Public Image Limited - Biography


BY Scott Feemster

Originally put together out of the ashes of the Sex Pistols, Public Image Limited (PIL) were a giant step forward and sideways out of the initial punk rock movement in Great Britain in the late 1970's. Led by the almost always confrontational John Lydon, the band morphed from one of the earliest proponents of what would later be called post-punk to a conventional alternative rock band by the end of their run in 1992. Their early material would become especially influential, affecting many bands right up until the present day.


            After the Sex Pistols broke up in 1978, John Lydon was at loose ends and accompanied Virgin Records chief Richard Branson to Jamaica to help scout out up-and-coming reggae artists with him. Branson also flew American post-punk band Devo to Jamaica with the hope that they would install Lydon as their new lead singer, but the group declined the offer. While in Jamaica, Lydon started to formulate the idea for a new band that would use elements he loved in reggae music mixed with rock. Once back home again in London, Lydon met up again with old friend John Wardle, aka Jah Wobble, whom he had played music with informally before near the end of the Sex Pistols. Wobble was just learning the bass guitar, and quickly established a steady, almost sub-sonic style that was heavily influenced by dub reggae. Lydon also approached guitarist Keith Levene, who Lydon had met when the Sex Pistols toured with The Clash when Levene was briefly a member. All three musicians had wide musical tastes and wanted to bring other influences to their new band besides the punk rock that they had all had a hand in creating. Canadian drummer Jim Walker was studying in London when he answered an ad in the music weekly Melody Maker looking for a drummer, and to his surprise it turned out to be the former singer of the Sex Pistols new band. The band started rehearsing together in the middle of 1978, and operated without a name until Lydon came up with the name Public Image, after Muriel Spark's 1968 novel of the same name. (Limited was not added to the name until later.) The newly christened band got quickly to work and recorded their debut single “Public Image”, released in October of 1978, a song Lydon had been working on while still in the Sex Pistols. The song had much of the hard-charging aggression of the Sex Pistols, but with a more assured and deeper rhythmic backing. The song was a hit in the U.K., reaching as high as #9 on the singles chart, and established the band as a new entity going forward from the punk explosion of the previous few years. 


            PIL were given a budget from their label Virgin to record a debut album, but the band took too much time experimenting both with their new sound and with drugs. There was also trouble with the production team when Wobble beat up one of the assistant engineers on the project, effectively getting the band thrown out of Wessex Studios, where they had done most of their recording. Near the time the album was supposed to completed, the band realized they didn't have enough material, and so took skeletal jams they had been working on and made them into songs, such as they were, including an over 12 minute faux-disco jam called “Fodderstompf”, which consisted of a disco beat, Wobble's bassline, primitive synthesizer bubblings, and Wobble screaming and shouting “we only want to be loved” over the top in a jokey, falsetto voice. The album First Issue (Virgin), (also often just called Public Image), was released at the end of 1978 to mostly bad reviews. Whereas many reviewers saw the album as a noisy joke, some listeners picked up on the stripped-down arrangements, avant-garde approaches and various musical influences as a new template for how rock music could sound. First Issue could arguably be called the first album of a new music commonly called post-punk. Regardless of the bad reviews, the album sold well in the U.K and Europe. The group's American label, Warner Bros., refused to release the record domestically, as it said the bass was recorded too loudly. Warner Bros. paid for the band to re-record the album for the American market, but by the time the band had completed it, so many import copies of the album had made it over to the U.S. that the label considered it a moot point and never released the “cleaned-up” sessions. After the re-recording sessions, Walker walked out on the band, with no notice or explanation, and was replaced by David Humphrey.


            As the group started to work on their next album, Humphrey left the band, and the band held auditions for a replacement. Humphrey lasted long enough to record two songs, “Albatross” and “Death Disco”. Richard Dudanski was tapped to be their next drummer, but only lasted through some of the sessions. Next the band turned to drummer Karl Burns, formerly of The Fall, to drum, but Burns quit after Wobble jokingly tried to set him on fire. Both Levene and Wobble also filled in on drums for a couple of tracks. Finally, the group auditioned a young, energetic drummer named Martin Atkins, though, unbenownst to him, his audition was recorded and made it onto the album as the song “Bad Baby”. Metal Box (Virgin) was released in November of 1979 on 3 12” 45 rpm records housed in a metal 16mm movie canister with the band's logo embossed on the front cover. After the initial run of the album sold out, it was reissued in 1980 as a standard double album called Second EditionMetal Box marked a major departure from PIL's debut album, as this album was much more menacing and austere. Wobble's deep reggae-influenced bass lines underpinned stark rhythms, with Levene adding harsh, metallic guitar stabs and unsettling synth lines over the top. All of that, and Lydon's often atonal howl, made for an album that was not necessarily comfortable listening, but drew the listener in seemingly whether they wanted to or not. PIL, now with Atkins as their drummer, toured through 1980, often playing controversial and contentious shows, especially in America. The group was signed to Warner Bros. Records in the U.S., but didn't want to work with their chosen concert promoters, instead wanting to use local independent concert promoters. For their shows in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the band used the CD Presents organization, which brought them in direct competition against promoter Bill Graham. Graham tried to get the band banned from certain venues, but in the end, the group was allowed to play. This unwillingness to play the usual concert promotion game and their almost confrontational performance style marked them as a “risky” draw, and that impression was furthered by an appearance by the band at New York's Ritz during the 1980 tour. The group was temporarily without Atkins, so in his place they drafted 60-year old jazz drummer Sam Ulano, who they had met in a bar and had never heard PIL before. The band, such as it was, improvised on themes similar to their recorded works from behind a projection screen. As none of this was disclosed to fans before the show, the audience got upset and rowdy and littered the stage with bottles and refuse. Also during the 1980 tour, the group appeared lip-syncing on American Bandstand, (and made fun of the process by switching instruments and not even pretending to play what was coming out of the TV), and appeared on a memorable episode of The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder where Lydon and Levene ended up trading insults with Snyder. A date from the European leg of the tour, recorded live in Paris, was released as the album Paris Au Printemps (Virgin)(1980).  In some ways, PIL cut a wider anti-social path through America and Europe than the Sex Pistols did, and while they engendered the hate of many, they also endeared themselves to a generation that had grown tired of complacent rock and the cartoon antics of what punk was becoming.


            In the initial line-up of Public Image Ltd., it seemed that John Lydon was the mouthpiece, Keith Levene the brains, and Jah Wobble the heart. After the band returned from America in 1980, Wobble started work on a solo album. Supposedly, he ended up using rhythm tracks that were laid down during the Metal Box sessions for his solo album, and because of this, was fired from PIL. Now the band was without it's already iconic bassist and heart, and so it was up to Lydon, Levene and Atkins to try to sculpt something new out of the wreckage. If critics and fans thought Metal Box was obscure and obtuse, the band's follow-up Flowers Of Romance (Virgin), was another shot across the bow of commercial rock. Most of the tracks prominently featured Atkins' heavily processed martial drums, with Levene and Lydon adding almost random shards of melody, lyrics and sounds over the top. To call the album uncommercial, especially in the musical climate of 1981, would be an understatement. Flowers Of Romance definitely stated that PIL was doing their own thing, whether any one else appreciated it or not. Atkins left the band briefly after the album was released, but joined up again later. After Flowers... was released, the band moved from London to New York, but in 1981 their American record contract with Warner Bros. expired and was not renewed. Regardless, the band, with Atkins back on board and with new bassist Pete Jones, recorded a new album and even played a gig in New York City in September of 1982. The band announced a new album, You Are Now Entering A Commercial Zone, (an obvious jab back at critics of the band's previous output), would be released soon. Nothing new came from the band until September of 1983, when the “This Is Not A Love Song” single was released by Virgin. By this time, PIL had imploded, and both Levene and Jones quit the band. Levene took the unmixed tapes of the Commercial Zone sessions and mixed them, then flew back to London and tried to get Virgin to release the album as he envisioned it. When Virgin found out that he had quit the band and that Lydon and Atkins were re-recording some of the songs from the sessions with hired session musicians, they sent Levene packing. Eventually Levene put out his version of the album under the name Commercial Zone on his own PIL Records Inc. label in America in late 1983. The album was heavily imported back to Europe and the U.K., and Levene pressed a second run of 30,000 copies before Virgin filed suit against him and stopped further distribution of the album. PIL’s next official album was the re-recorded Commercial Zone sessions, released under the title This Is What You Want….This Is What You Get (Virgin) in 1984. The album, while still recognizably Public Image, was a step back towards commercial post-punk rock. After the band, just Lydon, Atkins and hired musicians, toured in support of the album, Atkins quit, leaving Public Image as basically a vehicle for Lydon. A show the band performed in Japan on a tour before This Is What… was released was recorded and released as Live In Tokyo (Virgin)(1983).


            Lydon decided to continue on using the Public Image Limited name, and put together a new collection of songs with famed eclectic producer Bill Laswell. The new album, called AlbumCompact Disc or Cassette (Virgin/Elektra), depending on the format, was released at the beginning of 1986. The packaging was a play on the “generic” brands of products that were showing up in stores during the time, usually just listing what the product was in bold blue letters on a plain white background. Though the packaging was meant to look plain, those who thought they knew what PIL sounded like were in for another surprise. Laswell surrounded Lydon’s usually bitter and confrontational lyrics with an accomplished and eclectic cast of hired musicians, including metal virtuoso guitarist Steve Vai, jazz bassist Jonas Hellborg, composer/keyboardist Ryuichi Sakamoto, legendary jazz drummer Tony Williams, and former Cream drummer Ginger Baker. Reportedly, while the recording sessions were taking place in New York, Miles Davis wandered into the studio, and while Lydon was recording a vocal take, Davis played along with his vocal line. While the take didn’t end up being used on the album, Davis paid Lydon the compliment of telling him he sang like Davis played horn. Buoyed by the hit single “Rise” and positive critical response to the album, Lydon tried putting together a touring version of the band, and even held auditions in Hollywood during which a young bass player named Flea did so well that he was offered a place in the band, but declined saying he had his own band going, and was disappointed that Keith Levene was no longer in the band. It wasn’t until 1986 that Lydon had a steady line-up to the band again, recruiting bass guitarist Allan Dias, former Magazine and Siouxsie & The Banshees guitarist John McGeoch, multi-instrumentalist Lu Edmonds, and former Pop Group and Slits drummer Bruce Smith. This line-up recorded the album Happy? (Virgin), released in 1987. Though there was still Lydon’s patented sneering vocals, the new band played a tight, almost upbeat danceable rock. The band toured extensively during this period, touring with the likes of INXS, New Order and The Sugarcubes, and their newly-polished alternative rock sound fit in well with those bands. By the time the group recorded their next album, 9 (Virgin)(1989) , Edmonds had left the band due to problems with tinnitus, and was replaced later in the touring band by guitarist Ted Chau. Originally, Bill Laswell was slated to produce the album, but lingering tensions from his previous dealings with Lydon combined with his wanting to use his revolving cast of guest musicians instead of the touring band caused him to be kicked off of the project at an early stage. Instead, the band got producer Steven Hague, known for his work with New Order and the Pet Shop Boys, and producer Eric Thorngren to oversee the album. The record continued PIL’s resurrection as a well-produced dance-rock band. Though the last two albums were much more commercial sounding than previous PIL efforts, they failed to sell as well. To remind the record buying public of who Public Image Limited was, Virgin released the compilation album The Greatest Hits, So Far in 1990. In listening to the record, it was hard to believe that one band could travel so far from stark, avant-garde post-punk to commercial radio fare, but in fact the only member linking all the work was Lydon. PIL, now minus drummer Smith, returned in 1992 with the more basic rock sounding album That What Is Not (Virgin), but after the album failed to sell well, Virgin refused to bankroll the band to tour in support of it. Lydon, along with McGeoch, Ted Chau, bassist Russell Webb, and former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce, toured anyway at the personal expense of Lydon. After the tour was over, Lydon decided to disband the group. Instead of saying the band had broken up, he said the band would be on an “extended hiatus”, though to date there have been no other PIL songs or albums.  Lydon later released a techno-flavored solo album Psycho’s Path (Virgin)(1997) and wrote a book of his early life and time with the Sex Pistols, No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, which was published in 1994. Reportedly, Lydon is considering writing another book that would chronicle his time in Public Image Limited. Lydon also resurrected the Sex Pistols in 1996, along with original members Paul Cook, Glen Matlock and Steve Jones, and has toured around North America and Europe up until the present day.

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