The BLOG: Culture

The evolution of Johnny Rotten

Public Image Ltd. created post-punk in their rejection of the late ’70s punk scene.

It’s no secret that Malcolm McLaren, the Sex Pistols’ manager, heavily controlled the band’s image, music and membership. And although John Lydon was chosen as the Sex Pistols’ singer based on his fashion sense and attitude, he soon tired of playing “Johnny Rotten,” the persona he’d adopted and had soon become beholden to. Lydon was forced to play the part of the sneering punk, the nihilist who wants to destroy and has no interest in anything traditionally pleasant or musical.

Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols in 1977. (Wikipedia)

Johnny Rotten and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols in 1977. (Wikipedia)

In an early interview with legendary English radio presenter John Peel, Lydon revealed his interest in experimental progressive rock, the kind of music his group was supposed to be railing against. And after the Sex Pistols dissolved in 1978, Lydon formed his own group in order to make the music he wanted to make. That group was Public Image Ltd.

Lydon approached his childhood friend John Wardle, who would take the stage name Jah Wobble, about forming a band due to their mutual affection for dub and world music. Dub is a reggae offshoot that focuses on drums and bass guitar, often remixing songs to remove the vocals so the drums and bass are more prominent. Despite his knowledge of dub, Wobble did not actually know how to play an instrument, but soon found that he had a natural talent for the bass.

In 1976, John Lydon met Keith Levene while both were on tour with their bands, the Sex Pistols and the Clash. Both felt like outsiders within their groups, and Levene eventually left the Clash, of which he was a founding member, due to his dissatisfaction with their style, attitude, and musical direction. The trio found drummer Jim Walker through an ad in Melody Maker magazine, although he wouldn’t stay with the band past their first album.

Their 1978 debut album, Public Image: First Issue, was a statement. The name is generic, the first song is nine minutes long, and critics hated it, as the band knew they would. First Issue, as it is generally known, is a strange combination of rock, punk, dub and wild experimentation. It has since become regarded as a landmark in the development of post-punk, a new genre that rejected the simplicity of punk by incorporating elements of world music, among other distinctions. The songs are longer, the bass is much more prominent, and the lyrics are darker and more personal than any punk band’s at the time.

Their second album, Metal Box, released in ’79, is widely considered their masterpiece by modern critics. Named for its unusual packaging, another staple of post-punk, the album came as three 45-rpm records sealed in a metal container much like a film canister.

This album saw the return of Lydon, Wobble and Levene, but not Walker, who left the group soon after they finished recording First Issue. For their second album, Levene and Wobble took up the drums on a couple of songs, along with established drummers like Karl Burns of fellow post-punk act the Fall, Richard Dudanski, formerly of pub rock band the 101ers, on the majority of the tracks and Martin Atkins, who would stay with the band, off and on, until 1985.

On this album Levene refined his metallic guitar sound, which he’d achieved through the use of an aluminum guitar on their first album, and used it at times as a rhythm instrument, eschewing melody in favor of short, screeching riffs and allowing Jah Wobble’s bass-lines to take focus. Almost every song on the album was improvised in the studio, what you hear on the record is the first and only take, due to financial constraints and lack of available studio time.

“Swan Lake,” also known as “Disco Death,” was written by Lydon while he was in the Sex Pistols as a way of coping with his mother’s slow death from cancer. It became known as “Swan Lake” when Levene, in the studio, realized that the tune closely resembled Tchaikovsky’s piece of the same name. Upon this realization he began to intentionally copy the melody, albeit slightly incorrectly. “Socialist,” the 10th track, is P.I.L. in a nutshell. It’s fast-paced with a prominent bass line and drum rhythm, and includes some experimental synthesizer noodling courtesy of Levene and Wobble.

A strange combination of progressive rock, dub and punk, Metal Box is a masterpiece of avant-garde rock. John Lydon may be best known as “Johnny Rotten,” the sneering, orange-haired and leather-jacket-wearing punk, but his true legacy as an artist is Public Image Ltd.

Jimmy McPhee and Teddy Bunker

Jimmy McPhee and Teddy Bunker

Jimmy McPhee is a former sound engineer for SiriusXM Radio and the former engineering director for WNYU​​, where he presented the radio shows Unknown Pleasures and Throwing Bricks. Teddy Bunker is a writer whose work has been featured in Structo Magazine​, The Harvard Press and the Hofstra Chronicle​. Together, they are The New Noise.