Public Image Limited
When The Sex Pistols disbanded, John Lydon’s next project was the constantly morphing body of artists known as Public Image Limited. Neil Cooper traces the band’s history on the eve of a reunion (of sorts)
‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’ Those were John Lydon’s last words as Johnny Rotten at the close of The Sex Pistols’ chaotic 1978 San Francisco swansong. It was a sentiment echoed this September when the first live dates in 17 years by Lydon’s next (and infinitely more maverick project) Public Image Limited, were announced. Coinciding with the 30th anniversary of PiL’s second album, Metal Box, originally released, dub-plate style, as a trio of 12”s contained in film canister packaging, anticipation was high that the ‘classic’ line-up of Lydon, guitarist Keith Levene, bass player Jah Wobble and one of a succession of drummers behind it would reunite in much the same way as surviving Pistols have before them.
As sole constant between PiL’s Christmas day 1978 debut and the extended hiatus begun in 1992, however, Lydon called on late period members, multi-instrumentalist Lu Edmonds and drummer Bruce Smith, to join up alongside bassist Scott Firth, whose credits include The Spice Girls. Punk Rock? Almost certainly not.
Because, far from playing to type, PiL have remained expectation-confounding awkward sods from the day they exposed rock-and-roll rebellion as a sham when they revealed they weren’t anything so old-fashioned as a band, but a company.
PiL named themselves after a Muriel Spark novel and served up an angrily contrary stew of free noise and dub dirge repetition that was part Can, part King Tubby’s and part performance art. PiL looked like they could fall apart any minute, and often did. They took ‘Death Disco’, an anguished experimental howl provoked by the death of Lydon’s mother, onto Top of the Pops. In New York they played behind a screen and rioting ensued. Their Dadaist music hall provocations pushed boundaries between audience and performer in a way dance culture embraced later. In TV interviews they remained bloody-mindedly misunderstood.
Thirty-seven members passed through PiL, and on joining in 1986, both Edmonds and Smith had form that binds them to a broader post-punk family tree. Edmonds played with The Damned, and for the last couple of decades has been in The Mekons. He formed bogus Balkan ensemble 3 Mustaphas 3 with Ben Mandelson, who briefly joined Magazine, whose original guitarist John McGeogh also played in late-period PiL. More recently, Edmonds and Mandelson have played as Les Triaboliques with guitarist Justin Adams, formerly of Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart.
Smith’s roots in PiL are even closer to home. He drummed with The Pop Group, whose avant-funk-noise was similarly incendiary. Smith also played with The Slits, whose manager Nora Forster, mother of Slits vocalist Ari Up, is Lydon’s wife.
As for Firth, who’s also played with John Martyn and Elvis Costello, bear in mind that everyone from Bill Laswell to Miles Davis to ex Cream drummer Ginger Baker have contributed to PiL’s strange brew.
Wobble was approached to join the tour, but turned it down for reasons artistic and financial. Besides which, as arguably the most accomplished ex member – not counting post Metal Box videographer and violinist Jeanette Lee, who recently guided Duffy to stardom – he probably didn’t need it.
How the shows turn out is anybody’s guess. Like the pantomime season they run in tandem with, however, there’ll be heroes to cheer and villains to boo. Both will probably go by the name of Lydon. Which perhaps ain’t so Rotten, after all.
Public Image Limited, O2 Academy, Glasgow, Fri 18 Dec.