01. Public Image (Single A Side October 1978)
02. Theme (Public Image: First Issue LP December 1978)
03. Religion II (Public Image: First Issue LP December 1978)
04. Annalisa (Public Image: First Issue LP December 1978)
05. Low Life (Public Image: First Issue LP December 1978)
06. Fodderstompf (Public Image: First Issue LP December 1978)
07. Death Disco (Single A Side June 1979)
08. Memories (Single A Side October 1979)
09. Albatross (Metal Box November 1979)
10. Poptones (Metal Box November 1979)
11. Careering (Metal Box November 1979)
12. No Birds (Metal Box November 1979)
13. Chant (Metal Box November 1979)
14. Radio 4 (Metal Box November 1979)
15. Flowers of Romance (Single A Side March 1981)
16. Home Is Where The Heart Is (Single B Side March 1981)
17. Phenagen (Flowers of Romance LP April 1981)
18. Under The House (Flowers of Romance LP April 1981)
19. Banging The Door (Flowers of Romance LP April 1981)
20. This Is Not A Love Song (Single A Side August 1983)
21. Bad Life (Single A Side May 1984)
22. Tie Me To The Length of That (This Is What You Want…This Is What You Get LP July 1984)
23. The Order of Death (This Is What You Want…This Is What You Get LP July 1984)
24. Rise (Single A Side January 1986)
25. F.F.F. (Album LP February 1986)
26. Bags (Album LP February 1986)
27. Fat Chance Hotel (Happy? LP September 1987)
28. Disappointed (9 LP May 1989)
29. Don’t Ask Me (Single A Side October 1990)
30. God (That What Is Not LP February 1992)
On Tuesday 29th June 1976 I elected Johnny Rotten to be my own personal Jesus. Then in the early days of post punk I became unhealthily obsessed with Johnny (who’d reverted to his given name Lydon) and Public Image Ltd, foregoing my previously tatty attire to dress in baggy, jumble sale suits just like they did. And yet by 1980 that enthusiasm had been usurped by my own grand schemes and a more inclusive tide of cultural terrorists.
The influence of Johnny faded from into history then to legend before a long forgotten copy of Greatest Hits So Far stirred the memory of what he had once meant, not just to me but to all of us. Believing him ripe for reappraisal, if only to satisfy my own curiosity, I downloaded everything from PiL’s 1978 debut to 1992’s That What Is Not. Live albums, B Sides, remixes, I listened to the lot continually for two months.
For all of John Lydon’s post Pistols rejection of rock (a noble idea that has been used to stab him in the back ever since), the ‘Public Image’ single was a staggeringly brutal statement of intent, the glorious minimalism of Jah Wobble’s booming, two note, bass line and Keith Levene’s ringing guitar shadowing Lydon’s exorcism of Johnny Rotten, the Pistols descent into hell, McLaren, sad Sid and us his audience. First Issue followed a similar blueprint, reorganising Trad Rock’s constituent parts into shapes barely recognisable as rock at all, songs like ‘Religion II’, ‘Annalisa’ and ‘Low Life’ subverting the singles tuneful dissonance by stripping it down to its nihilistic, disorientating core.
Preceded by Lydon’s terrified lament to his dying mother on ‘Death Disco’, Metal Box was where PiL’s anti-rock rhetoric really came to fruition. Initially released as three twelve inch singles packaged in a film canister, it remains a sonically beautiful masterpiece forged from improvised, intellectually driven, avant-garde, funk, dub, punk, Can grooves and the fear and dread of a 23 year old man who had seen our future; the Cold War, the right wing backlash, Thatcherism, the end of consensus, and what that would mean to youth and free expression and anyone who didn’t want to sign up to greed and ‘there’s no such thing as society’.
Loathed by the punk proles for whom Sham 69 were apparently enough and ripped off in by subsequent generations, almost forty years later Metal Box has been imbued with a monolithic significance that in retrospect sounds so far removed from punk, pop, rock and just about anything else, it makes the retro rebel rock of The Clash’s London Calling (released just three weeks later) almost laughable.
Of course, what no-one knew at the time was how the internal tensions that had created such an innovative record in the first place would soon be ripping PiL’s three main protagonists apart. When Wobble opted out amidst much acrimony his absence made Flowers Of Romance a disconcerting, car crash of a record, albeit one with a scattering of great moments like the shamanic title track. With shades of outré, pre punk prog such as Faust, Cluster, Lydon favourite Peter Hammill, even Pink Floyd’s Ummagumma, it sounds a braver and better mess now than it did upon release, yet it’s still not for the faint of heart.
Then Levene left too and This Is What You Want This Is What You Get immediately became a big deal as the first evidence of a solo Johnny. Scrutinised, analysed and theorised to the nth degree, his embrace of standard song structures and instrumentation, particularly the excruciating horn parts, was greeted with howls of outrage, which was kind of ironic given how its predecessor had been universally denigrated as an experimental step too far.
If This Is What You Want really was a fading star’s cynical bid for commercial glory, the four albums that followed committed crimes so heinous that Lydon’s musical reputation has never recovered. Offering only slight variations on the kind of anodyne, corporate, stadium rock lapped up post Live Aid, Album was where the rot really set in, the songs asphyxiated in the stale reek of a name producer, journeyman musicians and polished, professional ‘product’. Not so much Led Zep as Love era Cult with a singer whose once infamous angry bark had ossified into an unvarying wail, at least it had ‘Rise’, Johnny’s last gasp of brilliance, to cling onto. Which is more than can be said for the seriously slim pickings on Happy?, 9 or That What Is Not.
Dropped by Virgin, he would spend the next few years playing godawful versions of ‘Pretty Vacant’ and ‘Anarchy In The UK’ on the punk cabaret circuit to gobbing, balding, middle aged nostalgists as ‘Johnny Rotten – Pantomime Dame’ before plumbing the depths on the Pistols deeply depressing Filthy Lucre reunion. If I gave him the benefit of the doubt before that debacle, it was impossible to do so after.
Once the cultural icon, at 62 John Lydon is still a maelstrom of opinion and ideas, his never less than entertaining ripostes capped with a satisfied cackle at the absurdity of life, not least his own. Yet that life has also encompassed more than few extraordinary things, no doubt exacerbated by his constant refusal to be who everyone else wanted him to be. Which of course was the whole point. Contradiction and paradox abound in the career of this charismatic, talented, influential fly in the ointment, who went from Artful Dodger to Mr Toad with indecent haste.
Listening to the complete works of PiL before their recent return, I’ve realised that it was John Lydon not his music that was so compelling; the anarchic, punk godhead who became punk’s assassin and lived to tell the tale. While I still admire and have mirrored his resolute, screw you spirit, I have no wish to be within earshot of his post seventies records again. But I’m telling you kid, go back and listen to Metal Box and First Issue because he used to be good. The best, in fact.