What’s in a name? Contained within the name Public Image Ltd was both the history of rock and roll up to 1978 and a nod in the direction of one possible future. Let’s call this idiosyncratic, highly disputable look backwards and forwards the Gospel, According to PiL. (“PiL” is the group’s acronym, pronounced “pill”.)
According to this apocryphal Gospel, the history of rock and roll ended with the demise of punk rock. Yes, its demise. Punk ended with the breakup of the Sex Pistols in their “classic” late-1970s incarnation when they had been fronted by a provocateur named Johnny Rotten. “No future!” Rotten had notoriously declared their anthem, “Anarchy in the UK”. “No future for you!” He didn’t mean punk rockers specifically, but the declaration generalized. Rock and roll—the loud, fast, and furious fusion of R&B and country, born in the mid-1950s—had been reenergized, brought to fruition, and blown to smithereens by this one movement.
Meanwhile, one possible future of rock and roll, the one posited by Public Image Ltd, consisted of new forms made with rock and roll instrumentation. Those new forms traded R&B for the deeper grooves of funk and reggae. They stripped out folk and country. They disdained cohesion and steadiness and favored loose ends and asymmetry. These changes added up not to what we know today as rock but to anti-rock, which we know today as post-punk. Specifically, this music, whatever its name, was a racket purveyed by PiL’s leader, the provocateur formerly known as Johnny Rotten, now back to his birth name of John Lydon.
That’s where things stood in 1978: The Sex Pistols, led by Rotten, were the past. Public Image Ltd, led by Lydon, was the future, a post-punk future, whether or not you were willing to claim it.
Forty-five years later, post-punk is most closely associated with English groups, including PiL, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and the Fall. It has been carried forward by groups such as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Idles, but no one really sounds like Public Image Ltd because no one really sounds like John Lydon. PiL have been through changes in the lineup and musical style. Their best-known songs—“Rise”, “Seattle”—sound little like the original racket, apart from one constant. “If it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s the Fall”, said that group’s frontman, Mark E. Smith. From 1978 to at least 2023, if it’s John Lydon, with or without your granny on bongos, it’s PiL.
But Public Image Ltd’s first incarnation, the one that emerged from the burning embers of the Sex Pistols, the one with the name that sounded like a postmodern marketing corporation, still has its finger on the pulse of the thing. The thing, rock and roll, rock for short, exists as a bloated corpse.
No, wait, it’s a zombified body. No, wait, it’s an entertainment juggernaut capable of pumping billions of dollars into the economy. It’s all of those things and more, and for a dose of reality, it can be viewed only from multiple perspectives, with the camera fast-cutting, as in the fun-house-mirror climax of Orson Welles’s film noir The Lady from Shanghai.
“Two sides to every story,” Lydon sang on PiL’s debut single, 1978’s “Public Image”, but that statement seems naive now. Sides multiply, images get refracted, so many heads get talking, and voices overlapping.
“We ain’t no band”, Lydon said in 1980. “We’re a company. Simple. Nothing to do with rock and roll. Doo da”.
As the primary voice of the Sex Pistols, in 1975‒78, John Lydon became the face of punk rock. The band’s music drew on precedents—Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, the Who, the Monkees (whose “[I’m Not Your] Stepping Stone” they covered), the Velvet Underground, the Modern Lovers, the New York Dolls, the Ramones—but there were few precedents for Johnny Rotten’s snarling, sneering, shouting, ranting.
Some Sex Pistols songs were classic rock put-downs with a nihilistic edge, but others veered far enough into nihilism to stomp on or seemingly stamp out the classicism. “Anarchy in the UK”, “God Save the Queen”, “Holidays in the Sun”, and “Pretty Vacant” challenged English culture, which responded with excitement, shudders, vitriol, and bans. Most of all, though, the UK paid attention, as a new age of rock and roll troublemakers might have been ushering out the stars and bringing on something completely different and potentially dangerous. Imagine if nose-thumbing and DIYing actually brought about a revolution.
The political aspect of the Sex Pistols mattered little in the US. The music industry wondered just how grossly untamable these rockers and their ilk were and how best to sell their music. No sooner had English punk come to America than the marketable form known as new wave emerged.
Punk rockers can get snobby as they champion what they consider the real thing, but softer forms can serve as gateway drugs. In the US, at least, Blondie’s album Parallel Lines (1978), propelled first and foremost by its discofied confection “Heart of Glass” and then by the tougher power pop of “Hanging on the Telephone” and “One Way or Another”, opened some people’s ears to the Ramones. From the Ramones, the jump wasn’t too far to the Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, Wire, and so on.
But from Led Zeppelin and Van Halen to this punk and new wave stuff? For many, that was a leap too far, entailing a loss of machismo, a letting go of societal rudder. One look at the day-glo, type-only, cut-and-pasted-ransom-note cover of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols (1977), the groups’ only proper album, made clear that the contents represented different territory, whether a new frontier or a cliff’s edge.
This was music as badge-wearing, a declaration of identity. But the Sex Pistols’ music, for all its fury, was so expertly produced, so polished in its explosiveness, that open ears could recognize how the guitar chords echoed both the precedents and the classic rockers ruling the airwaves. In other words, while the media attention in England made it seem that the Sex Pistols held the potential to undermine established orders, capitalism ultimately made sure that any undermining produced profits.
Lydon quit the Sex Pistols during their inaugural American tour, a meltdown, in 1978. He rejoined when they reformed briefly in 1996, with their original bass player, Glen Matlock, in place of Matlock’s long-deceased replacement, Sid Vicious. The resulting reunion tour was called Filthy Lucre. You do the hokey-pokey, and you shake it all about. That’s what it’s all about. Filthy lucre. Doo da.
When I saw the Sex Pistols on that tour, at Seattle’s Bumbershoot, they roared through the old songs like the music mattered, giving the people what they wanted: punk-rock singalongs. “We’re so pretty, oh so pretty / We’re vacant” sounded awesome, echoing through a stadium.
Now rewind the clock almost 20 years—in 2023, it’s 45 years ago, 1978. Johnny Rotten stood on the stage at the end of the final concert of the Sex Pistols in their initial incarnation. The only power he held consisted of words. “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” he asked the crowd.
But was he asking the audience or himself? In his mind, the Sex Pistols had been declawed, revealed as a farce. Taken out of their English fish tank and dropped—or, really, paraded around—into the American commercial zone, they became a not very effective entertainment vehicle. But with their demise had gone the whole illusion of rock and roll as a revolutionary force.
So he stopped calling himself Rotten and returned to Lydon, and he formed a band that declared itself anti-rock. Let’s see if the cowboy-hatted yahoos in Texas will listen to this! The band’s name, Public Image Ltd, winked at what Lydon had been through the past few years and the fact that the whole business had been business.
The Sex Pistols hadn’t formed organically like a bunch of teenagers dragging instruments into a garage. They’d been picked and assembled—like the Monkees! Hey, hey, we’re the Sex Pistols!—by the impresario Malcolm McClaren, who co-owned a hip clothing shop with his wife, the designer Vivienne Westwood. McClaren had managed the trashy rock and rolling New York Dolls in their final days. He would go on to pick and assemble the new wave band Bow Wow Wow, featuring the sexy teenage singer Annabella Lwin, and he would create eclectic dance music under his own name.
To McClaren, for sure, the Sex Pistols were business. They hadn’t even recorded for an independent label. ‘Never Mind the Bollocks’ was released by Virgin Records in the UK and Warner Bros. in the US. Even Blondie had started out on a minor label, the New York-based Private Stock, but the Pistols started as a hot property.
However, even if Lydon saw his new band as a whole new thing, Public Image Ltd weren’t exactly self-releasing their wares either. Helmed by the legacy artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten, this band was also signed to Virgin and Warner Bros. Thus, they entered the studio to record its first album, whose title gets rendered as Public Image: First Issue, Public Image/First Issue, or Public Image (First Issue). What’s in a name?
In addition to Lydon, the original members of Public Image Ltd were guitarist Keith Levene (an original member of the Clash), bassist Jah Wobble, and drummer Jim Walker. Funds were limited and ended up limiting the product, but anyway, the product was anti-rock, which was supposed to be a racket.
On Public Image: First Issue‘s opener, “Theme”, the outfit makes a glorious racket: nine minutes of slowly grinding metal, as though a Sex Pistols rehearsal tape were playing at too slow a speed. Some punk rockers and new wavers thought the Sex Pistols sounded too metallic, to begin with, and I’ve heard a later pressing of the Never Mind the Bollocks LP that, probably in the mastering, sanded off the rough edges and left the music sounding like hard rock. The Sex Pistols’ guitarist, Steve Jones, would go on to play hard rock.
No one would mistake Keith Levene’s jagged riffing for hard rock, though it can suggest (Lydon would hate this comparison, or at least he would have in 1978) Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour gone down a dark alley. No one would mistake “Theme” for any brand of standard-issue rock, not with its lack of verses, choruses, and solos. Nor would anyone take the heavy, fluid bass of “Theme” for the doctored bass playing on Sex Pistols’ recordings. Sid Vicious got credited for playing, but he couldn’t play. Jah Wobble, by contrast, had talent and could draw on funk, reggae, dub, and more in transforming rock materials into sonic sculptures.
Musically, “Theme” could be a meeting of the artsy punk-rockers-turned-postpunk-turned-new-wavers Psychedelic Furs (formed 1977) and the artsy hardcore-punk-drone band Flipper (formed 1979). Imagine, if you can, the Furs’ “Love My Way” (“it’s a new road”) mashed up with Flipper’s “Life” (“the only thing worth living for”). (Note: Let’s say the influences go both ways. Public Image Ltd were later accused of pilfering a Flipper album title and cover art concept.)
Lyrically, Lydon goes where many rockers would fear to tread, into a mix of self-reflexivity and utter agony: “Now I understand / Theme going on and on and on / And I wish I could die”. He repeats that last line throughout, quite convincingly, even though Lydon, as a person, apart from his Rotten persona, has always seemed positively in it for the long haul. In the end, he puts a twist on the line, announcing, “I just died / Terminal boredom”.
In case you wondered where Lydon stood on Christianity in 1978, the spoken-word track “Religion I” would clarify. In the Gospel According to PiL, “The Apostles were eleven / Now there’s a sod in heaven… This is what they’ve done… Not for one race, one creed, one world / But for money / Effective, absurd”. “Religion II” then casts that screed in a “Theme”-like a maelstrom, with Lydon not just reciting the words but singing, shouting, sneering, ranting them the way Johnny Rotten might have, had the Sex Pistols been willing to touch this one (as, reportedly, he wanted them to).
Only slightly less malevolent is “Annalisa”, which, despite Lydon’s repetition of the name, is not a love song.
Nor is “Public Image”, which Lydon has said was directed not at the media but at the Sex Pistols. The lyrics make (more) sense when read that way, but as with so many of Lydon’s rants, who cares what he targeted? The experience, a kind of pleasure only he can deliver, comes from entering into the singer’s well of verbiage. Sometimes, he seems to have written down his thoughts, but sometimes, he’s streaming consciousness on the spot. Sometimes, that improvisational quality intrigues, and sometimes, it does not. “Public Image” is the post-punk equivalent of a #1 pop single, the band playing like their lives depended on it, Lydon shrieking like he’s Luciano Pavarotti in a public toilet. There’s at least one hook in there somewhere.
“Low Life”, its target inaccessible to the listener, is a not-quite-as-transcendent variation on the theme of “Public Image”. This one interests mainly because Lydon sustains notes as though wanting to prove that he can actually sing, as though Lydon needed to prove anything, as though singing mattered in this context.
On “Attack”, the sonics degenerate. In search of a song, the band bashes away more than exhibits its fleet inventiveness. Hence this track’s placement in the penultimate spot, where few listeners escape.
On this album, however, the less adventurous listener has a reason to stop the proceedings after “Low Life”, and that’s because “Attack” is followed by “Fodderstompf”. Over no guitar but funky bass, plus Wobble’s reported use of a fire extinguisher, plus a cheap beat that predates today’s hip-hop-pop hits, vocalists chant, “We only wanted to be loved”. They might instead have chanted, “We only wanted to fill up the album”.
Back in the day, this closer sounded like a reason to get up and lift the needle off the record, asking yourself how much you paid for the import. In 2023, it sounds like inspired nonsense, dancefloor Monty Python, even (and Lydon would gag at this comparison) one of the Beatles’ nonsense excursions, hardly the worst thing ever committed to tape. I mean, I’d take it over much of the Krautrock that inspired PiL, or over much of Public Image Ltd’s later music, or over “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel or anyone else.
Whatever Virgin Records’ misgivings over “Fodderstompf” & Co., they released the album in the UK, Europe, and many other countries. The album art followed through on the title, with the front and back designed to look like magazine covers featuring glossy portraits. On the front, Lydon was photographed from the neck up, wearing a suit and perhaps a little makeup, staring straight at the camera, looking angelic until you caught the crazed gleam in his eyes. There was just something not right about the boy.
The vinyl sounded magnificent—not the way, say, a Ted Templeman production made a Van Halen album leap out of your speakers and dance the night away, but thick and sludgy to convey the melting of punk into post-punk. Brilliant. Undeniable. Except for Warner Bros., which deemed it too uncommercial to be issued in the US.
Indeed, until 2013, when Light in the Attic reissued it, Public Image: First Issue remained unavailable in the US except as an import. That was just crazy, given all the worthless junk by people other than PiL, released the world over between 1978 and 2013. Presumably, everyone with an interest in this album was busy thinking about other things than getting the record into circulation.
In 1978, at Warners’ request, Public Image Ltd returned to the studio to redo parts of the record, as though any amount of retouching would make this noise more marketable. The initial results proved disappointing and were mostly shelved. The exception was “Megga Mix”, a rerecording of “Fodderstompf” but entirely instrumental, duller than the original, released in 1979 as the B-side of PiL’s brilliantly titled single “Death Disco”. (Note: That’s not “Death to Disco.” Also note: A shorter version is titled “Swan Lake”.)
“Megga Mix” is the definition of a B-side, the kind of inconsequentiality traditionally put on 45s so that everyone, especially DJs, would focus on the A-sides. “Megga Mix” seems like it was just lying around, waiting to fill grooves and mark the passing of life.
In 1983, Public Image Ltd pulled a different B-side trick, this time involving the deathless “Public Image”. For the flip of their brand-new “This Is Not a Love Song”, PiL used the original version of their partial-namesake song. That recording had existed since 1978 when it was the A-side of the band’s first single. They rerecorded “This Is Not a Love Song” for their next album, but they never touched “Public Image”, thank goodness.
Maybe in using that masterpiece as a B-side, they, whoever they were, hoped that buyers of the 45 would thereby be introduced to the wonders of early Public Image Ltd, or maybe they had nothing else to offer. As a one-two punch, in any case, “This Is Not a Love Song” backed with “Public Image” both stand as the synthesis and apotheosis of everything PiL ever accomplished and took it into a new and potentially commercial zone. “Big business is very wise”, Lydon bleated on the A-side. “I’m crossing over to the other side”. He seemed to mean it and critique it, just as he’d meant the triumphantly burning end of “Public Image”: “My entrance, my own creation, my grand finale, my goodbye”.
By the way, to hear “Public Image” in all its glory, check out the 7” single of “This Is Not a Love Song”. Both sides explode off the turntable. The original English 45 of “Public Image” might be even more powerful.
An interesting footnote to early Public Image Ltd is a YouTube video that claims to be the Damned’s unreleased cover of, improbably, “Fodderstompf”. This version opens with the riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Heartbreaker”, which includes a reference to the 1960s British TV show The Prisoner and features jamming, breaking down, and goofing around. At the end, a band member, presumably singer Dave Vanian, asks, “Can we hear that?” Someone in the control room, presumably the engineer or producer, asks, “Do you really want to?”
The name for that—the recording, the exchange, the possible influence of “Fodderstompf” on punk rockers and other degenerates, the chaos—is rock and roll. As rendered in song by those proto-punks, the Who, without whom there wouldn’t have been a Sex Pistols or a PiL: Long live rock, be it dead or alive.
Public Image Ltd progressed from First Issue to greater glory. In 1979, Lydon et al. recorded their second album, first titled Metal Box and subsequently reissued as Second Edition. In other words, from First Issue to Second Edition, though that second album’s retitling also referred to the music’s transition from three 45-RPM records in a metal film cannister to two standard LPs. Where the first record found the band crossing a sonic bridge from punk to post-punk, their sophomore collection—with its booming dubwise bass, skeletal rhythms, scratchy guitar, and caterwauling vocals, saw them distinctly on the other side.
The name for that racket was rock in name only, rock that did not roll. Many more people have heard, internalized, and been influenced by this anti-rock than by the more rockish attack of First Issue. Through these first two albums and the band’s third, 1981’s The Flowers of Romance—which is, of course, about neither flowers nor romance, and which takes the sound of Metal Box/Second Edition, omits the bass (!), and adds so-called world music—Lydon and your granny created the blueprint for much far-left-of-center, genre-defying, listener-challenging music that has followed.
In 2023, Lydon still makes headlines, sometimes revealing the perils of being an original thinker. Most recently, he has been in the news for nursing his wife, Nora Forster, during her final days and releasing a love song (!), “Hawaii,” in tribute to her. They lived in Los Angeles. As an English expatriate and self-proclaimed champion of the lower class, Lydon publicly supported Donald Trump, seemingly as yet another provocation and refusal to be pigeonholed but revealing a shallow understanding of Trump’s demagoguery. If, as has been said, a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged, perhaps a fascist is a disrupter who has the feeling he has been cheated.
In 2023, you can get a lot of attention for being brash, shooting off your mouth, and defying norms and laws and authorities seemingly in the cause of truth, but basically, because head-spinning opinions are like bloody bits of flesh tossed into a shark tank. You do the hokey-pokey, and you grab all the filthy lucre you can shake out of the shills. “Not for one race, one creed, one world / But for money / Effective, absurd,” as Lydon once put it in a different context.
In 2023, there’s a media feeding frenzy stirred up by fear of missing out. Much of the information, misinformation, disinformation, and malformation offered for public consumption means about as much as all the Nirvana T-shirts being worn for fashion’s sake.
The late Kurt Cobain, Seattle’s outsider turned insider, turned inside-out, knew his punk, his post-punk, and a thing or two about public image. He was crowned the future of rock and roll but abdicated. If he were still alive, he might be writing a memoir, doing a podcast, appearing on Broadway, and rocking the house like an alternative Bruce Springsteen.
Springsteen was, of course, famously once labeled the future of rock and roll. He turned out to be that, but rock and roll turned out to be another way to sell things. It can reach minds and hearts, but it’s also really good at reaching wallets.
Metallica knows this. Maybe they, combining metal and punk, drawing on its music’s history and James Hetfield’s psychology, are the last rock and roll band that matters. By kicking ass but keeping heart and raising money for charity, they continue to do good work. But they’re merchandising their brand mercilessly, and they’re growing long in the tooth.
Anyway, in 2023, who cares about rock and roll? Or rather, who thinks it can be a transformative force? Bands form and perform, providing a visceral thrill by playing some permutation of rock and roll, but the game’s over. Boomers may want to tell the world that they’re leaving the planet better than it was because the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and the Sex Pistols expanded our collective consciousnesses, and sure, some aspects of people’s lives are better for having these phenomena to focus on, but guess what?
In 2023, people are dying needlessly in newsworthy places and ones that don’t get nearly the same attention, money is overflowing to the super-rich, and global warming due to human activity is bringing on climate changes that have only begun to harm lives disproportionately unable to help themselves.
In 2023, people play what they call punk and its aftermath, post-punk, and they have the styles and attitudes to match.
What’s really punk, though, paradoxically, is Taylor Swift, the biggest pop star in the world, the ultimate entertainment-biz insider, rerecording her albums to take her music back from the corporate overlords who now control the original versions. Swift’s countermove represents DIY that even Johnny Rotten could love.
What’s post-punk in 2023 is Taylor Swift using her public image to make her music mean more than the notes signify, to change the lives of people by speaking to them in codes. Punk was and is the attack; post-punk is the critique.
Taylor Swift understands the powers of music and celebrity, attack and critique. She follows in the footsteps of so many celebrity musicians, most of whom did not have to deal with the Internet. Connectivity and merchandising, Swift knows, aren’t inherently evil. By increasing joy, they can create ecstasy and send societally positive messages. Let’s hope she continues to use her power for good. Let’s hope she performs a duet with John Lydon. They can call their duo Public Image Unlimited. They might even, following in Lou Reed’s footsteps, team up with Metallica.
No future, Johnny? The future is a public image limited only by imagination.