A PiL Primer

After the Sex Pistols split, Johnny Rotten reverted back to John Lydon and formed Public Image Limited (PiL) with some old pals. PiL was meant to be a “communications company,” not a band. Let’s not kid ourselves: PiL was a band. At first, they were a band that made a point of never practicing and seldom playing live. Later on they'd change strategies and release highly polished product.

PiL underwent a ton of personnel changes over the years. The general consensus is that they devolved over time, which isn’t necessarily true (but is sorta true). They just kept changing, with John Lydon’s vitriol and charisma holding the circus together. If you’re at all interested in Lydon’s unique vocal charms, acquiring the entire PiL catalogue is a must. I’ve split the band into four phases for your ease and edification.

This is the “classic” lineup.

First Issue

John Lydon
Keith Levene: guitar
Jah Wobble: bass
Jim Walker: drums

PiL squeezed their freshman effort out right before 1978 became 1979. The debut single, Public Image, is a catchy little ditty which more or less defines the PiL sound. The song is danceable and bass-centric, the guitar sort of plays around the melody, and Lydon indicts everyone for not getting it. A heft percentage of Lydon songs are about this. If you’re serious about collecting your PiL, you’ll get used to it pretty fast.

Anyway, Lydon’s message is clear: PiL is not the Pistols 2.0, although this is the album that sounds the most like his old band. A post punk classic, sure, and doubly impressive for being such a focused effort from a band that couldn’t have been together for more than a couple months at this point. Despite its many virtues, First Edition was easily overshadowed by the colossus that came next.

Please note: if I were a completist rather than a half-assed collector, I’d include the PiL official live releases bootlegs in this primer. But I’m not going to. However, I’d like to mention Nubes, a no-fi document of early PiL. The band is sloppier than a Parkinson’s patient trying to eat a meatball sub with chopsticks, and they run through the late-era Pistols tune “Belsen Was a Gas.” They also treat the crowd to “Public Image” not once but twice, and all the songs only go on for as long as everyone feels like playing them. PiL originally had an ethos of never practicing and seldom playing shows. The end product is actually very compelling, and Nubes gets more rotation with me than First Issue

Metal Box/Second Edition

John Lydon
Keith Levene: guitar, drums
Jah Wobble: bass, drums


Martin Atkins: drums
Richard Dudanski: drums
David Humphrey: drums

I bought this thing in 2000, threw it on the turntable, and went into involuntary spasms as my brain unpeeled in layers like a hot onion at the mercy of a surgeon with a sharp scalpel.

Released in 1979, Metal Box is a revelation. When critics lazily compare the “dance punk” bands of the 00s to PiL, this is the album they’re talking about. It’s a big, beautiful, sprawling mess. Jah Wobble really earns his keep here, although he’ll be gone by the next album. His massive, repetitive bass lines often get compared to dub, but they're somehow more than that. The only thing I can think of comparing Wobble’s bass to is the secret word that practitioners of Transcendental Meditation keep repeating in order drive away all rational thought.

Keith Levene, on the other hand, makes his guitar do things that guitars shouldn’t necessarily be allowed to do. He plays weird glassy arpeggios, seems to run it through a synth to create drones, and wrings robotic bird noises from it. Wobble never changes up his bass lines, and Levene never seems to play the same jagged noise squiggle twice: a simple one-two combo, but an effective one.

Lydon affects a very odd eunuch-with-bound-feet croon throughout a lot of the material here, with occaisional shifts into a sort of vitriolic narration/declamation. It’s absolutely gripping, and manages to string the whole thing together. A lot of bands pay lip service to making something, oh, alienated or what have you. This record really delivers, and manages to toe this weird line between dehumanized J.G. Ballard-esque post-apocalyptic ambience and (frankly) fun dance music—I didn’t even know they had a shared border.

Please note: This unphysiologically fucking impossible meisterwerk was originally released as a bunch of 45 rpm records in a metal film cannister and entitled Metal Box. Besides looking cool, the 45 rpm single format allowed for better bass response. Legend has it that Jah Wobble’s bass amps were pointed at a concrete wall and room mikes were placed about to pick up the ambient sound.

The prohibitively high packaging cost meant that Metal Box saw a limited edition release. A 33 rpm double album, containing the same songs, was later released as Second Edition.

Flowers of Romance

John Lydon
Keith Levene: guitar & stuff
Martin Atkins: drums

Sharing a name with the late Sid Vicious’ (and Keith Levene's) first, pre-Pistols band, Flowers of Romance came out in 1981, shortly after poor Sidney bought the farm. Jah Wobble splits from the group before this album was recorded, leaving a lot of empty space. Drummer Martin Atkins, who played on at least one of the Metal Box cuts, is mixed really loud on this record. He plays kind of like a drum machine, a sound that would prefigure his later work in Pigface and other vaguely shitty Industrial bands.

The rest of the album is filled out with samples, odd snatches of noise, and some very impressive banshee-with-nasal-congestion caterwauling by Lydon. There’s a vague Middle Eastern sound permeating some of the tracks, but the predominate feeling is that they wrote all this shit in the studio. In fact, I’d be very surprised if they didn’t. This album takes a lot of knocks for being under-composed or something, but it’s really one of my favorites. The band has been halved, but they decide to put something out anyway. Frankly, I’m glad a document of the band at that time exists.

Commercial Zone

John Lydon
Keith Levene: guitar and stuff
Martin Atkins: drums

At this point, band-aids, snot, and library paste are the only things holding the remainders of the first PiL lineup together. The band imploded before this album was even completed; in fact, it’s not even an official release. Keith Levene patched it together from studio tapes and released it in a limited edition. Some of the songs ended up on the next PiL album, albeit in different versions. As for the songs that didn’t, it’s just as well.

There’s a lot of mythology surrounding this album. Before hearing it myself, I’d built it up into the equivalent of the Beach Boys’ Smile, or maybe the lost chapters of Gogol’s Dead Souls. In reality, this gray market piece of PiL apocrypha is fairly dull and slightly crummy.

That being said, if you become a rabid PiL fan, there’s no way you can live without it. This is the last gasp of the old lineup. Have you ever been to the Natural History Museum, and seen a partially reconstructed Egyptian temple? You know, where the various chunks of temple are laid out, and the missing parts are filled in with cement or something? If you manage to find an original vinyl copy of this, treat yourself to a glass of champagne back at base camp, because you’ve unearthed the lost codex of a vanished people. Guard it for the enlightenment of future generations.

(Also, I’ve heard that you can get it on the internets. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but there’s a rumor that you can “download music.” It’s probably just one of those rumors.)

Keith Levene splits from PiL and completely vanishes. Lydon retains Atkins and rebuilds the band with session hacks. This version of PiL doesn’t last long.

This is What You Want . . . This is What You Get

John Lydon
Martin Atkins: drums


Some Assholes: everything else

Three years have passed since the last official PiL release, and a lot has happened. Without Keith Levene acting as a tether, the PiL sound will now float all over the place like an out-of-control hot air balloon manned by really lucky blind retards. Any and all guitars are buried deep, but the ghost of Keith Levene still half-haunts the proceedings. Some of these songs can be found on Commercial Zone, but they’ve been polished and dressed in their Sunday best. Martin Atkins is still onboard, and the result is a kind of pre-Prince plus industrial pop sounding thing.

Gone now are the sprawling death dub epics, gone are the drum loops and out of tune violin ragas. Gone also is the adenoidal warble Lydon deployed on Metal Box and Flowers of Romance. The sing-shout he works out here is better suited to the new material, anyway. He’ll stick with this on the remainder of PiL releases.

It’s the 80s now, and the Lydon is making a big point of going commercial, or at least (ahem) “going commercial.” Lydon will work out this mass media obsession over the remainder of the PiL discography. And the track “This Is Not a Love Song” actually ends up being a minor hit of sorts, so there’s that. No previous PiL album sounds like this one, nor do any that follow; kind of a shame, really. This is a terrific release.

PiL was so far ahead of the curve in 1979 that they led the pack by about 1,000 lengths, but the Eighties sees the rest of the pack catching up with them. By the 1990s, they’d be surpassed. Still, not being ahead of the curve does not a bad band make, and PiL churned out a lot of top-shelf product before Lydon sent the band to the glue factory.

Since the personnel of PiL Mark II had been recruited from wedding bands, VFW halls, and leprosariums, the lineup was easily liquidated. Producer Bill Laswell is brought on board to sort things out.


John Lydon


Nicky Skopelitis: guitar
Steve Vai: guitar
Malachi Favors: bass
Jonas Hellborg: bass
Bill Laswell: bass
Ginger Baker: drums
Tony Williams: drums
Bernie Worrell: organ
Ryuichi Sakamoto: synth
Aiyb Dieng: chatan
Bernard Fowler: backing vocals
L. Shankar: violin

—and god help us—

Steve Turre: didjeridu

Bill Laswell fills PiL with his friends and cohorts; the results are weird. The Laswellized PiL is hard to take seriously, but it was 1986, so what the hell. Try to enjoy yourself.

Laswell’s crew creates a sort of hard-hitting, processed, shiny swirly thing. You can’t please all the people all the time, but they’re really trying for it here. The results? Fascinating in the way that, say, watching my friend Jake rollerblade around his apartment with a spinning circular saw in one hand and a small hatchet which he used as a can opener in the other while simultaneously singing a song over the phone to a friend was fascinating. Juggling dance music, pop, metal, and world music can’t be easy, and there’s only so long that PiL keeps all the balls in the air with this one.

There are a lot of good songs on this one, but it remains baffling. Steve Vai? Replacing Keith Levene with Steve Vai is like replacing Albert Ayler with Wynton Marsalis. Except that I like Steve Vai slightly better than Wynton Marsalis, that fucking putz. I’ve seen live footage of that band from around this time, and they play a couple tunes off First Edition as well as the olden Pistols chestnut “Bodies.” It doesn’t taste good.

This album contains “Rise,” which is probably the most famous PiL tune. It’s another zippy Lydon missive to a world that doesn’t understand his many-splendored complexities, but a good one.

Bill Laswell leaves and takes his little pals with him. I’m glad he split: by the end of Album I had a bad case of Laswellitis. Lydon manages to rebuild PiL with post-punkeroo John McGeoch, who played guitar in the mighty Magazine, and Lu Edmonds, who appeared on the Damned’s underrated Music For Pleasure album. This other guy, Alan Dias, is brought into the fold on bass.


John Lydon
Lu Edmonds: guitar
John McGeoch: guitar
Alan Dias: bass
Bruce Smith: drums

PiL gets the newspaper and brandy snifter and relaxes into a big, plush, leather evening chair to contemplate the sunset. This line up produces pleasant, unchallenging, mid-eighties tuneage. Imagine eating gumdrops that have been through a blender with a spoon, or something. Any given photo of Lydon’s stagewear around this time should give you some idea of the sound they were going for. Also, some guy from Art of Noise produced it.

Despite the formation of a new PiL sound, it's sonically, I don't know . . . typical. I guess that's all right. Way back when, PiL never practiced and seldom played live. This lineup got the shit toured out of it.

As you might imagine, the lyrics concern media, rules, hypocrites . . . all of the usual shopworn targets. Note that the album starts out with a frankly bizarre attack on the city of Seattle. Someone better versed in PiL history might know what that’s about, but I have no fucking clue. I guess he didn’t like Seattle much, and felt it was time to take a stand. Right on, brother.


John Lydon
John McGeoch: guitar
Alan Dias: bass
Bruce Smith: drums

It took them two years to come up with this piece of shit? Ha ha ha, just kidding. Sort of. It’s a piece of shit, but a qualified piece of shit. There’s a lot to enjoy here, although perhaps not in the way the band thought you might.

Speaking of you, you’re probably saying “Gee, Rick, why is this album called 9 when it’s only the seventh album, maybe the eighth if you count Commercial Zone, which doesn’t count? I’ll tell you why. PiL officially released two live albums that I’m not including in the primer. That’s a little something we here at The Little Black Egg like to call “Editorial License.”

9 has a delightful, 1989-vintage “adult contemporary” sound. It might not be easy for you to imagine Monsieur Lydon in an adult contemporary setting, but believe you me, this is the kind of music I’d put on to sip Chardonnay to whilst gazing down at a city of peasants from my glassed-in high-rise penthouse. Fuck you, you pathetic larvae. Squirm and die. That’s what I’d think to myself (if I were ever in a high rise with the Chardonnay, etc).

Come to think of it, I’m surprised at how often I listen to this album. Look at these guys! God . . .

This was the first PiL album I ever heard . . . I suppose I must have been fourteen or fifteen at the time, having just been exposed to the Pistols. Needless to say, it was hard to believe the same guy made both albums. “Disappointed” is a great tune, but I’m disappointed in the rest of 'em. Ha ha ha!

That What Is Not

John Lydon
John McGeoch: guitar
Alan Dias: bass


Gregg "JP" Arreguin: guitar
Curt "Kirbee" Bisquera: drums
Tower of Power: horns (!!!)
Jimmie Wood: harmonica
Bonnie Sheridan: backing vocals
Julie Christensen: backing vocals

PiL Mark IV is now reduced to the Lydon/McGeoch/Dias axis. This thing came out in 1992, a year in which radio-friendly music was undergoing a sea change. This album is a confusing fucking mess with little in the way of good tunes at all—“Acid Drops” might be all right, but it’s hard to buy the sentiment at this point.

PiL collapsed under its own weight with this album. It’s easy to forgive for slipshod studio work, underwritten songs, shitty album artwork, and crummy production. They also haven’t broken any new ground. And if Lydon isn’t at least going to bring his remarkable charisma to the table, what’s left? This album has no shape, taste, or texture—to lift one from Gertrude Stein, “ . . . there is no there there.”

PiL dematerializes. John Lydon released one solo album, Pyscho’s Path, and has spent the bulk of his time making television appearances and sporadically touring with the surviving members of his first band, playing all the oldies but goldies. A lot of late-era PiL records languish in used bins these days like medical specimens in formaldahyde. Some PiL albums are better than others, but they’re all worth a listen. If nothing else, they're incredibly honest, even if it's just about shameless greed.

[A million thanks to the amazing Fodderstompf for some images, dates, and line-up info.]


rgms said...

i have read a lot of stuff about PiL -- I mean, a LOT -- but nothing was ever close to as good as this is.

and i pretty much agreed with you on every point, except i think "Album" is pretty brilliant. anyway.

i'm gonna bookmark this blog and check it out more, for sure.

Rick said...

Hey, thanks so much rgms! I really appreciate it. I've always liked PiL, even the stuff that I hated, you know?

One note: I really like the songs on "Album," but you know, I just really can't stand Bill Laswell productions. I'm in a minority here I guess. I'd probably cotton to that album a whole lot better if lots of the excess instrumentation was stripped back. Despite my disapproving write-up, it still gets its fair share of turntable time.


Anonymous said...

your appraisal of the mid-late eighties completely misses the point.
you should go and suck some pig face.

Rick said...

Aaaaahhh, yer just a goofy-looking mouth breather, Anonymous. However, we here at The Little Black Egg welcome all of our readers with open arms, mouth breathers and non-mouth breathers alike. it warms my heart to know that there are people out there defending the honor of late-80s PiL. So put on a smile, sourpuss, and hold fast to the music that you love.