TV’s Most Surreal Music Performances: Public Image Ltd.
Given the disastrous experience of the Sex Pistols‘ sole U.S. tour — a 1978 jaunt through the deep south that lasted just two weeks before the band broke up in a blur of riots and regret — the first trip through the states by singer John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten)’s post-Pistols project Public Image Ltd. was bound to be a memorable one.
The Pistols were confrontational in a manner that’s now easily dismissed as punk-rock cliche, but PiL’s anti-consumerist slant made a timeless art form out of the truly subversive. The group’s club trek offered U.S. fans their first taste of Lydon’s new muse, but it was a May 17, 1980, appearance on ‘American Bandstand’ that properly introduced PiL to mainstream America. And it turned out to be one of the most surreal TV performances ever committed to tape.
‘American Bandstand’ was an immensely popular weekly music program with a milquetoast soul that featured teenagers dancing along to the hits of the day, plus a “live” performance segment spotlighting mostly Top 40 acts. But none of the artists actually played live; they lip-synced to prerecorded tracks.
The pairing of ‘American Bandstand’ and Public Image Ltd. was an odd one, and it almost didn’t happen. PiL had to be talked into the gig by their record company, and nobody in the ‘Bandstand’ camp wanted anything to do with the band, except for one influential producer, who somehow got his way. Rumor has it that host Dick Clark was heard before the show asking about Lydon, “What can I expect from this a–hole?”
Whatever Clark expected, he got it and more. Flanked by bassist Jah Wobble, guitarist Keith Levene and drummer Martin Atkins, Lydon began the performance sitting slumped on the floor before he began to pace across the stage, stalk his way through the crowd and yank highly confused (but thoroughly amused) audience members onstage, where he encouraged them to awkwardly bounce and sway along to PiL’s dissonant and deconstructed post-rock rabble-rouse. By the end of their performance, almost the entire audience was onstage and dancing along.
And while Lydon wasn’t the first person to mock the lip-syncing he was required to do, you have to wonder why he even bothered to pick up his microphone. As you can see from the above video, he didn’t even pretend to sing.
Any hints of TV convention were quickly destroyed as Lydon tore down the fourth wall that separated performer from the audience. At one point, he even executed a perfect “farmer’s blow,” projecting snot at a camera lens — a direct assault on viewers at home. PiL’s set (they performed ‘Poptones’ and ‘Careering,’ if you must know) was immaterial; this was the group in pure performance-art mode.
Despite the obvious thrill of watching ‘American Bandstand’ descend into mass chaos, it goes without saying that network execs were mortified and didn’t want PiL’s spot to air. But lucky for us, it did anyway. “From ABC’s point of view, the show was a complete disaster,” the band’s tour manager later recalled. “[But] it went down as a classic ‘American Bandstand’ show.” Even Clark came around, later admitting on a ‘Best of the Bandstand’ retrospective special that it was the show’s all-time most popular repeat request.