Many people do not like what they do not understand. An instant hatred, caused partly by fear, is implemented. No-one understood Public Image Limited, PiL perplexed the average listener. They looked for the exact opposite of what PiL wanted—A new Sex Pistols. Public Image Limited, were against everything: Punk, religion, love and especially Rock. They hated it when people looked to them for a new Sex Pistols, or a typical Rock band. “Public Image Ltd have nothing to do with Rock 'n' Roll, because Rock n Roll is the most sickening and boring thing this century has produced.” John Lydon insisted in an interview from the Dutch 'Muziekkrant Oor' magazine in January 1979. Lydon wanted people to stop following the crowd, and become different. During the same interview he stated (about being on stage, after an unsuccessful show): “I was really glad to watch this wave of hate and sickness coming up to us. It was the proving that people at are at least thinking about the music. That they don't just swallow it. I repeat it again: I hope this evening people go home in another state than that when they came into the hall. I hope they think twice next time before they spend their money on a pop concert. Because this evening they had just come to watch Johnny Rotten who once played with the Sex Pistols. They wanted to watch their hero, a star, and I don't want to be neither of that.”
John Lydon formed Public Image Limited in 1978, and both musically and ethically, they were a giant step from The Sex Pistols. Lydon recruited co-Clash founder Kieth Levene on guitar, and old friend Jah Wobble on bass, and Jim Walker plays drums on First Issue. PiL were not just a band, but a business as well, they enlisted non-musical members, most notably Jeanette Lee. As a business, they produced there own albums, they managed themselves, they took *** from no one, especially the kids who wanted they’re beloved Johnny Rotten back in The Sex Pistols. PiL compose a complex blend of genres, most notably Krautrock, Dub Reggae, and (un)surprisingly Punk, depending upon which way you chose to view it. While PiL weren’t the generic ‘3-chord-per-song’ trash, the influence is obvious.
Lydon and Levene were distinctly different—Lydon was musically incompetent and Levene, on the other hand was an accomplished guitarist, and as many other Punk guitarists did, he never chose to hide it. On First Issue, his discordant guitar lurks around every comer, waiting to pounce. His style incorporated mistakes, sometimes deliberately, and repeated them until it seemed this erroneousness was actually completely normal, and almost a new kind of rightness. Wobble’s bass work was the focal point of the band, his bass lines dominate the sound. “No-one listened to bass before Public Image Limited,” Claims Lydon, and it’s true. His bass work is at the forefront of the music, leading the songs, allowing Levene to execute his signature solo and create a cacophony of noise. The opener “Theme” is a nine minute barrage of virtuoso guitar, and repetitive bass and drums. “Public Image” is a short, two minute affair, and the closest thing to Punk on First Issue, It’s saving grace is the Dub Reggae inspired bass line. About half way through “Religion II” , Levene solos on a ukulele (or a very similar instrument). His soloing style is not the typical approach, instead of using a scale as a basis for the notes played, he unleashes a torrent of disharmony, seemingly at random. Throughout the album, Lydon’s vocals vary greatly, from the howl on “Theme” to the hoarse snarl of “Annalisa” to the Monty Python-esque high pitched shriek of “Fodderstompf”. Although the vocals vary, he still maintains a voice that is distinctly his.
Religion is always a touchy subject. Naturally Lydon chose to ignore this. Completely. The first half of First Issue is entirely about the evils of the Catholic church. “Theme” is a death wish dirge regarding masturbation as a mortal sin.( “And I wish I could die) “Religion I” and “Religion II” are the most beautifully blasphemous songs I have ever had the pleasure of hearing. The first is a short spoken word piece, while the second repeats it, with a full band behind Lydon. A short excerpt:
“Stained glass windows keep the cold outside/ While the hypocrites hide inside/ With the lies of statues in their minds/ Where the Christian religion made them blind/ Where they hide And prey to the God of a bitch spelled backwards is dog/ Not for one race, one creed, one world/ But for money/ Effective/ Absurd.”
The last song on the first side, “Annalisa”, deals with the true story of a fifteen year old girl whose parents thought she was possessed by the devil, and turned to the church. Eventually, she died of starvation.
The songs on the second side have no real theme. “Publics Image” is about Lydon’s public image, and was a hearty “*** you”, directed at the music industry and Malcolm Maclaren particularly.(There were legal matters relating to his Lydon’s alter-ego Johnny Rotten. Maclaren claimed he owned the name.) ” 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.
“Low Life” can also be seen as directed at Maclaren. “Ego-maniac traitor/ You never did understand/You fell in love with your ego/ It did not fit into plan.”
The album ends with “Fodderstompf”, a disco and love song spoof. Wobble and Lydon wail “We only wanted to be loved” for most of it’s seven minutes, in voices that recall Monty Python. While this is highly amusing, “Fodderstompf” is actually an important song. It is the sonic template for their next, and arguably better album Metal Box. It’s lack of guitar, loud bass line and simplistic drum beat lead the way musically for Metal Box.
First Issue’s approach, in terms of music and morals was revolutionary. PiL were not afraid to show off talented musicianship, or diverse musical influence. Hostile, strange, and humorous, and indecipherable almost everyone, PiL were a band who wanted to be different.