October 28, 2015

Public Image Ltd's John Lydon on 40 Years of Working-Class Creativity

Tuesday, Nov. 3 @ Georgia Theatre

Photo Credit: Paul Heartfield

What the World Needs Now, the 10th album from the defining UK post-punk outfit Public Image Ltd, draws to a close with a song called “Shoom.” It’s a slow traipse of throbbing keyboards and sparse, driving rhythms with a sardonic sense of humor. The song’s opening line bears a message that cannot be misconstrued: “Fuck you.”

PiL’s singer and punk icon John Lydon pauses from laughing about it to explain that “Shoom” was actually written as a loving requiem to his father. “Whatever troublesome nature I have for the powers that be, I get from my father,” Lydon, speaking from his Los Angeles home, says in his thick, unmistakable North London drawl. “And the lyrics, ‘Botox/ It’s bollocks’—that’s my father’s sense of comedic timing and ironic use of words. When I was younger, he’d get me all up in arms, but it opened me up to be not so dramatic and foolish.

“Of course,” he adds, “there’s always going to be someone asking, ‘What’s wrong with Botox?’ It’s deliberately agitating, but it gets a conversation started.”

Lydon speaks with a fluid confidence and the kind of big-picture wisdom that comes from a life in the spotlight. Since joining the Sex Pistols in the summer of 1975, he’s become a symbol of defiance, challenging the status quo through music. For 40 years, Lydon’s caterwauling voice and thousand-yard stare have put such a fine point on outsider creativity in pop culture that he’s become a household name—though many people know him by his former moniker, Johnny Rotten.

At the height of the Sex Pistols’ career, thanks to notorious early singles like “Anarchy in the U.K.” and “God Save the Queen,” the Houses of Parliament considered detaining Lydon for violating the Treason Act, a charge that carried a potential death sentence at the time. Kicking up such extreme sentiments was a heavier load than what most angry, rebellious young musicians have to bear.

Over the years, Lydon has reconciled being perceived as an agitator, though his true intentions have always been geared toward pro-working class endeavors, and breaking down social and political barriers. “If I can’t make the world a better place for the people who live next door, what good am I?” he asks.

Challenging complacency in the face of bankrupt spiritual institutions, commercialism and the troubled environment have long been at the heart of Lydon’s songwriting, from PiL’s debut single, 1978’s “Public Image,” through such ’80s and ’90s career-defining numbers as “Religion,” “Chant,” “This is Not a Love Song” and “Don’t Ask Me.” His passions have never been more powerfully channeled than by the mantra “anger is an energy,” from PiL’s 1986 single, “Rise.” (That battle cry reemerged in 2014 as the title for Lydon’s second autobiography.)

The cover art for What the World Needs Now, an illustration by Lydon, portrays a clownish character balancing the earth in his right hand and the signature PiL logo in his left. The black and white stripes of his hat, a reference to the Tewa clowns found throughout Hopi culture, tie Lydon’s career together in one symbolic motion.

“The trickster, the prankster: Every culture has these figures that are ridiculed by society, but they’re the only ones pointing out the errors of our mainstream ways of thinking,” Lydon says. “They’re the truthsayers. Now, looking at this cover, I’m not necessarily calling myself that, but if you look closely at the shoes on his feet, those are mine! So he’s either stole my shoes, or…”

Other songs throughout the album, including “Know Now,” feature the steely guitar sounds that former guitarist Keith Levene introduced during PiL’s earliest incarnation; the metronomic bass evokes Jah Wobble’s early plod. Songs like “Betty Page,” which unfolds with spy-themed guitars, and the blown-out bass of “C’est la Vie” carry the group’s legacy forward, comfortable within the musical vocabulary that Lydon has developed.

The group’s current lineup—guitarist Lu Edmonds, drummer Bruce Smith and bass player Scott Firth—moves as a single unit, operating with a sense of chemistry and centered around Lydon’s voice. “We’re most solid with each other, and have been for over five years,” Lydon says. “In terms of the membership of PiL, that’s extremely stable!” he adds with a laugh. “We know each other’s capabilities. All of us have been viewed over the years as outsiders, and we’ve found a happy, healthy hunting ground by combining our forces.”

The journey from album opener “Double Trouble” to “Shoom” reflects a certain resilience that could indeed be seen as emblematic of what the world needs now. The bold current incarnation of PiL has delivered a righteous album that does its title justice, all while pushing the music forward.

WHO: Public Image Ltd
WHERE: Georgia Theatre
WHEN: Tuesday, Nov. 3, 8 p.m.