It was during the recording of this album in New York that Miles Davis came into the studio while I was singing, stood behind me and started playing. Later he said that I sang like he played the trumpet, which is still the best thing anyone’s ever said to me. To be complimented by the likes of him was special. Funnily enough we didn’t use him… – John Lydon on recording of the Album / Compact Disc / Cassette
After suffering devastating losses of his bandmate Sid Vicious, his band and his mother, former Sex Pistols frontman Johnny Lydon / Rotten decided to distance himself from rock music (although he would eventually return to touring with reunited Pistols). Thus, Public Image Limited was born in the late 70s.
Musically, PIL couldn’t have been further removed from Pistols and “Never Mind The Bollocks”, owing more to the likes of Captain Beefheart and Can than to bands like The Who. Attitude-wise, however, the two bands were never too far apart (at least initially) – Lydon confronted the audience who wanted to see Sex Pistols Mark 2 and their songs explored subjects like murder, death and distrust of religion.
When Pistols broke up in 1978, Lydon spent three weeks in Jamaica at the invitation of Virgin Records owner Richard Branson. During the same period, Branson also tried (unsuccesfully) to install Lydon as a lead singer of Devo.
When Lydon returned to England, he decided to form a new band with bassist Jah Wobble (born John Wardle), whom he knew since high school. Keith Levene, former member of The Clash, also joined the band after being approached by Lydon. Drummer Jim Walker (The Furies) also joined the band early on, but left soon, dissatisfied with the band’s direction (he later formed Human Condition, a trio that included Wobble and Dave “Animal” Maltby).
The band started rehearsing in May of 1978 and initially was named “Public Image”, after Muriel Spark novel of the same name. October of that year also brought their first single – “Public Image” – which reached number 9 on the UK charts.
PIL’s first full-length – 1978 “First Issue” – was written and record in a rush due to the band’s financial problems (Wobble also got into a fight with an assistant engineer of the producer Bill Price and PIL were subsequently banned from appearing at Wessex Studios).
All Music Guide commented on the album – “Embracing elements of dub, progressive rock, noise, and atonality and driven by Lydon’ lyrical egoism and predilection towards doom, death, and horror, First Issue was among a select few 1978 albums that had something lasting to say about the future of rock music.”
Next year brought more focused “Metal Box”, which was originally released as three separate records packaged in a film canister and later reissued as a double LP set entitled “Second Edition”. Prior to the album recording sessions, the band held the auditions for a drummer and this resulted in numerous band members joining the band and leaving almost as fast, including Richard Dudanski (101’ers, Basement 5, Raincoats) and David Humphrey. Martin Atkins also auditioned for the band and stayed with PIL until 1985.
AMG described the record’s sound as “alien dance music” and proceeded to point out that “Metal Box might not be recognized as a groundbreaking record with the same reverence as Never Mind the Bollocks, and you certainly can’t trace numerous waves of bands who wouldn’t have existed without it like the Sex Pistols record. But like a virus, its tones have sent miasmic reverberations through a much broader scope of artists and genres.”
By the time that the band started recording their next album, the tensions with the band led to Wobble being fired over the use of rhythm tracks from “Metal Box” on his solo album. Lydon and Levene also made an appearance on NBC’s “The Tomorrow Show” where they insulted each other.
In general, “Flowers Of Romance” considered to be even stranger than its predecessor, with its lack of bass/guitar, marching-band style drumming courtesy of Atkins and the use of tape loops. During the recording of “Flowers”, Keith Levene largely abandoned guitar in favor of synthesizer, inspired by Allen Ravenstine from Pere Ubu. The album was also inspired by musique concrete and Phil Collins drum work on Peter Gabriel’s third album (it is also said that Collins himself, in turn, copied the drum sound of “Flowers”).
AMG pointed out that “The Flowers of Romance is centralized on razor-sharp drums and typically haranguing vocals. No dubwise grooves here — bassist Jah Wobble was kicked out prior to the recording for ripping off PiL backing tracks for his solo material. And growing more disenchanted with the guitar, Keith Levene’s infatuation with synthesizers was reaching a boiling point. Stark and minimal are taken to daring lengths, so it’s no surprise that Virgin initially balked at issuing the heavily percussive record.”
In 1982, PIL attempted to recorded a six-song mini album called “You Are Not Entering A Commerical Zone” and they were joined by bassist Pete Jones. The album never materialized, however, as Jones and Levene quit the band.
Parts of the record made it to Keith Levene album “Commercial Zone”, which was created after Levene took master tapes of an unfinished album and mixed it on his own. Levene also founded PIL Records Inc label to release the album in America. First pressing of the album came out in 1983 and the second one (which appeared in 1984) sold 30,000 copies before Virgin Records took legal actions and stopped the distribution of an album.
The album contained a number of songs that were re-recorded for “This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get” – the next full-length by PIL. In absence of Levene and Jones, Lydon hired session musicians and the band changed direction to pop and dance music.
AMG called the album “one of Lydon’s worst outings, the most tentative and least powerful of PiL’s recordings.” and added that “A thin, shrill, wheezing horn section replaces much of Levene’s guitar, and the basslines sound dreadful.” The album resulted in an international hit single “This Is Not A Love Song”.
In the following years, Public Image Limited recorded 1986 “Album” (also known as “Compact Disc” or “Cassette”, depending on the format), which was produced by Bill Laswell and featured contributions from Steve Vai, Ryuichi Sakamoto, Cream’s Ginger Baker and Jonas Hellborg from Mahavishnu Orchestra.
Lydon himself described “Album” as a solo record which saw him working alone with a bunch of people, with Laswell being the most important. AMG review of the album mentions that “the unlisted credits for Album read as a motley crew of established musicians who literally have no business being anywhere near Lydon, let alone in a studio with him or with one another.” and described it as being as “generic as its title”. “The Album” produced another big hit – Celtic-influenced “Rise”, which was described by AMG as a heavier version of Dexy’s Midnight Runners hit “Come On Eileen”.
1987 “Happy?” once again brought together a superstar line-up of sorts, as the album featured members of The Damned, Magazine, Siouxee And The Banshees, Rip, Rig & Panic and Pop Group. AMG commented that “Happy? is not quite as distinct as it should have been. But as far as PiL outings are considered, it was Lydon’s best in six years.”
1989 “9” featured the same line-up as “Happy?”, minus keyboardist Lu Edmonds (Damned / 3 Mustaphas 3). AMG pointed out that “Happy” “”Lydon failed yet again to keep the same people together for more than one record.”, as it was the band’s seventh album featuring yet another line-up. Yet, AMG pointed out that this notion isn’t of really major consequence as the album split between dance and rock music was an accident waiting a happen, but turned out to be a rather succesful album. “Disappointed” became the band’s biggest hit in US.
PIL’s last record was 1992 “That What Is Not”, one of the songs from which (“Acid Drop”) featured a sample from Sex Pistols song “God Save The Queen”. AMG pointed out that “the audio assault of guitarist John McGeoch and bassist Allan Dias perfectly complements Lydon’s frenzied, strangled bleating throughout.”
The band played their last concert on September 8, 1992 with a line-up of McGeoch, Ted Chau, Mike Joyce (Smiths) and Russell Webb (Skids). A number of books about the band were published, including Clinton Heylin’s 1989 “Public Image Limited: Rise/Fall” and Phil Strongman’s 2007 “Metal Box: The Story Public Image Limited”.
John Lydon (Sex Pistols)
Karl Burns (Fall)
Martin Atkins (Bizarr Sex Trio, Brian Brain, Damage Manual, Killing Joke, Love Interest, Lunar Bear Ensemble, Martin Atkins & The Chicago Industrial League, Murder Inc., Opium Jukebox, Pigface, Rx, Spasm)
Public Image 7″ (Virgin, 1978 / Ariola, 1978)
Public Image – First Issue CD / LP (Virgin, 1978 / 1986 / 1988)
Death Disco 7″ (Virgin, 1979)
Memories 7″ (Virgin, 1979)
Metal Box CD / 3xLP / 3×12″ (Virgin, 1979/ 1990 / 1996 / 4 Men With Beards, 2006)
Second Edition CD / 2xLP / Cass (Warner Bros., 1979 / 1990 / Virgin, 1979 / 1980 / 1986 / 1987 / Island, 1979 / Polydor, 1980)
Paris Au Printemps CD / LP (Virgin, 1980 / 1990)
The Flowers Of Romance CD / LP (Warner Bros., 1981 / 1990 / Virgin, 1981 / 1984 / Nippon Columbia, 1989 /Disky, 1990)
Live In Tokyo CD / LP / 2xLP (Virgin, 1983 / 1986 / Nippon Columbia, 1983 / Elektra, 1986)
This Is Not A Love Song CD / 7″ / 12″ (Virgin, 1983 / 1988 / Nippon Columbia, 1983)
Bad Life CD / 7″ / 12″ (Virgin, 1984)
This Is What You Want…This Is What You Get CD / LP / Cass (Virgin, 1984 / 1990 / Elektra, 1984 / Nippon Columbia, 1984)
Album / Cassette / Compact Disc CD / LP / Cass (Virgin, 1986 / Elektra, 1985 / 1986)
Home 7″ / 12″ (Virgin, 1986)
Rise 7″ / 12″ (Virgin, 1986 / Nippon Columbia, 1986 / Elektra, 1986)
Videos VHS (Virgin Music Video, 1986)
Happy? CD / LP (Virgin, 1987)
Seattle 7″ / 12″ / Cass (Virgin, 1987)
The Body CD / 7″ / 12″ (Virgin, 1987 / Nippon Columbia, 1988)
9 CD / LP (Virgin, 1989)
Disappointed CD / 7″ / 12″ (Virgin, 1989)
Happy CD / 12″ (Virgin, 1989)
Warrior CD / 12″ (Virgin, 1989)
Warrior / Happy 12″ (Virgin, 1989)
Don’t Ask Me CD / 12″ (Virgin, 1990)
The Greatest Hits, So Far CD / 2xLP (Virgin, 1990 / Nippon Columbia, 1994)
Cruel CD / 10″ (Virgin, 1992)
That What Is Metal CD (Virgin, 1992)
That What Is Not CD / LP (Virgin, 1992)
Plastic Box 4xCD (Virgin, 1999)
Selected Compilation Tracks:
“Death Disco” on Rock’n Roller Disco (Ronco, 1979)
“Attack” on Cash-Cows (Virgin, 1980)
“Pied Piper” on Machines (Virgin, 1980 / RTC, 1980)
“Public Image” on Street Level (Ronco, 1980)
“Public Image” + “Swan Lake” on Troublemakers (Island, 1980)
“Untitled” on Annual Report (Fast Forward Magazine, 1981)
“Seattle” on Hiding Out Soundtrack (Virgin, 1987)
“Warrior” on Slaves Of New York (Virgin, 1989)