JOHN LYDON already has his special place in the rock and roll pantheon. As Johnny Rotten (a stage name he now disdains), he fronted the quintessential punk rock band, the now defunct Sex Pistols, and wrote most of the songs on what is arguably the greatest debut album ever, Never Mind the Bollocks. The obvious problem for an artist meeting such staggering early success is what to do next; Lydon's anxious quest for originality, for a break with his "public image," has resulted in Public Image Ltd., for the most part a hopelessly jejune effort that might leave one wondering whether Bollocks was merely a fortuity.
Public Image Ltd. is also the name of Lydon's new band, composed of ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levine, bassist Jah Wobble, and drummer Jim Donut. Wobble only learned the bass last year; Donut is as leadfooted as most rock drummers. But Levine really understands his topped-up guitar--his ingenious and adventurous departures from twelve-bar rock and roll demonstrate that here--and his partnership with Lydon promised much more than what we get.
And "public image" is the unifying concept for the album. Clearly uncomfortable with the sneering, puke-spitting persona created for him by Pistols manager Malcolm MacLaren (who gets singled out for abuse in "Lowlife"), Lydon wants to defy public expectations while still maintaining an audience, a limited public image. Unfortunately, it is Lydon's purposed demarche, his frankly experimental music, which fails most miserably.
Three tracks might fairly be called "experimental": "Theme," "Fodderstomf," and "Religion I and II." "Theme" grates along for over nine minutes, with Lydon repeatedly wailing in a disembodied voice "I wish I could die" over a ponderous bass line. At the coda, Lydon intones "terminal boredom," an apparent gloss to the song. "Fodderstomf" features a disco bass line and the refrain "We only wanted to be loved" chanted in a sort of Monty Python falsetto. In the background we hear Lydon variously maundering belching, and playing with a fire extinguisher, for almost eight minutes. One manifest fault of these tracks is their impossible length; tracks on Bollocks averaged around three minutes.
But Lydon's experiments fail not only because they are overlong but because they are, at base, ill-conceived; he is plainly playing with things he doesn't understand. haphazard electronic effects and innovation for innovation's sake do not succeed for experiment's sake; valid experimental music requires a knowledge and understanding, a directive genius, that this album simply lacks. However much he thinks producers are "rubbish" and superfluous, Lydon could only have been helped by the masterful touch of someone like Brian Eno.
Lydon overreaches his intellect as well. The political and social critique of Bollocks was acceptable because it was sincere and angry; the critique in Public Image rings hollow, the dull abstractions of a pseudo intellectual. Consider "Religion," a tedious diatribe against the Church, which is trite and too long:
Fat pig priest
He takes the money
You take the lies
This is religion
The rest of the album succeeds fairly well, just some pretty good rock and roll without attempts at transcendence. "Annalisa," about a girl in Germany whose parents starved her to death to exorcise the devil, moves as forcefully as some of the lesser Bollocks numbers. "Lowlife," a slam at former manager MacLaren, and "Attack," another standard rocker, are at least not bad. And "Public Image," which Simon Frith of Melody Maker called "the best non-disco 45 of the year," might be just that, although there's always the Stones' "Shattered."
But the scintallae are obscured by too much pretentious claptrap. Like the Rolling Stones' Their Satanic Majesties' Requests, the Beatles' "Revolution #9," or anything by Led Zeppelin, Public Image suffers from too much unearned self-seriousness. "A man's reach should exceed his grasp," Browning wrote, "or what's a heaven for?" Well, not for rock and roll. Sid Vicious got out in the nick of time.
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