“Anger is an energy,” John Lydon yells throughout ‘Rise’, a song about the South African police interrogation techniques that Nelson Mandela had to endure. Those who remember John Lydon as Johnny Rotten, frontman for the era-shifting band Sex Pistols, would never have predicted the development of his music through his band Public Image Ltd (PiL). Lydon formed the band in 1978 shortly after the Pistols disbanded; it was originally centred around the late Keith Levene on guitar, who also founded The Clash, and Jah Wobble’s dub-heavy style. Today, Lydon continues to be active intermittently despite member changes; the band currently comprises Lydon (vocals), Lu Edmonds (guitar, misc), Bruce Smiths (drums) and Scott Firth (bass, keyboards).
As the band name suggests, PiL marks a deliberate shift away from Lydon’s public image associated with the Sex Pistols, which was largely seen as a figurehead for the ‘70s punk scene in London. Lydon has since spoken in interviews about rejecting the label ‘punk’, because he considers it to be a “destructive” term. Similarly, ever since PiL's inception, they have disowned every genre category, never staying in one place for too long before evolving throughout their 30-year career.
PiL’s sound and anger have matured, without in any way becoming mellow. The band’s newest studio album End of World demonstrates their diverse musical vocabulary, from the powerful bass and heavy groove of ‘North West Passage’ to the atmosphere of raging mediaeval vikings in ‘Penge’. New directions emerge but the same old charm continues, with Lydon’s forthright lyrics and confrontational vocal delivery in bluesy dub track ‘End of World’.
On the other hand, Lydon’s contrarian political stances dominate tracks like ’Being Stupid Again’, which criticises well-educated “woke” youths who lack common sense, and ‘Walls’, which remind us that he favours Trump. Those who remember Lydon as the anarchist who wore a defaced portrait of the Queen may be surprised to hear his present political opinions, like him being a Brexit-supporter. Lydon often takes the iconoclastic position of John Lydon vs everyone else, but he doesn’t do this out of aesthetic shock value; rather, he takes his art and philosophy very seriously. Having described his upbringing as “Charles Dickens with motor vehicles”, there is a plausible relationship between populism and the working class, somewhat justifying the spirit of retaliation that comes through in his political stances and his music.
Most importantly, the album saves the most significant thing it has to say for the last track, ‘Hawaii’, a song about a memory of a holiday that Lydon shared with Nora, his wife of 44 years who passed away in April after battling with Alzheimer’s. In an interview, Lydon spoke about playing the hook of the song (“Hawaii/ Remember me”) to Nora whilst she was still alive: “There was a smile and a tear in her eye, and it’s so important that I reminded her of something there.” Music and memory have a special relationship that recreates the experience of a time, place and person for a second time. It’s worth mentioning that Lydon refused to leave her care to others; the scandal between Disney, Sex Pistols and Lydon becomes even more unfair when we consider that he wanted to spend the two million pounds he lost from the lawsuit on making Nora’s life more comfortable.
Although PiL’s discography has often dealt with grief, like ‘Death Disco’ written about Lydon’s dying mother, ‘Hawaii’ separates itself from PiL’s catalogue for its intimate vulnerability. Whilst ‘Death Disco’ deals with being possessed by the memory of his mother dying in agony from cancer, ‘Hawaii’ treasures the memory he shared with a loved one. The obsessive repetitions and morbid wailing in ‘Death Disco’ create the impression that he can’t get the image out of his head; the overwhelming confusion is reinforced by the chaotic layering of noises, like the hyperactive sample of ‘Swan Lake’. It’s a stark contrast to the ethereal tone in ‘Hawaii’ which finds more solace in memory.
PiL’s innovation and personality was even clearer to see live, during their recent performance on 30 September in Kentish Town as part of their UK and European Tour. Lydon, dressed in a gothic robe and looking out to the audience with a music stand in front of him, resembled a religious figure reading out a manifesto; this engagement was further enhanced by the relatively dim lighting that drew the audience's attention, and effectively forced them to look closer. What surprised me was how much crowd control Lydon had, whilst simultaneously giving a thrilling performance with palpable charisma. For example, he would make sure that the shorter girls in the crowd weren’t getting crushed, showcasing his awareness and ability to control a room, in very warm and attentive ways. Not long after, however, Lydon blew a snot rocket into the audience.
The band improvised songs from their setlist in a way that brought them to life. They sounded even tighter in real life than in the studio album, reflecting how their work lends itself to consistently being reinvented and renewed. All four members added different colour and dimensions to the sound; Bruce Smith’s drumming, in particular, stood out for its captivating flow — unsurprising, given that he used to drum for the punk band The Slits. Extended instrumentals and the blending of different genres within their classic hits, like ‘Albatross’ and ‘This is Not a Love Song’, meant the audience could appreciate them in a different light. The combination of the instrumentals' momentum and John’s vocal delivery and stage presence created a hypnotic stranglehold over the crowd. As the band left the stage, John asked the audience to give Nora the happiest hangover ever in her honour.
“My body and mind is the Sex Pistols, but my heart and soul is PiL,” said Lydon once, his comment offering an insight into how he has matured as an artist and what sort of emotion he wanted to reach with PiL.
“Body and mind” suggest an instinctive response, much like how Sex Pistols manifested their raw anger towards the urgent ideas that preoccupied them. During the time, there was a universal impulse to revolt against the anodyne hippie movement, the mismanagement of the post-WW2 era, and the economic hardship experienced by young working-class youths. This seditious mindset was reflected in Sex Pistol’s chaotic stage antics and Johnny's alternative national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’ during the Jubilee celebration.
“Heart and soul”, on the other hand, suggests a deeper and thoughtful reaction that comes later. In a lot of PiL’s music, the anger they refer to seems more constructive than the fascination with destructive anarchy before: PiL seems like the answers to the questions and confusion that the Sex Pistols were singing about. For example, the title track ‘End of World’ from Pil’s latest album serves as an imperative to continue hoping and confronting. Lydon elaborated on this in an interview: “everyday, we are bombarded by chaos and bad news. If that’s the end of the world for them, that’s fine, but the rest of us know we want to carry on”. And in ‘Hawaii’, the plangent lyrics: “Don’t fly too soon / I need to cry in pain / You were loved,” reveal the loving tenderness that ultimately underscores their music.
Nevertheless, PiL are still the baddest and most innovative rockers of the century, and the energy of their anger has not become domesticated or lost its harshness. As the audience chanted the line “Anger is an energy” from ‘Rise’ at the end of PiL’s set, the major key harmony gave everyone’s shouts an uplifting momentum. It felt like the anger they were referring to was not a bitter or destructive end, but rather, the propulsion and endeavour towards a better world.
Edited by Talia Andrea, Editor in Chief