A blistering opening salvo in the war over public perception versus reality and the quest for authenticity.
Imagine the surprise of those Sex Pistols fans who, caught up in the whirlwind existence and dissolution of their beloved punk icons, blindly followed the band’s erstwhile Johnny Rotten into his next musical incarnation as Public Image Ltd. Where the Sex Pistols relied on a healthy dose of attitude and a three-chord rock ‘n’ roll to get their anarchic point across, PiL essentially set about spitting on everything for which the Pistols had stood. Rather than brief, howling anti-establishment diatribes, John Lydon stretched running times to nearly three times what fans had come to expect, adopting an almost avant-garde posture in the process.
From the cover image on down, Public Image: First Issue appears designed to play into the fetishization and corporatization of punk culture. Designed to look like a flashy magazine, the album’s cover image uses bold typeface to proclaim the band’s name as though it were instead that of a new fashion magazine, the songs then listed as if they were article headlines designed to hook the reader. It’s Lydon’s stab at mocking the commercialization of art that simultaneously created and destroyed the Sex Pistols. And to aid in not putting too fine a point on it, he stares blankly out at the listener, all scrubbed clean and, indeed, pretty vacant, his face cast in a harsh shadow.
This visual stylization, while a stark contrast to Never Mind the Bollocks ransom note aesthetic, is equally of an intentionally conceived piece: both are meant to elicit a response from the consumer in advance of their actually having purchased the album. Where before there was simply the idea of the group, Lydon, having made a name for himself as Johnny Rotten, here positions himself as a marketable commodity – he is quite literally the face of the band. In so doing, it’s a commentary on both public perception (it’s right there in the band’s name) and artistic posturing, calling into question what is real and what is artifice. It’s ultimately a bold move that helps tip Lydon’s hand, showing that he’s well smarter than the gobbing punk he played previously.
Yet to be sure, he hasn’t wholly abandoned the Johnny Rotten persona of this first outing under the PiL header. Indeed, his spoken-word diatribes eviscerating the notion of organized religion spark of his old Sex Pistol’s shenanigans, spouting off at whatever controversial, irksome subject matter that comes to mind. It’s not quite telling Bill Grundy to fuck off on live television in front of a captive national audience, but it’s aims are nonetheless just as provocative. Because of this, “Religion I” and “Religion II” can essentially be seen as the album’s “God Save the Queen,” albeit with a far more deconstructed musical approach. The pair also offer, unfortunately, some of the weaker moments on the album.
Thankfully, they’re surrounded by several truly revelatory performances that would set the stage for what PiL would accomplish in the coming years, both in terms of sonic experimentation and widespread artistic influence. Opening with a caterwauling scree of atonal guitar and rumbling bass, “Theme” introduced PiL to the world with an explosive declaration of purpose. With good reason, the sounds heard herein would come to be known as post-punk, the music a further deconstruction of standard rock ‘n’ roll tropes into something equal parts emotionally visceral and nihilistically abstract. Howling to be heard above the fray, Lydon spouts off a series of seemingly nonsensical ad libs. Yet straining to hear through the razor-sharp edges of Keith Levene’s aggro-assault guitar work, typically Lydon-esque bon mots begin to come through: “It’s not the same anymore,” “Does not compute,” “You must never underestimate,” “Now I understand/ It doesn’t matter anymore…Understanding doesn’t matter anymore,” all before he ends the track with a sneering, “Terminal boredom.”
Similarly, “Annalisa” relies on a bandsaw guitar and Jah Wobble’s club-footed, subterranean bass—pushed to a blaringly loud, never-before-heard level within the mix—to establish a stylistic template that would be used time and again over the coming years by a seemingly endless number of groups looking to put forth their frustrations in an artistically bracing manner. Indeed, it’s a very small step into the No Wave scene of late-‘70s New York, with echoes of the Contortions, DNA and more being heard in Levene’s furiously stabbing approach to the guitar. In total, “Annalisa” offers a thrilling six-minute overview of the sounds of the next 20 years or more of the underground.
The album’s centerpiece, however, may well be the group’s first single and veritable mission statement, “Public Image.” Here Lydon makes clear his intent with the group, cutting through the bullshit and simply laying it out for even the most braindead of listeners: “You never listened to a word that I said/ You only seen me for the clothes that I wear…I’m not the same as when I began/ I will not be treated as property.” It’s the ultimate “fuck you” to the Sex Pistols audience, Malcolm McLaren, punk idealism and disposable consumer culture. Ironically, it rocks harder and more effectively than just about anything the Sex Pistols put out while also managing to actually have something of substance to say.
Lydon and company would go on to do bigger and better things with PiL, but First Issue is a blistering opening salvo in the war over public perception versus reality and the quest for authenticity that would give rise to the entire post-punk and DIY scene. “The public image belongs to me/ It’s my entrance/ My own creation/ My grand finale/ My goodbye,” he sneers with the trademark Johnny Rotten vitriol in full effect. Here he took back ownership of that which was coopted by a culture ready to simultaneously lionize and demonize its outcasts, in the process presenting himself as more an artist than Johnny Rotten could’ve ever hoped to be. That PiL continues to exist in the shadow of the Sex Pistols is a lingering testament to the free market power of commerce over art in a capitalistic society.