John Lydon sold out so he could stop selling out.
“It’s taken me 35 years in the music industry to get to this point,” he says, referring to Public Image Ltd’s 10th studio album, What the World Needs Now, due out on September 4. “It’s worth every step if you can make records like this.”
In 2009, Lydon bought his way out of career-crippling contracts, and ultimately ended a 17-year hiatus for his influential post-punk outfit Public Image Ltd (PiL), with earnings from a motley array of TV appearances, including Discovery Channel documentaries about spiders and sharks, reality series I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!, and even butter commercials. Extensive touring around the refreshingly irreverent 2012 comeback album This is PiL cemented the band’s hard-won financial self-sufficiency.
“The way the record companies had a stranglehold on me for nearly two decades, I technically couldn’t really perform live, record or do anything at all,” says the famously confrontational former Sex Pistol.
The fruit of Lydon's very public compromise is the deliciously uncompromising What the World Needs Now, which appears on the band’s own PiL Official label.
“When we released the previous album we were under a lot of pressure, particularly with the new distribution companies, to make something … that they think they can sell,” Lydon explains. “With this album, we couldn’t give a tuppence-fuck for anybody’s expectations. ... And we had the greatest fun time doing it, which is an absolute achievement.”
Formed by the former Johnny Rotten in 1978, pre-hiatus PiL created eight studio albums over 14 years and scored several international hit singles (notably 1983’s “This Is Not a Love Song”). AllMusic declared them “one of the first and most significant post-punk bands.” But there was much internal churning, evidenced by at least 17 different band members contributing to what increasingly became a vehicle for Lydon, PiL’s sole constant.
PiL’s current, contrasting state of continuity and camaraderie lends credence to Lydon’s “fun time” claims. Since reemerging they’ve retained the same line-up — drummer Bruce Smith and guitarist Lu Edmonds (both prior PiL-ers), plus former Spice Girls touring bassist/keyboardist Scott Firth — and returned to Steve Winwood's studio in rural England, where they recorded This is PiL, for What the World Needs Now.
Like its predecessor, much of the new album was improvised in the studio and recorded live — “cheap and cheerful,” as Lydon puts it.
“A great deal of that comes from the tight communications we have when we tour,” says Lydon. “We travel together and that forms the bonds … and the ideas and the instincts that explode once we’re in a recording situation.”
Such spontaneous creativity is also a matter of practicality, as PiL’s almost comical geographical spread — Edmonds lives in Siberia (seriously), Smith in New York, Firth in England and Lydon in L.A. — all but precludes traditional collaborative songwriting.
While lacking the sheer sense of release of the stylistically and rhythmically supple This is PiL, What the World Needs Now is an often urgent, sometimes uncooperative collection which retains the band’s longtime signatures of oddly danceable grooves, cultured guitar interjections, and Lydon’s nagging rants and addictively frail wail.
“Double Trouble," the album’s insistent opener and first single (released on August 21), builds on an apparently verbatim spat between Lydon and his wife regarding a broken toilet. Such unfiltered honesty, however mundane (“I told you, get the plumber in!”), is a Lydon trademark — rooted, he says, in his years of memory loss following childhood meningitis.
“When you lose your memory like that, believe me, you depend on every word everybody tells you to be the whole truth and nothing but,” he says. “And knowing what a lie can do and how much that would hurt me when I was young, I’m not prepared to lie to my fellow human beings.”
Lydon revisited his impoverished early life in London as the son of Irish immigrants, including laboring on construction sites and small-time soccer hooliganism, during the almost simultaneous genesis of What the World Needs Now and his second autobiography, 2014’s Anger is an Energy: My Life Uncensored.
“One compliments the other,” says Lydon, and it shows in lyrics like, “I’m working class, me, right at the start/I’m horse-and-cart, me, right in the heart,” on electro-pulsing album closer, “Shoom.”
Anger delves deeper into Lydon’s infancy than his earlier memoir, 1993’s Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs and extends his personal history into PiL’s messy arc. And it really is in his own, entertaining (if relentlessly self-validating) words this time, without co-writers.
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What the World Needs Now isn’t PiL’s greatest album. It’s not even the reanimated PiL’s greatest album. But it resonates as a bunch of free-thinking musicians having a good time while wryly pressing buttons, with mercifully little musty self-mimicry.
“If you don’t have any ideas, you stop doing it,” Lydon declares. “There’s nothing forced in this at all. I don’t have to make music … I do it now because I love it and I think it’s important.”