After the demise of The Sex Pistols, Johnny Rotten reverted to being plain old John Lydon and became the leader of PiL (Public Image Ltd).
He invited his friend John Wardle, an East Ender with piercing blue eyes who had reinvented himself as Jah Wobble, to play bass (despite his being barely acquainted with the instrument) and completed the trio with guitarist Keith Levene, who had been one of the founding members of The Clash.
Instead of the Pistols’ angry, straight-ahead punk rock, Lydon launched into abstract, obscure and often formless jazz-based music, which was “inaccessible”, to say the least.
Their self-titled debut album on Virgin in 1978 featured such items as a Lydon-recited poem called Religion 1 and tedious chants reminiscent of Sgt Peppers-period Beatles on bad acid. Sounds gave the album two and a half stars.
John Lydon could’ve farted into a milk bottle and made the British charts in early 1979. The more he told us to fuck off, the more we loved him, at least for a while longer anyway. So he pushed it as far as it would go.
Death Disco was a long record. It had no shouty chorus. It had a disco beat (of sorts). And it was about Lydon’s mother, who was dying of cancer. The result was disturbing, blackly comic, moving, profound, and so far removed from anything resembling punk, pop or anything else that it had the desired effect – it got rid of the punks.
Album number two was called Metal Box (1979) and consisted of four 12-inch discs in a steel film can (in Britain at least – in the US, it was simply a double album entitled Second Edition). If anything, the music was even more severe.
With Metal Box, PiL became a cult – much admired by arty types and future musicians but largely ignored by the general public.
In April 1980, PiL agreed to tour the US, but only on the least strenuous, most stress-free basis: ten dates spread across three and a half weeks. Despite its easy-going pace, the short traipse across America turned PiL off the idea of touring for good.
20 years old and bursting with energy, bassist Jah Wobble felt increasingly frustrated by the band’s inactivity on all fronts, particularly their workshy approach to recording. He’d already made a few solo singles, and in May 1980, he released his first album (the wonderfully goofy The Legend Lives On . . .). In August, he left PiL in a cloud of acrimony.
The recording of Flowers Of Romance, the troubled follow-up to Metal Box, coincided with the worst stage of guitarist Keith Levene’s heroin addiction, and with Wobble gone, the old alchemy had disappeared.
Moving to West London’s Townhouse studio, the band procured a bunch of second-hand acoustic instruments – ukulele, saxophone, banjo, violin – and generated raw sonic material for sculpting on the mixing desk. Ironically, Flowers is the PiL album on which Lydon, the non-musician, contributed the most.
The album was completed by the end of November 1980, but Virgin hated it and delayed its release until the following April, rushing out a live album instead as a stocking filler for fans.
When the title track was released as a single, it reached #24 and resulted in another deranged Top Of The Pops appearance with Levene pounding the drums in a lab technician’s white coat and Lydon, dressed as a vicar, complete with a dog collar, sawing dementedly on a fiddle.
The album sold poorly when it was finally released.
During the year of silence that followed Flowers Of Romance, the band relocated to New York. Staying at first in hotels and then moving to a large loft apartment, the group sank into a quagmire of apathy as Lydon spent whole days in bed watching TV and getting fat on lager and torpor.
Tensions reached a head in mid-1983 over the single This Is Not A Love Song.
When Levene entered the studio to salvage what he deemed a disastrous mix, he received a phone call from Lydon, who was in Los Angeles, ordering him to “get out of my fucking studio”.
Following PiL’s de facto musical director’s departure, Lydon hired several session musicians as his new backing band (with Atkins doggedly hanging in as drummer), did a lucrative tour of Japan, and re-recorded the new album.
1986’s Album (alternatively called Cassette or Compact Disc depending on the format) was essentially John Lydon’s solo debut, involving producer (and jazz expert) Bill Laswell and a hot-shot session crew that included, of all axe heroes, metal twiddler Steve Vai.
This detour into neo-stadium rock might have been a career low based only on Lydon’s typical efforts to challenge and alarm, but there was much joy to be had in the clash between his caterwauling whine and the steely craft of an AOR powerhouse.
Keith Levene was diagnosed with liver cancer and died at his home in Norfolk in November 2022, aged 65
Jah Wobble (John Wardle)