Former Sex Pistol and PiL leader John Lydon tells his story via some of the most intimate, candid interviews of his life. His current and former band members, as well as luminaries like Thurston Moore, help chronicle the narrative.
“The Public Image Is Rotten,” a 2018 documentary about the life and career of John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, ends with a scroll of credits. But before the names of the producers, director and crew, there’s a list of current and former members of Public Image Ltd., the band Lydon formed after the Sex Pistols’ brief, incendiary career ended in early 1978.
Aside from Lydon, 30 people have been members of PiL, in addition to at least 20 session musicians and at least another 10 non-musical members. Sixty-plus is quite an employee list for an unprolific band that has released only 10 albums. The lone constant in PiL has been Lydon, a temperamental man who is given to corrosive sarcasm and mocking glares, but who is also, the film tells us, generous (he often shares lucrative songwriting credits with band members) and kind (he paused his music career for years to help his wife, Nora Forster, raise her grandchildren, and has been her caretaker now that she has Alzheimer’s).
“The Public Image Is Rotten” does an excellent job of humanizing the man who, on the Sex Pistols’ malevolent first single, declared himself “an anti-Christ.” Early in the film, Lydon talks movingly about having meningitis when he was seven years old, which sent him into a coma for three months. When he woke up, he had no memory, couldn’t speak and didn’t recognize his parents; it took him four years to recover his memory.
After you’ve been an enfant terrible, what do you do next?
“All we’re trying to do is destroy everything,” Lydon (then Rotten) said as the Sex Pistols were becoming notorious. You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to spot a straight line from childhood trauma to terrorizing the bourgeoisie. But after you’ve been an enfant terrible, what do you do next?
The PiL catalog comprises three different phases and sets of ideas. The band’s debut, “First Issue,” includes “Public Image,” Lydon’s thrilling denunciation of his former band, its manager and maybe even its fans, as well as “Fodderstompf,” an almost eight-minute prank in which Lydon free associates about being an outcast and sprays a fire extinguisher while the band repeats and repeats and repeats a one chord reggae-ish groove. (“We only wanted to finish the album with the minimum amount of effort, which we are now doing very successfully,” Lydon says in a weird robot voice, delivering possibly the most honest lyric in rock history.)
“First Issue” is a sprawling, difficult clamor with three songs that declare contempt for Christianity, but it’s more accessible than what came next. “Second Edition” (also known as “Metal Box,” which is how the LPs were packaged) has a remarkable and unique sound: flush with echo and drone notes, insistent, unhurried, uncentered, minimal, damaged.
“That was like ‘The White Album’ of the underground,” Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore says, and it’s surely one of the least commercial records to appear regularly on best-albums-of-all-time lists. But it could just as well be Justin Timberlake compared to its 1981 successor, “The Flowers of Romance.” The songs are often just a simple drum pattern, wisps of here-and-gone synthesizer, a bit of Arabic-sounding violin, and Lydon’s voice, reveling in his nuclear vibrato. Pity the Virgin Records promo department that had to pitch the record to radio programmers.
Even punks have bills to pay.
And then, a 180: The rest of PiL’s 1980s records chased commercial success, and Lydon sometimes seems like a guest in his own group. “Rise” (co-produced and co-written by Bill Laswell, who’d recently worked with Mick Jagger and Peter Gabriel) and “This Is Not a Love Song” both sold well in the U.K., charting at No. 5 and No. 11, respectively, and in 1989, “Disappointed” (produced by Stephen Hague, who’d made hits with Pet Shop Boys and New Order) reached No. 1 on Billboard’s U.S. Alternative Rock specialty chart. These were sleek albums with booming drums and Lydon’s least abrasive singing. Even punks have bills to pay.
After the unmemorable “That What Is Not” album in 1992, Public Image Ltd. went on a 20-year hiatus. In 1996, Lydon reunited the Sex Pistols — they dubbed it the Filthy Lucre Tour, admitting their financial motives before anyone could accuse them of it — and in 2008, he appeared in an ad to shill for a brand of butter. The man a British tabloid once called “the biggest threat to our youth since Hitler” even wore dapper tweed suits, looking like a proper country squire.
Lydon says he used his butter fee, reported to be £5 million, to reunite Public Image Ltd., ushering in the band’s third phase. There are no gimmicks on “This Is PiL” (2012) or “What the World Needs Now…” (2015), no trendy production, no bids for a hit single, nor any deliberate commercial obfuscations. There’s even a stable lineup that appears on both records and has toured.
“We are the ageless, we are teenagers,” Lydon crows early in “This Is PiL,” excited to be back at it. The taunting weaponry of his voice is still delightful, and the band plays tuneful, sometimes almost funky rock augmented by guitarist Lu Edmonds’ piercing drone notes. When Lydon draws out syllables now, it’s less like an enfant terrible on a mission to destroy and more like an over-the-top villain in a BBC series, played by a hammy veteran actor who’s earned his license to chew the scenery.
Rob Tannenbaum has been a Contributing Editor at GQ, Rolling Stone, Playboy and Details, and was the longtime Music Editor at Blender. He’s a coauthor of the acclaimed 2011 book “I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution,” and has also written for The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Village Voice, New York Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Billboard, WIRED and Apple Music. He lives in New York City with his wife and son. In his spare time, he writes songs that are meant to be funny and sometimes are.