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Last year, John Lydon was set to play King Herod in a touring version of Jesus Christ Superstar, along with members of N’Sync, Destiny’s Child and Incubus. The producers aborted the project in the eleventh hour over concerns that it wouldn’t be profitable enough. The cover of the new Public Image, Ltd. album What the World Needs Now — a semi-inept illustration of a grinning clown — suggests a much more interesting role for Lydon: the Joker, arch-nemesis of the mythical vigilante Batman. In my even grittier, even bootier new reboot of Batman: The Movie, Batman — a millionaire who passionately believes that committing violence on those he deems subhuman is necessary to protect society from violence — is the villain and Lydon’s character is a simple fool who is both blessed and cursed, like all true fools, with the ability to take an infinite amount of punishment and come back for more. And thus he is the only man capable of defeating Batman: by being too stupid to die, this fool reveals the millionaire’s crusade for the backwards-ass ritual that it really is — reveals it to you, the audience, that is, because, of course, nobody in Batman’s own universe can see the big picture. But when the camera pans over the skyline for the last time, we’ve seen enough to know that these people are only going to continue assuring one another that they’re plummeting face-first as they climb ever higher up the tower, until perhaps the day that tower is struck by lightning.
There is no shortage of regular-smelling thirty- and fortysomething dudes who will tell you that the stark, dub-inflected sound of PiL’s first two albums was as revolutionary aesthetically as that one Sex Pistols record was socially, but every single review of What the World Needs Now will begin and end in the shadow of boy Lydon’s legacy, the stuff he did between 1975 and 1978. Look — this new PiL record is pretty good, actually, if you’re still into rock & roll. But the Sex Pistols broke the swearing rules of television — broke them utterly and irrevocably, so that they could never be restored. To respectfully treat this record as if it were made by any random old dude instead of an animated relic is certainly the way to do right by John Lydon and (especially) the other (present) members of PiL, but it’s not the right thing to do for our culture and our future. It would be like going on live television and refraining from saying a single dirty word.
The first two PiL albums were intentionally recorded to sound kind of wrong, but in an attractive way — in other words, they sounded cool. The technical boldness was matched by a stylistic boldness: in terms of timbre and tone, the bass and guitar sound was as fucked up and freaky as Johnny Rotten’s singing, whereas in his first band they sounded like loud and sloppy but ultimately regular guitars. On First Issue and Second Edition (a.k.a. Metal Box), the bass sounds like a fat, happy ghost going for an afternoon stroll, and the guitar stays in a corner up near the ceiling like a misbehaving cat, refusing to come down or play anything resembling a normal guitar part. But as neat as those records sound, and as influential as they were on other musicians that we adore, the songs themselves get a little tedious if you pay attention to them for too long, and Rotten’s caustic contributions nix any chance of background enjoyment. On the third PiL album, Flowers of Romance, bassist Jah Wobble was no longer in the band, guitarist Keith Levene figured out you can get all kinds of non-guitar-sounds out of instruments besides the guitar, and Public Image, Ltd. disposed of even more rock songwriting conventions in a strangely graceful fit of avant-garde indulgence. It’s easily the most adventurous and least juvenile PiL record, and it has aged quite well. The album following is where the conventions start coming back. From that point on, there are multi-year gaps between PiL releases, an amorphous lineup, and more than a few instances of Rotten looking right in the camera and chuckling, “Wouldn’t it be a laugh if I were a pop star again! Don’t you think?”
Unlike those earlier albums, there aren’t any radically unconventional tones or recording techniques happening on What the World Needs Now, but there isn’t any pointless pop posturing either. In fact, I’d bet money that these songs live could very well destroy an approximately 500-capacity club room, but will retain very little flavor in any kind of big outdoor festival situation. That’s not a bad thing. I mean, if Johnny Rotten circa 1985 were at the helm right now, we might be talking about drops.
Not that it’s an entirely even record. Some of the jams are nicer to listen to than others. The amount of Nice will probably end up being most people’s problem with it. But the album’s weakest jam is the opener, “Double Trouble,” which sounds more like a sarcastic pre-rehearsal warm-up than a choice for the first single. Even stranger, it (and thus the whole album) begins with Lydon doing a brief impression of Sleaford Mods’ Jason Williamson. Sleaford Mods have a song called “Pubic Hair Limited” that includes the lines, “I’m sick of all these pissy sellouts/Ignoring actuality/That everything that made them great/lost its validity/Who gives a fuck about yesterday’s heroes?” Lydon’s little bit here doesn’t address any of this (or anything, unless the broken toilet he’s talking about refers to something specific I’m not aware of), so it’s slightly mystifying why Sleaford Mods would be the first thing Lydon would want you to think of when you turn on a new PiL record. I can only guess that a genuinely flattered Lydon is trying to flirt with Williamson, who (arguably better than anybody else before or since) has taken the spirit of Johnny Rotten’s venomous enumeration of modern society’s lesser disappointments and updated it for post-’70s society. Is he trying to bait Williamson for more attention, maybe even a good old-fashioned public rivalry?
The second track isn’t all that different from the first, except that it’s good. It’s very good. One element that has come back along with the rock songwriting conventions in post-Flowers PiL is Lydon’s juvenile aggression, delivering lines as if each were a devastating burn to you, the specific listener who is granting him your attention at that moment. This works best when he keeps the lyrics simple and focused and the music is urgent, and “Know Now” gets all that on the money. Lydon’s rebellion has never even kind of been about an intellectual refutation of the status quo; it’s entirely emotional, and this song’s mantra-like lyrics (“Don’t need to know you, so now you can go/So now you go now, so now you can go/you so-and-so now, now now/Now you can go”) conjure that emotion in a way that keeps debate off the agenda. Lydon’s attitude is his best weapon, and charged nonsense conveys that without accidentally engaging the critical faculties. The album’s penultimate song, “Corporate,” is another enjoyable composition that plays with this tension, elevated by its own incoherence.
In between those two earworms, Lydon drops the confrontational approach and sings the way the singers of a band usually sing. (We won’t dwell on the unpolished Pattonisms of “Bettie Page.”) The melodies stay on the creepy side a fair amount, but when they don’t, there’s a kind of fun-size U2 vibe. By the beginning of track six, I was convinced that track nine was going to be a cover of Fine Young Cannibals’ “I’m Not Satisfied” (and I was pretty disappointed when it turned out just a PiL song with the same name). The huge, harmonious hook of the eight-minute-plus “Big Blue Sky” is entirely bereft of confrontation or cacophony, and even Lydon’s unremitting chattering over the song’s long, slinky dubwise verses counts among some of the least fucked-up-and-freaky vocalizations in his discography. But this isn’t because Lydon is worn out or tired or anything — it’s entirely clear for the duration of the album that Lydon loves singing in a band, so much so that he’s happy to give it his all even if being a full-on pop star again isn’t really on the table.
Not that he’d hesitate to make us happy if we put it back on the table for him. In 1989, Lydon is 33 years old and PiL is on the “Monsters of Alternative Rock” tour with Björk’s old band and Joy Division’s new one. Three years later Lydon breaks up the group, apparently after Virgin refused to support a tour to promote PiL’s eighth album. Afterwards, Lydon stays hustling: publishing a memoir, releasing a solo record, doing Sex Pistols reunion shows, and putting out PiL greatest-hits albums and box sets — one of which, released in 1999, retcons the 1992 break-up into a mere hiatus. Still, though, it’s a full decade after that before Lydon is back on stage with PiL, having funded the reformation with the proceeds he earned by acting in a 2008 butter commercial that almost-humorously capitalizes on the rebellious archetype he embodied at age twenty, the Teenager With Attitude archetype that fundamentally changed our idea of what a Rock Star is.
We still call them icons, but we deny their divinity — in fact, the meek theology espoused by the hierophants presiding over our modern pantheon is built around our belief that there is nothing divine in our universe — a universe of pure chaos, indifferent to human consciousness and ruled only by blind chance.
Ah, ah, stay with me for a second. Any instinct to dismiss this line of discussion as too lofty for the denouement of a piece about the new Public Image, Ltd. record is the equivalent of an inner Lexi Kozhevsky: ignore it. The heart of the power that keeps our culture climbing The Tower That Eats People is the myth of meritocracy. Our society is chaotic, and its future uncertain only in the rate of the acceleration of the creeping bleakness, but mature adults know this is because we live in an inhumane universe. A free society (a society like ours) offers a chance, at least, for the very best of us to get what they deserve — what a good person deserves. Of course, currently this crucial theme is being completely contradicted by nearly every news story involving politics or business. The Atlas keeping our myth of meritocracy from completely caving in is the culture we have built around music. In the holiest and most ubiquitous of all art forms, young people — like teenage Johnny Lydon, and his bandmates, and all the kids over the last nearly forty years who have donned Sex Pistols T-shirts in order to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo — find the sacred place where the game of life isn’t irreparably rigged, where anybody talented enough, and driven enough, can still rise from a lowly nobody to a Rock Star with the power to puncture the paradigm and reform reality. The amount of pressure that escapes through this concept is integral to rerouting well-founded frustration and keeping the energetic nihilism of the young limited to benign-ish anti-social activities such as public intoxication, petty crime, disrespectful speech, the deliberate cultivation of aggressive body odor, listening to songs that are really easy to play on the guitar at maximum volume, etc.
The complicated web of music critics and publicists and record label employees that guides our music-myth-machine doesn’t collaborate on a culture that worships youth and is hostile to old age because any of those individual people think they actually stand to benefit from it. But making sure young Johnny Rottens turn into old John Lydons — who occasionally resurface from obscurity to part their fake teeth to say shit like, “I don’t think what the world needs will be Donald Trump” or “Until I see an Arab country, a Muslim country with a democracy, I won’t understand how anyone can have a problem with how they’re treated,” or “I buy Country Life because I think it tastes the best” — is necessary to preserve the world that happens to produce music critics and publicists and record label employees. Oh, wouldn’t it be beautiful, though, if, while we were busy half-heartedly perpetuating the silent promise of meritocracy — that a star of true brilliance could soar to the top and, from that lofty position, finally give the world what it needs; a crazy old clown’s unceasing attempts to fly showed us that there’s even less to fear of the ground than there is to gain from the climbing. Ah well, maybe in some other universe.