Country Life British Butter saved John Lydon and Public Image Ltd.
Lydon, the outspoken frontman for Public Image Ltd (PiL) and former frontman for seminal punk band The Sex Pistols (under the pseudonym Johnny Rotten), first began appearing in print and TV ads for Country Life in 2008. At that time, PiL had been on hiatus since 1992, because of debt and disagreements with the record label at the time, Virgin Records.
In 2009, using money from the advertisements, Lydon was able to reassemble a lineup of PiL featuring longtime guitarist Lu Edmonds and drummer Bruce Smith, along with newcomer Scott Firth on bass and keyboards, to begin touring the world once again.
“I got out of record company debt with that. It’s the first time in my life that a corporation actually did me a favor,” Lydon said recently from a hotel room in Orlando, Fla., a day before heading out on the band’s first U.S. tour in support of new album “This is PiL,” their first in 20 years. The tour heads to Upstate Concert Hall on Friday night.
Public Image Ltd
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Upstate Concert Hall, 1208 Rte. 146, Clifton Park
How Much: $25 (doors); $22.50 (advance)
More Info: 371-0012, www.upstateconcerthall.com
Of course, with Lydon being known for his anarchistic punk politics, cries of “sellout” from the punk community followed suit. This was nothing new for Lydon, who has experienced backlash for everything from PiL’s ever-evolving sound to the one-off Sex Pistols reunions in the mid-’90s and mid-to-late 2000s. And it certainly doesn’t bother him.
“People can be remarkably ignorant and jealous at the same time, and unhelpful to me when I need it the most,” Lydon said. “When I was under the record company grip-of-death, those same said people weren’t doing me any favors — I didn’t see anybody dig into their pockets to help me out. It’s just resentment, with them wanting to bury me in a resentful, childish way for daring to be so bloody original. What I did was find a product that — it’s frankly insane, and deeply anarchistic — to raise money to save my band with, and fight the institutions that almost destroyed my life. I think that’s major. It sounds like a video game almost.”
Lydon is still funding PiL on his own, without record industry help — the band used money from touring in 2009 and 2010 to fund recording sessions for “This is PiL” and released it on their own label, PiL Official. For Lydon, being able to record and tour again with PiL after so long has been “a dream come true.”
“The making of the new album was, I’d say, one of the highlights of my career,” Lydon said. “I’m so proud of it; it’s such an exciting record. It cuts new grounds; it’s free, it’s honest, it’s clean and uncontaminated. ... When you’ve been away from music for such a long period, it’s almost like a prison sentence, really. But to be able to come charging out of the gates and make something truly, truly excellent — I’m really, really pleased. If ever there was a God, I know he was on my side that day, that week, that month, this year.”
In the now nearly four years that PiL have been touring again, Lydon has found audiences both new and old embracing the band. The group reissued remastered versions of its entire back catalog on CD earlier this year, helping to reintroduce them to a new generation of fans.
“I was very, very pleased to see that the PiL faithful are still there, plus there’s an enormous new collection of fans,” Lydon said. “We’ve been getting lots of young girls, oddly enough. I must be getting handsome in my old age — that or I’ll blame it on the rest of the band. It’s very varied in the audience, an astounding array of different individuals — everything from college professors to teeny bop girls. In my mind, after 30-plus years, that is a real award, that we can cast a spell over such a wide array of different characters.”
Life within the band has never been better, either. Lydon formed the group in 1978 after The Sex Pistols imploded during their disastrous U.S. tour, and since that time the group has seen roughly 49 different members pass through its ranks, by Lydon’s count. Smith and Edmonds, who both joined the band after the sessions for 1986’s classic “Album,” were natural choices for the revitalized PiL.
“Those were the people I worked the longest with, Bruce and Lu,” Lydon said. “Those are my closest friends, and I don’t give my friendship up very easily — you have to earn your wings with me, as indeed I have to earn mine with them. But we’re very loyal; we care about each other a lot. ... When you see us live, you’ll see the way we work and you will understand the drama, the tension. It bodes well for live performance.”
The band members’ close friendship fueled the sessions for “This is PiL,” which was recorded in a practice space in the English countryside. Much of the album was improvised from ideas the band discussed while on tour.
“I’ll fling a word out, or a duff note on the piano, or Lu will twang something, or something spurs instantly inside of us from the way we talk to each other, which is really a full-on, in-depth analysis of the universe,” Lydon said. “For me, there’s a huge encyclopedia of knowledge in me before I even put pen to paper. Sometimes I’m a quick thinker, and I sing quicker than I can write — there’s a lot of improvisation in the lyrics and music, a lot of times where I was quickly running back into the room, ‘What did I just sing? Let me write it down.’ My brain fires quicker than my hand can write.”
At this point, so much has been said about The Sex Pistols’ influence on punk rock — the group’s 1977 album “Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols” was instrumental in shaping both the sound and image of punk music — that PiL’s own influence on post-punk and art rock music sometimes seems overlooked. The band’s noisy yet danceable sound can be heard in the music of such bands as the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Massive Attack, among many others.
But Lydon isn’t much interested in what he’s wrought with either of his bands. He’s more focused on pushing PiL’s sound in new directions with “This is PiL.”
“In order to understand the world we live in, you have to move with the times, and move ahead of the times — otherwise, what you’re doing is stale, and a stale mate, and quite frankly irresponsible to your fellow human beings. We can’t all live like it’s 30 years ago,” Lydon said.
“Ask any young person alive now for their version of what they think punk was back then, and it’s absolutely corrupt and foolish,” Lydon continued. “They certainly were never listening to what Mr. Rotten was telling you — go forth, young man, and don’t be caught napping.”