In early 1978 the Sex Pistols had imploded after a terrible tour of the states. A year on from a terrible tour of the UK the number one punk band were no more.
It was pretty clear to us all that Sid Vicious wasn’t about to come up with a masterpiece and the other two musicians in the band had chosen to stick with Malcolm Mclaren and whatever dreadful ideas he might invent.
Johnny was our only hope, he was now John Lydon again and by summer it was clear that he had gathered some musicians together and was making something happen. Drips of information were leaking out to a waiting nation. Keith Levene, one time guitarist with the Clash had been recruited. Levene had apparently felt himself an outsider in Strummer’s band, Lydon had felt the outsider in the Pistols, if this was true it was probably a reflection of their personalities as much as their respective bandmates but they at least had something to bond over.
On bass Lydon had recruited one of his school gang of the four johns. Given the last recruitment had promoted John Beverley (aka Sid Vicious) one might deduce that Lydon was not exactly learning from experience. Jah Wobble (John Wardle) could be a violent thug when drunk and had been around the Pistol’s camp creating mayhem for the last couple of years but he turned out to be a fantastic intuitive bass player whose dub styled bass lines were the most distinctive feature of the early band.
The drummer, despite owning a leather jacket ,looked out of place. Jim Walker had been a student and drummer in Canada and the west coast. He realised the only way to progress his career was to move to London and soon he was living in Lydon’s house and playing drums in his band.
The previous year Rotten/Lydon had appeared on a London radio show playing some of his favourite tracks, despite the fact that most of the country would never get to hear this it caused a minor stir as he chose the edgier end of progressive music as well as the anticipated reggae. Lydon was clearly a man with a musical hinterland and we were interested in what he might create free of the shackles of the Pistols.
By October the band had a name ‘Public Image’ later to have a Ltd tagged on just to show how ironic Lydon could be about his public persona. We also had the first ever song from the band. ‘Public Image’ by Public Image was reassuring although a little disappointing sounding like the Pistols with better musicians, in retrospect it’s a great single.
Really that was the high water mark for the band. The seeds of destruction had been sown early on. The band refused to have a manager or commit to a producer and really didn’t manage their career very well. Although this might suggest they were free spirits bucking the system it also meant musically they produced largely a load of wank.
Being fairly useless businessmen, they hadn’t really saved enough to make a proper album. The tracks that made up their debut album were recorded in various studios and were a disappointment after their single.. The basic format was bass and drums start with a riff, guitar joins in and Lydon wails over the top, its fine for 30 seconds but the tracks are dragged out past three minutes with no end in sight. The worst culprit is ‘Fodderstompf’ which is nearly eight minutes of complete dicking about. Despite coming up with an actual set of lyrics for ‘Religion’ (he’s not a fan) Lydon generally yowls over the top of the music like a punk Yoko Ono, it’s an upside down world where the bass is the most interesting part of the song and vocals are the weakest.
Walker had already head enough and felt the music had fallen well short of it’s promises. Despite being a member of PIL ltd he was eventually deposed and had to resort to litigation, just like with a proper company in order to get paid. There then followed a series of drummers who all didn’t last long, all reporting lack of direction and a lot of sitting about. In fact life in PIL looked about as bad as band life could be, the main protagonists were all on different drugs, they couldn’t even be drug buddies.
Despite this they did manage a classic of its kind with Metal Box. Almost a triumph of style over substance three 12 inch 45rpm records were packaged in, yes, a metal box. In the days when sound quality still accounted for something this format really brought out Wobble’s bass which had got even dubbier. There’s a few track that bear repeated playing, the single ‘Death Disco’ actually got to no 20 in the charts and ‘Careering ‘ and ‘Poptones’ highlighted glassy guitar, insistent drums and the inevitable killer bass alongside some lyrics which actually seemed to be about something (not sure what). So good were those tracks that time has forgotten the weaker songs like ‘Albatross’ and ‘Bad Baby’ which just sound like bored kids jamming in a basement.
Wobble was the next to depart after, worryingly, the band had released a live album rather early in their career as his farewell to the band.Next record proper,’The Flowers of Romance’ despite a good title track sounded like bored teenagers left alone in a studio, I never want to hear it again.
Despite being someone who likes to create an aura of a man who knows what he is doing Lydon’s autobiography is as full of unintentional fuck ups as Ginger Baker’s; and that’s saying something! (incidentally Baker was one of many drummers who played with PIL). PIL went on for a while and released a couple of decent singles then split up and reformed where they continue to make a more focussed but less inventive noise.
Clearly Lydon didn’t invent post punk but he did give it a legitimacy. It’s tempting to think the 80s was all plastic soul and Bucks Fizz and Bananarama but at the same time it also produced some of the most challenging music ever. Cabaret Voltaire, the Raincoats,Throbbing Gristle and the like were now producing music which was absolutely 100% removed from the blues,country and rock and roll that had informed an earlier generation of musicians. This was the music of my younger self, I have a small amount of nostalgia for it but these days I wouldn’t really choose early Scritti Politi for listening pleasure.
There has been an element of punk that was about inclusion and short sharp songs as an aversion to the musical and lyrical excesses of the 70’s. In a weird way that had also opened the floodgates for a load of artists who would pride themselves on being as hard to listen to and obtuse as possible. It was fine for a while, but it became dispiriting listening to sound that contained not an ounce of joy and it is surely no coincidence that world music was to become increasing popular in the 80’s reconnecting us with a bit of what it means to be human again.
For anyone who would like to find out more about postpunk Simon Reynold’s book
Rip it Up and Start Again:Postpunk 1978-1984… is highly recommended.