Friday, 14 August 2015
The Adventures of John Lydon Part Two- after the breakup of the Sex Pistols in 1978 Lydon was abandoned in the USA by McClaren while he set about making his doomed film and the rest of the band flew down to Rio to meet Ronnie Biggs. Lydon is rightly scathing about all of this in his book. He returned to London and took refuge in a flat he bought in Gunter Grove. These are some of the strongest sections of the book- his chaotic life in Gunter Grove, the continual threat of being busted by the police, harassment by the tabloid press, a trip to Jamaica to scout acts for Virgin's new reggae label. Reverting to Lydon from Rotten he sets about putting together a new band and a new type of band. Public Image Limited, more than any other band except Joy Division maybe, made what is now thought of as post-punk. He hooks up with Keith Levene (who gets castigated all the way through Lydon's autobiography but he acknowledges his abilities as a guitarist and writer) and old mate Jah Wobble (who can't play bass when he joins). Together they make some of the most brilliant music of the period. Opening single Public Image is still one of the great 7" records- thrilling, intense and Lydon giving his enemies (McClaren mainly) a tongue lashing and proclaiming himself as his own property. Levene and Wobble plus drummer Jim Walker are on fire.
After the first album they regroup to make Metal Box, all living together at Gunter Grove. No verses, no choruses, no running order, no filler. Not an easy listen in places but forward thinking and visionary. Death Disco is like nothing else, and sounds exactly like its title. Poptones is very unsettling. Careering is stunning.
After Metal Box PiL began to suffer from personnel changes- Wobble hates Levene and leaves, Levene is increasingly unreliable, Walker had already gone before or during Metal Box. Jeanette Lee joins as part of PiL's umbrella organisation and they make another album, The Flowers Of Romance, uneven but good in places. This Top Of The Pops performance is pretty memorable.
Beyond this Lydon's move to Los Angeles and further issues with band members leads to a decline in output and quality. The singles remain strong for a few more years- This Is Not A Love Song with a truly daft but attention grabbing video (and I prefer this poppy version with horns to the earlier one). A handful of album tracks still burn brightly.
In 1987 a further go in the studio, this time with seasoned professionals like Steve Vai and Ginger Baker, sees a new album called Album, and another great single- Rise- which managed to be a fairly major hit and still sounds vital. Beyond that, an LA cartoon version of PiL takes over as far as I'm concerned but I know there are people who will make claims for songs from beyond this point.
In Anger Is An Energy Lydon rails against X Factor and the obsession with perfect singing voices. Quite rightly he says what you say and the emotion in a voice is far more important than being able to sing scales or hit every note perfectly. PiL's best songs show this time and again and from Public Image through to Rise Lydon made records that are as good or better than Sex Pistols records- they just don't have the same impact as he did as Johnny Rotten. The times have changed. I saw PiL in 2009 and the new version of the band he's put together play a great set, proving the man can still do it when he wants it.
A final clip to illustrate his peculiar genius- invited to play on US tv show American Bandstand in 1980 PiL arrive to be told they will be miming. Lydon is at first disgusted and affronted but then plays with the format leading the studio audience, camera crew and producers on a merry dance. Surreal and hilarious and a little bit frightening.