Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



UK new wave act, aka P.I.L. or PIL; later a concept, not a group. Formed by John Lydon (reverting to his real name from Johnny Rotten) after the demise of the Sex Pistols, P.I.L.'s eponymous first single a top ten UK in the publicity of the Pistols' split, with the bizarre guitar of Keith Levene Jr (an original member of Clash), bassist Jah Wobble (allegedly a drunken slur of his real name, John Wordle), and Canadian drummer Jim Walker (ex-Furies). The album Public Image Ltd '78 name-checked the business manager etc, true to a corporate image (the same approach later used by Sigue Sigue Sputnik), an obvious parallel with Malcolm McLaren's film The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle. After two more singles, Metal Box '79 was three 12-inch singles in a metal box (later reissued as two-disc Second Edition), the music as wilfully obscure as the packaging, its bombastic sound featuring a new drummer, Martin Atkins (b 3 August 1959, Coventry), who'd replaced ex-101er Richard Dudanski. Paris Au Printemps '80, made live in Paris, was released to beat bootlegs and contained few new ideas; Wobble and Atkins left, reducing the quotient of ideas still further (Wobble's reggae-inspired playing had been a main ingredient of the sound; he made solo LPs and an EP with members of Can; Atkins went solo, sessioned with Lydon).

Flowers Of Romance '81 had a no. 24 title track hit, the group down to Lydon, Jeanette Lee (keyboards), Levene (and Atkins); 'Flowers Of Romance' was the name of the Sex Pistols' Sid Vicious's first group. 'This Is Not A Love Song' was a no. 5 hit '83; two-disc Live In Tokyo was a Rotten self-indulgence: he swore he'd never play live again after '81 NYC riot when bottles etc were thrown at P.I.L. posing to the sound of tapes, but failed to keep his promise. Levene left, Atkins retired as writing partner; after This Is What You Want This Is What You Get '84 Lydon used pickup musicians on tours, even playing Pistols' 'Anarchy In The UK'; his residence in the USA was also contrary to everything he didn't stand for. He switched to Elektra from Virgin for Album '86 (aka Cassette or Compact Disc as the case may be); P.I.L. was now the creation of producer Bill Laswell, who calls Lydon 'the Ornette Coleman of new wave singers'. Despite a voice that Bill Milkowski described in down beat as 'snotty, annoying, venomous sounds' from 'the snarling gap' of 'the quintessential Johnny One-Note', he gave it three stars: the sleeve carried no credits, but backing included Ginger Baker or Tony Williams, drums; Steve Vai for guitar aficionados, L. Shankar on violin, Ryuichi Sakamoto on keyboards, acoustic bass by Malachai Favors on one track.

The sight of Lydon miming on Top Of The Pops was unforgettable, as if punk had never been; the lad who once wanted to destroy music was making a living like anybody else. He toured to promote Album with former punks Lu Edmonds (Damned) and John McGeoch (Magazine, Banshees) on guitars, Bruce Smith (ex- Rip Rig and Panic), drums, Allan Dias on bass; they made Happy? '87. Nine '89 charted both in UK and USA. There was a Greatest Hits So Far '90; there was yet another lineup on That What Is Not '92 (top 50 UK; nobody knows who buys the records); he went 'solo' '93 as Leftfield Lydon. The Pistols re-formed '96 except for the dead one; re-forming was also not supposed to be what they were about, but there were still suckers. Psycho's Path '97 on Virgin as John Lydon was his first 'solo' album; after 20 years in the business he was trying to sing.

Jah Wobble released a 3-CD anthology titled I Could Have Been A Contender 2004, with tracks from P.I.B. and from later various projects with Brian Eno, Pharaoh Sanders, Sinead O'Connor and The Edge. He published Memoirs of a Geezer 2009 in which he admitted, 'Of course ... I could never have been a contender. I simply don't have the temperament for it.' The book was described by Toby Lichtig in the Times Litererary Supplement as 'magnetic ... an enjoyable romp through three decades of pop culture, as well as an occasional meditation on working-class life and the changing face of London.' The punks certainly helped to change it.