Lydon & Levene:
NME, 14th March 1981

Transcribed (and additional info) by Karsten Roekens

© 1981 NME

Company Lore & Public Disorder:
The PiL Memorandum

by Gavin Martin

While England goes down the plughole, the firm of Lydon, Levene and Lee set up to prove that enterprise is not dead. They press boldly ahead with their plans to redevelop the face of rock as we know and loathe it. Three years of power struggle with Virgin and international upheavals have kept them behind schedule, but soon - very soon - we should see the romance of PIL in full flower...

This is just another day in London and the town is dirty, colourless and insidiously threatening. The winter gloom turns into spring, but the metropolis remains insular and stupefied. It's cold and overcast and the slow dizzy hum of city life drags a cast of factory fodder, office workers (that's me), tramps and delinquents into its monotony and anonymity. Walking up Ladbroke Grove, the blank sullen faces and the sluggish pace of the passers-by betray a weary sense of demoralization. They say adversity brings out the best in the, er, British, but in the present climate of blanket oppression, surrender and acceptance seem the easy and most popular options. And with an ascetic government policy of mass unemployment, strict cash controls and the renewed interests in nationalism and defence, there's a recipe for disaster compounded by the illusion of a 'solution'.

Of course, solutions don't provide a way out of the problem, they are of necessity part of the problem, more correctly seen as little cubby holes with opaque windows. Here people can find solace away from the ruthless disunity. They can take the dramatic and romantic appeal of the gun, the false security of the bomb, or the patriotism to a country that gives more to its life takers than its life givers... It's not hard to see how things are going.

"This whole country is like sinking into the ocean. It's reached the stage where Britain will soon be getting sent food parcels. London's getting very, very fascist and I don't like it at all!"

John Lydon lights another Marlboro and continues to enunciate a slow but defiant train of thoughts, this time taunting me with direct information, his piercing bug-eyed stare fixes on a TV set. "'Go back' was written about that, about London and tedium and right-wing groups. It's pathetic, people wallow in misery and accept anything. Have a cup of tea, good days ahead."
he concludes, before returning to a recently discovered brand of choice beer.

It's the only time Lydon inserts one of his own lyrics into our conversation, and of course he does it because it's a cruelly apt piece of humour, a sharp way of underlining his point and exposing the dearth of imagination and apathy strewn around him. At times like this John can appear to be smug, but it's his honesty that stuns.

I regain foothold and fumble another question. Do you hold any sympathy for kids who get involved in fascist groups?

"I don't mind people having views like that, if they know what they're talking about. But the promotion of ignorance and the glorification of stupidity is something I just can not deal with. They like to be downtrodden and they like to think they're left out of everywhere. It's so sad-sect-two-bob-loser-city. That's all they're told by the daily papers, and of course they believe it because the papers don't lie. There's precious fuck-all that I or anybody in my position could do to stop them."

I hate mob rule as much as Lydon, but his tolerance for individuals who would actively destroy individualism and literally dispose of dissenters is a hefty contradiction, which is contributing to the lack of external growth of his company Public Image Ltd., where much is made of freedom and independent control, but few of the benefits one expects of such qualities have been forthcoming.

Rock music, the feeble sickness that it undoubtedly is, loudly plasters itself with stifling prejudices, dangerously evocative imagery and creates cold callous boxes for its product, keeping in line with society's conservatism. So, not only do you have a musical mainstream consisting of a queasy, uninterrupted flow of blandness and conceited posturing, but on the pretext of some flimsy cloak of tribalism, each box seeks your support.

Take your pick from Adam's flatulent warrior pose, heavy metal's valium-fuelled sexism, or Spandau Ballet's barely concealed fascism (check the sleeve notes on 'Journey To Glory'). And on and on it goes, a sick meaningless merry-go-round of degradation, fashion and pawn pushing. Nothing has changed, in fact things have got worse than ever. Ah well, you can rely on rock music to provide a true reflection of the times.

Now it would be a fool or an evangelist to ask or expect John Lydon to swoop down on the masses and show them the error of their ways. He's already tried that once, as he repeatedly tells me - people took the wrong things from his Sex Pistols days and ended up with the present confusion of aims and aspirations, causes and effects. Besides, right from the outset it was made clear that Public Image Ltd. would continue to move forward, regardless of pressures and circumstances.

It's always been stressed that PIL are a company, and as such free to move into other areas apart from music - drawing, video discs, film making and designing various pieces of equipment with the knowledge acquired from experimenting in the studio. All of which sounds fine, but some three years after their inception these other ideas still only exist in theory.
PIL are yet to move into market places other than those which are the immediate preserve of rock music. And this makes Keith Levene's contention that PIL are a communications company which has more in common with Warner Brothers than, say, the Gang Of Four, seem like a lot of hot air.

But despite their weaknesses, and I'd say they're more marked than they would care to admit,
PIL remain the most innovative and exciting noise makers in Britain. That's a fact indelibly stamped certainly on anyone with two clean ears who has had the privilege to hear their fourth album, 'Flowers Of Romance'. And it's a pleasure not as rare as one might expect if Lydon's claims of a Virgin tape leak earlier this year are true.

Originally comprising of a nucleus of five members, PIL have arrived at their present 'perfected chemistry' of John, Keith and Jeanette Lee, following the dismissal of long time backroom member Dave Crowe six months ago for 'doing nothing', and the departure of Jah Wobble after Chris Bohn's interview with Keith Levene (NME July 5, 1980). In that article it was made clear that Wobble was rapidly losing favour within the set-up. When the subject is now broached, John remains unruffled.

"Not only did Wobble use PIL backing tracks for his own solo albums, which are terrible, but he also got into this whole condescending attitude of 'playing for the kids'. It was against everything we started out to be. We used to be really good friends but I haven't seen him for months. He seems to be keeping himself hidden, but that's his prerogative. Look, this is a fact, Wobble was never present at one of our mixes, he just played his bars and left the studio before the real work began."

I tell him that Wobble's new band is presently rehearsing and Lydon admits he is very interested in hearing what they sound like.

"Whatever else there is about him, Wobble is a very, very good bass player."

Although John, Jeanette and Keith knew each other during the original punk era - Miss Lee was a shop assistant in Acme Attractions, where she would give Sid Vicious discounts - there was no thought of forming a band.

"Moronic as Steve, Paul, Glen and Sid all were, there was absolutely no thought of walking out and getting it together with people of a higher intellect," John explains. "Firstly Jeanette had no interest whatsoever in being involved in a band, and secondly there was all sorts of personal bickering going on. It might seem like the most obvious thing to do, but it's the hardest to work with friends. It's something that just happens, you can't plan it or want it, it just works that way. Eventually kindred spirits will flock together. Does that sound terrible? It's the only way I can put it."

In the studio at least, the PIL triumvirate appears to be an effective and well-balanced entity, with each person bringing characteristics to the set-up that compliment and contrast successfully with those of the others. Johnny is still the court jester possessed of an invaluable honest cynicism. Jeanette has a practical efficiency and a wily way of assimilating the significance of the factors and people who influence PIL's movement. 'Flowers Of Romance' is the first LP on which she plays an instrument, although this is not to underestimate her role on previous works.

"I am always present at studio mixes, and just the fact that I'm there means I'm contributing to the clash of personalities," she explains, slapping her hands together for emphasis. Her role is often said by others to be that of a manageress, but she openly scorns such a description. "There is no band, there are no rules and there are no managers," she states.

Lydon is curt and adamant: "Whoever is available will do whatever is necessary."

It was Levene who was originally responsible for putting PIL into motion. Following the Pistols split he saw Lydon on TV telling everybody that he had a new band together, but instinct told the primitive technical coordinator that Johnny was lying, and he phoned him to put plans for PIL into operations. Levene is sad and serious faced, a precise theorist searching for purpose and precision amidst a maze of organisational and financial obstacles. His technical interests and early determination to abandon orthodox studio sound have fired the other members with a similar desire, resulting in 'Flowers Of Romance', which sees them hurtling headlong into previously untested territory.

We meet one chilly afternoon to discuss the new album and the shape of PIL in general in Jeanette's third floor West London flat. The living room is eye-level with a schoolroom where various youths spy and giggle at the proceedings. Present at various times throughout my six hour stay are all three members of PIL, but with the small, fragile and charming Jeanette suffering from a nagging toothache, and Levene not in the mood for talking and otherwise engaged in company business, most of the exchanges are made between John and myself.

Lydon seems to prefer a stumbled, fragmented conversation, whereas Levene when he joins in sounds like a well-drilled PR rapping machine.

The LP was finished last December, recorded in three weeks during November [1]. But PIL have encountered the most ludicrous opposition from Virgin Records, who claim that the record is so uncommercial that they should re-release the group's 'Public Image' debut single to stimulate interest in it.

"They said, oh it's not commercial, it won't sell," John alleges in his best Chelsea arts critic whine.

Keith: "No, Virgin don't say that."

John: "They don't now, but they did when we gave it to them. They only wanted to press thirty thousand."

Absolute insanity! It's the best thing, the most accessible thing you've ever recorded, I say.

John: "It's like at Virgin there's a few people there who have their brains somewhere in their feet. One in particular is Laurie Dunn (head of Virgin Publishing), who has a lot of influence for no particular reason. He thinks PIL have never made a good record, and people like Simon Draper listen to that sort of crap."

Keith: "But he found it offensive that Dunn said that, he told me."

John: "Only after The Slits went in the same studio, using the same engineer, trying to get the same sound." [2]

With your contract coming up for renewal are you thinking of leaving Virgin then?

Keith: "No, I'm thinking of ways to work with Virgin and to get Virgin to work for us. I'm always trying to find ways of doing that, because Virgin have got a large corporation thing going in this country. They've got one of everything so far: they've got their venue, they've got their house in the country, they've got their Manor house and their barges, and each one of these has a studio. They've also got their independent cinema, their publishing company and their foreign investments, and now they're establishing themselves in the States. I don't see why Virgin shouldn't be a very worthwhile company to be involved in, I mean PIL certainly is.

But there seems to be a clash of ambitions and the clash isn't PIL's fault. Virgin started off on the right foot, but soon forgot what they were doing and developed fat necks. It's simple, we can see into the future and they can't. I keep telling them that PIL will release an album that's going to sell millions and they're going to have to print up lots of copies of the other albums, but they won't listen. Virgin used to be able to see into the future, or rather they used to take a chance on the biggest load of shit and invest in it. Now they just have their pet loves The Slits. But PIL were around a long time before bands like that."

John: "XTC are the latest favourites. But just because I moan and grumble about Virgin doesn't mean I don't want to work with them. In fact, because I moan and grumble I can see room for improvement."

A venture that seemed to give PIL breathing space and a focus for their other talents was a chance to work on a film with 'Woodstock' director Michael Wadleigh.

John: "They offered us the chance to do a soundtrack. I mean, who wouldn't want an opportunity like that? It's not 'Woodstock', it's not. The clips we saw were really excellent, it looked like it could have been a really good film, but as far as I know they've stopped production on it totally. [3] Originally Wadleigh wanted us to write music to suit the atmosphere, it's about wolves and killing people, and that suited us fine of course."

Keith: "Yeah, our next album is called 'Music For Prisons'. Tell him how we've got it worked out on an ambient scale and -"

"Fuck off!" John laughs.

"No, I think a lot of soundtracks are really vile and I think films are being done a disservice. I think we could do a service to a film. Like with this Michael Wadleigh thing, we wanted to go right down to a bottle banging on the table - the whole lot, not just the music but sounds. But then Tom Waits [4] and other people came into it, and it wasn't what we had in mind, so there's many confusing factors, none of which is on our part. They wanted us to ask for a certain amount of money, and I think that's, well, prattish, they should make us an offer. But they insisted, so I said 'a million would do quite nicely, thank you'. I haven't heard from them since."

Levene will happily talk at length about two other pet projects, a drum synthesizer and a portable recording studio which, designed using microchips, can fit into a briefcase. But gradually he begins to sound like a science boff in junior school with a lot of plausible ideas but no way of actually producing or marketing them.

Typically, Lydon gives a succinct overview of the problem. "They have the finance but no ideas. We have the ideas but no finance. That's where the arguments begin and end."

Of course! But that doesn't mean PIL are unique in their problem, it's something all groups wishing to utilize the channels created by a new challenging medium have to face. Until PIL accept this and begin to put efficiency rather than spontaneity at the forefront of their business dealings, then they're certainly not going to realize their aims.

Levene admits to sloth on PIL's part, but refuses to accept that this is the only reason for their inactivity.

"We're lazy, but we've got enough discipline to know when to work and when not to work. The things we have in mind are mainly restricted to basic company set-ups, record companies and production companies. The way round is to make PIL the Company, but it's a company that doesn't exist because you need a massive cash injection to give it a boost. We need people to invest in us on a contract basis, which Virgin are doing in terms of music in Britain, as are Nippon Columbia in Japan and Warners in America. We've suggested our ideas to all three companies, and all the problems that amounted were the same: 'We can't do that. It won't sell. There's no market for this, there's no market for that.' The market probably won't exist for another seven years, and they're waiting until the market exists instead of inventing one."

PIL now adamantly refuse to be drawn into the circus of live performing.

"You ask, do I care who our audience is?" Levene says. "I sometimes wonder if our audience cares who the band is, if they know what we're there for."

John: "There's nothing wrong with playing a live gig, but there's a lot wrong with doing a tour, because if you're singing and performing the same songs every night in different cities up and down the universe a video would be much more honest."

*Transcript incomplete*

[1] The album was actually recorded in three weeks from mid-October to early November 1980, with a session added in early December to do the single remix of the track 'Flowers of romance'
[2] Nick Launay co-produced three tracks on The Slits' final album 'Return Of The Giant Slits'
[3] Wrong, the film had actually its premiere a few months later (24.7.1981)
[4] Tom Waits made a cameo appearance in the film, singing one of his songs. The soundtrack was finally done by James Horner. There was no soundtrack album.


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