Malcolm McLaren could bend a whole generation to his will but he could not bend John Lydon. McLaren, the evil genius and Svengali behind the Sex Pistols and the Punk explosion of the mid-1970s, cast Lydon as Johnny Rotten – the figurehead and spitting, snarling poster boy of Punk.
What McLaren hadn’t counted on was that – unlike Sid Vicious and most of McLaren’s other minions – Lydon had a mind of his own, and a razor sharp mind at that. As soon as the Pistols debacle had slithered to a halt, Lydon cut all ties to McLaren’s circus, cast off the faintly daft Rotten name and formed Public Image Ltd – known (and loved) as PiL.
With bass player Jah Wobble and guitarist Keith Levene, Lydon produced a number of superb albums, incorporating experimental rock, dub and drone over which he ranted and howled his pained, angered lyrics like a manic preacher. The second, 1979s Metal Box (packaged in a round metal box) was described by NME as ‘arguably the first post-rock record’.
It is hard to say whether PiL has ever truly split and reformed, as John Lydon hired and fired at will, working across the years with an army of musicians as diverse as Bill Laswell, Steve Vai and Ginger Baker. His music has always been highly original, willfully abrasive – full of sardonic wit and the sort of withering insights that a mind like like Lydon’s can’t help.
The last official PiL album was 1992’s That What is Not. The intervening years have been used up with Lydon playing the pop-culture game as only he can (appearing on British reality TV and, hilariously, on Judge Judy), writing his memoirs (the wonderful Rotten – No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs) and unashamedly making money on Sex Pistols reunion tours.
Oh, and making butter commercials for British television. This is significant because it is the money made from his TV ads for Country Life Butter that funded the recording etc of the new PiL album This Is PiL. Is this rock and roll? In a world where AC/DC put their name to a range of mid-priced wines and Mötörhead put out a fine-bodied shiraz (not to mention the Sex Pistols fragrance range) I don’t know what rock and roll is anymore.
But I do know I like This Is PiL. On reggae thumper ‘One Drop’ Lydon caterwauls “You cannot change us” with the same dramatic defiance he used to power the best of the Sex Pistols’ fuck-you tunes. Throughout the album Lydon’s vocals also have the same feeling of stream-of-consciousness that made any PiL album always seem close to coming off the rails with intensity (check 1983 single ‘This Is Not A Love Song’ or the “Anger is an energy” refrain from 1986’s ‘Rise’).
Lu Edmonds guitar is a wonderfully irritating (as it should be) foil for Lydon’s squawks and retorts across the album – jangling till your head splits on ‘Deeper Water’ and fuzzing it up on ‘Terra-Gate’ – with enough of those post-punk one and two-note string constructions that work to such great effect (I often wonder what The Edge would have come up if he had never heard Metal Box?)
The electro-dub of ‘Lollipop Opera’ shows Lydon at his dramatic best as his voice slides in and out of a harsh robotic tone, adding a metallic bristle to his hectoring. One of rock’s all-time great non-singers, Lydon – like Lou Reed or David Byrne – makes up for any lack of God-given pipes by laying the drama on thick and filling your head with a new atmosphere. Rock is one of the only musics where this could work and it is one of rock’s true mongrel delights.
But the question always remains with a new release from a band that did its best work 30 years ago – is it worth it? This Is PiL gives us what we want from John Lydon and his cohorts, but after all the intervening music from the bands that Metal Box influenced, this could sound a little tame. If shock and abrasion was all PiL had to offer then This Is PiL would fall short. But Lydon has not lost his drama and the PiL sound still delivers.
As with Janes Addiction’s 2011 album The Great Escape Artist (my review here) it is a still a bit of a thrill to hear any music by rock’s great rule breakers, even now that there are few rules left to break.
One does wonder, though, what Malcolm McLaren would make of it all.
Published June 2012 on theorangepress.net