10 Best PiL Songs
Before the fire from the Sex Pistols breakup had even begun to smoulder, John Lydon (aka Rotten) set his sights on a future that was to look and sound very different from his past. Public Image Limited launched in mid-1978, only a few months after the Pistols’ implosion, and from the outset, it was clear Lydon’s vision was far from one-dimensional. Over the years, and through various lineups, he’s carved out his own unique approach to music and lyrics. With their most recent release, 2012’s solidly entertaining ‘This Is PIL,’ Lydon proved the well is not dry, and in honor of his longevity, we offer up this list of the 10 Best PIL songs. Mr. Lydon and friends, we salute you!
The band quickly followed its self-titled debut single with this striking disc. As the name suggests, it does have a standard “disco” rhythm, but beyond that, it’s pretty messed up. As Lydon screams about the death of his mother from cancer, the track sounds like a primal-scream therapy session taking place on the dance floor. The song was reworked, re-recorded and re-titled (as ‘Swan Lake’) on the ‘Metal Box’ album, but this first version has the edge — and it teeters on the edge.
With the 1989 album ‘Happy?’ PiL were deep into the glossy production techniques of the era. Everything sounded polished and clean, but even so, Lydon and company pull off a pop gem with solid bite. By this time, PIL had an all-star lineup of sorts, including ex-Magazine/Siouxsie & the Banshees guitarist John McGeoch,one-time Damned guitarist/keyboardist Lu Edmonds and drummer Bruce Smith of the Pop Group and Rip Rig & Panic. They all helped create a very ’80s-style pop record, but Lydon’s commanding vocals rescue it from mainstream territory. If it weren’t so catchy, it would be easy to dismiss. But again, PiL take a left turn and save us from blandness.
‘Banging The Door’
‘Banging The Door,’ next on our list of the Best PiL Songs, is one of the most powerful tracks from the ‘Flowers Of Romance’ album. The band was now down to a trio of Lydon, multi-instrumentalist Keith Levene and drummer Martin Atkins. The three-piece created a dark and powerful album that moves away somewhat from the sprawling nature of ‘Metal Box.’ While not as overtly adventurous as the previous effort, it was more direct and heavily rhythmic. ‘Banging The Door’ rides along a dark road, but you can’t help but be drawn in.
Another key track from the 1979 ‘Metal Box’ album (released as ‘Second Edition’ in the U.S.), ‘Careering’ features a strong influence from the legendary German group Can, both rhythmically and texturally. Lydon even adopts his own take on Can singer Damo Suziki’s vocal style. The song bubbles along, semi-hypnotic, and builds upon itself, adding more and more sounds and elements along the route.
‘Bad Life’ is one of the key tracks from the band’s 1984 album ‘This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get.’ Their style mutated into a more compressed and less spacious sound. Several of the album’s tracks were among the final recordings guitarist Keith Levene did with the band, but those tracks were re-recorded after his departure. The Levene version was much less polished sounding and was released on a semi-legit album called ‘Commercial Zone.’ The refrain of “this is what you want, this is what you get” echos through the opening track, ‘Bad Life,’ and is book-ended by the album closer, ‘The Order Of Death.’
Who would have guessed that PiL would be back with a new album in 2012? And who would have guessed it would be one of their most solid albums? ‘This Is PIL’ is stocked full of great moments that reek of classic Public Image Ltd. and yet refuse to stand still in a puddle of nostalgia. Lydon is still able to summon the anger within, but now, he’s got the advantage of experience. “We come from chaos, you cannot change us, cannot explain us, and that’s what makes us,” he proudly declares in the song, which dishes out a sprightly dance groove. First class stuff 34 years after the image was first made public.
Another of the more straight-ahead cuts on the first PiL album, ‘Low Life’ flat-out rocks. Keith Levene’s guitars sear through as Jah Wobble’s bass anchors things. Levene’s style would influence U2‘s The Edge, among others, and Lydon, in his own inimitable style, rants like no one else. “Ego-maniac traitor /You never did understand / You fell in love with your ego/ It did not fit into plan” could easily be a stab at Pistols svengali Malcolm McLaren, but in the liner notes to the PiL collection ‘Plastic Box,’ Lydon states that the song was “about Sid [Vicious] and how he turned into the worst kind of rock ‘n’ roll star.”
“Hindsight does me no good,” sings Lydon on this epic tune, third on our list of the 10 Best PiL Songs. With the release of their debut LP in 1978, Public Image Lt. made it clear they were no paint-by-numbers project, but their second offering, ‘Metal Box,’ was something else entirely. Drawing on influences ranging from dub and avant-garde to Krautrock, this would become the definitive PiL sound. ‘Poptones’ floats along in a somewhat disjointedly psychedelic manner with Levene’s guitars creating a brittle jangle while Wobble’s bass battles the drums (also Levene) for territorial rights. Lydon, meanwhile, spits out his lyrics in a free-form style. Amazingly, the band appeared on the legendary ‘American Bandstand‘ to perform this song (and ‘Careering’), drawing confused looks from some in the crowd. Host Dick Clark, however, seemed to take it all in stride.
Probably the most well known PiL song, ‘Rise’ is a classic. Appearing on the band’s simply titled 1986 album ‘Album’ — in an homage to the increasing generic-ization of things — this was as close as PIL would ever get to having a genuine hit. The instantly catchy chorus of “May the road rise with you” is offset by Lydon’s rambling yet powerful verses. The mantra-like refrain of “anger is an energy” is the song’s crown jewel. The drums (courtesy of jazz great Tony Williams) create a very machine-like feel, while the guitar weave in and out of the vocals, even slipping in a subtle Jimmy Page riff. Bill Laswell’s production is big, clean and commercial but never dull. Among the other famous players on the album are Ginger Baker, Bernie Worrell and Steve Vai.
From the rumbling bass riff that kicks off PiL’s debut single to the anthemic guitars and commanding vocals, it was very clear that Lydon was not about to fade quietly into the night. ‘Public Image,’ No. 1 on our list of the 10 Best PiL Songs, has the power of the Sex Pistols, but it’s a whole new twist on loud rock ‘n’ roll. The guitars are shimmering and jagged instead of thick and crunchy, and Lydon spits his vitriolic lyrics with as much venom as ever. It’s a brilliant jumping-off point, and despite many great subsequent moments, they never topped their signature song.