Stories from John Lydon's Public Image Limited - Helter Skelter 2008, £14
This has been out a little while, but it’s too good to pass by. This is essential reading for anyone interested in - obviously - punk, the Pistols and John Lydon (JL), but also the fascinating early 80's post punk scene, where suddenly there seemed to be fewer musical boundaries and both here and in the US there was a brief flowering of all manner of experiments, before conformity and conservatism came to rule again. Despairing of the stagnation already evident on the punk scene, JL and his cohorts set the controls for the heart of the night, channelling Can, dub and anything else that wasn't mainstream into a powerful, radical sound (if in doubt, check Metal Box).
Its a pity that the publishers have made John Lydon's name and face so prominent on the cover (but not surprising) as he's one of the few major protagonists not to be directly involved with the writing of the book. There's substantial and fascinating input from Jah Wobble, whose personal and musical journey from punk, through PIL to where he is now would be worth a book of its own. There are also really good contributions from Keith Levene, Martin Atkins, Jim Walker from PIL and added depth + wisdom from Don Letts and Dennis Morris, who also provides some great pics.
The musical and personnel changes in PIL's career are well described, from the tentative early stages, thru the extraordinary "Metal Box" period, taking in the occasional downturns ("This is not a love song") in the mid 80's, and returns to form like "Album". Starting out as a radical experimental collective, in which John Lydon wanted to erase all trace of Johnny Rotten/Maclaren from himself and the media/public perception of him, PIL evolve thru many stages - at times a virtual punk supergroup, other times JL + US session men - till eventually becoming pretty much John Lydon's backing group.
Some of the strongest material and best writing comes in Phil Strongman's mercilessly accurate depiction of the scene at John Lydon's house in Fulham. He's great at describing the coke rush/speed comedown claustrophobic paranoia when a bunch of people have been up for days, and the subtle shifts in relationships and alliances that this brings about. One of the best passages describes a coked out Jim Walker and a friend end up hiding in a neighbour's basement to escape the scene upstairs. John Lydon always liked to have a coterie of mates as an audience and all-purpose gang, and the scheming and infighting among these hangers on, as they jockey to prove their importance to the Main Man is very well told.
Its very intense stuff, like the best of PIL's music. As time's gone on and looking at the sheer retro pension-plan dullness of most of the so-called "alternative" or indie music now, the PIL era has more and more to recommend it. It would have been easy for JL to have cleaned up as Johnny Rotten after the Pistols were over. True, you'll look in vain for much human warmth or lyrical sensitivity here - but there's always someone else to do that anyway - but if you want to know about genuine experimentation and risk taking, read some great anecdotes and take on provocative ideas, give this a try!
Reviewed by Den