14th January 1978, The Winterland Ballroom, San Francisco, USA and the Sex Pistols have just brought their set to an end with a version of the classic Stooges song No Fun. As the final traces of feedback belch from the amplifiers and over the heads of the assembled audience Johnny Rotten is poised, crouched down and defiantly staring at the crowd. He utters the immortal words, which are etched on the toilet walls of the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, “ha, ha ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated.”
No sooner had the band left the stage the disintegration started and within days the Sex Pistols crumbled into dust. Guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook went on to prostitute what dignity remained of the band. The ex manager (Malcolm McClaren) desperately cobbled together an embarrassing film called The Great Rock n Roll Swindle with a very dubious narrative. By February 1979 Sid Vicious (bass player) died a lonely and squalid death from a heroin overdose whilst being under investigation for the murder of his girlfriend. Meanwhile former frontman John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) had jetted off to Jamaica with no other than Richard Branson to scout reggae bands for Branson’s Virgin record label. The Sex Pistols were to leave behind a maze of legal wrangles and bad taste. The punk scene sunk into wall to wall leather jackets and mohican haircuts.
In the hands of McClaren The Sex Pistols legacy was to become a parody, although what emerged from the ashes was to be much more musically interesting. By May 1978 John Lydon was already assembling his new band and later that year under the name Public Image Ltd they released their self titled single ‘Public Image’ The record was well received and reached No.9 in the UK charts.
As a teenage fan of Lydon I recall dashing down town on release day to scour local record stores and seek out a copy that also featured a limited edition newspaper insert. At the time the single with its insert were considered the holy grail and from small independent record shops to the high street dealers I ventured, bus journey’s to the neighbouring town (Middlesbrough) my crusade continued through the day and occasionally bumping into fellow fans on the same crusade. The song written by Lydon whilst still a member of the Sex Pistols bares the hallmarks of a Pistols track with its sneering lyrics directly aimed at his ex band mates. The A-side of the single was not a major departure and as such held little surprise. It was the singles B-side the aptly entitled The Cowboy Song that was to provided a glimpse of where the band were heading. The Cowboy Song sounded like a rambling assortment of studio outtakes and random noises all mashed together in no particular order. Uponfirst listening it was easily forgettable. Lydon himself viewed the track, “it cost us approximately £1 to make. It’s just a jolly good disco record and it came about cos we were bored and couldn’t think of a b-side.” It was not until the first album appeared that the creative manifesto for the band started to be exposed to their fans.
Public Image, First Edition was released in December 1978 is now considered groundbreaking, but at the time of its release the record polarised fans and was met with outright hostility from music critics. The earlier single release had provided a false sense of expectation for those fans seeking solace in Public Image Ltd becoming The Sex Pistols mark 2. The album was in effect pulling in two different directions. A type of confused halfway half way house between looking backwards and pointing forward.
Dub baselines, traditional rock/pop tracks, screeching guitar work, a poem left many fans confused given the albums lack of focus and mixing seemed disjointed. This was no doubt a consequence of the band running out of money during its production, which necessitated recording sessions to be concluded hastily. The album to this day remains one of experimentation, a band findings its way with mixed results from the sublime ‘Low Life’ assault on the personality Sid Vicious had became towards the end of his life and through to the amusing, but largely forgettable ‘Fodderstompf’. Record boss Richard Branson who commissioned the LP was reported to be less then impressed. Whilst the record was a moderate success in the UK staying in the album charts for 11 weeks and peaking at 22. It would take until 2013 before the album received its full American release given it was deemed to be far too uncommercial for American ears by record executives. Love or hate this album its importance cannot be disputed given it laid down the blueprint for what many would call the post punk period.
The results were far from pretty, but to the credit of Lydon and his fellow bandmates they had decided upon a route away from the commercial mainstream, which at the time was an open door beckoning for Lydon after the demise of the Sex Pistols.With the first album completed PIL ventured out into the world to perform live. Playing 4 concerts in late 1978, Brussels Theatre Belgium on 20th December, Paris Le Stadium 22nd December and Christmas Day and Boxing Day at the Rainbow Theatre, London. By early 1979 PIL were left with the challenge that often demolishes many bands – the fatal 2nd album.
The glorious Metal Box/Second Edition LP arrived in November 1979 and is generally considered to be one of the most influential albums of all time. In many ways the album was a radical departure from the first album and ventured more towards avant-garde territory. With its cryptic lyrics, brooding baselines, tribal drum patterns, metallic guitar, synthesised drones and random noises the album was unlike anything before in sound or presentation. The original album packaging consisted of a 16mm film canister tin embossed with the bands logo, which contained three 12″ singles. The album drew from several influences including deep-dub-raggae in particular the early work of dub pioneer Keith Hudson known as the “dark prince off reggae” and bands like Can. The opening track Albatross sets the standard. Recorded in free form the track gathers a life of its own as it weaves along. The songs structure is reminisce of the interplay between Jim Morrison and the Doors when their performed live.
Metal Box/Second Edition was a far more focused effort, which unlike its predecessor was received with critical acclaim and considered a classic of its genre sitting alongside the likes of Can and Captain Beefheart. The albums influence cannot be emphasised enough, Sonic Youth, The Strokes, Simple Minds, REM, Joy Division, Portishead, Manic Street Preachers, Massive Attack, Radiohead have all drawn influence from the album.
In 2001 Thom Yorke during an interview with The Wire Magazine said, “We could never do a record on a par with Metal Box.'” The Rolling Stone Magazine listed Metal Box in the top 500 albums of all time. With album literally in the tin PIL started to increasingly perform live, although like their studio output the norm was not to be expected. In New York the band decided to perform behind large screens creating a physical barrier between them and a bewildered audience who had come to see the band perform a more traditional rock show. The resulting disturbances required the concert to be cancelled mid way through as the crowd throw items at the screen and started to dismantle the stage equipment.
In Leeds the band were met with hostility when the audience became bored with the new material and demanded Sex Pistols songs. PIL ignored the audience, often turn their backs against them and carried on until they simply walked off stage.
The 1980 live album ‘Paris au Printemps’ offered little to nothing in terms of creative output. In fact Lydon reputedly advised fans not to buy it because the band only got involved in the project to earn enough money to pay for Metal Box. By 1981 and the bands 3rd album ‘The Flowers of Romance” the wheels had already started to fall off the first incarnation of the band. Jah Wobble who provided the brooding bass on the first two albums had been sacked for allegedly using PIL material as backing tracks for his solo work. The name ‘The Flowers of Romance’ was taken from an early band Sid Vicious and Jah Wobble were members, as well as it being the title of a very early Sex Pistols track, which was never studio recorded and released.
The stark, severe and minimum style of the album is in contrast with the bass heavy influences of Metal Box. A variety of sources were deployed and used to generate sounds for the album including amplified wristwatches, reversed piano, televised opera. John Lydon played violin and saxophone, although he was not know to be trained to play any particular instrument. Keith Levane the groups pioneering guitarist played through reversed tapes, treble distortion and synthesisers drones.
Interviewed at the time Levene pointed out that, “AII it amounts to is that we don’t like any music at the moment.” John Lydon added, “well it ain’t rock & roll, that’s for sure.” The album quickly gained a reputation for being the most uncommercial LP to have been made and presented to a mainstream record company.
The Flowers Of Romance entered the UK Charts where it stayed for 5 weeks and reached No. 11 in April 1981. The album spawned a minor hit single in the same year that reached No. 24 and stayed in the charts for 4 weeks. The third studio album for many concluded PIL’s pioneering period. Similar to Jah Wobble original guitarist Keith Levene left the band acrimoniously shortly afterwards. John Lydon then shifted the sound and structure of the band towards a more commercially friendly zone with differing results given the creative challenges were not putting the breaks, or shaping some of Lydon’s ideas. By the late 80s PIL effectively Lydon and an assortment of musicians were touring America extensively, including a support slot for the Australian band INXS on their Kick tour.
The end for PIL was more a damp fizzle than bang. By 1992 and with a lack of interest from the general public Lydon put PIL into hiatus whilst he concentrated on other projects, including his autobiography, TV work and ultimately regrouping with the original Sex Pistols line up for a number of lucrative tours, which properly provided the only real opportunity for the original 4 members to earn any significant cash from their legacy. In September 2009 Lydon announced that PiL would reform for five UK shows, their first live appearance in 17 years. The regrouping of PIL was financed via the money Lydon earned through a UK television commercial, “The money that I earned from that has now gone completely – lock stock and barrel – into reforming PiL” The pursuing concerts were warmly received and the band has continued to perform live since, as well as releasing new material.
As one review of the first 3 PIL albums states, “PIL managed to avoid boundaries for the first four years of their existence, and Metal Box is undoubtedly the apex it hardly sounds like anything of the past, present, or future”. These first 3 albums, including the glorious Metal Box/Second Edition alone has secured my enduring respect for Lydon.
30th June 2013 and 35 years after buying the first Public Image Ltd single (with the limited edition newspaper insert) I find myself with my 14 year old daughter walking aimlessly through the Glastonbury Festival site. We have not paid much attention to the running list on the various stages. We are just soaking up the atmosphere, floating along with the crowd and just stopping to watch whatever emerges before us. Its a glorious summers days and in the near distance I hear driving base of PIL’s Death Disco vibrating through the air. We quickly make our way to the Other Stage and sure enough we find John Lydon and co.
I look to my daughter and ask if she is enjoying it? She relies, “yes.” I turn my attention back to the stage, feel the sun on the back of my neck, scan the large crowd and look back at my daughter – we smile at each other. Sometimes things just fall into place for all the right reason.