❉ A sonic biography of both the band and the man. Honestly, you won’t spend a better 60 quid this year.
The empowering swagger of ‘Public Image’, the primal howl of ‘Death Disco’, the hard rock spleen of ‘Fishing’, the bitter catharsis of ‘Disappointed’, the feminist assault of ‘Cruel’… After thirty-plus years, John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) continues to redefine what popular music can do via his post-Sex Pistols sonic experiment – Public Image Limited.
When you really analyse the history of popular music, only four artists can accept the accolade of having changed the world. Not just music – the world. Elvis Presley was the first, The Beatles were the second, David Bowie was the third and John Joseph Lydon, born in Finsbury Park, London, the meningitis-afflicted son of Irish immigrants, was the fourth. There’s been no-one of equal stature since.
Since they were formed in 1978, Lydon’s PiL’s line ups have been as wildly varied as their musical palette – avant garde dub, tribal drumming, punk, soft metal, a polka – but the one constant has been the man who created them as a response to, as he saw it, the creative cul-de-sac of punk iconoclasts the Sex Pistols. 2018’s lavish collector’s set The Public Image is Rotten: Songs from the Heart, packaged in gorgeous black and gold and designed to resemble a heart-shaped (chocolate) box, pulls all these diverse facets of the band together with an exhaustively curated selection of music, promotional videos and concerts. The accompanying hardback is a thing of beauty too, chronicling scrapbook-style Lydon and the band’s enjoyably fractious relationship with the press. Honestly, you won’t spend a better 60 quid this year.
The stand out track for me on the singles compilation CD is 1983’s Bad Life. Heard now, it’s aural cut-and-paste clearly anticipated dance music, while back then it sounded like PiL were treading water creatively for the first time (then again, this was in the year when a lot of people didn’t see the funny side of them playing a pub rock version of Anarchy in the UK on the This is What You Want… This is What You Get tour).
No wonder, then, that John went on to work with electro titans Afrika Bambaataa and Leftfield, producing the apocalyptic World Destruction and ‘anarchy in the USA’ dance anthem Open Up. These tracks – two of John’s best – are included here, too. PiL ripped through Open Up as an encore and you can see that incendiary performance on the concert DVD; it’s one of the highlights. On Disc 5, Live Concert (New York, 16 July 1989), appropriately enough World Destruction is the final encore.
Through PiL’s music videos, you can also see the development of these post-punk vignettes to the point where a whole TV channel was launched to screen them, and storylines began to emerge – the most notable in the PiL canon is Rise, where in an Eastern European ghetto sheets billow, John glares into the camera and old men murmur defiantly.
There are Top of the Pops and The Old Grey Whistle Test clips from the BBC vaults too, and all of them are mesmerising. An omission I’d like to have seen is Lydon’s appearance on the revived Juke Box Jury (1979) when, clearly bored by the enterprise’s triviality, he walked off. Never mind: we still have PiL’s rendition of Flowers of Romance on TOTP, where the obediently boogying audience is clearly terrified. It reinforces the fact that there wasn’t a single band on the planet in 1980 remotely like PiL.
Interestingly, the set of photographic art cards in this set concisely reveal how much John has mellowed over the years. Two early ones showcase The Stare – it’s the confrontational public image in full effect, so you have no idea what’s going on behind the eyes. The third, from the mid 1980s, has then bassist Allan Dias, John L. and the late John McGeogh, PiL’s guitarist of the time, sharing a joke in a café; Lydon leans against the wall, relaxed, clearly enjoying himself. Bang up to date, in the fourth picture John has the hint of a smile as he adopts the hands-on-hips Superman pose, happily mugging for the camera while his three bandmates make faces through a window behind him.
There aren’t many celebrities who would swallow their pride and make TV adverts selling butter (of all things; at least Orson Welles flogged sherry) to finance an LP, but that’s exactly what John did between 2008 and 2010 to fund the making of This is PiL. Somehow, that’s very punk rock. In June this year at the University of East Anglia, he apologised to the audience at the start of a PiL gig for catching flu, but said he’d do his best. At the end, as the ecstatic audience applauded a performance as strong as any of his over the years, he declared, “You’re why we do it. Thank you.” Punk rock in a nut shell.
The Public Image is Rotten: Songs from the Heart is a biography of both the band and the man. Rather movingly, it reveals that John Lydon has always been one of us. If it is a grand finale, it’s a fine and fitting one.
❉ ‘The Public Image is Rotten: Songs from the Heart’ was released as a 5CD+2DVD box set and a 6LP vinyl collection via Universal on July 20th 2018.
❉ Robert Fairclough is a film and TV journalist and blogger and a regular contributor to ‘Doctor Who Magazine’ and ‘SFX’. He is the author of books on the iconic TV series ‘The Prisoner’, and co-author (with Mike Kenwood) of definitive guides to the classic TV dramas ‘The Sweeney’ and ‘Callan’. His biography of the actor Ian Carmichael was one of ‘The Independent’s Top 10 Film Books of the Year for 2011.