Public Image Ltd
Photo: Andres Poveda Photography / CZ! Promotions

Public Image Ltd Skirt Between Success and Failure on ‘End of World’

Public Image Ltd’s End of World, their first in eight years, marks some of John Lydon’s best work in decades and a half that should have never left band practice.

End of World
Public Image Ltd.
Cargo / PiL Official
11 August 2023

John Joseph Lydon is a man who has suffered. A wounded childhood misfit contracted meningitis, spent seven months in a coma, lost most of his memory, and could not recognize his parents; he then suffered crushing guilt, blaming himself for what his parents had to endure. Lydon never caught up at school, was branded “dummy dum dum” by teachers, never fit in, and hid what must have been savage embarrassment behind bravado and a sharp tongue. By age 22, he was a global icon provoking equal parts admiration and disdain. Pilloried by the press, he was knifed in the street on two occasions and assaulted on others; saw one close friend turn into a cartoon heroin zombie; his band splintered; while the bored provocateur who was supposed to be looking after them all misused their income and put them at physical risk for publicity’s sake. Before 1978 was out, he would also lose his always-frail, always-loving mother.

Amidst all this, he founded Public Image Ltd. Then he more or less went into hiding. Against a backdrop of omnipresent drug-taking, Lydon hosted get-togethers and parties at his three-floor apartment in Chelsea, but the band barely performed from 1978-1981. Public Image Ltd made grand declarations about being a multimedia company, but all that ever emerged was the classic three-album run thrown together with limited rehearsal while a revolving door fired a procession of drummers in and out. From the mid-1980s onward, Public Image Ltd became a more indie rock dancefloor-friendly group, and Lydon shed much of the mystique and awe his wild missives had created.

During the latter period, he embraced life as a tax exile in America, the joys of mansion-bound individualism, where he could bask in sunshine and generally be forgotten when out and about – a stark comparison to the UK’s siege-level attention and equivocal weather. In his quietly private semi-retirement, he was loyal to a small circle of long-time friends, mostly from his childhood in London. He occasionally emerged to execute a turn as the lovable pantomime villain or finally get the punk cheques he’d been robbed of in the 1970s.

Beneath Lydon’s spiky public personality was a young man who needed to heal in an era where psychological pain was sneered at, dismissed, and belittled. Emotionally ill-equipped by British society or the era’s expectations of what manhood meant, Lydon never seems to have found true peace, calcifying instead into an oft-misfiring and misdirected opposition for opposition’s sake. There’s an air of the classic pantomime exchange about much of his recent public persona: whatever an audience says, he feels the need to stand before them, replying, “oh, no, it isn’t!”

The re-emergence of Public Image Ltd in 2009 was welcome, but the credible quality of the subsequent albums – This Is PiL in 2012 and What The World Needs Now… in 2015 – was a genuinely positive surprise. Seeing Lydon on stage at the 100 Club in 2015 for a live Q&A tie-in with the publication of his second autobiography, he was the spirit of bonhomie: engaging, open to the audience, always with a cheeky and mischievous quip to hand. However, as troubles in life mounted, recent years have seen more of that other “Johnny” dominate. At a live Q&A in Bristol in 2021, he spoke so movingly of the pain of his wife, Nora Foster, her battle with Alzheimer’s, and his love for her that I was moved almost to tears. Then that beautiful openness disintegrated, and we were left being harangued by a grumpy, domineering host.

In the aftermath of Foster’s death, Lydon’s stated desire is to work, keep working, and work more. The first result is the new album End of World. It opens with a swift trio of songs with lyrics, voice, and instruments in excellent disharmony. “Penge” is a head nodder with Lydon using the lesser-seen low-end of his range, overdubbed with more affected accents and trills, to create a chorus of Lydons jabbering away – a confident move from a studio veteran. “End of the World” ups the pace approximating something like a chirpy Joy Division with a tight main rhythm and squalling guitar backing Lydon’s declaration of enduring resistance. “Car Crash”, an unadorned and effective electropop strut, makes this the best opening section to a Public Image Ltd album since “Bad Life”, “This Is Not a Love Song”, and “Solitaire” in 1984.

Unfortunately, End of World then skids into a severely saggy midsection. The classic post-punk glower of “Being Stupid Again” is wasted on cliched old man whines. Saying that the young are optimistic, sometimes to a fault, is neither original nor damning. Worse, he has nothing to offer in its place except personal grievance and ignores the fact that Save the Whales, a target of his chorus, did result in the recovery of global whale populations; that the current generation is significantly less likely to support military escapades abroad; and that, sure, protest often fails, but that doesn’t make it wrong.

“Walls” feels like another lecture; worse, it’s done to a mid-tempo and antiseptically clean bout of yacht rock. Lydon harks to an imaginary time of fewer divisions, and he’s right. There used to be a working class that valued education as something they were deprived of and had to fight for; that had to help one another day-by-day; that – at its best – was able to look beyond race, creed, gender, nation toward common humanity. But that was never the only working class. The walls were always higher for those of the “wrong” color; abuse and neglect weighed heavily upon children and women; the boot-boys of racism, fascism, and wall-building had a core following in a far less enlightened working-class base. Lydon’s take doesn’t even reflect the violence he had to weather as a youth – it’s the self-deceit that’s so wearying.

End of World is beset by whimsy. “Pretty Awful” sees Lydon perform a comedy monologue lacking both humor and musical bite (with the exception of the line “…and your pants! …Well… They’re pants.”) “Dirty Murky Delight” is even worse: somewhere between jazz scat singing and the R. White’s Lemonade advert (“I’m A Secret Lemonade Drinker”) that was famous in Britain. “The Do That” echoes early rock ‘n’ roll with Lydon enjoying the feel of certain words in his mouth, but he’s out of ideas in 30 seconds, and the next two minutes are nothing more than an overextended rehearsal. “LFCF”, while vocally strong, with Lydon’s voice ringing out effective declamations, suffers from a genuinely plodding instrumental offering merely the banal competence of a suburban guitar teacher. One such track would be a neat diversion, but these songs constitute a third of the album.

Public Image Ltd work on deep cycles: a first decade-and-a-half of productivity, a decade-and-a-half hiatus, now the group are 14 years into a further run. While 1978-1992 saw a fairly active revolving door of studio and touring personnel, 2009 onward has seen a steady line-up of Bruce Smith, Robert’ Lu’ Edmonds, and Scott Firth backing John Lydon. Beyond the fact that it’s always the 1980s musically speaking, the trouble is that Lydon’s protestations of indelible brotherhood just don’t ring true. Even on the best songs here, Public Image Ltd are merely solid – the decisive factor is Lydon. When he doesn’t feel like rising above the pedestrian, the group kowtow to their master and toss off something utterly forgettable so that, even when Lydon is at his worst, they don’t outshine him.

While uneven, there are still worthwhile treats. “North West Passage” is a return to Public Image Ltd’s sweet spot, a chugging ‘the little engine that could’ indie rock number with Lydon braving what was formerly the brutally dangerous path between the Atlantic and Pacific over the top of Canada via the Arctic Ocean. There’s a sense of personal choice under contemplation, the need to take a risk on an uncertain future. “Strange” is even better, a curio playing out in the liminal space of night, a web of shadowy presence and the safety of a nature-worship folk community amid “the trees, they are my steeple. The rock, a dome, home of my people.” The only criticism would be that the song deserves a more imaginative drum part, something more sympathetic to a dark fable than this boom-bap solid and intrusively steady robo-rhythm.

The only songs that directly address the decimating trauma Lydon has recently endured show precisely why it’s such a shame he’s closed down rather than opened up emotionally. “Hawaii” makes me choke up, and it would be a hard heart unable to see their own loved ones fading within the lyrics: “All journeys end / We’re here you and me / Remember me? I remember you / Don’t fly too soon / You are loved / All those good times.” It’s a truly poignant and emotionally naked witnessing of what it is to witness someone slipping away. “Down on the Clown”, a track of lonely aftermath, offers no redemption, just the honest brutality of an endlessly circling moment of suffering without end. In these songs, one sees a more engaging Public Image Ltd, something one can feel.

In conclusion, half an album here marks some of Lydon’s best work in decades and a half that should have never left band practice. Focus on the good half: Lydon is an energetic, erudite, emotive presence and does enough to remind the world why he deserves to be missed and heard. Fingers crossed, there’s further fresh work ahead to build on the foundations laid on End of World.

RATING 5 / 10