An essential guide to Public Image Ltd in 10 records

By in Features, Lists

How John Lydon and PiL tore through punk, funk and dub to change the course of modern pop music.

In the midst of summer touring plans, an upcoming film and recent reissues for two of their best albums, it’s been a period of renewed interest and excitement for fans of John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols band Public Image Limited.

With the release of their career-spanning The Public Image Is Rotten (Songs From The Heart), we take a moment to look back over highlights of the band’s forty year recording history, from game-changing post-punk iconoclasts to early hip-hop collaborations and a controversial 21st century comeback.

Public Image
Public Image (First Issue)
(Virgin, 1978)

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A nine-minute opening dirge (‘Theme’), an eight-minute piss-take closer (‘Fodderstompf’), a two-minute poem excoriating religious corruption (‘Religion I’): PiL’s first album made ‘Attack’ its watchword and laid waste to all it surveyed. Lydon had already developed a talent for writing with a target in mind and this whole album worked as writing therapy, responding to what had been a tumultuous few years. ‘Public Image’ is still one of music’s most vicious kiss-offs to a former band, manager and identity.

In its accompanying promo video, Lydon’s constricted, tightly-wound bodily jerks and tics suggest so much suppressed and contained violence. When he opens his mouth, it all emerges in howled, yet precise and detailed, venom. The heft and power of Jah Wobble’s bass playing is all the more remarkable for being the work of a relative novice. With Wobble occupying the low-end, Keith Levene’s taste for metal guitars pulls to the opposite pole of sound, leaving a lot of empty space and heightening the prominence of each. Only a year on from Never Mind The Bollocks and there was nary a chorus in sight – the straitjacket of pop was being discarded.

Metal Box
(Virgin, 1979)

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It’s extraordinary to think that Metal Box makes the uncompromising First Issue sound like a band dipping its toes into the water. From start to finish, the album stretches and warps time in a way rarely seen on what was ostensibly still a ‘pop’ record. The ten minute opener, ‘Albatross’ shows the band’s debt to dub reggae, clearing away casual listeners and punks alike.

What comes next is a run of classic songs. ‘Swan Lake’ (‘Death Disco’) blurs warped Tchaikovsky quotations with a desperate memory of Lydon’s mother’s death. ‘Poptones’ hovers cheerfully while describing a scene from the perspective of a murdered body in the British countryside. ‘Careering’ merges sci-fi chills with Lydon’s dystopian plummet towards various fates. My personal favourite remains ‘No Birds’. On an album that showed Lydon’s talent for capturing a visual image in few words, the bare handful he musters here evoke a scornful and utterly complete portrayal of a certain kind of suburban limbo. The album does tail off a little — three instrumentals in the final six tracks — but most bands would sell an internal organ to dash off something this good.

Public Image Limited
The Flowers of Romance
(Virgin, 1981)

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The speed of PiL’s development is underappreciated. Album sessions in 1978, 1979 and 1980 yielded progressively more extreme interpolations of punk, pop, rock, and reggae, with The Flowers Of Romance representing the apotheosis of this growth spurt. The album is united by an introverted, housebound edge: “the walls are so thin the neighbours listen in”, “doom sits in gloom in his room”, “it came out of the wall, a single cadaver”, “personal Auschwitz fermenting in bed.” Lydon’s voice floats untethered through each song, utter disconnect taken to its conclusion with barely a thread tying it to the music.

Used more as effect than traditional drumbeat, the percussion serves as the record’s sonic glue – either stripped naked and left to repeat, or drenched in samples and the occasional intrusion of other instruments. The highlight remains the title track where every element seems about to explode out of the fragile frame of the song. With cockeyed violins and tense strings, Lydon’s caterwaul, the pop and pound of effect-laden drums, it’s a miracle that the end-result remains catchy. Elsewhere ‘Banging The Door’ and ‘Track 8’ are off-kilter and disquieting horror shows of electronic whirrs and gurgles, bearing comparison to Coil’s Unreleased Themes for Hellraiser.

Commercial Zone / This Is What You Want…This Is What You Get
(PiL Records Inc., 1983) / (Virgin, 1984)

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PiL disintegrated with wayward guitar genius Keith Levene paying to have the unfinished album tapes released as 1983’s unofficial Commercial Zone. Lydon meanwhile put together another band, revised six of the songs and put together an official release in 1984 under the bratty title This Is What You Want… This Is What You Get. Which recording you prefer ultimately comes down to whether you rate John Carpenter over Jean-Michel Jarre. The songs themselves didn’t change significantly, it’s more a case of feel, and at its best, the murkiness of Commercial Zone worked in its favour by giving it a dystopian edge. On ‘The Slab’, Lydon’s vocals are a groaning rise and fall, complimenting the eerie bass tone that dominates the song. Officially released as ‘The Order Of Death’, the main lyric became an ad nauseam repeat of the album title with the synth/guitar tone pumped up into gleaming chrome dimensions.

Comparing ‘Mad Max’ to 1984’s ‘Bad Life’ yields a similar result. The original has a certain disquieting emptiness, while the official version added clipped horn stabs that anonymise the track, even if the mix does punch harder. On the other hand, the songs that were not re-recorded were generally uninspired. The air of menace about ‘Blue Water’ is undermined by juvenile lyrics and aimlessness; ‘Lou Reed Pt.1’ and ‘Miller High Life’ are little more than sketches; ‘Bad Night’ is a perky, inconsequential rock song. There is the kernel of a great lost album, but it’s an unfulfilled hope. As for the official album, it says a lot that the most intriguing song, ‘1981’, was apparently an updated outtake from The Flowers Of Romance — something that shows in the layered samples and drum sounds as well as the tone of Lydon’s voice.

Public Image Limited
(Virgin, 1986)

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The 1983 single ‘This Is Not A Love Song’ had paraded Lydon’s unwillingness to give the industry what it wanted, while simultaneously trolling audience and critics alike, by claiming to have “crossed over to the other side.” In 1986 though, he went the whole way by working with an array of top-flight session musician talent, in New York’s top studios, with superstar producer Bill Laswell. To some extent the gamble paid off: Lydon made his best pop album since the Sex Pistols’ solitary salvo and ‘Rise’ remains the most glorious football chant of a track ever written about South African Apartheid, torture, and Northern Ireland. He deserved credit for subverting his own iconoclasm and showing he had the talent to do more than alienate.

However, this was the first time that one of Lydon’s albums had merely reflected the sound of the moment rather than leading it. Half of the album passes before ‘Round’ and ‘Ease’ provide relief from the upbeat eighties hard rock template – but in both cases, the world music flourishes are mere decorations around a core of guitar-bass-drums. Lydon is in fine, energised form throughout, but too often it sounds like he’s straining to be heard over a soup of mid-eighties guitar — ‘Bags’ and ‘Home’ are major offenders.

Public Image Limited
(Virgin, 1987)

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Apparently, from a stadium stage, only the bluntest sounds really carry. Certainly PiL’s reconstituted line-up from late 1986 onward seemed to be playing to an audience that had come to dance rather than pogo. Generic back-up singers on the choruses of songs like ‘Rules And Regulations’ and ‘The Body’ became the norm. Was this a valiant attempt to sneak deep themes into an anaesthetised mainstream? If so it didn’t go very well. Neither the album nor the singles would perform.

Likewise, sonically, little sticks out from the gloopy mid-tempo vibe. Lyrically, ‘Hard Times’ makes a certain light of Lydon’s gloomier moments, but it’s hard to ignite a revolution behind a perky take on darkness, delivered over bouncy indie-electro-rock clatter. It would have been shameful if the central figure of several of the most significant records in the history of modern music hadn’t received just reward, but it was becoming hard to refute the claim that comfortable (albeit never outrageous) finances had dulled Lydon’s edge. He sings of abortion on ‘The Body’ in the same tone reserved for the pro-education message buried in ‘Open And Revolving’. Only three of Happy’s songs would be deemed worthy of resurrection on 1999’s Plastic Box compilation, which seems more than fair. A band finding its feet meet an already shop-worn sound, and a singer seemingly lost for inspiration.

Timezone / Leftfield & John Lydon
‘World Destruction’/ ‘Open Up’
(Celluloid, 1993) / (Hard Hands, 1984)

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Lydon is not an artist who plays well in other people’s sandpits. It’s a shame he hasn’t spent more time guesting, because two of his finest hours have come on other artists’ works. Lydon’s open ears went way beyond absorbing the local action at London clubs. Having seized the opportunity to collaborate with hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, Lydon stoked apocalyptic fires, all delivered as a frenetic blizzard of prophesy and doomsday preaching. It might not sound like a giggle, but the thump of an early hip-hop master keeps everything from clattering down the road to utter collapse.

Ten years later, dance music was evolving beyond rave into territory that spanned club and headspace. Leftfield’s ‘Open Up’ was relentlessly high energy and would stand on its own two feet without a vocalist: deep pulsing bass, screaming alarm bell synthesiser, funky drums. It’s hard to tell if having a band around him who want to be something more than his accompaniment made the difference, or if being a guest made Lydon up his game. Either way, he manages to make old themes thrill.

John Lydon
Psycho’s Path
(Virgin, 1997)

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For fans of fresh Lydon work, the nineties saw an excellent autobiography, peace-making with his most famous and influential outfit, but precious little new music. The stakes should feel higher given this was Lydon’s first new album in five years but, instead, he offered up a home-produced and recorded public experiment on which he played almost every sound and drew on electronic textures to weaker effect than with Leftfield. At its best — for example, the lurching dance of ‘Sun’ — Lydon found a discomforting space that matched his voice, while at others, unfortunately, finding too many unexciting and square rhythmic shapes.

Lydon’s new default was a puckish, imp persona — more clown prince than shaman or iconoclast. A genuine artist of original talent doesn’t become incompetent overnight, however, and Lydon’s control over his voice had grown significantly. On this album, he regularly exercised precisely placed restraint. ‘Psychopath’ belies its name by offering up a mid-paced, electro-rock instrumental track fitted to a beguiling and deceptively gentle vocal. The shuffling beat at the heart of ‘Dog’ is infectious, with the textures of the intro and close both lending something different, as Lydon precisely annunciates every word and has fun even if the lyrics don’t seem to deserve the work put into saying them.

This is PiL
(PiL Official, 2012)

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Idiots and charlatans criticise 60-year-olds for not living up to the more outrageous statements of their 18-year-old selves: only cowards wind up uncompromised. Lydon had been a lightning rod catching a moment that changed music forever, then others poured unjustifiable socio-political hopes into the potential held by punk. That was their error, not his. The return of PiL in 2012 satisfied those who wanted to see the man making music again — and he delivered from the off. The title track and opener, thankfully, doesn’t outstay its welcome and leads to a fine first returning single, ‘One Drop’, with its heavy bassline, party-starting skank and paean to eternal youth and nature. ‘Deeper Water’ and ‘Terra-Gate’ continue the buoyant momentum. A sagging middle with a few overlong songs and a couple of bad ideas — ‘Lollipop Opera’ is a whimsical nonsense song, while ‘It Said That’ merely showcases Lydon’s liking for wordplay to no ultimate end. This doesn’t derail what is a satisfying listen, and a solid reason to have hope for what would come next.

What The World Needs Now
(PiL Official, 2015)

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Lydon’s renewal won fresh reasons for pride with the release of PiL’s latest album in 2015. The throat-clearing and limbering up of This Is PiL gave way to a record poised between the grandiose, the furious, the comical, and the beautiful. The music has an energy and immediacy that makes every song kick, while Lydon ping-pongs across every track in charming form. ‘Double Trouble’ doesn’t just sound funny, it actually is funny: a domestic row in musical form — a perfect outlet for cockney accents, a ripping guitar riff, with the great punchline: “and in the meantime…We’ll get a bucket.” At the other end of the spectrum (and the record), Lydon stretched out his arms on ‘Corporate’ to embrace humanity in its entirety over a whipped and twisted backing.

A strength of the album, and current PiL, is that Lydon’s voice stands out above the mix, providing the vocal point that sometimes went missing in the eighties fallow phase. Likewise, there’s a coherence to the record in terms of feel and sound which makes it feel more like a journey than a clutch of songs — and it does so without killing innovation or novelty. On closer ‘Shoom’, Lydon found a rallying cry for the 21st century that harkened back to the cleansing he had been a part of in the bloated and broken seventies: “what the world needs now, is another fuck off!”