Danny Baker went to bury Public Image but came back to praise them
At the point of my meeting with Public Image Ltd I was less than a fan. I considered them a dirge, a racket, a puffed up pack of non-starters cruising on praise dribbled by those too scared to decry the king’s new clothes. I jumped at the chance of locking jaws and exposing their pose.
Let me tell you how wrong folk can be. We faced each other across the stifling sterility of a record company office, four strangers suddenly forced to strike up conversation.
In the red corner sat Keith Levine, the slight, blond haired guitarist of the outfit; Richard Dudanski, a tall, smart, well-spoken drummer; and finally the nation’s most adjectived pop star, Johnny Rotten.
Since his split with the Sex Pistols, John has been known under his proper handle, John Lydon, though he claims it was a decision made for him by the newspapers. The trio – bass man Jah Wobble has yet to arrive – swallowed can after can of lager and for the first 20 minutes they performed as brochure and according to their public image.
Each question I posed was returned sharply or sarcastically, mainly by Lydon. If this was the way the afternoon was to continue what was the point, I asked.
“Well,” began John, “we imagine that you were sent to do us for a good juicy slag off – some ‘good copy’ it’s called, I believe. We thought It’d be funny.”
If I wanted to discover Public Image, I concluded, I and they had better leave our preconceptions in that office and begin talking like people. Besides, it was by now 5:30 and everybody could hear the bolts being slid off the alehouse doors. Across the road the worlds started to flow.
I wondered how they felt about their own reputation.
John Lydon: “Just because we don’t act like the business puppets that all other bands are, we are reckoned as kind of suspicious. Y’know, it’d be very easy for us to pose for all Virgin’s silly cardboard cut out stunts, be outrageous and obnoxious and churn out the same old lalala hard rock ‘n’ roll that’s as dead as a door-nail anyway, and then we could earn lots of money and be good little pop star rebels.
“But that’s just what the company wants. That’s why groups like Sham 69 are so well liked, because they just fulfil their ‘rebel’ roles for Polydor. That’s no threat – that just makes good advertising for Polydor. But I’m sorry – I’ve done my share of being manipulated thank you, and now I’m afraid we’re going to have to be spoilsports and just be ourselves.”
Keith Levin: “It’s like everyone thinks that we’ve been inactive for a long while, which isn’t true at all. What they mean is that we haven’t sent out any handy little press handouts keeping you all informed. Y’see we just get on with it and work. No gimmicks, we just keep working at our studio.”
John: “And they say you are moody because you want privacy. Look, If I go drinking in a pub. I’m just like anyone else in that I don’t like to be pestered. Signing autographs is embarrassing for everyone.
By now we had broken a great deal of the ice and began to talk about non-business related matters. Wobble had arrived and, despite his legend of being a crazed psychopath, we rabbit about football and whatnot and he shows himself to be a sharp, funny bloke.
Every objection I had formed as to why they were rubbish melted one by one with their simple, unpretentious answers. But there was still my indifference to PIL’s music. It seemed such a lazy thrash, although I must admit that once, in a club, the LP track ‘Annalisa’ knocked me cold with its excellent jabs of rhythm.
Wobble: “Well, that’s it. People bought our album and sat down and said, ‘entertain me’. You can’t do that with our music. It’s basically dance music. You’ve gotta bang it up loud and get involved with it. Really feel those bass lines.”
John: “Y’know a lot of people expected some sort of message from us. Oh no. They shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking I’m special BECAUSE I’M NOT! Honestly, I’m just a member of a group who has the freedom to record just what we feel like, and what we enjoy most. I feel we’re closer to disco than anything right now. Certainly not rock music. God, rock is so awful! It’s been dead for years but no one wants to accept that. Disco and loads and loads of reggae is all that I think is worth listening to now.”
And dear old punk rock?
“Well I get blamed for starting that! All I did was open the door, mate. I thought the idea was to start up a million different groups, not a million groups all playing the same decaying, feeble rock. I was in that band for the laughs. When the laughs stopped I got out.”
What about the records that get released now under the name ‘Sex Pistols’?
“Oh, Ugh, please . . . . don’t depress me. The worst thing is some people might think all that crap is what the group’s always been about. That’s terrible.”
And all the ‘Sid Vicious Hero’ industry?
“Well, I was so angry when he died. They’re your animals with all their stupid T-shirts. I know he’d be as sick as me about all this junk. They literally exploited him to death, poor sod had no hope . . . “
I suppose it must be a drag having to talk about ‘the old days’ so often.
“It’s like having to re-live your schooldays every day. Let me make it clear. I am just one member of this group. There’s nothing sinister or mythical about us. People will have to take us as we are . . . “
Wobble: “A lot of our songs are really funny. It’s not half as straight faced as you think. Play that LP and just accept it as a bunch of rhythms you can move to. A lot of people get put off by his voice. Well, that’s great ‘cos if they want us to be singalong complacent they’ve got the total wrong idea. We expect the listener to work too . . . “
John: “Nobody ever uses those bass and treble knobs on their players. But that’s what they’re for! Mess about with them during our stuff, make your own sound and that.”
We drank and talked on for the rest of the day and most of the night. I was completely turned around.
Public Image have brains, humour and integrity. They’ll intrigue you and inspire you to make you dance.
John Lydon has been through the whole star trip in double quick time and he knows how worthless it is to sell yourself for a headline. He knows that if you want to play pretend at burning down the nation there are a thousand bands only too willing to act out your fantasy whilst keeping one eye on their bosses reaction. Public Image are their own bosses.
Believe me – I was their hardest critic and now I’m their most vocal supporter. And it wasn’t just because they’re ‘OK blokes’. That a band like Public Image can succeed is important to the health of modern music.
Smash Hits, July 1979