John Lydon formed Public Image Ltd. in 1978, after the breakup of the Sex Pistols, the infamous and influential punk-rock band he fronted under the stage name Johnny Rotten. PiL wasn’t the first post-punk band, but it quickly became one of the most important — and adventurous. The 1979 album Metal Box revealed a group that had absorbed a good deal of the abstract end of Can, as well as dub reggae, Brian Eno’s ambient textures from his time with Bowie, and Captain Beefheart’s complete disregard for conventional notions of melody.
Perhaps most notable, however, is that PiL proved that Lydon had become a significant artist who could work with others to make some of the most interesting music in the history of rock — by not sticking to a rock aesthetic.
Lydon brought with him an element that had been important during his time with the Sex Pistols: crafting sounds and words with a playfulness and sense of humor that he’d inherited from his mother and father. For example, the song “Shoom,” from PiL’s recently released What the World Needs Now..., was written to capture the perspective of Lydon’s late father. “It’s a eulogy to him, really. A requiem. I miss him very, very much,” says Lydon. “I wanted to try to capture his character. He was a very funny man. Very oppressive, sometimes, and slightly brutal, but [that] was all delivered with a great sense of timing and humor. We became very good friends once he kicked me out of the house. The school of hard knocks, my family. [He had a] deeply ironic sense of humor and perfect timing.”
As if to drive that point home, “Shoom” unites that ironic sensibility with PiL’s collective willingness to pursue the possibilities of what makes its members laugh: Drummer Bruce Smith, formerly of legendary post-punk act the Pop Group, had a broken drum machine that made a sound captured by the song’s onomatopoeic title. But all through Lydon’s career, he and his various bandmates have had fun with sounds, intended or otherwise. Another aural accident inspired a song for Lydon’s 1997 solo album, Psycho’s Path. “I threw an accordion once down a staircase and loved the sound so much I did it again and recorded it and wrote a song around it,” reveals Lydon. “That was [used on the song] ‘Psychopath.’ I thought, that’s a great combination of sounds!”
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This ability to turn amusing moments into fascinating sounds and then songs runs through Lydon’s musical career; it speaks to a candor and humor that are at the core of his character. At age seven he contracted meningitis, losing his memory and personality for nearly four years; that experience instilled in Lydon a deep sense of compassion, an appreciation of life, a thirst for knowledge and a healthy sense of the absurd. All of these traits were present in his 1993 autobiography, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, and are even more evident in the 2015 followup, Anger Is an Energy, in which Lydon delves further into his younger years. In neither book does he put himself on a pedestal, however, because to do so would negate his ability to have a laugh at his own expense.
“Self-mockery is wonderful,” observes Lydon. “You’ve got to be able to do it. If you take yourself too seriously and have no sense of humor, well, oh, you sound like one of them military fascists or a diabolical scientist. No good comes from a lack of humor, period. Always worry about people who don’t know how to laugh. They’re dangerous, ultimately.”