If John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) had only fronted the Sex Pistols, his place in pop music history would have still been secure. His restless creative spirit, keen intelligence, unique vocal style, and aggressive stage presence made him one of the most recognized faces on the planet as the band rose to prominence in the late '70s. Though they only released one studio album before imploding, the Sex Pistols were loved and hated for their uncompromising music and political lyrics, both driven by Lydon's ferocious honesty.
Unwilling, or unable, to rest on his laurels, in 1978 he formed Public Image Ltd, the legendary post-punk band that would not only leave its own mark, but go on to influence grunge, acid house and almost every other avant-garde rock subgenre. After eight studio albums, from 1978's Public Image: First Issue to 1992's That What Is Not, the group disbanded in 1993.
Lydon creatively revived PiL in 2009 for a set of UK gigs, funding the reunion dates from money he made starring in a commercial for Country Life butter. As PiL prepare to release their first new album in 20 years, This Is PiL, on May 28, Lydon discussed the album's creative process, his love of pop, why jazz fans love PiL, and his bid to destroy rock and roll all over again.
The songs on the new album are credited to the whole band. How does the collaborative process in PiL work?
Usually I do the lyrics, but I'm not alien to taking ideas from the rest of the band. They can spin off notes and sounds that spark brilliant interactions between music and lyrics. [Multi-instrumentalist] Lu [Edmonds] and [drummer] Bruce [Smith] and I have a long history. That allows us the comfort and ability to create a musical landscape to work from. The new bass player, Scott [Firth], knows music, ranging from Steve Winwood to the Spice Girls, which is a fantastic thing. We must not allow ourselves to be musically snobby. There are no jazz purists in PiL, although jazz fanatics seem to love us because of the improvisational qualities we exude in a live format, [it's] an audio tapestry really.
We financed the record ourselves, so the chains were off, which helps music to no end. We call the way we work cheap and cheerful. We recorded in a barn in the British countryside. Just went in and earned our wings, as they say. There was a lot of combustible creativity, but not spontaneous combustion. We had ideas going in and did 12 songs. We could have done more, it was going so well, but 12 were enough. They accurately portray life from all of our perspectives.
PiL destroyed rock and roll the first time around. What can you do this time?
Thank you very much [laughs]. That's what I tried to do. This time we took things to the next level. It's more musical, but not mainstream. It's music, not computer-generated studio trickery. We use technology, because we're not an acoustic band, or not always. I'll never allow myself to be formatted into electronic forgery. It's terrible when rock becomes a backdrop for the likes of "American Idol," which is basically karaoke for the masses without the energy of audience participation. The ideology of the program to limit it to things that are note perfect destroys creativity. In a world like that, I reckon I shine like a diamond. That may come across in print as arrogant and I hope it does. I hate seeing music watered down, imitated and stolen. I beg every musician and audience member to learn to be yourself, be comfortable in your own skin. Not very many people listen to me, but I'm still at it. Life's too short to live in somebody else's suit.
Most of PiL's music has been linear in structure, but this time there are a few songs with standard verse-chorus structures.
I've always had a place in my heart for pop music. Pop music keeps you young. We have a [new] song called "One Drop" where I say, "We are the ageless/We are teenagers." It's a bit of a sing-along, and why not? There are many ways to say a thing and no one should expect me to limit myself to any form or structure. I'm not a perfect person, but I'm working on it and every now and again, I put out a pop ditty. I love the shape of pop songs. The music isn't the most important thing you have in a band. It's the humanity you share with each other and the complexity and cooperation you get when you find the right blend of sensibilities. It can take 20 minutes or 20 years, but it's worth the wait.
(J. Poet lives in San Francisco and writes about Native, folk, country, Americana, and world music for many national and international publications and websites.)