There can be no argument that John Lydon is a polarizing figure. I think you are generally with him or against him. So, I’m firmly in the Lydon fanboy camp. The Sex Pistols were a big deal to me and Public Image Ltd. showed me an entire new world, of true post-punk music. There is a reason I have two copies of Metal Box. Those early PiL records had a gigantic influence on me. I will never forget seeing them at the Agora in Atlanta on the Metal Box tour circa 1980.
This brings us to The Public Image Is Rotten, the 2017 documentary focusing on the story of PiL, and my recent pandemic entertainment. The story is dominated by Lydon, who is always a bit of a know-it-all. Fortunately, almost everything he says is at least somewhat true. I’ve read both of his memoirs so there is a lot of familiar ground gone over early on, and John still has axes to grind, especially with Sex Pistol impersario-manager Malcolm McLaren.
That being said, that the movie alsos talk to the other members of the original, First Issue PiL is impressive. Jim Walker the drummer (who I have never seen interviewed) explains they were quite a dangerous bunch, but he left once the money ran out. There is scant footage of guitarist Keith Levene, who even today does not appear to have kicked his drug issues. Jah Wobble (bassist) gets much screen time, but is demonized as someone who took advantage of PiL tracks for his own record sales.
The Metal Box era band features drummer Martin Atkins, who is very coherent and provides great insight into what was going on. His contributions to the documentary’s story are invaluable. Around this time we hear from the inevitable Thurston Moore (seemingly a must-have for any documentary on this musical era), Ad-Rock from The Beasties, and Flea, who provide plenty of hero worship. The old footage and story of the near riot at NYC’s Ritz (where the band played behind a screen) are told.
John is set up and arrested in Ireland, and the story of the making of The Flowers Of Romance is one of a strange process, Lydon, Atkins and producer Nick Launay with a (when awake) Levene. All coming in and doing their parts (or, in Levene’s case, erasing his parts) at different times. Jeanette Lee, whose picture is on the Flowers Of Romance cover and who is mentioned as a band member, is not mentioned in the film. They have a quick deadline before John has to spend some jail time to get the recording done.
The mid-period PiL is covered, but this is an era where I lost interest in the band, even with the incredible John McGeogh on guitar. Let’s just say Lydon goes through lots of musicians. His comeback is on Album, but it’s clear that producer Bill Laswell brought in the tracks, played on much of it, and recruited the all-star musician staff for the sessions, including Ginger Baker and Steve Vai! Lydon himself seems proud that he has been accepted by the professional musician community.
Beginning in 1993, Lydon took about ten years off from PiL, playing reunions with The Sex Pistols, and raising his nieces (The Slits’ Ari Up’s twins) with her mother, his wife Nora. John talks about how much he loves kids and how he has learned so much by being with them. After a British butter commercial (hilariously shown in the film) Lydon has enough money to reform PiL, with guitarist Lu Edmonds (the Damned), drummer Bruce Smith (the Pop Group), and Scott Frith. This is the band that continues to this day and the one I saw give a stellar performance in Atlanta a few years ago. Lydon is an artist and a survivor, and with new management from his longtime pal John ‘Rambo’ Stevens, things are good again with PiL.
I’ve just read in the news that John’s wife Nora has advanced dementia and he is her full-time caregiver now. Underneath the snarl, piss, and vinegar is a kind-hearted man. If you are interested in PiL this movie is a great place to start, but you need to be on team Lydon. If not, it may not be your thing and is not likely to win you over.