There are very few instances when a member of a great band leaves and goes on to form a better band. It is even more rare for that new band to sound different from the old one. In most cases it will be a singer deciding that he doesn’t need the band anymore and heading off on a solo career. In the case of John Lydon aka Johnny Rotten he defied the odds; leaving the Sex Pistols and creating Public Image Limited.
In all honesty, I am not much of a Sex Pistols fan anymore. I feel outgrew them a very long time ago and don’t see what the appeal is unless you are a rebellious teenager or a music critic that chooses to rewrite history to fit your own agenda. Were the Sex Pistols influential? Sure, but so were The MC5, The Stooges, The Ramones, and tons of other punk bands that came along way before them. I find Never Mind The Bollocks… to be essentially the first overproduced punk album. It’s so clean and polished that you can practically see your reflection in it at it as you listen to it.
I did not set out to just bad-mouth the Sex Pistols in this piece. I think they made all the correct moves and pushed all the right buttons with the exception of bringing in Sid Vicious. It is not that I hate Sid; he seemed like a good guy that made a lot of bad decisions particularly towards the end of his life but he had no business being in the Pistols which was not his fault anyway. He was there because of how he looked and not how he played. Malcolm McClaren, the Pistols manager, knew how to get attention; sticking Sid with a bass and pushing him onstage was not the worst idea in the world. I feel it was another part of the problem the band had: image over music.
“Public Image”, the debut single from Public Image Limited, opens with a very raw and steady bass line followed by the word “Hello” repeating. It is almost as if Lydon was giving the middle finger towards his former associates while introducing his newest creation. The Pistols might not have been the first punk band but PiL was the first post-punk band. Their debut album, First Issue, consisted of mostly materi`al Lydon had written for the second Pistols album that never materialized and for that I am forever grateful. First Issue is the sound that Never Mind The Bollocks… should have had from the start.
Through the years the PiL sound grew to be cleaner but they never lost their experimental side. Although some of their early fans might have felt like they were being left behind as the band was entering a more commercial territory they wrote some of their best songs during the second half of their original run. “Rise” might be the best song that Lydon ever recorded, in addition to “Seattle”, Disappointed”, and “Don’t Ask Me” being some of their most accessible singles.
PiL is a band that ultimately deserves a lot more respect than they get. They released a bunch of good to great records with a couple of duds in there but what long running band hasn’t? They were never afraid to take chances and occasionally it backfired.
You could pick up a greatest hits but I would recommend starting with First Issue, Metal Box aka Second Issue, and Album. They are mostly consistent records and really show what an odd state music was in during the late-70’s and early 80’s. A few years ago they reunited after Lydon filmed a series of butter commercials to fund a new album. It might not be the best comeback album but it is still fairly solid. A new album is expected in 2015 along with the American release of Lydon’s second book “Anger Is An Energy.”
“Ever Get The Feeling You’ve Been Cheated?” are the famous last words spoken during the final Sex Pistols show, but I associate it more with how overlooked Public Image Limited is.