A Weekly Song Episode 10: John Lydon & PiL
PiL - Public Image Ltd.
There are some songs that always sound to me like they were recorded yesterday, no matter how familiar I am with them. They sound so fresh, so unique, they’re like bottled time.
That’s actually true of a lot of John Lydon’s output, but particularly so of Public Image Ltd, the song from which the band took their name (or vice versa).
Bass, guitar, drums, voice. The bass is played from somewhere deep inside a primeval cave, the drums crash in, London-inflected ‘ellos, Lydon laughing, then guitars like sudden rainfall. That’s how it begins and that’s all it is, reduced to ingredients, Lydon’s voice suspended over that thundering bass for just under three minutes. Three minutes, and yet it’s one of the most exciting things I ever heard or will ever hear. Every time I hear this, I’m fifteen again, and the possibilities are endless, infinite. How does it always sound so huge, so thrilling, so new?
You can read the lyrics here and what it’s ostensibly about elsewhere, but here’s what it means to me. It’s inspiration, pure and simple. It’s a refusal to be defined by anyone else, to not be controlled by some puppeteer, to be known only on one’s own terms. It’s individualism; the self created by the self (but not fuelled by “likes” like the selfie, nor venal self-interest). It’s raw self-expression.
“You never listened to a word that I said…”
It’s art, basically and I went out and bought it on a piece of plastic that revolved at 45 rpm and played it over and over again.
“Two sides to every story…
“I’m not the same as when I began…”
I knew the Sex Pistols of course, and I knew Johnny Rotten had left that band, changed his name back to John Lydon and was making music with two new blokes called Keith Levene and Jah Wobble. Apparently they sounded like a cross between punk and dub. I knew that Sex Pistols fans were pissed off with Lydon because this new band effectively meant the final and absolute end of the Pistols, an impression the British Music Press went out of its way to support. (The British Music Press was my conduit to all music news and they were powerful in a way that it’s impossible, in this Internet age, to really appreciate.)
At the time, I was busy listening to arty post-punk bands like Magazine and investigating the back catalogue of Roxy Music and the Pistols were so two years ago. It was my friend Annette who really sparked my interest in PiL – we were in a pub somewhere one night and Public Image came on. “I love this,” she said. I listened, and she was right. After that, I went out and bought it.
PiL recorded many other classics – Poptones, Death Disco, Flowers of Romance, This Is Not a Love Song, Rise, Disappointed to name just a few. But Public Image Ltd. is, as far as I’m concerned, one of the greatest singles of all time. I don’t actually have a hell of a lot to say about it, but you can play it, and the theme to Battle of the Planets at my funeral. Just so you know.
Lydon remains a unique character, beholden only to his own whims and the occasional need for dosh, which means we get to see him play live sometimes (and it’s always worth seeing him perform).
I met him briefly, back in 2015 when he did a book tour. We were asked not to converse with him and not to touch him, but when it was my turn to get his autobio signed, I thanked him for the inspiration. He looked up and laughed it off with a characteristic, “Naaah, naaah.” Then he stuck his hand out to shake mine. He couldn’t have been friendlier.
Rightly a legend and a(n inter)national treasure.
Notes and further listening:
PiL’s own Soundcloud page