John Lydon talks 40 years of Public Image Ltd.

With a new documentary film and tour, the artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten reflects on life after the Sex Pistols

Public Image Ltd Main
Photo credit: Courtesy PRIME PR GROUP, Inc.
SOMETHING ROTTEN: Public Image Ltd. is Lu Edmonds (from left), Bruce Smith, John Lydon, and Scott Firth.

On the heels of releasing a career-spanning box set in the shadow of director Tabbert Fiiller’s documentary film, The Public Image Is Rotten, John Lydon and Co. are on the road celebrating Public Image Ltd.’s 40th anniversary. The artist formerly known as Johnny Rotten knocked rock ‘n’ roll on its arse while leading the Sex Pistols’ U.K. punk charge from 1975-78. With PiL, he channeled the filth and the fury into a post-modern and intellectualized anti-group that defied all notions of what a band is, and what it could be. With a body of work that includes 1979’s objet d'art album Metal Box, followed such critically acclaimed albums as 1984’s This Is What You Want...This Is What You Get and 1987’s Happy?, PiL laid the foundation for post-punk, new wave, and alternative rock.

These days Lydon, guitarist Lu Edmonds, drummer Bruce Smith, and bass player Scott Firth make up PiL’s longest-standing lineup so far. The arrival of 2012’s This Is PiL, followed by 2015’s What the World Needs Now, the group established a vital, second coming for PiL. With The Public Image Is Rotten documentary, box set, and tour at hand, Lydon took a few minutes to reflect on PiL’s extreme highs and lows, the confidence he gained from punk, and his strange but rich history with Atlanta.

I recently listened to PiL’s entire discography in reverse chronological order. It revealed that the two latest PiL albums have a loose aesthetic in common with the first two PiL records

There is a looseness, and confidence as well. When PiL first started, it had all of this great ideology and a sense of values. Aesthetic is a good word to throw in there as well. I thought it was practical, but it turned out not to be. When you’re not controlling the purse strings, i.e., affiliated with a large record label, these things can come crashing down on you. Labels withhold money at all the wrong times. That causes friction in the band. People expect to be paid, and always blame the singer, which is how they got tied into the band in the first place. One thing leads to another, and a break up ensues. I’ve always hated the temporary feeling I had with people when I knew they wouldn’t hang around for long. That’s all gone now. We have no record label telling us what to do. We are completely independent. We’ve made two albums, and we’re in the middle of making a third while touring and doing all of this other stuff. Money is tight, but it’s not as tight as the sack of assholes we were connected to originally.

Musically, those outside tensions change your perspective. I’ve tried to keep it away from people. I don’t want to be seen as wallowing in self-pity. Some people will misinterpret facts. I hope that through the music, a message is clearly understood, and that is continually striving for a sense of values in this world. We can only do that by exploring ourselves and our emotions. And emotions are powerful things to be dabbling with.

There’s a huge emotional range covered in PiL and the Sex Pistols’ music. You also have a solid crew now. Drummer Bruce Smith and guitarist Lu Edmonds have been with PiL as far back as Happy? in 1987.

Click to enlarge image.

It’s not the musicianship that counts first. It’s the friendship. The personalities. The intellectual understanding of each other. Things like that bind the group and help creativity.

And it’s almost an oddity to talk about Lu as a guitar player because that’s the instrument he plays the least! He experiments with anything that has strings. Whether it be car hubs tied to a cupboard leg, or anything. He’s a wonderfully experimental fellow.

That’s a different group dynamic from PiL’s early days.

It is, but it really is what I wanted back then. When I started PiL, I thought, “I’ll be working with some close friends. We can learn together.” The temptations from the record label allowed egos to take over. It was like a bad girlfriend whispering in your ear. It creates real serious division. It’s horrible to endure, but it’s great songwriting material. That’s why a song like “Disappointed” is so relevant. There’s something in there that everyone has felt about friendship. How do you make it endure? You have to learn to forgive.

I had to learn early on how to use adversity as part of my toolkit. Now, I’m finding that there are other ways. That’s where PiL is now — comfortable in exploring because there are no personal animosities. There’s none of that “I’m leaving” stuff.

Have you interacted with drummer Martin Atkins who’s working on his book, Memories: My Five Years In and Out of Public Image Ltd. 1979-1985?

Not for quite some time. Just a phone call, really. I was upset with him and bass player Jah Wobble and guitarist Keith Levene. They were trying to call themselves Metal Box or something or the other. But when we made Metal Box those people never spoke to each other! Part of the problem was the inner-band warfare. And here they are putting themselves all out, pretending they’re the real PiL. But hello boys, what have you done since then? What did you ever contribute to PiL financially, let alone emotionally? Not a lot. I don’t like to be mean about it, but I have to be accurate. They let me down when I needed them most.

Martin is in the film, and so is Wobble. They have something to say, and I want to hear it. I’m as intrigued by their commentary as you are. Any ideologies of me putting a block on anyone have to stop immediately. I’m quite the opposite. The naysayers are there and are even more welcome than the hoo-haw-hee fantastic brigade.

… We really do need to appreciate each other more in life and in general, though. Otherwise, we’ll end up like all of those silly rappers. What a world of children that is.

What is the relationship between the documentary film, the tour, and the box set that are all titled, The Public Image Is Rotten?

The documentary is independent of us, even though it’s close to our hearts. We gave everyone an opportunity to say what they wanted to say.

How much input did you have with the film’s narrative?

A lot. The people who put it together had a lot of say, too. It’s their money! The end result is either you believe what you’re seeing or you don’t. There is as much naysaying in it as there is positive, but it’s all researched, and it all works out to be true anyway.

I’m happy with it. I look like a wrinkled git. I’m just telling it like it is, and any opportunity for that is fine by me. Everybody who’s anybody was offered an equal opportunity. In the beginning, it was going to be about reforming PiL, and the last two albums. This Is PiL, really. What The World Needs Now wasn’t done before we started. But you can’t have now PiL without talking about what came before. And you can’t talk about PiL without what came before that and got us started. They’re all rungs on the snakes and ladder to where we are now. Like love and marriage, you can’t have one without the other!

So we’ve tried to keep the live show somewhat tied to it. It’s varied, but it’s a fun set for us. No one is dictating anything. It’s all what we felt like rehearsing, and behold, it all fell together. The songs tell a story inside themselves. They’re all related in one way or another, but, somehow, more so than usual.

The box set generally catalogs PiL’s history. There’s a lot of live footage included that’s never been seen or heard. There are a couple of tracks that have never been heard. There’s work tape, how things are put together behind the scenes. Quite a lot of detail. If we were on a normal record label, it would have never seen the light of day. Praises to PiL for sorting this stuff out and making it as high a quality as possible, and making it as cheap as possible, using the best materials.

We’ve put an awfully serious workload on ourselves this year. There are times when it catches up with me and I need to take a deep breath. Physically, it can be exhausting. There are moments when you just need to sit down. … And gasp! That’s when you’re caught at an airport by British journalism at its spiteful finest.

I know what you’re referring to ...

Dreadfully spiteful. Fucking hell. Hello, I’m fighting a couple of illnesses here. I’m dealing with some domestic issues that are fucking serious. So I’ve had to burn the candle at both ends, but this is life, isn’t it? No self-pity. I will do exactly what I have said I will do. I’m not shy about the fact that I’m 62. I’m rather proud of it. I have learned a lot.

I try to navigate around the spiteful voices in journalism or social media. I learned that from old-school punk ethics.

It’s still holding a resentment. It’s the old class war. People of my sort should shut up and not make a noise because we’re less relevant. We’re somehow less qualified to be human than they are. It’s a terrible thing, the class system. Everyone knows that officer material are the stupidest of the lot. In Britain, that’s how it is. The rest of us are cannon fodder, and the officers all come from private schools. Let that nonsense continue not.

Punk offers great messages when it’s allowed to diversify. Spread its wings and learn to use all of its feathers. It’s no good when it adopts a rigid uniform and ends up as Green Day. As a band, I want them to share their life with me, and tell me what their life is, and not take on something else.

Punk kicked open a lot of doors for me. I think of it as an enlightenment period in life. It gave me confidence to do what I want to do — to be a journalist.

It gave me confidence, too! I am eternally thankful for that. I’d never considered singing or doing anything of the kind until it was oh so casually dangled like a carrot in front of my face. I wanted that carrot, and I’m bloody glad I grabbed it! But you have to have the common sense to know which is a good opportunity and which is a bad one. I landed lucky. That’s why from that day forward I decided that I won’t tell any lies. I won’t imitate anyone. This is a great gift I’ve been offered and I’ll treat it with respect. I want my parents to know that I never let them down. I never walked into a world of lies.

How did your parents react when you embraced punk as a young man?

At first they were disappointed because they were led by savage headlines in newspapers, but they came around. They knew not to believe it. Then, of course, my mother got cancer, which led to the song “Death Disco” that I did with PiL. The whole thing is crossed, Pistols to PiL. My mother’s death happened amid all of that. There’s no easy transition in that for me, except through songs. There were a few ideologies I was writing about when I was in the Pistols that I knew the band couldn’t handle, but I knew that PiL could. Religion was a major one.

The cover art for the “Death Disco” single was the first time that I became aware that you were creating the cover art. You see similarities in everything from Second Edition through What the World Needs Now.

Yes, I’ve done all of the artwork. Each one has a different style, and that’s to reflect the content.

The cover art for PiL's 1989 single "Disappointed," from the album "9" (Virgin/Alliance). DESTROY MUSIC, START RIOT: A bootleg recording of PiL's April 24, 1980 show at the Agora Ballroom. MY NAME IS JOHN: A bootleg of the Sex Pistols' January 5, 1978 North American debut at the Great Southeast Music Hall in Atlanta, GA. The cover art for PiL's 1980 LP, "Second Edition" (Warner Bros). The cover art for PiL's 1978 debut LP, "Public Image: First Issue" (EMI). The cover art for PiL's 1979 single, "Death Disco." Artwork by John Lydon (Virgin).

Are you kicking around ideas for what you’ll do with the artwork for the new record?

Not until the songs are almost done. Some of the ideologies of the songs are there, so I’m flirting with the imagery that I want to portray. But I always see songs as the music, the vocals, it’s nice on the record, let the listeners paint their own picture. But I want some sort of reference on the cover. I have always seen the covers as being very relevant. Nothing to throw away. They have to reflect the message therein. It’s the opposite of advertising. I’m not trying to sell you a fake image, I want to sell you the real image, and that can be very detrimental.

The packaging for Metal Box makes it a different experience from listening to Second Edition, even though it’s the same record.

It changes it. It’s all tactile, isn’t it? Humans have emotions about opening something up, taking things out of covers. This is all relevant to me, and it goes back to my childhood. I loved it when my mom and dad would let me be the DJ at their parties. I’d be four, five, six years old, stacking records on the little Dansette, being careful not to put fingerprints on the grooves, picking out songs for them to dance to — songs that I thought they’d like the most. I’m still in that happy frame of mind, and I never want to lose that.

You have a rich history with Atlanta.

Yeah, it’s a bit odd.

I don’t own many bootleg recordings, but I have bootlegs of the Sex Pistols first American show at the Great Southeast Music Hall, and a bootleg of PiL’s first show at the Agora Ballroom. Some people who were at those shows are still involved with local music. Those two shows are talked with an almost religious reverence.

I’m very very pleased to hear you say that because that’s exactly how I feel about it. Atlanta was where things started to develop for PiL — a church without religion. And it has evolved into an even bigger church; further removed from religion. But it is a happy place, humanitarian in all of its attitudes. Atlanta always offered us that, although you wouldn’t expect it. One fan’s mother said she wanted to adopt us and she always turns up at the venue with a cake. It’s kind of a family bond. We know quite a few faces in the audience, who have maintained their integrity over the years. It’s a good thing; the empathy fuels you.

Do you remember Doreen Cochran? She was a bartender when the Sex Pistols played Atlanta and was a chaperone to the band while you were here.

She was quite crazy, cowboy hat and the lot! She took us to all of the mad clubs. We didn’t know that Atlanta — very Southern for the time — even had gay clubs. She opened our minds to what a better place Atlanta is. A lot better than what the Yankee media wanted us to believe! You need locals to help you see these things. I have always regarded her as a friend.

Public Image Ltd. plays the Variety Playhouse on Wed., Oct. 10. $35-$60. 7:30 p.m. (doors). Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. NE. 404-524-7354. www.variety-playhouse.com.

Tabbert Fiiller’s documentary film, The Public Image Is Rotten screens at Landmark Theatre’s Midtown Arts Cinema on Mon., Oct. 29. 7:30 p.m. 931 Monroe Drive, in the Midtown Promenade Center. 404-879-0160. www.landmarktheatres.com/atlanta/midtown-art-cinema.

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