The spectacular flame-out of the Sex Pistols looms large as one of rock’s great legends, the ultimate distillation of punk’s self-immolation. Yet that final image of Johnny Rotten sitting at the edge of a stage in the Winterland Ballroom asking the crowd “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” has for too long obscured the frontman’s subsequent and longest lasting project, Public Image Ltd. Dusting off the surname on his birth certificate, John Lydon sprang back from the world’s nastiest boy band with a group that dug deep into his myriad musical influences and combined them with his embittered experience as a packaged commodity shaped by Malcolm McLaren. Flanked by childhood friend Jah Wobble on bass and Keith Levene, whose guitar sounded like sheets of metal rubbing against each other, Lydon debuted a group he insisted was no band but instead a corporation, a pithy statement on the pre-fab nature of all pop. That snotty attitude did not preclude earnest music, however; PiL hit the scene with a single, “Public Image,” that excoriated his life as a Pistol, mocking those who looked to him to lead or shock. The tone was all Rotten, but the sound was something else, all dub bass and industrial guitar. To this day, it remains the single best illustration of the transition from punk to the new, amorphous realm of post-punk.

“Public Image” kicks off The Public Image Is Rotten, a five-disc retrospective sequenced neatly into themed discs. The first runs through the band’s singles, and though several of PiL’s albums are foundational classics, to hear the band in this format is to gain an appreciation for just how protean Lydon’s group is. Admittedly, the most captivating songs remain the early ones. The transition from the corroded punk of “Public Image” to the two demented dub disco tracks from unimpeachable avant-pop masterpiece Metal Box is one of rock’s great quantum leaps, the realization of Lydon’s contradictory interests in baroque prog, motorik-heavy Krautrock, Jamaican music and more. Even as the band started to shed members, as on the Wobble-less title track of Flowers of Romance and the pithy, anti-label “This Is Not a Love Song” (originally recorded with Levene but ultimately released without him after his acrimonious departure), PiL’s ingenuity was on clear display. From there, the band morphs settles into the role of alt rock pioneers, occasionally poking fun at their progeny (“Seattle”) and other times producing genuinely heartfelt, challenging work, like the burbling-yet-polemical anti-apartheid anthem “Rise” or the staccato surf-reggae of “One Drop.” This condensed sprint through the band’s discography allows the overall arc of their music to become clearer, even as the crucial oddity of the music remains intact.

A second disc of b-sides sinks beneath this surface-level overview and helps to illuminate just how much weirder the band tended to get off off their official albums. “Home Is Where the Heart Is,” one of the final cuts recorded with Wobble, is strung out into infinity, drums shuffling lethargically as Wobble’s bass sinks lower and lower into an abyss of echo. “Question Mark” loops a brief but convoluted piece of instrumentation into a trance number, with Lydon’s chanted vocals lending a strange spiritual energy to the looping pattern. “Criminal,” a track recorded for the soundtrack of Point Break, reflects the lingering influence of Steve Vai’s brief dalliance with the band as Siouxsie and the Banshees guitarist John McGeoch lays in squealing riffs that are chopped and screwed into elegant shards over a thick groove. Two BBC radio sessions, one recorded for John Peel around the release of Metal Box and the other a 1992 performance for Mark Goodier, offer a brief glimpse into how consistently tight Lydon’s band despite incessant turnover.

The rest of the set shows off the group’s crucial reliance on remixes to expand on Lydon’s dub-tinged vision. As with any batch of rock remixes, the third and fourth discs are a mixed bag, particularly the fourth disc of predominantly alternate or monitor mixes, but more often than not they contain worthwhile second drafts of the group’s discography. A 12-inch mix of “Disappointed” adds a full-on chorus and piles on bubbly synths to turn the sardonic song into a swooning, piss-take epic, while the Bob Clearmountain mix of “Rise” actually improves on one of PiL’s definitive singles, adding more guitar parts from Vai and looping its most arresting moments into an even clearer, more gripping passion project. Only the 12-inch mix of “The Flowers of Romance” is noticeably absent, its bottomless rendition of the original cut one of PiL’s most deranged moments. A final disc captures a 1989 live performance in New York, and it showcases an avant-pop behemoth at the height of their crossover appeal, heavy on then-new material and with Lydon’s wrenching each note out as he caterwauls over his band’s punk-funk alternative metal.

Those with an interest in the band, or even just post-punk in general, should still own PiL’s first three albums and Album. Each represents a significant sonic departure that fearlessly explores Lydon’s interests, and Metal Box in particular remains a singular achievement that belongs in any adventurous listener’s collection. But The Public Image Is Rotten offers a glimpse into the band as it perhaps always intended to be: less an album-oriented rock entity than a singles group, attuned to shifts in pop trends while still committed to decidedly un-commercial influences. By treating each period of PiL’s unpredictable, inconsistent oeuvre with equal time, the set makes the case for the band as an institution rather than a relic, makers of true, individualistic art in contrast to the fabricated shocks for which Lydon made his most enduring image.

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