The king is gone but he’s not forgotten
Is this the story of a Johnny Rotten?
It’s better to burn out than it is to rust [Neil Young, Hey Hey My My]
You might not like what I have to say, but I mean it! [John Lydon, The Word interview]
One can carry the idea of chaos too far. The final track on Never Mind The Bollocks (FF 1978 #45) is only one in a long line of tracks that bite the hand that feeds. Johnny Rotten (soon to revert to his birth name of Lydon) was, by the time of the band’s dissolution, just about fed up with media attention, but not with the business of making music. Having failed in his avowed ambition to destroy rock’n'roll via the Pistols, Lydon met up with old schoolmate Jah Wobble (aka John Wardle) and formed a new band, initially named Public Image, after a Muriel Spark novel (supposedly). The first single to be released as a result of this new partnership was also called Public Image (FF 1978 #9, 1979 #9, 1980 #11, 1981 #26, and All-Time 1982 #20), and this seemed to promise a recasting of the familiar Pistols nose-thumbing with a hint of a new direction (‘I’m not the same as when I began/I will not be treated as property’).
The first album release seemed to be reusing the old blueprint for making records: spend all the advance on drugs, then cobble together at the last minute and hope for the best. This LP (First Edition) has since achieved classic status: Lydon and Wobble were allowed to indulge themselves in dub reggae rehashes to their hearts’ delight.
Then the bomb dropped. Death Disco (FF 1979 #28 and 1980 #62), a monotonous dirge anchored around Wobble’s concrete bass and featuring incomprehensible, tunelessly sung lyrics and a melody line from Tchaikovsky, was fair warning of what was to come.
Metal Box, originally issued as 12 inch singles in a tin with no labels, forced one to concentrate on the product in hand, which appeared to be a determined effort on the band’s part to distance themselves from punk, or indeed any audience whatsoever: speaker-crushing bass parts, no permanent drummer, so that the members had to fill in, even more abstract and baffling lyrics, and fractured, jarring guitar. Careering (FF 1980 #33) and Poptones (FF 1979 #34) told oblique stories and follow the rest of the album’s lead in being determinedly unmusical. Unsurprisingly, the tracks never appeared in any other Festive Fifty chart, leading one to speculate on PIL’s ephemeral nature.
This disappointed ex-Pistols fans, who just wanted to hear the old numbers. JP played PiL, but the winter Peel Session held no surprises, being merely alternative versions of three of the LP tracks, including the two just mentioned.
However, in the new Peel universe, inhabited by the likes of Joy Division, Section 25 and Durutti Column, this kind of thing didn’t seem out of place at all. Lydon has cited Yoko Ono as an influence, and her ‘vocal’ style certainly has its echoes in his work: and Keith Levene’s glassy guitar sound was certainly an influence on the burgeoning Killing Joke. Time has mellowed the album’s abrasiveness, and its monolithic, paranoid narcissism now seems ahead of its time in many ways.
Public confusion and alienation over an even more user-unfriendly style as exhibited on Flowers Of Romance (1981) led the band to rename themselves PIL and to begin releasing more accessible material: the ironically titled This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get contained a song with sheets of synthesiser, solid metal chords, and something resembling a dance rhythm? Surely not…yet This Is Not A Love Song (FF 1983 #12) finally found an audience with kids more likely to listen to Spandau Ballet than Stockhausen, and it was not all over for the fraught masters of post-punk.
Should we give them credit for attempting to create something new? View them as cynical, disaffected punks who found a new way to spit on their audience? Or house them in the Museum Of Contemporary Failures? The choice, dear consumer, is yours.