John Lydon:
Rolling Stone, 1st May, 1980

Transcribed by Dave K & M

© Rolling Stone 1980

John Lydon improves his Public Image

by Mikal Gilmore

John Lydon could probably go all night without mentioning the subject, but when it's finally broached, he greets it with a grim, world-weary look. "If you really want to know, I think we failed ... miserably," he says with a thespian flourish. Lydon is speaking about the Sex Pistols, the definitional punk group that branded him Johnny Rotten—rock & roll's most formidable nihilist. "Actually, it was a bit embarrassing. The other people in the band never understood what I was singing about."

It is nearly one a.m. and we're seated at the bar at Lydon's Sunset Strip hotel, talking over rum and Cokes. Lydon has come to town, along with guitarist Keith Levene, to make arrangements for the impending first American tour of Public Image Ltd.—the iconoclastic, impressionistic New Wave band Lydon formed after his exit from the Sex Pistols. Lydon is also doing a handful of interviews to promote the group's newly released Warner Bros. / Island album, Second Edition. (The LP was originally released last November in Britain by Virgin Records, in a limited edition of 50,000 copies, as Metal Box, a set of three twelve-inch 45s packaged in a film canister.) But an irksome irony is besetting Lydon's attempts at interviews: the questioners inevitably ask more about the Sex Pistols than about Public Image Ltd. (official abbreviation: PiL).

"It's really awful to come back here and go through this all again," he says in a rueful voice. As he speaks, Lydon plays distractedly with his thorny, red-hued hair and fixes me with his stabbing eyes. "All I can say is that Public Image is everything the Sex Pistols were meant to be—a valid threat to rock & roll. In the end, the Pistols weren't any more threatening than retreaded Chuck Berry."

Lydon's distaste is understandable but also a bit misleading. In reality, the Sex Pistols were one of the most cataclysmic forces in Seventies rock & roll: they served noticed that its form had become complacent, its content insignificant. Even seeing them only once, as I did at San Francisco's Winterland in January 1978, brought home the message with an indelible force. That night, Lydon danced—waded, actually—through a mounting pile of debris, everything from shoes, coins, books, and umbrellas, all heaved his way by a tense, adulatory crowd. Draped in a veil of smoke, sweat, and spit, the scene resembled a rehearsal for Armageddon, and Lydon rummaged through it all like some misplaced jester. But when he sang—railing at the crowd, jeering the line, "There's no future, no future, no future for you!"—he was predatory and awesome. It was the most impressive moment in rock & roll I've ever witnessed.

The morning after that show, the other Sex Pistols and their manager, Malcolm McLaren, fired Lydon. McLaren, who conceived the group and purportedly engineered its rise and fall, charged that Warner Bros. (the Pistols' American label) had purposefully driven a wedge between Lydon and the rest of the band, and that Lydon himself—who had influenced punk ethos more than any other single figure—had turned into punk's antithesis: a glory-basking rock star.

(In reply to McLaren's charges, Warner Bros. Vice President Bob Regehr, who was instrumental in signing the Sex Pistols in America, says: "We had nothing to do with enticing John from the band. In fact, we wanted them to stay together, and until the breakup, we'd done most of our dealing with Malcolm. But whether Malcolm wanted John to be a rock star or not is irrelevant. John is charismatic, and there's nothing anyone could do to deny that. What did Malcolm want—for him to stick a bag over his head and stand in the corner?")

"What really happened," says Lydon, is that the other Pistols [guitarist Steve Jones and drummer Paul Cook] wouldn't speak to me anymore. Malcolm flew them around in airplanes, while Sid [Vicious] and I traveled across America with the roadies. You come here to see the fucking country, not fly over it."

A few days after the group's disintegration, Lydon announced that he wanted to form a group that was "antimusic of any kind. I'm tired of melody." He returned to England, reputedly broke and still bound to Virgin and Warner Bros. Back home he recruited two friends—classically trained guitarist and pianist Keith Levene, who'd been a founding member of the Clash, and Jah Wobble, a novice bassist and reggae enthusiast—along with drummer Jim Walker (since replaced by Martin Atkins) to form a band Lydon claimed wouldn't be a band at all. Rather, it would be a cooperative—a self-contained company whose members had equal responsibility for the group's management, production, and promotion.

Lydon also saw that change as an opportunity to debunk the myth of Johnny Rotten. (Actually, he delights in interchanging the surnames: on PiL's album jackets he lists himself as John Lydon, though in conversation he frequently refers to himself as John Rotten.) "Malcolm and the press had a lot to do with fostering that image," he says. "I chose to walk away from it because otherwise you have all these people out there waiting for you to kill yourself on their behalf.

"I mean, look what happened to Sid," he adds, referring to bassist Sid Vicious' arrest for the murder of his girlfriend, Nancy Spungeon, and his subsequent death by heroin overdose. A plaintive look crosses Lydon's face, and he stares into his drink for a long moment. "Poor Sid. The only way he could live up to what he wanted everyone to believe about him was to die. That was tragic, but more for Sid than anyone else. He really bought his public image."

It is fitting, then, that Lydon's new group is called Public Image, Ltd. ("The name," he says, "means just that: our public image is limited.), and their debut single, "Public Image," was an indictment of the Pistols and McLaren: "You never listened to a word that I said / You only seen me by the clothes I wear / Or did the interest go so much deeper / It must have been the color of my hair.... / What you wanted was never made clear / Behind the image was ignorance and fear."

But the real focal point of the song, as well as the subsequent album, Public Image, was the musical content: amorphous structures and unbroken rhythms, paired with minimal melodies and Lydon's hoodoo vocals. The concept had its roots in the drone and modal experimentalism of the Velvet Underground, Brain Eno, avant-garde composer LaMonte Young and the German group Can, while the actual sound mix resembled the prominent bass and deep echo characteristic of reggae dub productions.

The rock press, though, lambasted the album. Rolling Stone termed it "post-nasal drip monotony," while England's New Musical Express dismissed it as "a Zen lesson in idolatry." (Warner Bros. declined to release the album in America, even though PiL rerecorded and remixed parts of it. "It will come out eventually," says Regehr.) Basically, PiL agreed with the critics: "They all slagged it," says Keith Levene, "because it was self-indulgent, nonsimplistic, and non-rock & roll. Those are all good points. But that's the kind of music we intend to make. We don't want to be another Clash, making old-fashioned, twelve-bar rock & roll."

But critical perspectives on PiL seem to be shifting. In part, that's because they're now seen as progenitors of an English "Brave New Wave" movement that includes electronic, theorizing bands like Cabaret Voltaire, Joy Division, Throbbing Gristle and This Heat. It's also because PiL's own music has matured measurably. With Second Edition, Levene has fashioned a mesmerizing orchestral guitar and synthesizer web that embroiders and enwraps the dance-beat-oriented rhythm section, while Lydon has written some of his most forceful lyrics to date (particularly those to "Poptones," a deathly account of rape told from the victim's point of view, and "Swan Lake," a song about his mother's recent death).

"Now all the critics love us," Lydon says with a scornful smile. At two a.m. the waitress calls for last rounds. Lydon orders a double, then continues. "I don't trust all these people who praise us now. They're the same ones who waited until the Pistols were over before they accepted them. And I'm not sure the press appreciates at all the Public Image is more than just a band I'm in."

But, I note, when people open Rolling Stone and see a picture of Lydon only—since Keith Levene wouldn't be photographed—doesn't that help reinforce the notion that PiL is, indeed, Lydon's band?

His eyes flicker. "They can think what they fuckin' want." he snaps. "I gave up a long time ago bothering about people's opinions and impressions. If Keith don't want his picture taken, that's fine. It's a band decision, is it not? Just appreciate it for that."

The real question, though, is whether people—New Wave devotees included—will appreciate PiL. The group makes music that, by virtue of it's dissonance, idiosyncrasy and anti-rock & roll stance, is almost certain to reach a smaller audience in America than the Sex Pistols did. But in the same way the Sex Pistol's radicalism has now become a part of the rock vernacular, making it possible for groups like the Clash to reach a wider audience, it's likely that PiL is preparing us for an even more modern dance, somewhere further down the road.

Lydon, though, doesn't agree. "I think our cause will be lost, but that won't be so bad, will it? Until then," he says, pulling his jeering lips into a smile, "we can do nothing but benefit your dreary little lives."


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