- Not quite the country life: Public Image Limited
Green Day and Blink 182, Lollapalooza and the Warped Tour, the vast punk and hardcore DIY underground -- much of that culture wouldn't exist as we know it today were it not for Johnny Rotten singing "Anarchy in the U.K." A son of working-class Irish Catholic immigrants, he was recruited as a lad of 19 to front The Sex Pistols, more for his snarling attitude and corrosive style than for his ability to carry a tune.
Now 54 and known by his given name, John Lydon recently revived the Sex Pistols for a series of London concerts marking the 30th anniversary of their landmark album Never Mind the Bollocks. But his greater ambition was to reform his second band, which lasted more than a decade longer than the Pistols and remained influential throughout the post-punk and alterna-rock eras: Public Image Limited.
Last year marked the 30th anniversary of PiL's groundbreaking avant-rock opus Metal Box (which was issued in a metal film canister, and aesthetically spawned both Steve Albini and the latest crop of post-post-punks). But Lydon claims that wasn't uppermost in his mind. Rather, the band's current reunion stems from something Lydon did in 2008: dressing up as a respectable gentleman in a much-ballyhooed ad for Country Life butter. This uncharacteristic, capitalist turn for a punk icon had the unintended effect of raising enough funds to bring PiL back to life.
"I did it for a good laugh, and then once the success was achieved, I put the money into PiL," he says via phone from a hotel room in Oregon.
When reconstituting the band, Lydon didn't call on members who'd been in PiL early on. Instead, to play a two-hour set encompassing "bits and pieces" of several albums, Lydon recruited Lu Edmonds (Shriekback, The Mekons, 3 Mustaphas 3) and drummer Bruce Smith (Pop Group, Rip Rig & Panic, The Slits). Both musicians had joined PiL around the time of the 1986 release Album, which yielded the alternative radio hit "Rise."
"There's been 39 people in the band -- you don't need me to list them," Lydon says. To find a bassist "who'd be able to run the entire PiL catalog," Lydon had to look outside, and eventually found Scott Firth. "His résumé ranges from Stevie Wonder to the Spice Girls. To me, that's the exact kind of person I work with so well, because they understand all aspects of music, and aren't judgmental and snobbistic [sic]."
That doesn't mean Lydon can't be highly critical, particularly of music he had a hand in early on -- which includes hip hop. Lydon's "World Destruction" collaboration (as Time Zone) with electro-funkster Afrika Bambaataa and bassist Bill Laswell was a surprise smash in 1985. "It was about unity and a broad spectrum, but you ended up with Vanilla Ice and Eminem on one side and gangster rap on the other. I find that division to be ugly, and it offers no future, just people yakking on about jewelry and flash cars. Half the dialogue seems to be stolen from James Cagney or Al Pacino."
He doesn't respect how punk developed, either: case in point, the Broadway production of Green Day's American Idiot. "I nearly fell out of my chair laughing when I heard about that. It comes across as high camp, more akin to Boy George's productions than The Who's Tommy," he says.
And forget entirely about Lydon's calls for anarchy and "no future" back in the halcyon days of 1977. These days, Lydon's political stance is more like that of a mainstream Democrat than an anti-globalist protester. "I'm not for smashing shop windows -- it shows you're crying for attention because you're a spoiled, middle-class tosser," he says. "I come from the poorest [situation] -- you can't get much worse than two rooms, no bathroom, no indoor toilet. I don't need to be lectured by suburban brats. At least, the police have to go home and put money in their house and food on their table. These [protestors] are doing nothing for anybody -- it's all very fashionable."
Although he says the health-care bill could be better, Lydon gives President Obama credit for sticking to his guns in the debate -- "I'm always for what helps people out of their trouble," he says. "The Republicans are led by primates shouting 'Hitler' and 'socialist' at a man who's supposed to reverse all the damage done by [Bush], who took the world to the brink of war -- a really dangerous, half-witted asshole."
Much like the typical NPR listener might, Lydon puts a lot of the blame squarely on right-wing media outlets such as Fox News. "I consider that network to be comedy, but many don't see it for what it is. They keep selling ignorance until people give up," he says. "Instead of getting frightened about militias and guns, people have to stand up, say something, and meet that kind of hatred head-on."
Public Image Limited. 8 p.m. Fri., May 14. (doors at 7 p.m.). Club Zoo, 1630 Smallman St., Strip District. $32 ($35 day of show). All ages. 412-201-1100 www.clubzoo.net