There's a cartoonish irony to punk patriarch John Lydon funding the reunion of his band Public Image Ltd. with money he made portraying a gentrified exaggeration of himself in TV commercials for Country Life butter. Quipped one YouTube uploader of the humorous U.K. spots, which aired in 2008: “All comments that don't call him a sell-out will be removed.”
Yet the shock-haired ex-Sex Pistols frontman — formerly Johnny Rotten, and an Angeleno since the late 1980s — is unapologetically pragmatic about it all.
“The money got us out of no end of troubles, [and] they were the best people I've ever worked with,” says Lydon, 56, adding that he funneled his Country Life cash into the Public Image Ltd. (PiL) rehearsals that ended the band's 17-year hiatus in 2009. The ensuing tours funded the recording of a new album, This Is PiL, and its release today.
Today the designer-garbed, sun-kissed Lydon lounges poolside at the Marina del Rey Ritz-Carlton. The scene feels far removed from his working-class London roots, his three years squawking anti-establishment anthems like “Anarchy in the U.K.” with the Pistols and a careerlong reputation for noncooperation (he allegedly assaulted a TV producer at this very hotel in 2007, a case settled out of court three years later).
Lydon formed PiL upon the Pistols' 1978 demise. Fourteen years and dozens of members later (Lydon is the band's sole constant), PiL had eight studio albums and hits such as 1983's “This Is Not a Love Song.” But, frustrated by lack of record-label support, Lydon froze PiL in 1992, a break prolonged by record companies keeping him contractually bound and “financially destroyed,” he says.
This Is PiL continues where the band left off in the pre-Internet era: proudly eclectic, bass-heavy noise-rock distinguished by Lydon's tremulous ranting and wry wordplay. It's an album of both artsy pretense and accessible melody, with exotic guitars elevating his belligerent barks and frail wail to places of uneasy, unlikely beauty.
He says the work was mostly improvised in the studio after his “preparatory work” was destroyed by a fire at his home. It shuns the frantic oompah beats and fuzzy barre chords of what's become defined as “punk rock,” but the album's sonic irreverence and lyrical lucidity make it a croaked call to prayer from one of the genre's few original minarets.
PiL is “the greatest opportunity I have in my life,” Lydon notes, “to explain exactly how I view the world in the most accurate way.”
This Is PiL is out today, May 29