At a different point in my life, I would have regarded that statement as heretical. There are barely words to describe the impact punk had on my teen suburban self. The emergence of punk rock was exactly the right thing at precisely the right time. See, in high school, you are expected to be your most social at precisely the time when it is most horrifying, intimidating, and humiliating to do so. In that devastating, insecure time, I knew that social comfort and musical inspiration was not to be found in the margarine yellow-colored school hallways, amidst the ugly sibilance of slamming lockers, Kansas, and the Grateful Dead; but bands like the Kinks and the Dave Clark 5, not to mention the primitive snarls and chants I heard on the local oldies station favored by the greasers who congregated under wide white skies in the school parking lot, spoke to me. These thumps of rhythm and groans of guitar chords told me there was a visceral, minimalist quality in music that best reached my spine, my soul, my belief that there was more to life than the middling expectations of my education and upbringing. I am sure you recall this, too – we were not black sheep, we were not underachievers, we just saw past the horizon and beyond the edges of the middle of the road.
So 1976/1977 dawned. It waved a Union Jack and was dressed in narrow trousers, and it seemed to be precisely what I had been searching for. I had absolutely no need nor desire to examine what was superficial or false about the New God, because it rescued me. Those of us saved by ‘77 weren’t fashionable, we were thirsty, and these short, sharp bursts and whirrs were exactly the oasis we had been looking for.
But I came to realize that punk, regardless of all the extraordinary joy it offered and the inspiration it provided to move my life away from the low expectation of the suburbs and seek The City, despite the lesson it taught me that the greatest deeds could be achieved by those who stood out and not those who conformed, despite the fact that we were presented with some of the most lasting music ever made, despite all those things, the punk movement was, in essence, an energetic and passionate re-assembly of existing pieces, serving the same masters.
On a purely musical level, virtually all of punk could be traced, almost without hiccupping, to Wilko Johnson or Mick Ronson or Johnny Thunders or Pete Townshend, Dave Davies or Bo Diddley or the Velvet Underground; other times, it was a growled-up return to the brilliantly mongoloid pop values of the more Hodor-like beat bands (which is to say there is a very, very short hop from Herman’s Hermits to the Ramones, and if “I Want You” by the Troggs isn’t a perfect ’77-style punk rock song, I’m not sure what is). And most everyone wanted to be a star, and most everyone was seeking to nurse at the same corporate teat that had suckled all the horrific music punk was supposed to supplant. Not only was the wheel not being reinvented, we were begging the same corpulent salesmen to help us sell it.
Which is to say, we did not storm the Bastille. We just re-painted it.
Because the music was so goddamn good and life affirming, only in retrospect did I recognize that the ‘pose’ of punk was deeply misleading. Many listeners, myself very much included, didn’t understand that there was a great gap between slogans and actual activism; despite my deep (and lasting) affection for both the Clash and the Sex Pistols, “White Riot” didn’t incite anything but a pile of haircuts and words on the back of a jacket, and “Give the wrong time/stop a traffic lane” (from “Anarchy in the UK”) literally didn’t do a thing to relieve the oppression of the disenfranchised classes in any country on earth. Listen, despite the stares and sneers it may have gotten you in your school cafeteria, dying your hair pink never fed the hungry or protected a woman from abuse on her way to the abortion clinic.
But that was not the end of the story. The moment punk rock starts to really live up to its promise and differentiates itself from the renascence of rock and roll’s brilliant old bump, thump, rumble and grind, the moment it stops aping Paul Revere & the Raiders and starts burning the Reichstag, is on October 13, 1978.
On that day, “Public Image,” the debut 45 by PiL, was released.
“Public Image” still creates the same utter thrill that it did when it first shocked and elated me 38 years ago. Both reduced and explosive (it mixed maximum minimalism and maximum impact in a way that only, perhaps, “Blitzkrieg Bop” and “Autobahn” ever did), it took the reggae bass of doom and replaced the syncopation with a sturdy metronome, ensnaring you with the snaking snail chord change that knows no equal: E/B, endless, except for that little turnaround between verses. I have often thought this was the chord change that wrapped around the heart of the pharaohs and Siddhartha and maybe accompanied the hymns sung after His body had been lifted, broke, bruised and wasted with a fake death, off of his perch at Golgotha. Driven by the Wobble charge (Johnny and Dee Dee and Aston Barrett and Hütter/Schneider all wrapped up in one instrument and one part), “Public Image” storms forward in a manner that was familiar to punk’s acolytes; but there was a cool blast of air in the unrelenting simplicity, and a sizzling, almost sinister flare of art in the barbed spikes of Keith Levene’s guitar, which tossed punk’s Ronson-isms out the window and replaced it with a brilliantly dumbed-down version of Michael Karoli’s transistor-radio spitfire turn-signal distortion guitar.
With “Public Image,” PiL announced that the children of ’76 were going to make progressive music of great art and adventure. Today, we take it for granted that elements of art and rock intermingle; with the death of radio as an active interface and promotional tool for rock’n’roll, it has become especially common for even the most high-profile bands to integrate the strangest influences in their sound (exhibit one, two, and three: Radiohead; exhibits four through ten, the entire ranged of far-leftisms introduced by Sonic Youth, and all the unshaven and wide-eyed they sired; and that’s before we even mention Stereolab, Arcade Fire, and all the children of Krautrock). But we forget how shocking that was in the mid/late 1970s, when even the most ‘rebellious’ rock bands were still playing off of a model that had been created in the 1950s and early 1960s (recall the Eddie Cochran slurs that begin both “Neat Neat Neat” and “God Save the Queen,” or the Feelgoods/Who/Kinks/Mott the Hoople mash-ups that comprised the backbone of the style of the Clash and the Jam).
Back in 1978, the initial, unforgettable bass throb of “Public Image” sounded downright bizarre, but in the most immediate possible way; if Lydon’s adamant lyrical statement that the era of the punk lie was now over (i.e., the new boss was not actually more artistically, morally, or politically superior than the old boss), the bass that kicked off the song immediately alerted us to the beautiful artistic left-turn PiL would represent. Other punk-era bands had opened songs with a bass riff – in fact, it was a standard part of the musical arsenal of first-wave punk, as noted in “Neat Neat Neat,” “Motorhead,” the Strangler’s “Peaches” and Eater’s “Outisde View,” amongst many others – but the four-bar tattoo at the front of “Public Image” was something entirely new. Played with the treble dialed off in replication of reggae’s window-rattling pulse, it was virtually Kraftwerkian in its lack of any filigree; it was like a man-machine dub quadruple-timed (though there is a distinct and odd ‘push’ leading into the second and fourth bars of the riff that no other PiL bassist has been able to accurately reproduce). And then, to ears tuned to punk, Lydon’s “new” voice, his urgent, strident, startling muezzin bleat, also underlined that we were in a new land. Unless you were already familiar with world music or the remarkably similar keen of Amon Duul II’s Renate Knaup, it sounded vastly different from any ‘rock’ singer we had ever heard. True, Suicide, the Eels, Throbbing Gristle and other revolutionaries had sought to marry punk-ish simplicity with an aggressively artistic approach, but John Lydon and PiL were doing this in the extraordinarily harsh light of the mainstream, every torch of every journalist and expectant fan turned their way (imagine if the Beatles had released “Tomorrow Never Knows” immediately after “I Want to Hold Your Hand”).
Framing this entire highly visible artrock engagement was the manifesto John Lydon delivered on “Public Image.” Lydon’s text, desperately rising from his throat like a prayer fueled by bile, grabbed punk’s narcissistic, photo-friendly head by the hair and forced it to look long and hard into a cold, merciless mirror. Reflecting back was the hypocrisy of the movement, which had the same aspirations for high times and kneeling girls as the worst sort of flared indulgences it claimed to unseat. Lyrically, “Public Image” is goddamn close to perfect, right from the opening hello, repeated five times, which could be a mic check but is far more likely a pronouncement of “This is me! This is the Real Me, You thought you knew me? You thought you understood what this was all about? This is me!” After the initial couplet, the mission is further articulated: “You never listened to a word that I said/You only seen me from the clothes that I wear/Or did the interest go so much deeper/It must have been to the color of my hair.” At this moment, Johnny Rotten, a public invention in the tradition of Billy Fury or Marty Wilde or John Cougar, dies, replaced by a man who recognizes the power of music to make a fiercely personal and accusatory statement that the new boss was the old boss, and the old boss was him, and he’s had enough.
“Public Image” was an adamant announcement that the same star-making/star begging machinery that had always powered the mammon and mammary-driven superficial spirits of rock’n’roll had been behind punk, too. Now, there’s nothing wrong with the preposterous, monstrous and magical beast called good ol’ rock’n’roll, but there was something distinctly fetid about punk’s adamant claim that it stood for something else. “Public Image” points out just how full of corny dreams, old condoms, and the bells of Old Bowie the supposedly new magicians were. Others – most notably the amazing Mark Perry with Alternative Television, and the Saints’ Chris Bailey on Eternally Yours — had toyed with these concepts, but Lydon was going to build a whole band around the idea that we had been cheated, he had been one of those doing the cheating, and it was time to tell a new story.
Finally, the release of “Public Image” marks, as firmly as any date on the calendar, when punk becomes post-punk. If you imagine punk as a wall of sound made up of tightly cemented bricks of guitars designed to stop the passenger/listener dead in their tracks and pay attention, post punk was an attempt to blow a few holes in that compactly constructed wall and let in some light, without losing any of the impact. On First Issue, released very shortly after “Public Image,” PiL explored this idea even further, taking cues from Can/reggae/dub and all manners of krautrock and art rock, constructing entire songs that emphasized what was not there. PiL took this fully to fruition on their masterpiece, Metal Box/Second Edition, which conjured deeply compelling magic out of a band that was, for all intents and purposes, reduced to Wobble’s patient, pensive, steady throb, the most minimal kick, snare, and hi hat, the opium-empty absentee guitar of Keith Levene, and Lydon’s emotive pleas crossing the landscape like camels crossing the desert on a moon-lit night.
By the time of Metal Box’s release 16 months later, the impact of “Public Image” and First Issue had already re-set the musical landscape. A whole new generation of bands had discovered that punk’s minimalism had a logical next step: the removal of instruments, the entry of space, the impact of naked rhythm. It’s impossible to hear the bass and drum driven desperation of Joy Division without believing they were as hugely impacted by “Public Image” as I was. Perhaps most remarkably, U2’s “I Will Follow” is an inventive if fairly transparent re-write of “Public Image,” with both a bass line and a guitar part clearly inspired by the PiL song.
On so very many levels, “Public Image” remains one of the greatest 45s ever released. Many bands have released singles that were both utterly essential listening and also scene-changers in the history of music; but I am hard pressed to think of anyone who did all that while also making an enormous statement, in just three minutes, about the beautiful and sexy false god of rock’n’roll. (Tim Sommer)