Public Image Limited – the complete reissues

John Lydon's post-Pistols back catalogue re-released...

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John Lydon’s post-Pistols back catalogue re-released…

It’s always seemed slightly ironic that former Public Image Limited member Jah Wobble – who refused to rejoin PiL, along with his ex-bandmate Keith Levene, allegedly because his former close friend John Lydon had offered each of them slightly more than a three figure sum per show – should name his first post-PiL album Betrayal. Because surely if there’s one person in the history of that band for whom being betrayed seems to be a daily occurrence, it’s John Lydon. PiL song after PiL song contains sneers about former friends who’ve stabbed him in the back, which is perhaps why Public Image – a band who began their career as a stunning, if massively surly, experimental band and ended it as a kind of hip Led Zeppelin – have had enough line-ups to keep Pete Frame in black ink for decades.

And how many times have Lydon’s alleged fans accused him of betraying them? From outrage at Metal Box (it costs £3.99! It isn’t “Pretty Vacant”!) to horror at the Sex Pistols reformation (it costs £25.99! It is “Pretty Vacant”!) and, most latterly, his TV ad for butter (which Lydon claims he did to fund PiL’s recent tour) John Lydon, né Rotten, has consistently refused to be who the punters want him to be.

Which is, of course, the whole point. Contradiction and paradox abound in the career of this extraordinary, charismatic, talented, influential (and annoying) man, who has gone from Artful Dodger to Mr Toad in the space of 30 or so years, and along the way encompassed more than a few extraordinary things. Let’s have a look at them now, shall we?

Beginning with the brilliant, bitter song of betrayal “Public Image” – a hit single – Lydon recruited old friend Jah Wobble, Clash guitarist Keith Levene and a box of drummers and made, first, the variable but sometimes brilliant debut album (“Low Life” remains superb, while the more indulgent moments improve with age) and then the incredible Metal Box, (here in its repackaged form Second Edition) a record which has been ripped off by generations yet still sounds like nothing else; absurdly, it was often mocked at the time by people for whom the UK Subs were enough. Then, as ever, there were fractures. Wobble’s absence made Flowers Of Romance an eerie ghost train of an album with great moments (he’s present on the reasonable live album Paris Au Printemps, a record which adds little to the PiL catalogue, much like Live In Tokyo, featuring the next incarnation of the band).

Then there’s the blip of This Is What You Want… This Is What You Get, which contains the global hit “This Is Not A Love Song”, in which Lydon refined his wide-eyed 1980s persona, and led to the “lounge band tour”. Another switch followed, to the relief of fans bored with the scrappiness of his work, and the result was 1986’s Album, the template for the rest of PiL’s career. A bizarre crew of musicians, from Steve Vai and Ginger Baker to Ryuichi Sakamoto and Bernie Worrell managed to create a sound that was as much Led Zeppelin as it was world music and contained the brilliant “Rise” single and some of the band’s best songs (notably “Home” and the bitter song of betrayal “F.F.F.”).

The last three albums form a sensible trilogy, soundtracking the band’s stadium years and featuring the great John McGeoch on guitar. Of these, Happy? (containing “Seattle” and “Rules and Regulations”) and 9 (containing “Disappointed”, “Warrior” and, er, “Happy”) are the most consistent, more at least than That Which Is Not (1992). Most people would, wisely, opt for the well-chosen Greatest Hits… So Far (which one doubts will have any extra tracks on it soon). Lydon’s solo album Psycho’s Path is fun and 90s-dancey and now contains his Leftfield collaboration “Open Up” (although not the Lydon/Bambaata single, “World Destruction”). The future? With PiL and the Pistols reforming almost alternately, there’s just no way of telling. Which is nice.
David Quantick


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