John McGeoch
Sounds, October 27th, 1990

© 1990 Sounds


If ever there's been a long, strange trip, it's been the recording career of ex-Pistol JOHN LYDON's brainchild, PiL. As their greatest hits album is unleashed, Lydon's right hand man, guitarist JOHN McGEOCH, discusses the the band's recorded output with ROBIN GIBSON.

"IT'S DEAD, it's a disease, it's a plague, it's been going on for too long" - John Lydon on rock 'n' roll (1980)

Ten years later, the ex-Pistol and PiL chunder on. They've just hit the singles charts with 'Don't Ask Me' - their best and most urgent, as well as side-splittingly funny, single in years.

Whether they're still breaking down the sound barriers is a moot point. Certainly they prefer to troll across the States on an old fashioned working tour rather than confound audience expectations by 'playing' behind a screen - one of their more notorious exploits which took place at New York's Ritz in May '81.

And 'The Greatest Hits, So Far' is a conventional retrospective which concentrates on the band's singles. Later tracks have been remixed but the album ignores the longer and most experimental tracks from early PiL outings, as well as their two live albums.

"We felt at liberty to f**k with the new stuff - the 'part two' of PiL stuff," says guitarist John McGeoch. "Bob Clearmountain, for instance, remixed 'Rise'. But the very early stuff… it would be so easy to remix it and modernise it, but I would question anybody's intentions in doing that.

"I can't think what you could do to improve it. And I also think that people who are interested in the compilation as a retrospective, are more interested in hearing that stuff in its original format. A lot of our audience never have heard early PiL stuff, especially in America."

Still in the pipeline is a project tentatively entitled 'Renovations', in which the current PiL intend to rework and hopefully do proper justice to certain PiL songs which have been stymied in the past by dodgy line-ups (most of the 'This Is What You Want' period, for starters).

Here the guitarist recollects, both from a punter's and a player's point of view, the past of PiL…

THE SINGLE, which ushered in the fondly remembered PiL line-up of Lydon, Jah Wobble (bass), the ill-fated Keith Levene (guitar) and Jim Walker (drums), For McGeoch, it was a single which broke moulds. "If was a momentous track and I don't think that I'm over-aggrandising the thing. You know, people say they remember where they were when Kennedy was shot. Well, I remember hearing' 'Public Image' like that, and it was a huge leap in approach and so on.

"A lot of people got really angry, though. People were expecting to hear the Pistols, which was basically a 70s rock 'n' roll sound. That attitude, which was definitely prevalent, is really why John left the Pistols."

WHICH TURNED out to be a much less accessible proposition than the sharp three-minute burst of the debut single.

"He found himself in the position of having the ear of the public, and I don't think he abused it. An awful lot of people who bought that album were shocked, but I think their heads were turned as well.

"I daren't say 'educational', but it really was something approaching that."

CAME, REMARKABLY for its era, in a slimline biscuit-tin type package. The initial format of three 12-inch singles made for housequaking, full force rhythms whose only precursor for the punk generation were the dub grooves of reggae. Walker departed while Jeannette Lee, whose role was never clearly defined, arrived.

"'Metal Box' was definitely challenging, experimenting. I know why it (the original PiL formation) fell apart, but now isn't the time for me to be talking about it. But I wish they had kept together, cos I liked what they were doing so much."

IN WHICH PiL, behold, fell apart further with the departure of Wobble. With Jeanette Lee and Levene still in tow, roles were much less clearly defined than before.

"This is John working with a sort of framework of a band. And something that was the nearest he's come to, until quite recently, that answered the description of the original concept of PiL being a sort of umbrella for various projects.

"I tend to think that John was let down. He worked with unreliable people for a time and he ended up continuing because he had some kind of… a faith in what he was doing. And for the next three albums, from 'Flowers Of Romance', you find John to all intents and purposes kind of recording it himself. He didn't want to let the PiL flag wilt, but there's only so much you can do on your own."

AN ALBUM of half-realised songs recorded by Lydon and drummer Martin Atkins, distinguished by a few memorable lyrics, particularly the weirdly autobiographical and brilliantly funny 'Tie Me To The Length' Of That'. The period is better remembered for the godawful covers band which backed Lydon on tour. . .

"Yeah, he picked up a Holiday Inn band and toured with it. You saw them and I saw them doing The Tube, and it was just nonsense, they were playing 'Anarchy'. It's a joke. I don't know quite at whose expense. . .

"On the album, the songs were there, and John just lacked people to follow the ideas through. In a sense, his hands were tied, because him and Martin Atkins did the album, and Martin, for all his talents, is a drummer.

'"Tie Me To The Length Of That' is a great lyric: "When I was born the doctor didn't like me/He grabbed my ankles/held me like a turkey/Dear mummy, why'd you let him hit me? This was wrong, I knew you didn't love me, "and so on.

"At the risk of becoming melodramatic, and I'm sure John won't mind me telling you this, at the time John's mum was dying of cancer. 'This Is Not A Love Song' (the album's hit single) John wrote for his mother, and it was played at the funeral. She heard it before she died when she was in hospital." [sic: it should be 'Death Disco' not 'Love Song']

THE FUNCTIONALLY-titled artifact produced by metal head Bill Laswell and featuring a cast of session men. Bit of a stonker.

"When he went in to record the generic 'Album', there was a kind of flavour of the rather bitter humour that was involved in doing something as daft as touring with a Holiday Inn band. It was Ginger Baker on drums, Ryuichi Sakamoto on keyboards, Steve Vai on guitar – a pretty star-studded cast, basically, and suddenly he's working with a group of musicians that can play.

"I actually heard demos of the stuff from before, songs like 'Rise', which was called 'South African Song' and 'FFF' and stuff, and it wasn't written as a heavy metal album as such, but with the players and stuff, it came out like that."

THE ALBUM which launched the current PiL trio, with the addition of drummer Bruce Smith and Lu Edmonds, both of whom left the band last year – the latter due to a particularly excruciating ear complaint called tinnitus.

"Well, to all intents and purposes, it was like the first album. Before we made the album, we'd toured for a year-and-a-half or something. We started to make the album in '87, and writing together was just an organic development from the way we were working together on the 'Album' material on tour.

"Initially, there was a little bit of trepidation about this big move of having a band, but after a couple of months we realised it was working out. There's a kind of exuberance on 'Happy?'."

Something of a marketplace resuscitation for PiL - especially in America, and neatly produced by pop maestro Stephen Hague.

"If 'Happy?' was our first album, and '9' was, er, very much a second album. What I'm trying to chip away at is that there's all these old cliches about a band's first album and second album…

"I don't think '9' was a bummer, but looking back with the luxury of hindsight, I'm more content with 'Happy?' .

"We, in fact, started to record '9' with Bill Laswell, but Bill was just out of order I'm afraid. Lydon sacked him on the second day. He wanted to make a heavy metal album. He had us round and it was nothing less than a lecture that he gave us, that the American public needed John Lydon to make a tough heavy metal album.

''The material that we had written for '9' was written on computers, as was the new stuff and he said, This is just disco. He wanted to throw out Alan and Bruce and use his own musicians."

THE NEW single, 'Don't Ask Me' is the perfect antidote to the annoyingly self-righteous Ark detergent groupies down your local Tesco.

From an album yet to be recorded, this finds PiL reduced to a core trio of Lydon, McGeoch and bassist Alan Dias. McGeoch is as keen on it as are the general public. "Lydon loved 'Don't Ask Me'. Alan wrote the music, but when we put the guitars on it, he thought it sounded almost like a Pistols song or something. It's a little bit of a stretch of the imagination, but…"


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