With the Public Image Ltd. catalog newly reissued, what better time to revisit this telling New York Rocker portrait of the former Pistol and his postpunk comrades, at large and loose-mouthed in Gotham. As originally published in May 1980——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
It is two o'clock in the afternoon, and John Lydon has just popped his third or fourth Heineken of the day.
In the plush front room of his Warwick Hotel suite, the colour TV plays one of those colonialist adventure films in which Ronald Coleman or Cary Grant, as a French foreign legionnaire or British sergeant-major, singlehandedly defends the outposts of Empire against faceless hordes of opium-crazed Arabs or Chinese or Pakistanis. But here in the '80s, other barbarians are storming other barricades. Public Image Ltd. are in New York.
Well, half of them at least. Guitarist Keith Levene is asleep in another room, but Jah Wobble and drummer Martin Atkins are back in Albion. So John Lydon will meet the press and the record company people. He's only been here a day or two, but he's already pissed off at Warner Bros. Records (distributors of Island, PiL's American label) for having nixed the original film-canister packaging of The Metal Box; it will appear here as a two-LP set in a standard doublefold sleeve (The Cardboard Box?).
Clearly, Lydon feels the album deserves as much popular attention and corporate promotion as, say, the next Doobie Brothers record, and in a couple of days he'll fly to Los Angeles to demand his due.
"We see the record company as purely a distributor. We're no losers: we don't go out of our way to sell millions of albums, or to lose money for the record company... I've heard the test pressings of the American album and the sound's all right...No, I won't tell you what the cover's gonna look like!"
John likes New York and would like to play here, "hopefully in March, hopefully at Roseland" — the legendary midtown dance palace where big bands and Latin orchestras still hold sway, and where no rock 'n' roll band (unless you count Donna Summer and the Trammps) has ever ventured. He's planning a shopping trip to Colony Records to supplement his steady diet of "disco, reggae, jazz, and soundtracks — Ben Hur, that's a great one!"
Speaking of albums, J.L., how about all the post-breakup Pistols product shoved out by Virgin? "Pretty pathetic, innit? Not the record company for putting them out, but the people for buying them. The idolatry of it — it's disgusting."
John wouldn't live anywhere else ("Home is where the heart is — ha!"), but considers present-day London "a dead city. All the clubs are closing because of the Government. Everything is falling to bits, and not gloriously." Two weeks before his departure, at six in the morning, a party of ten police officers ("and two dogs") arrived at the PiL house in Chelsea. Instead of knocking, they simply axed down the front door and conducted a thorough search for narcotics and other contraband. They uncovered only a small tear gas pencil of the kind commonly used to repel muggers and rapists; Lydon will face charges for its possession upon his return.
"We've been raided before. They looked for bombs, for runaway kids...One of 'em told me, 'We saw yer on the telly last night and didn't like it, so we thought we'd pay you a visit!'"
Is John Lydon rich? "No, but I wouldn't mind. And I'm prepared to endorse any hair spray or underarm deodorant for the money to do what I wanna do."
How's Malcolm McLaren?
"I wouldn't know — I haven't seen him. Hopefully, he's dying of cancer — and I mean that."
Present-day musical trends are dispensed with in short order. The Two-Tone/mod thing is "pure regression"; one need not bother to inquire about heavy metal, pure punk, and other white musics, though Lydon retains a perverse fondness for Abba. And although he admits that a certain number of PiL albums may sell on the strength of his notorious past, he sees PiL fans as "a real weird audience , not following any format or fashion...People should never allow themselves to be dictated to by media" — and here he points to the magazine cover bearing his own gaunt puss — "like New York Rocker. Just behave as you feel."
Airplay, the key to American success, is of no great consequence to PiL. "We've never been played on the radio in England, only John Peel has played us at all. The first single was actually banned from Top Of The Pops — why, God only knows."
My time is almost up. There's a knock at the door, and Cash Box reporter Leo Sacks enters wearing his customary black-rimmed glasses. "'Ello, Elvis!" cracks Lydon gleefully. Sacks plays it cool: "Hey, man, this is my turf now, not your turf." John puts on a bright red overcoat that looks like it was cut from a dozen yards of shag carpeting, and the two head for a nearby bar.
Lydon and Levene hung around New York for another day or so. They visited the Mudd Club, a Madness gig at Irving Plaza, and Frank's Bar on St. Mark's Place. John looked up old friends like Judy Nylon, and personally contacted a couple of New York bands about possible support slots on those New York PiL dates. By turn, I found him witty, cruel, friendly, inquisitive, guarded, offensive, and charming, and at all times totally aware of his surroundings and his course. I liked him very much.
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