we came up with in rehearsal – which was quite an amazing feat I think – was the ‘Public Image’ song.”
From there, the group realized it could, in Lydon’s words, “take the bass to different places, study rhythm guitar to an exciting conclusion, and I could shape-shift my voice.” That last item came as surprise to the man who had previously vocalized tunes like “God Save the Queen” and “Anarchy in the U.K.” “I thought I was fairly limited to a Sex Pistols/Mr. Rotten thing,” he says, adding pointedly that the style of singing is one “that Oasis has so fondly explored.”
The original PiL lineup fell apart quickly. “It’s a shame I couldn’t keep them together as a band,” he says, with a touch of wistfulness in his voice. “I think the best music comes from people who haven’t over-studied it and are not lost in the manuals.” Lydon blames the record company “and resentment of unknown entities that I was working with. That was a continual problem, and has been ever since.”
A defining characteristic of most all of PiL’s releases is that – like Black Sabbath, oddly enough – each was critically panned upon release, only to undergo reassessment within a few years, by which time the music would be hailed as relevant, innovative and important. One might expect Lydon to find that amusing.
“I don’t find it amusing,” he snarls. “I find it life-threatening, really. Because I needed to survive. So many walls and barriers were put up against me, and the record labels really weren’t supporting us at all.” He believes that explains the negative reviews. “Somebody pays their bills: it’s called record companies or advertisements. There was no control put in our favor, and so a free-for-all really is what went on, and it just got worse and worse and worse.”
But even as group members left or were dismissed, with new ones taking their place, Lydon didn’t give up. “To quote Shakespeare, I learned very, very quickly to smile in the face of adversity from the Pistols onward,” he says. “The more thrown at me, the more I thought, ‘Oh, delicious! New tools!’ You’ve got to, when they’re out there doing that.” He says that the record company wanted to “bland” PiL out, or worse, remake them as “the Sex Pistols Part 2 … which is a shocking, bad idea.”
Bad reviews or not, as the saying goes, many of the people who bought those early albums went on to their own careers in music, absorbing influences – musical, attitudinal – from PiL. The new documentary film The Public Image is Rotten features Moby and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore (among others, but notably not Bono or Dave Grohl) rhapsodizing about Public Image Ltd. And that makes John Lydon, in a word, happy.
“I’m very happy, because at the time I didn’t think anybody appreciated us,” he says. “It was madcap laughs, the whole thing.” He admits that the band blew almost its entire budget for its second album on the packaging. “An actual metal box, and we thought why not?” So when it came time for the sessions, the group made do with odd bits of unused studio time booked by other bands. “We took whatever opportunity we could,” Lydon recalls, “which was always after midnight, a couple of hours here or there. Our album was never done in one full piece. It really was like a gang of burglars at work!”
With hindsight, Lydon thinks that method yielded creative rewards. “And I kind of stuck with that as a very good idea,” he says. “Sometimes your best work can come that way. You rush yourself in, and then you better have the inspiration at that moment. We did, and we worked bloody hard!”
Subsequent albums each had their own character. Flowers of Romance (1981) was built upon drum tracks laid down by Martin Atkins; it’s more or less a collaboration between Lydon and producer Nick Launay. 1983’s Live in Tokyo was essentially made with a pickup band. And 1985’s “generic titled” release (Album on vinyl, Compact Disc on CD, and Cassette on … you get the idea) featured an uncredited, all-star lineup of musicians that included drummers Tony Williams and Ginger Baker, and guitarist Steve Vai.
I mention to Lydon that “Ease,” one of the standout tracks on Album, sounds to my ears like a post-punk answer to Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.” I immediately wonder how he’ll react. “Oh, how complementary can you get?” he gushes. “That’s a wonderful thought!”
Though it’s near impossible to imagine 1977-era Johnny Rotten making such an admission, he continues. “I’ve always said that I think Physical Graffiti is one of my all time favorite records. There’s one side of that that absolutely tears my head off. It’s so involving and threatening and forceful and just beautiful.” (Editor’s note: PiL would open concerts on that 1986 “generic” tour with an instrumental rendition of “Kashmir.”) He pauses and refines his comment to include a gentle disclaimer. “I would never be shy of other people’s seriously interesting commitments to music, but I never want to sound exactly like them,” he says. “But the raw energy to attack the subject matter, that’s what I do best.”
He sees his responsibility to fans in simple terms: to be as honest as possible. “I remember the very first interview my mother was challenged with,” he says. “They asked her to defend me as [a member of] the Sex Pistols. And she said, ‘Well, Johnny doesn’t tell lies.’ She meant that, too; she meant it deeply. And that’s now indelibly stamped on the inside of my brain.”
In the end, John Lydon is a pop artist. Asked where he thinks Public Image Ltd falls on the continuum between entertainer and artist, he quickly shoots back a pithy response. “We’re artistic entertainers,” he says. He admits a love for pop music, but emphasizes that with PiL he has never consciously aimed for hit singles. “No, I wasn’t thinking, ‘Let’s have a hit,’ because all the way through this hits were happening, indirectly or whatever,” he says.
“I had to break some of the record contract rule books at the time,” Lydon explains. “The label would say, ‘We can’t release this; it won’t sell,’ but things like ‘This is Not a Love Song,’ ‘Rise’ and even the ‘Flowers of Romance’ single all managed to chart.” But eventually, he says, the record label purse strings tightened, and he found himself wanting – needing, really – to get out of the business. “I had to go outside of music for quite some time,” he recalls. “For nearly two decades there, there was no support from this industry, nothing. That was very, very painful.
“And then everything I did, I’d be accused of one thing or another,” he says. “Accusations have permanently followed me.” He may be referring to a UK television commercial he made in 2008, extolling the virtues of – wait for it – Country Life brand butter. But Lydon used the money from that pitch man gig to fund the revived Public Image Ltd. Since reforming, the band has maintained a stable lineup – something the 20th century PiL never came close to doing – and today, the husband, father and Public Image Ltd frontman seems more at peace – possibly even happy – with his past, present and future.