PiL: Bruce Smith, Scott Firth, John Lydon, Lu Edmonds


The former Johnny Rotten on PiL, the Pistols and the gift of life   

“I can’t be linked to one thing forever and a day,” declares John Lydon. “There’s a big musical universe out there for me to float around in. I love pop music and I love experimental music.” While much of the world never stopped thinking of Lydon as “Johnny Rotten,” the snarling lead singer of the revolutionary Sex Pistols, the man himself moved on almost immediately following that band’s implosion in 1978. Throughout the next decade and a half, Lydon explored a dizzying range of styles while fronting the ever-shifting lineup of Public Image Ltd. These days, PiL albums like 1979’s art-rock masterpiece Metal Box exert an influence on the music world that rivals the Pistols’ output. “At the time, people at the record label said, ‘This will never work,’” recalls Lydon, a London native who now lives in L.A. “But it did, and it still does. I constantly have to say, ‘Trust me. I know what I’m doing.’”

After a 17-year hiatus, Lydon brought PiL back to the stage in 2009 alongside guitarist Lu Edmonds and drummer Bruce Smith, both veterans of the group’s mid-’80s period, and new bassist Scott Firth. And now comes the group’s first new album in 20 years, This Is PiL, recorded at Steve Winwood’s U.K. studio and released on the act’s own PiL Official label. “I’ve always wanted this sort of band,” says Lydon, 56. “In previous configurations there were always one or two members who were creating problems, who had hidden agendas. In this band we get along well, know one another’s foibles and accept one another’s mistakes.”


Why the gap between albums?

I had to wait for contracts to expire, in order to get out of crippling, overwhelming debt. It’s soul-destroying to be told by an accounting department that you can’t function because you owe a certain amount of money. That they’re not prepared to give you an advance on a new recording, and they’re not prepared to release a sensible number of records so that you can recoup the amount they claim you owe. It’s a catch-22, a no-win bit of nonsense. Still, what I’ve been through is nothing compared to some of the horror stories I’ve heard from other musicians. I had to learn the art of patience, and that’s fine. Something I can add to my repertoire.


How did the album develop?

As we started enjoying what we were doing, that created a desire to play new material. It created a driving, pulsating energy in all of us. Ideas are constantly running through my head, and that’s true of the other guys in the band as well. Rather than adhering to a strict discipline of sitting down and writing, we hold conversations and have verbal interactions. Those conversations are the seeds that grow into the wonderful acreage that is PiL.


What was recording like?

We did the songs live in the studio for the most part. There was great interplay going on between us. Sometimes we would pair off, but there was never any suspicion of one another’s motives. Sometimes we would ferret off into our own corners doing various things, but it always came back to the grand scheme, the universal sound. It’s a wonderful blend of analog and digital. We used computers, but they didn’t dominate what we were doing. We didn’t want the music to sound like it was created by a robot. There are no vocoders. Even where advanced technology was involved, we somehow managed to make that sound acoustic. That comes in part from years of experience, but it also comes from a good place in your heart.


How do you write?

I learned the art of songwriting in the Sex Pistols, and then in PiL I took it 10 stages further. I learned not to be tied by rules or restrictions. It’s an odd process. You read the manual, the rulebook of music, and then throw it away. Sometimes emotions can’t be expressed in words. That’s when you shut up and let instrumentation take over. My influences include art and books and films—all aspects of life. When I was young I wanted to be a prose writer. In PiL, I get to experience the joy of painting with words and music.


What was the original PiL concept?

To break with traditional formats. The Sex Pistols were a great thing—that whole experience was wonderful, and I thank those lads very much. But there were limitations in the band. There was some ambition toward emulating sound structures, following the rules of rock ’n’ roll. And that was unacceptable to me. We fell apart for other reasons, but that alone would have been a good reason. I launched the idea for PiL in my head while still in the Pistols. I wrote [the PiL song] “Religion” while in the Sex Pistols, but the rest of the band wouldn’t touch it. So I had to find a new base to begin from.


How is the current lineup?

Bruce and Lu are entirely different characters in all respects. And that’s what makes working with them so wonderful. Sometimes you need a union official in the room, and Bruce is great at that sort of thing. He has great organizational skills and brings structure in instances where chaos would otherwise be the order of the day. Chaos is great fun, but it doesn’t get things done. And Lu and I are definitely into chaos. Scott is very structured and neat in his approach as well. You put all these elements together, and glorious new things arise. It’s like a science experiment. I’m trying to make a bomb out of music.


What’s the common thread in PiL?

Love of humanity, love of experimentation, love of contradictions and, ironically, love of order. And love of the “no lie” zone—the proper PiL zone. I’m trying to introduce honesty as a basic principle. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that someone simply doesn’t want to lie. That’s what friends are for: to tell you the truth. I declared it very clearly in a song called “Disappointed” [1989].


How did you learn to sing?

What I learned to do from the start—and I had to in the Pistols onward, because I was thrown in the deep end—was find my own voice. I have no formal music training. I tried taking singing lessons, but I don’t like show tunes so I can’t be trained in that way.

“Do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do” isn’t part of my personal vocabulary. It’s instinctive the way the vocals turn out, and they’re very influenced by the subject matter I’m dealing with. I would love to be able to sing like Roy Orbison or Jim Reeves, but I can’t. So I try to sing in a way that’s genuine, from the heart, and whatever comes out results from that effort.


What will your legacy be in a century?

Good heavens! A hundred years from now I plan to still be alive. My existence is very precious to me. I went through a very serious illness [spinal meningitis] when I was a child, and I know what I’m talking about. I was in a coma for three months and nearly died. Every second I’m alive is a gift.

–Russell Hall

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