Public Image Ltd. – Public Image (1978)
from the album “First Issue”.
You know, I’ve written one article on a John Lennon song, and one on a David Bowie song, so I might as well write one about a song written by John Lydon, and then I’ve covered all three of my heroes. So here goes!
Now, I seldom have to explain myself as to why I hold Bowie and Lennon in such high regard. It’s sort of given. They’re heroes in their own right, almost anyone can see it, almost anyone can admit to it, even if they’re not fans themselves of their music. But I often find myself having to explain why I like John Lydon so much, he doesn’t seem to count among these other rock gods to most people.
Truth be told, he’s had even more of an influence on me than both Lennon and Bowie have, despite the fact that the latter mentioned men both played a part in my childhood and shaping my taste in music, and Lydon came much, much later.
It actually started with me listening to his second band, the post-punk pioneers Public Image Ltd. (and this song in particular) and not The Sex Pistols.
You know how you get a sort epiphany, a sort of revelation about yourself, your situation and the world you live in as you listen to a new song or a new band for the first time? That’s what happened to me as I listened through the first two albums by this band. Oh God, that shrieking, those blunt words, those bass lines, that steely, cold guitar work! This is what simply got me into post punk in the first place, and I’ve never fully recovered.
I’ve read both his autobiographies, the best of course being the wonderful “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs”, which I could recommend to pretty much anyone who’d want an entertaining read, fan or no fan, and one of the things I appreciate the most with this, arguably, intangible anti-rock star is that he never shies away from literally any subject at all, whether it be in his books or his songwriting. As a matter of fact, I’d put him up as one of the best lyricists in rock history. Yeah, I said it. This song is a great example of it.
As it was released as his first single and his first song after the break up of the Sex Pistols, it had to be a statement on himself and his surroundings, whether he liked it or not. And what a statement it was.
“You never listened to a word that I said
You only seen me from the clothes that I wear
Or did the interest go so much deeper?
It must have been to the color of my hair
The public image!”
Lydon himself explained it like this; “[it’s] not about the fans at all, it’s a slagging of the group I used to be in. It’s what I went through from my own group. They never bothered to listen to what I was fucking singing, they don’t even know the words to my songs. They never bothered to listen, it was like ‘Here’s a tune, write some words to it.’ So I did. They never questioned it. I found that offensive, it meant I was literally wasting my time, cos if you ain’t working with people that are on the same level then you ain’t doing anything.”
…and I’d say it’s made pretty clear in the second (brilliant) verse:
“What you wanted was never made clear
Behind the image was ignorance and fear
You hide behind his public machine
You still follow same old scheme”
I mean. Say what you want about this guy, but he sure has a way with words and communicating exactly what he needs and means to say. There’s just no doubt about how he’s feeling about this situation here, and as most people know, the situation with his ex band mates and his former manager was rather tense indeed.
“Two sides to every story
Somebody had to stop me
I’m not the same as when I began
I will not be treated as property”
He sure wasn’t the same, and he sure was a tad bit angry about it, but talk about genius coming out of chaos. The album that this single is taken from, “First Issue”, still stands as a true testament to the first groundbreaking sounds of post-punk, and still sounds shocking to this day.
You can of course argue that the Pistols were as much a manufactured band and as much as a product as, let’s say, One Direction is, but there’s no denying that it did, whether it was meant to or not, catapult a great and unusual songwriter into the world of rock, and also that this guy, seriously now, did change the world, for a little while.
The finishing touch of this song is almost the best part for me, as Lydon howls:
“Public image, you got what you wanted
The public image belongs to me
It’s my entrance my own creation
My grand finale, my goodbye”
He eventually even got the ownership to his nickname Johnny Rotten back from Malcolm McLaren. The public image did indeed belong to him, in the long run.
Also, this is why he’s one of rock’s greatest frontmen. Look at that spastic dancing!