Public Image Ltd

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Public Image Ltd (PiL) is a band formed in 1978 by John Lydon, formerly and later Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols. PiL is often cited as one of the most challenging and innovative bands of the post punk period.


Early Career

Following the Sex Pistols' breakup, Lydon took a three-week trip to Jamaica with Virgin Records head Richard Branson, in which Lydon helped scout for new reggae artists.

After this vacation, Lydon approached Jah Wobble (né John Wardle) to start a new band. The pairing seemed natural: They had been friends since the early 1970s, and had casually played music together during the last days of the Sex Pistols. Furthermore, they were both avid fans of reggae, and of what would later be called world music. Lydon assumed, much as with his friend Sid Vicious, the Sex Pistols' mid-career replacement for original bassist Glen Matlock, that Wobble could learn to play bass guitar as he went. While that had proven a fatal assumption with Vicious (Lydon cites his inability to learn his instrument as a prime reason for the Pistols' breakup), Wobble would prove to be a natural talent. Lydon also launched an effort to locate guitarist Keith Levene (né Julian Levene), whom he had met on tour in mid-1976 while Levene was a member of The Clash. Lydon and Levene had both considered themselves outsiders even within their own bands. After Levene heard of the invitation, he quickly signed on. The original drummer was Jim Walker (né Donat Walker), a Canadian student newly arrived in the UK, who answered an ad in a weekly music magazine.

PiL debuted with "Public Image," a single not far from Sex Pistols territory. The single did splendidly in the UK, and surprisingly well as an import in the US, where the mainstream rock culture of the time was strongly resistant to edginess or innovation.

First Album

Heartened, the band relaxed and rolled a collective spliff: In preparing the album, First Issue, they ran through their recording budget well before finishing (drugs were a significant expense), and ended up with eight tracks of varying sound quality, half of which were written and recorded in a last-minute fire drill. Wobble had also beaten up producer Bill Price's assistant engineer (Price, with John Leckie, had secured the tight sound of the "Public Image" single), inciting Price to ban the group from their preferred Wessex Studios, and forcing them to scramble for another venue and soundman as deadlines loomed and passed.

The album, however, was groundbreaking: scabrous and dirge-like, but lyrical by turn, 'Gothic' before the term was coined, and grounded in heavy dub reggae. Wobble's bass tone was called "impossibly deep" by contemporary reviews, and Levene's uniquely sharp guitar sound (Levene played an all-aluminum Veleno guitar, and a mostly-aluminum Travis Bean Wedge) was widely imitated, most notably by The Edge of the then-fledgling U2. Lydon's vocals were more tuneless and incantatory than in the Sex Pistols, gesturing toward the avant-garde territory of such artists as Yoko Ono. The album was, however, fairly easy for rock audiences to get a handle on. It sold well in the UK and in Europe.

Metal Box

1979's Metal Box was a more focused effort, although created, like First Issue, under notably unfocused circumstances. In addition to the drugs and disorganization that were the normal condition of the band, Jim Walker had quit from general disillusionment, making way for a series of exploding drummers -- in one case literally, when Wobble set fire to the aptly-named Karl Burns. Sessions took place in which a star-struck young drummer would show up for an 'audition' and be stunned to discover himself in the middle of a recording date with the tape rolling.

Metal Box was originally released as three 45rpm 12-inch records packaged in a metal film canister (it was later reissued as a double LP set, Second Edition), and features the band's trademark hypnotic dub reggae bass lines, glassy, arpeggiated guitar, and bleak, paranoid, stream of consciousness vocals. Metal Box is starker than First Issue, more spread out and uncompromising, and scattered with bits of ambient synthesizer. It is now widely regarded as a classic record, both for its music and its sheer tonality (the 45rpm 12" format added depth and fidelity to what was already a highly tactile, spacious sound), and it sold quite well upon release, and for years afterward. But with Metal Box, PiL was no longer operating as a standard rock band, but was entering a different territory altogether.

One critic wrote, "they sounded nothing like the Pistols or anyone else at the time." [1] ( In fact, although radically different from other British and American rock groups, PiL was heavily influenced by German experimental rock, or Krautrock, especially by Can, Neu!, and the sonic aesthetic of producer Conny Plank. Hallmarks of the genre include minimalism, classically-inspired ambient or atonal leanings, via Stockhausen, and an abandonment of traditional song form in favor of long, slowly-unfolding compositions.

The teenage dance show American Bandstand was, circa 1980, entirely innocent of such things, with a history beginning with the likes of Frankie Avalon and extending to the mild end of '70s pop-rock. PiL's booking there revealed a latent fiendish streak in host Dick Clark. The band mimed to the bleak soundscapes of "Poptones" and "Careering," from Metal Box, with Lydon haranguing the cameramen and making no effort to conceal that he was lip-synching. The studio audience made a valiant, but futile attempt to dance and stay in character, ruined by Lydon's good-humored incitements to storm the stage. General chaos broke out, and the show ended with the audience dancing with band members, band members goofing on their instruments, and Lydon chatting with fans while "Careering" blared on. Clark, in later years, would refer to the appearance as "One of the ten best American Bandstand episodes of all time."

A US tour led to several cancelled dates and (more of the usual) chaos, this time between the band and their US label, Warner Brothers (PiL was on Virgin in the UK).

Lydon had always been a difficult character to work with, but Levene had begun to challenge his crown, by many reports acting increasingly grandiose and delusional, and by all reports sinking ever-deeper into heroin. Levene was a very small, skinny person, of the sort that one thinks of as 'runty.' Jah Wobble, for his part, was among the rarest of sensitive art-musicians and world-music aficionados in that his habits included assault and battery, setting people on fire, and hurling televisions out of hotel windows. Something had to break, and it was clear that it couldn't be Lydon. Oddly, it was Wobble.

PiL's elusiveness lent it a thick mystique, but to those behind the curtain it was known as "the laziest band in the world" -- never rehearsing, rarely gigging (the original band only played five UK shows), and recording only when forced to by frantic record execs. (One exec called PiL "a well-oiled machine that burns money and generates pot smoke and excuses.") When Jim Walker joined, he started hanging out at Lydon's apartment, and noticed that Levene would often call from wherever Levene lived -- presumably miles away, since he never saw him. One evening, moments after a phone exchange, he was astonished to see Levene walk in the door: The guitarist had been living the whole time in the apartment downstairs. He'd never bothered to come up before.

With that as a ground aesthetic, it's easy to see how an ambitious musician could be frustrated. Wobble had been releasing solo singles since 1978, and had long been unhappy with the band's relaxed sense of time and lack of ambition. While working on his first solo album, he began using PiL basslines as backing tracks, on the premise that nobody else in the band seemed likely to mind. When Levene found out, it provided fuel for a grudge; and while claims differ as to whether Wobble quit or was fired, the split was decisive. Upon Wobble's departure, the band continued not-playing as a bassless trio.

A show at the Ritz, in New York, signaled a turning point. The band's musical core had by then been stripped down to Lydon and Levene (drummer Martin Atkins had recently exploded), and PiL had begun to relocate to New York, partly because the MI5 was conducting a harassment campaign -- later admitted -- against the band's headquarters, the London apartment that Lydon bought with his Sex Pistols royalties. (A similar campaign would chase Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV frontman Genesis P. Orridge out of Britain in the early '90s.) Levene had also begun to get big ideas about PiL's formerly-ironic claims to be a 'corporation' and an 'art collective': While friends of the band including filmmaker Jeanette Lee had long been 'full members' of PiL (original drummer Jim Walker was only 'voted off the board' in 1980), no creative works besides the records had ever ensued. For the Ritz gig however, Levene decided that PiL would reorganize as an improvisational multimedia troupe -- working, as usual, without planning or rehearsals.

The band appeared at the Ritz playing from behind a projection screen. (Drummer Sam Ulamo had been recruited for the gig from a bar -- the 60-year-old jazz player had never heard the band before.) While something reminiscent of, but clearly different from PiL improvised behind the screen, PiL records were played simultaneously through the PA. Lydon taunted the audience, who expected to hear familiar material (or at least see the band), and a melee erupted in which the audience pelted the stage with bottles and pulled on a tarp spread under the band, toppling equipment. The promoters cleared the hall and cancelled the next night's show, and a local media furore ignited in New York. The 18-inch model of Stonehenge had descended.

An appearance a short time later on NBC's Tom Snyder show had Lydon and Snyder insulting each other on-air. The band soon regrouped, after a fashion, back in London.

Flowers of Romance

Martin Atkins, who had initially joined at the tail end of the Metal Box sessions (most tracks on that album were played by Richard Dudanski), was re-recruited to drum on Flowers of Romance, an album considered much stranger and more difficult than the already strange Metal Box. Levene had by then largely abandoned guitar in favor of synthesizer, picking up a technique that was nearly unique, although perhaps owing a debt to Allen Ravenstine of Pere Ubu. Atkins' propulsive marching band-style drumming and Lydon's increasing lyrical abstraction made this LP a difficult listen for rock fans: contemporary reviews expressed great confusion. The record consists mostly of drums, vocals, musique concrète, and tape loops, with only gestures toward bass (played by Levene) and keyboards. Julian Cope, however, expresses the current majority view, saying that Flowers was "the last great PIL album." [2] ( Its drum sound was widely copied, notably by Phil Collins and Kate Bush. (Collins admits the deed; Bush went an extra step in buying some of Wobble's 'impossibly deep' Metal Box-era bass equipment [the secret is a 1970s or equivalent Fender Jazz Bass through all-tube Ampeg SVT amplifier, speakers faced toward a solid wall, with mikes arranged to pick up the ambient sound]).

Atkins was, like Levene and Lydon, a control freak in ways, but Levene had the disadvantage of having repeatedly fired Atkins over apparent trifles, and of being zonked on junk much of the time -- so when conflict arose again, Levene was the one to go. An aborted fourth album, from 1982, was later released by Levene as Commercial Zone. Lydon and Atkins claim that he stole the tapes, while Levene's claim is, in effect, that possession is nine-tenths of the law. Recollections, as usual, differ widely on the particulars, and the album, while considered far superior to the official one that later appeared, has never been legally reissued. Atkins stayed on through a disatrous live album, Live in Tokyo -- in which PiL consisted of him, Lydon, and a band of New Jersey wedding musicians -- and left in 1985, following the album, This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get. The band was moving, or perhaps hurtling, toward a more commercial pop music and dance music direction, and while many new fans had found PiL, little of their original audience (or sound) remained.


PiL's 1986 release was simply entitled CD, Tape, or Album, depending on the format. Produced by Bill Laswell (despite Lydon-fuelled faction and disunion) and with many of his usual rotating cast of musicians, it also featured guitar solos by Steve Vai, considered by Vai as some of his best work. Controversy reared its hoary glower again with claims that the album cover and title concept had been stolen from the San Francisco noise/punk band, Flipper, contemporaries of PiL, whose album, Album, featured a similarly unadorned sleeve. Flipper retaliated by naming their next album, Public Flipper Limited.

Late Career

PiL kept going as a Lydon project until 1993, when Lydon disbanded the group. Their final lineup consisted of Lydon, Ted Chau (guitar, keyboards), Mike Joyce of The Smiths (drums), John McGeoch (guitar), and Russel Webb (bass). Notable exploding members of the later PiL include world-music multi-instrumentalist (and former Damned guitarist) Lu Edmonds, and Cream bassist and drummer Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. Lydon released a solo album, Psycho's Path in 1997. He considers PiL "on hiatus," and plans a book on his years with the group.

Album discography

  • First Issue, 1978
  • Metal Box, 1979
  • Second Edition, 1980
  • Paris au Printemps (live album), 1980
  • (The) Flowers of Romance, 1981
  • Live In Tokyo (live album), 1983
  • This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get, 1984
  • Album / Compact Disc / Cassette, 1986
  • Happy?, 1987
  • 9, 1989
  • The Greatest Hits, So Far (compilation), 1990
  • Box (box set), 1990
  • That What Is Not, 1992
  • Plastic Box (box set), 1999
  • Public Image/Second Edition (two-in-one), 2003fr:Public Image Limited

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