Has John Lydon taken his rage and defiance and sold out?
And thus the whispers began with Happy?. The reviews from 1987 begged the question with near unanimity: Has John Lydon taken his rage and defiance and sold out? Somewhere between the rising hair metal subgenre and the Tears for Fears-ian pop that populated John Hughes movies, producer Gary Langan heard the sound he wanted for PiL’s follow up to Album. Enter the synthesizer, the background singers, the danceable beats and light metal guitar riffs and PiL sounds downright – and in complete contrast with their previous discography – jolly. There’s even a smattering of “In a Big Country” in the anti-religion bopper “Save Me.”
Langan added veteran New Wave keyboardist Lu Edmonds (The Damned) and guitarist John McGeoch (Siouxsie and the Banshees) to a lineup that included Lydon, bassist Allan Dias and drummer Bruce Smith. The sound they produced is very much of its time, meticulously crafted, keyboard heavy, the sort of sound you’d expect to hear during a Best of the ’80s weekend. Sadly, given its inability to chart,Happy? would be better suited for a Least Heard But Really, Really Good Albums of the ’80s.
While the instrumentals focus on the word in the title, Lydon’s purview is the words, and he focuses on the question mark. “Happy to take the misery/ This mortal life can bring to me,” he croons on “Seattle,” an ode to a broken city. The lyrics to “Rules and Regulations” are brutal and self-loathing, while McGeoch plays some Van Halen light guitar riffs and female background singers sing the chorus. “The Body” is basically a PSA about abortion, highly danceable yet incredibly misguided. The tour de force of the album for all concerned is the thick and layered “Fat Chance Hotel.” While the other songs deal with more heady themes, this one seems mainly concerned with a bad vacation where there was nothing to do but bathe in the sun. While clearly having fun on that track, Lydon is still the raconteur and social critic, but by allying himself with Langan here and on Album, he found new ways to express it.
Happy? was released ten years after Never Mind the Bollocks, and in that time, Lydon surely realized that his antipathy had become a brand as both Johnny Rotten and John Lydon. His anger and refusal to conform to norms in music, fashion or conceivably anything made him a hero to his fan base and a channel for their own frustrations. The reviews at the time vacillate from stark betrayal to mocking disdain for Lydon’s sudden embrace of meticulous musicianship. Others credited Lydon for achieving another reinvention. With his anger and dissent commodified, the only place left to go was full pop star, juxtaposing his scathing lyrics against the Top 40 sound.
While Happy? seems like a departure for the band, it fits in nicely with the PiL discography because every album has been a departure from its predecessor. As a project, PiL had seen a revolving lineup musicians since its inception. The only constant had been Lydon, who stewarded the different groups through chaotic rehearsal periods and experimentations with avant garde, disco and world music. There were few places left to go but to pivot to more standard industry fare. With Lydon’s unique and discordant voice, the possibility of the speculated sellout seemed remote, but the subject of some massive post-punk panic attack.
The ’80s have been placed in amber, forever idealized despite the memories of those of those who lived through it, the new 50s. Hearing Happy? again so long after its release makes one appreciate it more. Lydon and company have managed to subvert the precepts of their time and create another piece of confrontational art. It certainly sits high with Album as both a powerful record and one accessible to more than the core fan. Sadly, we are still railing against the same meaningless plastic consumerism and conformity Lydon feasted on decades ago. It has only metastasized and grown since then.
It can take a long time to get an answer to a question. In 1987, many asked if John Lydon was still relevant. The answer then and now was and is “Yes.” I would argue even more so.