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Public Image Ltd – We Only Wanted to be Dub

Public Image Ltd

Early 1978, the Sex Pistols were over as far as Johnny Rotten was concerned. The punk scene had become a ridiculous circus in the eyes of many, the music and uniform had become standardised, and Johnny remained scarred from his confrontational dealings with the media, the public and even his own band. The whole experience had left it’s bitter taste and it was time to spit it back.

After returning from a Virgin Records scouting mission for reggae artists in Jamaica, John Lydon—Rotten was now legally prevented from using his stage name and had reverted to his given name, which actually reinforced the narrative of controlling his public image—began to recruit. Ex Clash guitarist Keith Levene, Canadian drummer Jim Walker and college mate Jah Wobble (John Wardle) became Public Image Ltd, releasing their first single Public Image in late 1978. It was a hit, and would very soon be followed by the debut album Public Image: First Issue. The band had distanced themselves from the sound and style of the Pistols and were attempting to subvert the punk genre into what they claimed to be anti-rock. Lydon railed and wailed against the lies, stupidity and dogma he perceived. The music, infused with heavy dub, occasional disco touches and aggressive shards of guitar noise, was certainly a step down that path. It still rocked hard enough to keep the interest of the buying public, but PIL were not done reinventing.

The Johnny Rotten Show

Much to the dismay of his band and manager, Lydon revealed he actually enjoyed and was influenced by other genres of music. Check out this Capital Radio show from July 1977.

Public Image Ltd’s masterpiece was to follow. Jim Walker left the band, Richard Dudanski took over on drums, then he too was eventually replaced by Martin Atkins. Metal Box developed a sound first explored on Fodderstompf, the supposedly throwaway track at the end of First Issue. The repetitive disco bass sound largely inspired what is now known as dance-punk. Many Pistols fans couldn’t relate to this shift (disco was supposed to be the enemy), however new audiences were embracing the band. Metal Box was a commercial and critical success. If this anti-rock thing was to work Lydon & Co would eventually have to alienate these new listeners too.

Public Image Ltd live on Whistle Test

Public Image Ltd perform Poptones and Careering

Tensions within the band now evident, it has often been said that this was fueled by the mismatch of the collective’s individual drug choices. First to leave was Wobble, reportedly for using the band’s recordings for his own solo project, but there was obviously more going on behind the scenes. Paranoia, lethargy and creative differences were now rife in the PIL camp, with Atkins fired and rehired multiple times by Levene for imagined misdemeanours. This environment produced a very fitting third album, The Flowers of Romance in 1981. Without Wobble’s bass there was little melody to be found anywhere, and with Levene largely ignoring guitar, preferring instead synthesizers and percussion, this one was going to be different. Lydon was keen to inject as many unusual elements into the recordings and even dabbled in violin and saxophone himself. The finished album was met with bemusement by most, but a significant minority knew that this album was important. This stripped back, dark, tribal world music was most certainly anti-rock.
This was the end of the road for the post-punk era PIL. Lydon would eventually return with a new line-up and a dance-pop sound in 1984. The album This Is What You Want… could easily have been called Commercial Zone. How times change.