Well, I guess it all began in ’78 when Johnny Rotten morphed back into John Lydon and decided that he would stick true to the artistic values of romanticism: pushing the musical envelope and staying true to your spirit. The result was Public Image Limited, and the music became a challenging brew of post-punk influences. Johnny, however, could never be post-punk like, say, The Pop Group, or even like Howard Devoto; Johnny would forever be Johnny Rotten. That was his albatross. As for PIL: how could they be anything more than an indulgence?? Would an unknown act have been allowed to release what they did? If Johnny was using his name to float something edgy and different then that was great, but how useful was the difference that PIL made? Albums in metal boxes? Okay. Chugging guitars? Passable. Attacks on religion? Hmmm, more Pistols-style than anything else…
That was the thing: in Rotten, Johnny had created a persona that was more a more powerful an English archetype than he ever imagined. He has doomed to live in its shadow. At best he could inflect it, like he did for the cover of PIL’s initial album First Issue. This is, I think, Johnny at his finest. The combination of his famous “thousand mile stare”, suit and combed down hair makes him seem like an insane, repressed member of the Warhol family – holding it all in (for a change), ready to detonate… He also used what he learned from the Pistols in this excellent early interview with a surprizingly patient Tom Snyder:
Don’t you just love how Johnny and a faint, bohemian Keith Levine play good-cop/bad-cop there? Doo-dah! After the Pistols, John was still a Pistol precisely because he still inhabited that most English of archetypes: the rebellious teenager. In a Western democracy deferentialism contains the seeds of its own destruction. Having a dysfunctional teen about the place is as English as eating a cooked breakfast, drinking tea and saluting the Queen.
Some thirty years on, Johnny is no longer a teen. He may have lapsed into pantomime mode as the English squire – a poster boy for Country Life butter – yet here he still is, coming on like a carrot-topped demon, telling us that Guy Fawkes should be our national hero. The audience knows that it is, ironically, now watching history make a stand. And when we ask ourselves how much we should endure from PIL in the name of art – Johnny’s art – the answer comes at the end of the set, with ‘Rise’: the band showing that despite their angry meanderings, they still managed a perfect, melodic, sing-a-long pop song… For ‘Rise’, we will forgive all the abrasive guitar marathons. We will forgive the guy who played his banjo with a cello bow. We will forgive the bass player’s kilt. And we will even forgive the embarrassment of Johnny never leaving his awkward teenaged years. It is his nature, and ours.