Public Image arose from the ashes of the Sex Pistols, the group's original intent as much a reaction to that band as the Pistols were to '70s rock & roll before them. Former head Pistol Johnny Rotten took back his real name, John Lydon, after the last Sex Pistols show on January 14, 1978. He conceived Public Image as a group organization to create "anti-rock 'n' roll" to embody what the more conventionally rock-rooted Pistols only sang about. Lydon teamed up with Keith Levene, who was an early member of the Clash and also a classically trained guitarist and pianist, plus novice bassist Jah Wobble and drummer Jim Walker, from the Canadian group the Furys. Their original name was Carnivorous Buttock Flies, but they quickly changed to PiL (for Public Image, Limited, the "Limited," since they professed to see themselves as a company rather than a rock band). Financial advisor Dave Crowe was credited as a band member.
PiL made their live debut in London on Christmas Day, 1978, just before their first LP, First Issue, came out. It was not released in the U.S., and its slow, embittered songs got mostly negative reviews. Yet it soared to the top of the British charts. Critics caught on with 1979's Metal Box, initially released in England in a limited edition of 50,000 incorporating three 12-inch 45-rpm EPs squeezed into a film canister. It came out the next year in the U.S. as Second Edition (#171, 1980), a conventional double LP, to almost universal critical acclaim. Second Edition was characterized by a uniquely droning sound with prominent dublike bass, neo-psychedelic guitar from Levene, oddly danceable rhythms, and haunting echoed vocals. Levene's dissonant guitar influenced a whole range of bands, from Killing Joke and U2 to Gang of Four. The band toured the U.S. in spring 1980 with new drummer Martin Atkins. At the end of the tour in June, Atkins was fired (he later recorded as Brian Brain and formed Pigface, a veritable industrial supergroup); a few weeks later Wobble was fired as well. Wobble had released two solo LPs during his time in the band, and group members charged he had used some PiL backing tracks on these without permission.
Later in 1980, a live LP from the band's Paris show the previous January, called Paris au Printemps, was issued in Europe only. In spring 1981 The Flowers of Romance, named for late Sex Pistol Sid Vicious' first band, was released. Atkins as drummer-for-hire played on three tracks, with Levene and Lydon handling the rest. It was a stark, mostly percussion- and vocals-oriented record with some Middle-Eastern vocal influences. Its major connection to rock & roll may have been its audacity.
In May 1981 Lydon and Levene, filling in for Bow Wow Wow, played New York's Ritz. Performing behind a video screen with a hired rhythm section, with Lee on hand to tape the proceedings (the images were projected onto the screen), the band jammed as Lydon and Levene taunted the sold-out crowd. They were pelted with beer bottles as a riot ensued. In 1983, during the recording of This Is What You Want..., Levene acrimoniously left PiL. His guitar parts were erased; Levene released his version of the album independently as Commercial Zone. Lydon found himself with a club hit via "This Is Not a Love Song" and recruited a faceless backup band. From this point on, PiL was a de facto John Lydon solo project. In the recording studio he worked with such veterans as producer/bassist Bill Laswell, guitarist Nicky Skopelitis, and drummer Tony Williams. Enlisting producer Gary Langan on Happy? (#169, 1987) and Stephen Hague on 9 (#106, 1989), Lydon assembled dance music that rarely reached the bilious passion of early PiL. Backed by a revolving cast of usually uncredited musicians, he became the type of "entertainer" he claimed to detest. Lydon reclaimed the "Rotten" moniker on Happy? In 1993, working with the techno production team Leftfield, he released a dance track, "Open Up," in the U.K. His autobiography, Rotten: No Irish —No Blacks —No Dogs (written with Keith and Kent Zimmerman), was published in 1994.
In 1996 Lydon joined the original members of the Sex Pistols for a 20th-anniversary reunion tour, which was documented on the release Filthy Lucre Live, and the following year he released Psycho's Path, a solo disc recorded under his own name. He also enjoyed a stint as a video personality, hosting Rotten Television on VH1 in 2000.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).
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