SO IS THIS SOME KIND OF JOKE or what? Here’s this guy John Lydon, alias Johnny Rotten, and he’s a major rock ’n’ roll star—except that he’s proclaimed the death of rock, rejected the role of star, and formed a band that plays the antithesis of rock with himself as the antithesis of star. A couple of months ago, he and his band even provoked their fans to attack, thus converting them to the antithesis of fans. What I want to know is, who needs rock stars like this anyway?
As the leader of the Sex Pistols, the band that introduced punk rock to world consciousness, young Rotten displayed a remarkable flair for the provocative. He was a snarling figure, feral yet rivetingly beautiful, with preternaturally red hair and mad, glittering eyes: the wolf boy of London, unleashed from God knows where to lure British youth into a trampling of all that seemed decent and right. The stage name was inspired by the condition of his teeth. And if the music was crude, the message was far cruder: “Anarchy in the U.K.”; “Belsen Was a Gas”; “God Save the Queen (She Ain’t No Human Bein’).” The nation was predictably outraged—particularly when, at the instigation of an interviewer, the Pistols uttered dirty words on nationwide telly. The resulting headlines shot them right into the charts, until their guitarist created a scandal by apparently throwing up on some old ladies at Heathrow Airport, at which point their record company proved all too eager to drop them. They went through another record company in a week before settling down with a third and proceeding to popularize the concept of No Future.
The Sex Pistols were conceived as a fairly blatant hustle by Malcolm McLaren, an anarchist boutique owner who suspected there might be a future in bondage fashions. But with Rotten as the front man and his childhood chum Sid Vicious on bass, the hustle took on a life of its own. The Sex Pistols released only five singles and one album during their two years as a band, and they never once cracked the U.S. Hot 100, but they revolutionized rock ’n’ roll nonetheless. Before the Sex Pistols, it was credible to introduce Neil Sedaka as a rock performer; after the Sex Pistols, it was not. It didn’t matter if you liked them; they were impossible to ignore. The lure of Rotten’s savage grin worked in tandem with the awful fascination of his message: Everything is over, there’s no future, “No fu-ture foryouuuu!” The man and his band: both were like a walking automobile accident, daring us to look.
On January 14, 1978, in San Francisco, immediately after the last date of their first American tour, the Sex Pistols quite abruptly flew apart. McLaren charged that Rotten had become a self-aggrandizing rock star, just like Jagger and Stewart and all the others he’d reviled; Rotten declared that McLaren and everybody else were trying to make them into another Rolling Stones. On the first leg of the flight back to London, Sid overdosed and had to be rushed to a hospital in New York. Upon his recovery he settled down in the city, becoming a prime celebrity on the local punk circuit until his arrest ten months later for the grisly knife murder of his rich blond girlfriend. When the arrest was followed by his suicide, no one was really all that surprised: it was the logical culmination of the punk media myth. “Poor Sid,” Rotten lamented to an interviewer. “He really bought his public image.”
Public Image Ltd. was the name of the outfit Rotten formed three years ago with Keith Levene, a young musician whose classical training in piano and guitar is somewhat offset by a demeanor that makes Sid seem sunny in retrospect. Reverting to his real name, Lydon set about charting a unique territory for his band. “Public Image is anti-rock ’n’ roll,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “Rock and roll is a dead piece of stinking cod,” he announced to Newsday. “Anything that doesn’t sound like rock ’n’ roll is fine by us,” he told New West, “as long as you can dance to it.”
The music of PiL was indeed a sort of antirock: strange and inverted, as if it had passed through some sort of window. An initial album, Public Image/First Issue, unstructured and unintelligible, was not even released in the United States. A follow-up effort, Metal Box, was released in Britain as a three-record set of twelve-inch forty-fives packed into a film canister. The canister was a little small, but if you could get the records out you could hear Lydon lamenting his role in songs like “Albatross” (“Getting rid of the albatross . . . / If I wanted/Should I really”) and “Poptones”:
I don’t like hiding in this foliage and peat,
It’s wet and I’m losing my body heat.
The cassette played poptones.
The music was best described as plague disco—dark and unmelodic, with off-center rhythms and a wicked undertow. Self-taught bassist Jah Wobble created a sound that resembled most basses the way a tank resembles a convertible; Lydon’s eerie chants and Levene’s guitar-and-synthesizer constructions added a starkly primitive edge, producing music that was as profoundly unsettling as it was lugubriously hypnotic.
A couple of songs could be made out, but for the most part it sounded like the kind of noodling that goes on in a studio while the producer is in the bathroom.