PiL: The Public Image Is Rotten (Songs From the Heart) review – how John Lydon bulldozed pop

From the rubble of the Sex Pistols arose a ‘consortium of like-minded loonies’ whose collision of dub, funk and punk smashed open the mainstream

Like any good rock’n’roll yarn, the story of Public Image Ltd tends to change according to the narrator. Rising from the rubble of the Sex Pistols’ spectacular implosion in 1978, John Lydon’s second band gave him a clean slate for his weirder musical impulses, without the interference of his scene-stealing manager, Malcolm McLaren. At that time, Lydon – who’d just added to his notoriety by accusing Jimmy Savile of “all kinds of seediness” in a BBC interview – was living on Gunter Grove, just off the King’s Road in Chelsea. With an open-door policy, his house had a “thriving community spirit”, recalls Lydon – punks and rastas blasting reggae all night, hanging out with Joan Armatrading one week, John Barry the next. PiL’s first drummer, Jim Walker, saw it differently. Gunter Grove was “very dark”, he remembered, “very depressing – this messy little oasis of speed, heroin and hate”.

Chaotic and druggy as it certainly was, Gunter Grove was the crucible of one of the most influential bands of the post-punk era – a “consortium of like-minded loonies”, according to Lydon. Dub, funk and disco fused with an experimental punk spirit, eventually shaping the pop music of the next decade. That mainstream-grazing trajectory is the one traced by this box set of five discs and two DVDs, of singles, B-sides, rarities and live recordings covering the entirety of PiL’s career up to 2015’s Double Trouble.

Alongside Walker, the first iteration of PiL included Keith Levene, a former member of the Clash who played guitar like Jackson Pollock with a plectrum, and Lydon’s old mate Jah Wobble, a fan of Can and Miles Davis and a bass novice just like Sid Vicious. Unlike Sid, Wobble turned out to be a gifted player, his elastic basslines providing dubwise ballast for Levene’s guitar splatter. Lydon, meanwhile, had just got back from a trip to Jamaica, where he was scouting bands for Richard Branson’s Virgin. The musical pilgrimage clarified his vision for PiL, his getaway vehicle from the Pistols’ rock’n’roll swindle.

As alien and uninviting as early albums like Metal Box and Flowers of Romance still sound, they did produce hits. PiL’s debut single Public Image cracked the top 10, while the consumptive slump of Death Disco didn’t stop it from reaching No 20. Even 1981’s Flowers of Romance – a wilfully erratic collision of tribal drums and scratchy fiddle – made it to 24. “My outlook was that a child’s painting can be as far-out as a Van Gogh,” recalled Levene. “That was where I was coming from, that I could use John’s total ineptitude to an artistic advantage.” PiL leveraged these technical limitations to bulldoze the landscape of pop, building noise and bass in the place of melody and riff.

After Levene and Wobble’s departure, the albums got patchier, but there were occasional successes. This Is Not a Love Song – Lydon’s tongue-in-cheek response to the record company’s request for a hit – remains PiL’s highest placing, reaching No 5 in 1983, while the anthemic, Bill Laswell-produced Rise, written about apartheid in South Africa, peaked at 11. The B-sides weren’t too shabby either, as the second disc of the box set proves. The outrageous monotony of early PiL is underscored – Lydon’s famous warning of “no future” is spookily manifested in the meandering limbo of Another and the deranged dub of Home Is Where the Heart Is. On 1984’s Question Mark there is even some accidental techno as the repetition extends to maddening proportions.

Though PiL’s spartan aesthetic, emphasising bass and rhythm, slotted in with the wave of punk bands tapping into funk, disco and Afrobeat, their singles never quite translated to the dancefloor, Death Disco aside. The 12” mixes didn’t improve on that situation – most were slightly extended versions rather than DJ-friendly edits – but they come together here to invite awkward, elbow-jutting moves.

Despite the promise of rarities and unreleased mixes, there’s not much that hasn’t already been released, mostly on the easy-to-find 1999 compilation Plastic Box. Live recordings from the Tallinn Rock Summer festival in 1988 and Sydney in 2013 bulk out the final discs, along with John Peel and Mark Goodier radio sessions. There’s also a chunky book of press clippings tracing PiL’s career in the public eye and some ripe footage from The Old Grey Whistle Test and Top of the Pops – including a bug-eyed Lydon in a dog collar as sometime member Jeannette Lee grinds away at a cello.

Thinking of PiL as a singles band, you realise what a wacky moment in cultural history that was: when an entire country watched the same TV programmes and read the same news, when the minds of the public could be infiltrated en masse by anyone who caused enough noise. Lydon turned up at the right time to exploit his notoriety and foist PiL’s frigid racket on to the widest possible audience – and there was nothing we could do about it.

Contributor

Chal Ravens

The GuardianTramp

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