Public Image Ltd., Resurrected by Butter
“I thought it was the most anarchistic thing I’d ever
heard,” Lydon recalls. “Johnny Rotten selling butter! If you can’t see the fun
in that, then you’re dead.”
The commercial dressed the orange-haired singer in a
tweed suit and pit him against the British countryside, where he was chased by
cows. Though punk idealists didn’t find much humor in one of the genre’s seminal
figures becoming a corporate spokesman, Lydon justified the commercial by using
his paycheck to jump-start Public Image Ltd. (PiL).
“It was something I had been wanting to do for a
long, long time, but the money was never there,” Lydon says of reuniting PiL,
which had remained dormant since Virgin Records dropped the group in 1992.
“There was no money or interest from the record company, so I did other
projects. They were all to get me the money so I could reform PiL. That butter
campaign finally gave me the money to do that. I am the kind of person who
really does put his money where his mouth is.”
Lydon believes that record labels have a systematic
bias against any music too far outside the norm. “When you present your new
product to the record company and it doesn’t sound like anything they’ve ever
heard before, they balk at the prospect,” he says. “I’ve been criticizing
record companies for 30 years. They were always 10 steps behind, and it
In truth, though, PiL was never an easy sell for
record companies. Their first albums, recorded after the Sex Pistols’ 1978
breakup, were dense and atonal, building towers of noise over a shaky
foundation of thick dub reggae. Even as their sound grew cleaner and dancier
throughout the ’80s, in part because of constant lineup changes, Lydon’s edgy,
animalistic wail kept their most accessible pop songs from climbing too high on
“I view my voice as an instrument,” Lydon says of the
odd delivery he honed with PiL. “Language is the greatest human achievement,
but language is still very limited, I discovered. There are certain emotions,
like grief, that language really can’t express. I realized that so much of what
we do as human beings is imitating the sounds of birds and nature and insects.
That’s why I host nature programs. I’m captivated by that form of expression.
When I look at a chimpanzee, I know he wants to talk to me.”
Where Lydon’s songs for the Sex Pistols were written
around sweeping, often fiercely confrontational statements, his songs with PiL
were markedly more personal.
“I went as far as I could songwriting with the
Pistols,” Lydon says. “With the Pistols’ song ‘Pretty Vacant,’ I love the irony
of that, because I’m not pretty, and I’m not vacant—I’m from small beginnings,
and it’s extremely gratifying to come from that. But I’m much more interested
in true emotions. I love songs to be truthful and genuine and honest, and not
just manufactured. My songs are from the heart and soul. They’re about the
deaths of people I love, or their rise or their successes. They’re about what
impresses me in other people, and what depresses me about other people. But
they’re mostly analytical. That’s the constant string that runs through Public
Image Ltd.: This is a human being analyzing human beings.”
With that mentality, songs still come easily to
Lydon, who has stockpiled plenty since PiL’s hiatus. “I can never be short of
things to write about,” he says. “Every single human being you meet for the
first time is an inspiration.” His challenge, then, is finding the money to
record them, something he hopes to do through the band’s reunion tours.
“It will be better than all the others,” Lydon
promises of the next PiL album, whenever it should arrive. “I wouldn’t put out
a record if I thought it was inferior. I believe in every song I write.”
Public Image Ltd. plays the Pabst Theater on Friday, April 30, at 8 p.m.