Existing as a collective at first, and self-managed, Lydon was joined by distinctive guitarist Keith Levene, an early member of The Clash, and bass-player Jah Wobble, an old school-friend of Lydon and a fellow reggae fanatic. After he answered a Melody Maker advertisement, Canadian drummer Jim Walker was recruited.
PiL's debut single was released in October 1978; 'Public Image' reached number 5 in the UK charts, assisted by Top of the Pops showings of Don Letts' stark semi-performance video. "I learned how to write songs in the Pistols and then I learned how to deconstruct with PiL," said Lydon. PiL, as they became known, were "anti-rock", Lydon asserted.
Public Image: First Issue, their first album, came out before Christmas 1978. Almost immediately they were hailed as 'post-punk': their bass-heavy, droning sound was only emphasized by Lydon's distinctive manic chanting and lugubrious ranting. (The album was subsequently renamed as First Issue.)
"People are bitching that the album doesn't sound like the Pistols, but if I'd have had my way the Pistols would've sounded like Public Image," he insisted. Self-promoted PiL shows at London's Rainbow Theatre on Christmas and Boxing Day 1978 were sell-outs, only emphasising their independence: from now on, PiL would always steer a course out on the margins of the music business, maverick irritants.
PiL's second album, 1979's Metal Box was hailed as a masterpiece. It involved four drummers, replacements for Jim Walker. David Humphrey, who played on 'Swan Lake' – retitled Death Disco, it made number 20 in the singles chart - and 'Albatross'; Richard Dudanski, formerly the drummer with Joe Strummer's pub rock outfit The 101'ers, played with PiL from April to September 1979, providing most of the record's drumming; he was succeeded by Karl Burns, from The Fall; then Martin Atkins arrived: he would play with PiL into 1980, and re-join from 1982 to 1985.
True to its title, Metal Box was initially released as a trio of untitled 45 rpm 12-inch records, packaged in a circular film canister-like metal container. The stark sound of the first album was exaggerated even further, adorned with dub effects, Levene's glassy guitar, sprinklings of synthesizer effects, and Lydon's frequently harrowing vocals.
Following a brief, but controversial US tour – which included an anarchic takeover of Dick Clark's American Bandstand - 1980 saw the release of PiL's first live album, Paris au Printemps. Broke after making Metal Box, PiL were in need of funds, and a Paris-recorded live album – on which all the track titles were listed in French – was a solution. This was the last PiL record on which Jah Wobble would appear.
By now Jeannette Lee, who with Don Letts had run Acme Attractions, a rival to Sex as the hippest Kings Road Clothing store, had joined the PiL collective as video-maker. The Flowers of Romance was the name of a 1976 punk group briefly containing Keith Levene and Jah Wobble. Now it was seized as the title of the next PiL LP, The Flowers Of Romance. Considered a 'difficult' work, in hindsight The Flowers of Romance makes perfect sense. There were great songs: 'Four Enclosed Walls', 'Phenagen', 'Banging The Door', the acute 'Go Back', and the title track. Writer Jon Savage got it immediately: "You have such unmuso delights as sloppy endings, inaudible lyrics, minimal tunes, peculiar rhythms: it's obviously in the nature of things that this unsettling mixture works." The 'Francis Massacre' tune took its starting-point from a brief spell endured by Lydon in Dublin's Mountjoy Prison.
Although Jeannette Lee had linked up romantically with Keith Levene, he was soon to depart the group. In May 1981 they moved to New York City, but Levene – a heroin addict – was constantly in dispute with Martin Atkins: accordingly, Levene departed PiL, allegedly stealing the master tapes of the next projected PiL album, which he released in 1983 as Commercial Zone. From now on, John Lydon was based in the United States, later relocating from New York to Los Angeles.
1983's Live in Tokyo was an oddity, a 2-EP 45 RPM set, initially only issued by Columbia Records in Japan; put out later in the year by Virgin Records in the UK, it reached number 28 in the album charts. Musicians on the record were all hired-in session players, apart from Lydon and drummer Martin Atkins.
That year, 1983, also saw the release of a highly commercial single from PiL, 'This is Not a Love Song', which hit number 5 in the UK and charted globally, their biggest ever international success.
'This is Not a Love Song' demonstrated the manner in which PiL was now moving towards a more commercial pop and dance direction. A re-recorded version of the tune was included on the next PiL album, This is What You Want…This is What You Get, released in 1984, and a further single, 'Bad Life'. It included many of the songs allegedly pilfered by Keith Levene for Commercial Zone, including 'The Order of Death', the title of a harrowing feature film in which Lydon starred opposite Harvey Keitel.
Now based in Los Angeles, Lydon held auditions for further musicians. PiL's 1986 record was simply title Album, Compact Disc, or Cassette, depending on which format it was sold in. Produced by the respected Bill Laswell, it included guitar-work by Steve Vai, and a pair of legendary drummers, Tony Williams and Ginger Baker. Bass-player Jonas Hellborg, at the time a member of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, also was on the record. Miles Davis, passing through the studio, played on one track – although in the end it wasn't used. "Later he said that I sang like he played the trumpet, which is still the best thing anyone's ever said to me," remarked Lydon afterwards, admitting that Album was the nearest he had come to making a solo record.
For the Album tour, John Lydon brought in The Pop Group and Slits' drummer Bruce Smith; bass-player Allan Dias; former Damned guitarist Lu Edmonds; and John McGeoch, who had played guitar with Magazine and Siouxsie and the Banshees. McGeoch and Dias stayed with Lydon and PiL until 1992, the group's longest-running members.
1987 saw the release of Happy? Bill Laswell had been set to produce the record; the arrangement fell through when he again wanted to include his choice of musicians – Lydon was insistent that the current PiL line-up should perform. Eventually Happy? was produced by Gary Langan – who had co-founded ZTT Records with Trevor Horn - and PiL. "The Happy? LP did have a doom, death and destruction feel about it, very crunchy, tanks rolling, very military in its approach," said Lydon. "Happy?'was much more militant in its approach, kind of pissed off at the world. Bear in mind that Happy? was the first album that we as a band had done, so we were sort of being very cagey with each other in the writing. Nobody really let rip."
In early 1989, PiL released 9 – the title referenced the fact it was the ninth PiL album, including the live records. It featuring the single 'Disappointed', and was produced by Stephen Hague, Eric 'ET' Thorngren, and PiL.
The next year, 1990, saw The Greatest Hits... So Far, a compilation of PiL singles. A clearly ironic title, few acts other than PiL could have released such a diverse set, ranging from 1979's 'Death Disco' to 1990's 'Don't Ask Me'. It made number 20 in the UK album charts.
1992's That What Is Not was the last PiL studio album of the era. As though taking us on a circular journey through John Lydon's career, the song 'Acid Drops' featured a sample of The Sex Pistols' 'God Save the Queen'. When Virgin wouldn't provide tour support for the record, Lydon disbanded PiL, who played their last concert on 18 September 1992: by then Allan Dias had left the group some months previously. The final line-up featured John Lydon with John McGeoch, guitarist and keyboards-player Ted Chau, Mike Joyce formerly of The Smiths, on drums, and Russell Webb on bass.
PiL have been peforming live again since 2009 with a new lineup, including performing at Glastonbury 2013 and supporting The Stones Roses at one of their 2013 Finsbury Park London shows. They also released their first studio album in 20 years: 2012's This Is PiL.
PiL managed to avoid boundaries for the first four years of their existence, and Metal Box is undoubtedly the apex. It's a hallmark of uncompromising, challenging post-punk, hardly sounding like anything of the past, present, or future. Sure, there were touchstones that got their imaginations running -- the bizarreness of Captain Beefheart, the open and rhythmic spaces of Can, and the dense pulses of Lee Perry's productions fueled their creative fires -- but what they achieved with their second record is a completely unique hour of avant-garde noise. Originally packaged in a film canister as a trio of 12" records played at 45 rpm, the bass and treble are pegged at 11 throughout, with nary a tinge of midrange to be found. It's all scrapes and throbs (dubscrapes?), supplanted by John Lydon's caterwauling about such subjects as his dying mother, resentment, and murder. Guitarist Keith Levene splatters silvery, violent, percussive shards of metallic scrapes onto the canvas, much like a one-armed Jackson Pollock. Jah Wobble and Richard Dudanski lay down a molasses-thick rhythmic foundation throughout that's just as funky as Can's Czukay/Leibezeit and Chic's Edwards/Rodgers. It's alien dance music. Metal Box might not be recognized as a groundbreaking record with the same reverence as Never Mind the Bollocks, and you certainly can't trace numerous waves of bands who wouldn't have existed without it like the Sex Pistols record. But like a virus, its tones have sent miasmic reverberations through a much broader scope of artists and genres. Metal Box was issued in the States in 1980 with different artwork and cheaper packaging under the title Second Edition; the track sequence differs as well. The U.K. reissue of Metal Box on CD boasts better sound quality than the Second Edition CD.]
Words: Andy Kellman
As opposed to the axis of throbbing bass and guitar slashings of Metal Box, The Flowers of Romance is centralized on razor-sharp drums and typically haranguing vocals. No dubwise grooves here -- bassist Jah Wobble was kicked out prior to the recording for ripping off PiL backing tracks for his solo material. And growing more disenchanted with the guitar, Keith Levene's infatuation with synthesizers was reaching a boiling point. His scythe-like guitar is truly brought out for only one song. Stark and minimal are taken to daring lengths, so it's no surprise that Virgin initially balked at issuing the heavily percussive record. "Four Enclosed Walls" opens with something of a mechanical death rattle and John Lydon's quavering warble, framed by backwards piano and Martin Atkins' spartan, dry-as-a-bone drumming. His rapier-like drums seem to serve a similar purpose to Levene's guitar on Metal Box. An unsteady drum pattern and fragile, wind chime-like guitar from Levene shape "Track 8," a bleak look at sexual relationships. Lydon adds color with pleasant imagery of Butterball turkeys and elephant graves. "Under the House" and "Francis Massacre" are the most violent tracks due to Atkins' machine gun firing and Levene's chilling atmosperics. Lydon lashes out at zealous fans on the only bottom-heavy tune, "Banging the Door": "The walls are so thin/The neighbors listen in/Keep the noise down." Perhaps the band's most challenging work (in the avant garde sense), it's just as "love it or hate it" as Metal Box; it'll either go down a treat or like a five-pound block of liverwurst. "The Flowers of Romance," "Another," (essentially "Graveyard" with vocals) and "Home Is Where the Heart Is." The latter two can be found on Plastic Box.]
Words: Andy Kellman
Like it or not, Public Image Limited's First Issue (aka Public Image) was an album that helped set the pace for what eventually became known as post-punk. In England a vacuum had opened up in the wake of the breakup of the Sex Pistols in January 1978, and many punk fans and rival groups were impatient to see what ex-Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon aka "Johnny Rotten" was going to roll out next. Disheartened owing to events in his legal proceedings against the Sex Pistols management company Glitterbest, and disgusted by the punk scene in general, Lydon was determined to create something that was neither punk nor even really rock as it was known in 1978. Working with ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene, first-time bassist Jah Wobble, and Canadian drummer Jim Walker, Public Image Limited produced an album that represented the punk sound after it had shot itself in the head and became another entity entirely. Embracing elements of dub, progressive rock, noise, and atonality and driven by Lydon's lyrical egoism and predilection towards doom, death, and horror, First Issue was among a select few 1978 albums that had something lasting to say about the future of rock music. And not everyone in 1978 wanted to hear it; contemporary critical notices for First Issue were almost uniformly negative in the extreme.
Not all of the material on First Issue was necessarily forward-looking: "Attack" and "Low Life" could almost pass muster as latter-day Sex Pistols songs if it weren't for their substandard production values. These two numbers were recorded late in the project, and on the cheap, as the fledgling Public Image Limited had already been kicked out of practically every reputable studio in London. And there was a bracing song about Lydon's pet peeve, "Religion," presented in both spoken and sung incarnations. It is about as vicious and personal an anti-Catholic diatribe as exists on record, and in its day was considered a high holy turnoff by many listeners. But from there it gets better -- Public Image Limited's debut single, "Public Image," was also included on First Issue, and Keith Levene's guitar part, with its tasty suspensions and held-over-the-bar syncopation, was an important departure from standard punk guitar language absorbed so quickly by others (the Pretenders, U2, the Smiths) that listeners and musicians alike forgot the source of the sound. First Issue's opener, "Theme," was a force to be reckoned with, a grindingly slow dirge with wild, almost Hendrix-like figurations on the guitar and Wobble's floor-splitting foundation. This was punk with the power of Led Zeppelin, but none of the pretension. Lydon's anguished mantra in "Theme," "...and I just wanna die," was the exact reflection of what his generation was thinking about in the wake of the collapse of classic punk. "Annalisa" is the hardest-kicking rocker on the album, with nosebleed-strength guitar from Levene; it is so good that Nirvana in all practical purposes purloined the whole number, with minor alterations, as "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" on In Utero.
Album (also known as Compact Disc or Cassette depending on the format) is the fifth studio album by English rock band Public Image Ltd, released on 3 February 1986. It features John Lydon backed by a group of musicians assembled by producer Bill Laswell, including Steve Vai, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Tony Williams and Ginger Baker. Most of the songs were written by Lydon with Mark Schulz and Jebin Bruni and registered in September and October 1985, such as "Round And Round (European Cars)", "Fairweather Friend", "Fishing (Pearls Before Swine"), "Black Rubber Bag" and "Things In Ease". "Fairweather Friend" featured originally music written by Schulz and Bruni. An unrecorded Lydon/Schulz composition "Animal" was registered too. Schulz and PIL tour bassist Bret Helm had previously registered a further (presumably non-PIL, therefore unused) composition called “Cat Rap”. John Lydon: “Most of the songs on the 'Album', for instance, were written at home and put onto demonstration tapes. But I didn't think the band were good enough or experienced enough really to, like, record the song properly. And that's why I use session people. the songs obviously changed - their shape, and not their direction.” “I had a live band before recording took place and a lot of material together before going into the studio. But the band was totally inexperienced, they would have put the budget up by an incredible amount. So we decided to use session people.” “I make records for myself. I want them to be completely precise. Accuracy is very important to me. Otherwise it's bad work and a waste of my time, and I really don't want to waste my time. There must be a conclusion to what you do, no vagueness. There must be a sense of completeness. Every song is an emotion and it has to succeed as that, otherwise you've failed. It's bad work. That annoys me. Bad work from anyone just annoys me. I just don't need it.” Producer Bill Laswell: “When we did PiL he had put a band together in California of some kids. And I had sort of decided to make a heavy group, so I invited Tony Williams, Ginger Baker, Steve Vai, and all these people came. We fired John's band and there were many nights of really harsh arguing in bars. When the smoke cleared, we made sort of a classic record, an unusual record for the time.” The packaging concept is a pastiche of the generic brand products manufactured in the early 1980s; it is similar to those sold at the Ralphs supermarket chain (dark-blue lettering and light blue stripe over white ground) in the USA. In pop culture this design was popularised by the cult punk film Repo Man. Producer Bill Laswell: “We purposely didn't put the credits of the musicians on the record because nobody would have believed it and most of the critics probably would have only talked about the people on the record and not the music.”
Happy? benefits from some relative stability in PiL's lineup, not to mention the undeniable fact that the band members' allegiance makes sense (in contrast to that of Album's crew). Keyboardist Lu Edmonds (the Damned and 3 Mustaphas 3), guitarist John McGeoch (Magazine and Siouxsie & the Banshees), drummer Bruce Smith (the Pop Group and Rip Rig & Panic), and muscular Yank bassist Allan Dias are a solid unit, forming something of a post-punk supergroup. The Blind Faith of the '80s? Even more radio friendly than Album, Happy? is increasingly entrenched in dancefloor-type fare. Lydon isn't his full-blown postal self, but he's still continents away from being rosy. Though the music might be too dated for most ears years later, Lydon's riffing on unplanned pregnancy ("The Body"), sheep mentality ("Angry"), and false national pride ("Hard Times") still holds together lyrically. McGeoch and Edmonds' sparkling work comes a little too close to stadium-bound for comfort (paging Mr. Edge...), but it's a good turn away from Album's brainy metal-w**k fireworks. Just when the band sounds as if it's approaching standard issue 1987 chart fare, it fiddles with the arrangements and structures enough to make sure the songs don't qualify as such. If PiL was trying to remain accessible and challenging at the same time, the band fell just short of its goal; given the conspirators involved, Happy? is not quite as distinct as it should have been. But as far as PiL outings are considered, it was Lydon's best in six years.
9 features essentially the same group of characters found on Happy?, with only Lu Edmonds having left the fold (though he did contribute to the writing on each song). Seven studio albums, seven lineups — Lydon failed yet again to keep the same people together for more than one record. But is this notion really of major consequence? Not really, and Lydon probably prides himself in it. Thankfully, 9 retained the Happy? core of Bruce Smith, John McGeoch, and Allan Dias. If Happy? and various points prior were flirtations with accessible dance-pop, 9 was a bear hug embrace of it. 9 is split between a modern rock record and a dance producer-derived one, but credit both producers and band for making it a successful combination; on paper, the game plan looks like an accident waiting to happen. Stephen Hague was responsible for just over half of the album's production, with E.T. Thorngren working on the remainder and Nellee Hooper mixing one of Thorngren's productions. 9 is easily PiL's slickest yet, but there's substance to balance it out. The catchy "Disappointed" provided the band's greatest success in the States, with plenty of airplay on modern rock radio stations and light rotation on MTV. Other highlights: the dubby, almost Police-like near-instrumental "U.S.L.S. 1" and the surprising use of acoustic guitar on "Worry." Lowlights: the slightly goofy "Sand Castles in the Snow," the oddball fusion of Asiatic keyboards and late-'80s R&B on "Like That," the character play of Lydon in "Warrior."
Most who own Plastic Box probably use the second half as coasters. Those who don't probably get headaches when listening to the first two, and a select few find much to love about the whole thing. As if conceding to the consensus that PiL's early years were their best, the first half is devoted to the band's first three studio LPs cut over four years, while the second half covers the remainder. Listeners get the entirety of Public Image/First Edition sans "Fodderstompf." The majority of Metal Box (issued as Second Edition in the U.S.) is included, with three of the original versions sacrificed for Peel Session counterparts that really take the cake. "Careering" is especially wonderful and harrowing, arguably the collective's finest recorded moment. Keith Levene goes bonkers with the keyboards, perhaps fostering the increased intensity amongst the remaining members. The 12" mix of "Swan Lake" ("Death Disco") gets the box set upgrade too, as well as a couple other worthwhile Metal Box outtakes. Closing out the second disc is the entirety of The Flowers of Romance, sequentially shuffled with an additional non-album track. The second half of Plastic Box hits upon each of the remaining studio LPs, with the odd rarity, single mix and Peel Session thrown in for completist bait. For those who want improved sound over their early CD issues, the money spent is a smart investment. A quick comparison of the first 20 seconds of "Annalisa" to the version found on an old copy of Public Image should be evidence enough; the bassline of "Chant" makes the gut feel as if it's being endlessly pummelled by a bouncing battering ram. Though vast and relatively pricey, Plastic Box is an excellent introduction, if only for the adventurous.
Words: Andy Kellman
Live in Tokyo is a 1983 live album released by Public Image Ltd as a 2-EP 45 RPM set. It was issued by Columbia Records in Japan and later reissued by Virgin Records in the UK and reached #28 on the British charts. A single-LP 33 RPM edition was later issued by Elektra Records in the US.
This was the album that compiled all of the band's singles from 1978's "Public Image" to 1990's "Don't Ask Me", a new track released on the album and as a single that reached #22 in the UK and #2 on the US Modern Rock chart. "This Is Not a Love Song" is not represented in its original single form, but as the remake from the album This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get. The title suggests there would be more to come, and there was - but PiL released one more studio album (1992's That What Is Not) before taking a twenty-year hiatus. A more comprehensive PiL compilation, the 4-disc Plastic Box, was released in 1999.