Film of the Week: The Public Image Is Rotten
Like a lot of British people my age, my life was changed on 4 September 1976. That was the night that the Sex Pistols first appeared on British TV, on a Granada Television show called So It Goes, presented by Tony Wilson, later founder of Factory Records. It wasn’t so much what the band sounded like, or what the lyrics said, it was purely the presence of its singer, then called Johnny Rotten, that made all the difference: the snarl, the whine, but most of all the contemptuous ironic stare with which he ended the performance, that was in itself a complete manifesto for a full-fledged attitude towards the world.
It often happens with people who change your life when you’re young that you don’t much care about them later on; and in the same way, it’s a constant of pop that people who are absolutely central to the picture at a certain time end up being entirely marginal, even an irrelevance, no matter how visible or successful they are. These days, John Lydon—the real name that Rotten reverted to in 1978—is still famous enough to be interviewed on TV by Piers Morgan, and is as outspoken as he’s ever been, a hot ticket for festival Q&As and “audiences with.” But he’s in that awkward position of being someone who once mattered a lot, and who is condemned to carry his past notoriety around like a hefty trunk of family silver.
Does John Lydon have anything new to say today? That’s one question, but a more important one, from the point of view of anyone making a film about him, is: is there anything new to say about John Lydon? Possibly there is, but Tabbert Fiiller’s documentary The Public Image Is Rotten doesn’t really find it. The film has Lydon’s long-standing friend, current manager and security person John Rambo Stevens—who also appears—as one of its executive producers. This is very much an approved version of the story, and much a film about Lydon’s second band Public Image Ltd (PiL for short) as it is about the singer himself.
This will be a boon to hardcore PiL fans (are there hardcore PiL fans, though? I can’t say I’ve ever met one), and something of a distraction for anyone else, because PiL are such a messy case. Theirs has been a largely incoherent career, with lineups changing constantly and not always for the best, slapdash live albums issued back when the world expected new studio product, and (as far as I can see, although I haven’t listened that closely for years) nothing really earth-shaking since 1986’s Album.
Ah, but when PiL mattered, they mattered—and in a very peculiar way. One thing that Fiiller’s documentary does is trace a route to the period of disillusionment, isolation, and creative intensity that created the first three PiL albums, which still—especially the second and third—still sound terrifying, at once furious and desolate. Fiiller benefits from a lot of access to Lydon, who tells his early life story in a way that’s candid, tender, even harrowing. Lydon’s pre-Pistols story has been told before, but rarely with such emotional directness: he talks about his childhood in Finsbury Park, North London, about a shyness which matched his parents’ own, about looking after his two younger brothers, and about his Catholic education. There’s a picture he drew in his youth of a vampiric-looking priest: young John was smart enough to do whatever it took not to chosen as an altar boy, and learned how to be “ugly and useless… Funny how I used all that later,” he comments.
He contracted meningitis at 7. The illness resulted in a sense of alienation and acute self-awareness that you suspect stayed with him well into adulthood: “I felt like an observer inside my own head.” Specifically, it caused memory loss, with the boy unable to recognize his own parents. “You feel so guilty,” he says, and starts to tear up. It’s one of a handful of moments which show Lydon as a rather endearing old softie: notably the fondness with which he talks about Nora, his wife since 1979 (who declines to appear on camera), about the step-grandchildren he and Nora adopted (the children of Slits singer, the late Ari Up), and even about some of the old colleagues you’d expect him to be testy about.
The Sex Pistols were shocking—and although the story’s been told endlessly, you don’t really get a sense from this film of how shocking they were in Britain in 1976, and why. Watching the So It Goes clip of “Anarchy in the UK,” included here, I suddenly remembered the effect of hearing the line, “Get pissed—destroy!” in a year when the top U.K. single was the Brotherhood of Man’s “Save Your Kisses For Me.” Some of the clips of Rotten at the time show his interview manner as refreshingly tart and laconic, compared to his expansive, avuncular, rather laboriously jovial style today. “You’re quite famous aren’t you? How did that happen?” asks an interviewer. “I don’t know,” Rotten replies. “Through being honest.” Today, Lydon says, “Johnny Rotten was a piece of work. I worked on being Johnny Rotten.” You can see that his ’70s self was an extended piece of performance art, all the more authentic because it affected his everyday life. Nationwide contempt, police raids, stabbings—he could have chosen a persona that entailed fewer perils. But the affable, yeomanly Lydon of today seems no less a constructed persona, for all the glimpses of real emotion: he comes across like the Falstaffian landlord of a heritage pub welcoming young ’uns interested in hearing tales of the old times (and doing a roaring trade in Red Stripe lager).
Fiiller gives a brief fly-past of the Pistols period, and jumps as quickly as possible to the band that Lydon went on to form, with a name inspired by Muriel Spark’s novel The Public Image. The founding conceit was that PiL were not a band but a quasi-corporation, but it’s doubtful whether it’s really even been the latter—even though, with Lydon the only constant, it’s certainly always been a brand. Their first incarnation certainly indulged in the traditional us-against-the-world gang identity: the first PiL drummer Jim Walker recalls, “There was always a huge undercurrent of potential danger.” He’s not spinning the usual “living on the edge” rhetoric, but recalling the singular belligerence that seems to have characterized PiL: the comment follows a story about bass player Jah Wobble taking a swipe at an engineer.
Various luminaries—Moby, Flea, the ubiquitous Thurston Moore—are here to talk about the early LPs’ extraordinary impact. That’s the saddest thing about the story, the sense that the innovation and utterly fearless austerity of Metal Box (aka Second Edition) and The Flowers of Romance were cast aside for the polished, oddly impersonal product of later records. Wobble’s bass, the skeletal guitar of Keith Levene, Lydon’s wail from the sixth circle of hell: there’s little in avant-pop history to equal this combination for pure uncanniness. The film gives a sense of those records emerging from bitter discontent, anxiety, and a genuine sense of having nothing to lose. Lydon even recalls singing the lyrics of Metal Box’s “Death Disco” to his dying mother: “Honesty when people are on the deathbed is the most important thing you can deliver to them.”
Eventually, the PiL story switches modes from austere horror to knockabout farce. Wobble ran off with the band’s tapes and used them as the basis for his own records, a barefaced act of opportunism that successfully launched his solo career. The band sparked a riot in New York by attempting to play a gig behind a cinema screen. Levene fell out of the picture and has followed an extremely marginal path since. Other versions of PiL included a period with American musicians who basically, says a weary Lydon, turned the band into a PiL covers act.
An inspired one-off, 1986’s Album, was basically a Lydon solo album under the aegis of star producer Bill Laswell, here heard commenting, “In the ’80s, producers made records. Bands were lucky to be on them.” That album featured two legendary drummers, Ginger Baker and jazz legend Tony Williams, plus neo-metal guitarist Steve Vai (the film doesn’t mention that Album was actually stranger still, with Ryuichi Sakamoto, P-funk keyboardist Bernie Worrell, and even the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Malachi Favors in the mix). Album’s hit single “Rise” lay down a template for the jangly, bombastic pop that characterized PiL when they subsequently became a “proper” band again, professional and altogether unintimidating. You end up wondering whether Lydon is really that interested in music these days, and when he last really cared. The film makes no mention of possibly the most shocking he did in his Pistols days, which was to appear on the London station Capital Radio and play a personal selection that included Tim Buckley, Neil Young, Captain Beefheart, and Can, alongside stacks of his beloved reggae.
Watchable and intermittently entertaining, if hardly incisive, and slightly over-long at 105 minutes, The Public Image Is Rotten includes much that will be of interest only to devotees. There’s a whole cast of short-term members in here, but not quite enough Wobble, and barely any Levene. An enjoyable recurring presence, though, is long-term drummer Martin Atkins, who’s extremely droll and also has a fascinating transatlantic accent, of the sort that only seems to exist among rock musicians of a certain age. It’s fascinating to speculate how he turned from a gentle-faced youth to a goofily coiffed and bearded ringer for Will Ferrell’s fashionista in Zoolander.
There’s a phrase that’s wildly overused in Britain, “national treasure,” and it’s applied at the top end to the universally respected likes of Judi Dench and Alan Bennett, and at the lower end to anyone who’s been in the public eye long enough to appear on reality shows without entirely becoming a laughing stock. Lydon lies somewhere in the middle of that range: he properly became a teddy bear to the British public when he appeared on a wildlife show communing with gorillas in East Africa, and doing an advert for Country Life butter.
These episodes are covered here, but what we don’t get is insight into Lydon’s current political stance. Recent contradictory, sometimes complimentary comments about Trump and the odious Brexit poster boy Nigel Farage have made it clear just how easily the rebellious stance codified by punk can lend itself to right-wing populism, or in Lydon’s case to the implicit attitude that nothing in politics really matters, that it’s all just a bad joke cooked up by the system. He’s rather gleefully knowing about his bluff conservatism: talking today about how PiL works today because he’s properly assumed captaincy, he says, “It needs direction, like everything in life,” then smirks, “Gosh, I think I’m advocating monarchy.”