Formed by John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) in the wake of the collapse of the Sex Pistols, Public Image Ltd. was a shape-shifting musical project in which the bilious singer and lyricist explored his ideas in thoroughly uncompromised form. Depending on what period of the band's career you choose, Public Image Ltd. (officially abbreviated PiL) could sound like bass-heavy post-punk thunder (1978's Public Image: First Issue), an inspired fusion of Krautrock and dub (1979's Metal Box), muscular and expertly executed alternative rock (1986's Album), or polished but angular dance-friendly pop (1989's 9), with many other stops along the way. Despite a constantly shifting lineup and musical approach, Lydon's bitter howl — full of anger, pain, and sometimes sardonic wit — gave PiL's many guises a musical and thematic through line, and at their best, his collaborators created music as powerful and absorbing as Lydon's intense (if often negative) charisma.
On January 14, 1978, the Sex Pistols played the final show on their American concert tour following the release of Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, and three days later, the band split up. John Lydon first traveled to Jamaica, where he and Virgin Records head Richard Branson scouted local reggae talent, and then Lydon returned to London. Lydon soon approached an old friend, Jah Wobble (aka John Wardle), about forming a new band. In May 1978, vocalist Lydon and bassist Wobble recruited one-time Clash guitarist Keith Levene and drummer Jim Walker, and the four began rehearsing. Two months later, Lydon named the band Public Image, adding the Ltd. several weeks later. Virgin Records quickly signed Lydon's new act, and their debut single, "Public Image," was released in October 1978. It was a chart success, and the following December, the band dropped their first album, Public Image: First Issue. While the album sold well in England and did well in America as an import, it would remain unreleased in the United States until 2013. The group, in suitably contrary fashion, played their first live show on Christmas Day 1978.
PiL experienced the first of many personnel changes when Jim Walker left the group, with Richard Dudanski (who had played in the 101'ers with Joe Strummer) taking over on drums. Later that year, PiL released the single "Death Disco," a meditation on Lydon's grief as his mother died. In November 1978, PiL released their second album, an ambitious set called Metal Box, with three 12" discs mastered at 45 rpm packaged in a metal film canister. During the sessions for the album, Dudanski dropped out of the group, and Martin Atkins took over on drums. While Metal Box was applauded by critics, the package was expensive to produce, and when the group's American label, Warner Bros., released the album in July 1980, it was in a variant version titled Second Edition, a two-LP set in a conventional cardboard sleeve. The American release was followed by PiL's first American tour, where Lydon often verbally sparred with audience members calling out for Sex Pistols' songs. (The tour also included an appearance on American Bandstand, where Lydon cheerfully refused to mime along with the track "Poptones.") 1980 also saw the release of Paris au Printemps, a live album recorded in France that was issued primarily to combat well-circulated bootlegs from PiL's European dates.
By the time the third PiL studio album was completed, 1981's minimalist The Flowers of Romance, Jah Wobble and Martin Atkins were out of the group, and visual artist Jeannette Lee became a bandmember. In May 1981, PiL were invited to play a one-off show in New York City at a club called the Ritz. The group opted to play an especially experimental set, with the stage covered with a screen; video images were projected onto it, and only shadows of the band were visible from behind it. Fans were not pleased, and a riot broke out, which became the talk on the music press on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1982, the group toured North America with a new lineup, with Martin Atkins once again behind the drum kit and Pete Jones on bass. PiL began work on their fourth studio album, but creative differences between Lydon and Keith Levene (intensified by Levene's addiction issues at the time) led to Levene leaving the band and taking the tapes with him. Levene self-released a version of the projected album under the title Commercial Zone, while Lydon began from scratch. In 1983, with Levene and Pete Jones out of PiL, Lydon and Atkins assembled a band of little-known musicians from New Jersey for a tour of Japan; two of the shows were recorded digitally, and highlights from the concerts were released as 1983's Live in Tokyo. In September 1983, PiL released a single, "This Is Not a Love Song," which became a Top 5 hit in the U.K. The song would later appear on the 1984 album This Is What You Want … This Is What You Get, which was dominated by Lydon's versions of the material Levene released on Commercial Zone.
Another PiL lineup toured the world in support of This Is What You Want ..., featuring Atkins, guitarist Mark Schulz, and keyboardist Jebin Bruni, and Lydon began writing new material on the road. Lydon would scrap this version of PiL for the sessions for their fifth studio album; producer Bill Laswell recruited an impressive and eclectic group of musicians for the project, including Steve Vai, Ginger Baker, Tony Williams, Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Bernie Worrell. Released in early 1986, Album (the CD and tape versions were titled Compact Disc and Cassette) was a commercial success in the U.K., rising to number 14 on the album charts (the single "Rise" peaked at 11 on the singles charts), and fared well in the United States. Lydon set out on a PiL tour in support, with a new band comprised of guitarist John McGeoch (formerly of Magazine and Siouxsie and the Banshees), bassist Allan Dias, guitarist and keyboardist Lu Edmonds (formerly of the Damned and the Mekons), and Bruce Smith (previously with the Pop Group). While Laswell was interested in working with Lydon again, he preferred to use this latest lineup of PiL for their next album, 1987's Happy?, which included the singles "Seattle" and "The Body." The band would tour extensively in North America, the U.K., Europe, and South America, but by the end of 1988, Lu Edmonds would drop out of the band, owing to health problems. With McGeoch, Dias, and Smith, Lydon recorded 1989's 9, so titled because it was the band's ninth album overall. PiL toured North America as part of a package tour called "Monsters of Alternative Rock," which also featured New Order and the Sugarcubes.
In 1990, PiL released a compilation, The Greatest Hits So Far, featuring 13 songs from the group's back catalog as well as one new tune, "Don't Ask Me," which became a hit in itself, rising to number 22 on the U.K. singles charts. Bruce Smith had dropped out of PiL, and Lydon, McGeoch, and Dias were joined by a handful of session players to record That What Is Not, which was released in February 1992. PiL once again took part in a North American package tour to promote the album, MTV's 120 Minutes Live, in which they were joined by Big Audio Dynamite II (featuring former Clash guitarist Mick Jones, marking the first time he and Lydon had shared a stage since the Sex Pistols' ill-fated 1976 "Anarchy" tour), Live, and Blind Melon. After a long round of touring in Europe, the U.K., and South America, Dias parted ways with the group, and in 1993, Lydon issued a statement that he was retiring Public Image Ltd. to pursue a solo career. A career-spanning four-disc box set, Plastic Box, was released in 1999.
After releasing a solo album, publishing his memoirs, staging several reunion tours with the Sex Pistols, and appearing in a number of TV projects, in 2009 Lydon brought back PiL for a British tour, revealing he bankrolled the project with the money he received from appearing in a commercial for butter in the U.K. This edition of the band included PiL alumni Lu Edmonds and Bruce Smith, as well as bassist Scott Firth. The initial U.K. tour was a success, and a live album drawn from one of the dates, Alife 2009, was issued in 2010 as the group played shows in the United States and Europe. The band's set at the 2011 Isle of Wight Festival was also issued as a live album before the year was out. In 2012, the group released a studio album, This Is PiL, and they devoted 2013 to touring. 2015 saw the release of What the World Needs Now…, the second studio effort from the revived PiL, and the first time the group made two studio albums in a row with the same lineup. In 2017, a documentary about PiL's long and convoluted story, The Public Image Is Rotten, began playing at international film festivals, and a hefty box set (five CDs and two DVDs) tied into the film's release, The Public Image Is Rotten: Songs from the Heart, was issued in 2018. ~ Mark Deming