Public Image Limited: life after The Sex Pistols

Public Image Ltd - On the roof of John Lydon's house, 1978 (Dennis Morris, 1978)

Public Image Ltd – On the roof of John Lydon’s house, 1978

Public Image Ltd have nothing to do with Rock ‘n’ Roll, because Rock n Roll is the most sickening and boring thing this century has produced.

John Lydon, Muziekkrant Oor, January 1979

Introduction

On December 8th, 1978, the first Public Image Limited album was released. One the first/most influential post-punk albums. The story of the disappearance of Johnny Rotten.

The Sex Pistols

Early 1978 The Sex Pistols toured the United States. The tour consisted of 12 shows. It was a complete fiasco. By that time Sid Vicious was heavily addicted to heroin, making him virtually incapable of playing. Singer Johnny Rotten only spoke with his bandmates when it was absolutely necessary. To make matters even worse, manager Malcolm McLaren had booked the band in typical red-neck cities like Atlanta, Memphis, San Antonio, Baton Rouge, Dallas and Tulsa. Given their notoriety and fame a tour of larger cities like New York, Los Angeles and Washington made more sense. McLaren also enlisted many journalists to meticulously report on the tour.

The Sex Pistols - Winterland Ballroom - 01/14/1978 (popexpresso.com)

The Sex Pistols – Winterland Ballroom – 01/14/1978

The only venue of some significance was booked for the closing show of the tour, on Januray 14th, 1978. The band played the Winterland Ballroom in San Fransisco. By then, Johnny Rotten was fed up with everything The Sex Pistols had become. During the closing song, The Stooges cover No Fun, Rotten babbled “There’s no fun in being alone. This is no fun. It is no fun at all.”. The show ended with Rotten’s (in)famous “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”, after which he left the stage.

That ended The Sex Pistols (up to the 1996 reunion). Rotten refused to work on further recordings for The Sex Pistols, including those for the movie and soundtrack The Great Rock ‘N’ Roll Swindle. To close the period for real, the name Johnny Rotten was buried, From now on he was to be known by his birthname, John Lydon.

Public Image Limited / Public Image Ltd / PIL

Logo Public Image Ltd (pastemagazine.com)

Logo Public Image Ltd

After The Sex Pistols’ implosion many were eager to see what would happen next. John Lydon was entangled in a lawsuit against Glitterbest (the management company behind The Sex Pistols) and was repulsed by punk and standard rock. Lydon wanted something else/new. With ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene, bass player Jah Wobble and drummer Jim Walker, Lydon formed a new band: Public Image Limited, also known as Public Image Ltd or PIL. The name refers to the way The Sex Pistols were marketed (as interpreted by Lydon). It wasn’t before long that Public Image Limited was regarded as the precursor in the development of post-punk.

But PIL was also a business model. Everything was done by themselves, from production to management. A path was mapped out, without any compromise. That attitude was obvious musically as well. Without succumbing to the wishes (demands?) of audience(s), PIL went their own way. Even though punk had its influence on the group’s sound, their music was mainly influenced by krautrock, dub, ‘noise’ and atonal music.

First Issue

Public Image Ltd - First Issue (publicimageltd.bandcamp.com)

Public Image Ltd – First Issue

On December 8th, 1978, the PIL debut album was released. First Issue sparked a lot of discussion. It was new and different. But, as so often is the case with albums of this calibre, it was panned by the press. An important album in the development of post-punk, new-wave and doom, but totally misunderstood at the time.

The album’s sound was completely new. The bass was featured prominently in the sound. The guitars seemed to be constructed as a wall of sound. The repetitive nature of the songs is the main attraction (to me, that is). It stands within reason to assume that LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy used this album as an important influence for the blueprint to his own music.

Public Image

The album was preceded by the single Public Image. It was the first song to be recorded for the PIL album. Recording sessions started mid-July of 1978 and it is an account of (Lydon’s place in) The Sex Pistols. According to Lydon, nobody, including his one-time band members, ever listened to his lyrics, or even wanted to.

Public Image Limited - Poster (pilofficial.com)

Public Image Limited – Poster – Public Image video still

Hello, hello / Hello, hello / Hello, hello

You never listened to a word that I said
You only seen me from the clothes that I wear
Or did the interest go so much deeper
It must have been to the color of my hair

Public Image Ltd - Public Image - Single (johnlydon.com)

Public Image Ltd – Public Image – Single

Public image

Oh what you wanted was never made clear
Behind the image was ignorance and fear
You hide behind this public machine
You still follow same old scheme

Public image

Two sides to every story
Somebody had to stop me
I’m not the same as when I began
I will not be treated as property

Public image

Two sides to every story
Somebody had to stop me
I’m not the same as when I began
It’s not a game of monopoly

Public image

Public image you got what you wanted
The public image belongs to me
It’s my entrance my own creation
My grand finale, my goodbye

Public image, public image / Goodbye

© 1978, Public Image – John Lydon

Public Image Ltd - First Issue - Ad (fodderstompf.com)

Public Image Ltd – First Issue – Ad

Public image in particular, is emblematic for what was to become post-punk. Sonically, that can be applied to Theme as well. The guitar sound has to be have been a major influence on Killing Joke’s Revelations.

Religion I and Religion II are a heavy attack on Catholicism. Lydon asserts he took the song to The Sex Pistols, but they didn’t dare touch the song’s subject: ‘It’s vile, can’t do that, people won’t like us’.

Annalisa is about one of the ways extremist religion expresses itself. It is inspired by the true story of a 15 year old girl, whose parents were convinced she was possessed by the devil. After consultation with the church, the girl was starved in order to exorcise the devil. She ultimately died as a result. The loudest song of the album.

Low Life is about Sid Vicious, originally a close friend of Lydon’s, who descended into chaos due to a heavy heroin addiction. Some claim the song is about Malcolm McLaren.

Attack sounds just like The Sex Pistols, but lacks originality.

Fodderstompf

John Lydon (1978): “You should’ve seen Branson’s face when he heard that, he was furious!”.

PIL’s ‘fuck you’ statement. In search for material to complete the album, PIL decided upon this song: 7:40 minutes long. A disco beat, synthesizer, bass and Jah Wobble who talks/shouts: “we only wanted to be loved” in a kind of Monty Python like voice. This song was a main target for the critics. However, there was a place where it became hugely popular: New York’s disco Studio 54. The song was sung/screamed along to enthusiastically by the drag queens and other hipsters. Looking back, it was a prelude to acid house and techno. It was an important hint towards the next PIL album Metal Box.

Public Image Ltd by Dennis Morris (thewire.co.uk)

Public Image Ltd by Dennis Morris

American release

Early 1979 the American Warner Bros. branch made a test pressing of First Issue. The Americans were unhappy with the record, particularly about the loud bass. PIL objected, but did go along: the entire album was re-recorded for the American market. A remarkable one-time occurrence. But, it was all to no avail: the new recordings failed to generate excitement as well. The recordings have never been released, thus the album was not released in America.

Some 35 years later, First Issue got its official release in America. The date was June 18th, 2013, marking the date of First Issue‘s re-release. The only song to be released from the American recordings was the version of Fodderstompf (under the moniker Megga Mix), as a B-side to the 1979 single Death Disco.

By the way, the American market was not the only one being deprived of PIL’s music. The album was also unavailable on Malta. The songs Religion I and Religion II were branded as having ‘offended public morals and decency’.

Songs

All lyrics written by John Lydon, all music by Public Image Ltd.

Public Image Ltd - First Issue - Ad (fodderstompf.com)

Public Image Ltd – First Issue – Ad

  • Theme
  • Religion I
  • Religion II
  • Annalisa
  • Public Image
  • Low Life
  • Attack
  • Fodderstompf

The song The Cowboy Song was used as a B-side to the single Public Image.

Musicians

  • John Lydon – vocals, piano
  • Keith Levene – guitar
  • Jah Wobble – bass, vocals and fire extinguisher on Fodderstompf
  • Jim Walker – drums, vocals on Fodderstompf

In closing

What do you think of Public Image Ltd.’s debut? Let me know!

 

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