The moment Public Image Ltd. and John Lydon were pushed too far on ‘Check It Out’
When John Lydon broke away from the Sex Pistols and formed his highly-experimental and even more visceral new band Public Image Ltd. there was one thing everybody wanted to take about; the Sex Pistols. It was enough to drive Lydon nee Rotten, mad.
One moment where Lydon’s temper got the better of him was during an interview during the infancy of PiL’s pioneering post-punk career. It came after yet more prattle about punk came flying his way from some local TV presenters. It would make for a bizarre turn of events.
‘Youth TV’, sometimes affectionately known as Yoof TV, was created to try and tap into the new teenage market through music television. More often than not it was created by middle-aged men who had little to no clue about the youth subcultures which were rife in the mid-to-late seventies. One such programme was the Tyne Tees, Check it Out.
It had all the classic tropes of Youth TV, poorly dressed set (graffiti etc.), poor dressed presenters and poorly skilled studio staff. Yet despite this, with the promise of a keen viewership, the show managed to hook a fair few rock and roll ducks in its time. As Public Image Ltd. buoyed by their TV debut on Granada was keen for more exposure and saw the opportunity to share some new music as too good to pass up.
Things would quickly go awry though as soon after PiL powered through their spiky and affronted song ‘Chant’ the group were welcomed into one of the most bizarre interviews the band had ever been a part of. The dye was cast fairly quickly as they arrived for filming to quickly realise the producers had a plan to gain some exposure for their relatively small TV show by including Lydon as the typical “punk” in an extended special about the rise of Youth Culture over the last 25 years. They had no interest in Public Image Ltd. at all.
PiL and Lydon refused to take part unless the whole band were interviewed, the producers relented and the band got ready to perform. “In Part 2 we’ll be featuring Johnny Rotten’s new group Public Image Limited and talking to them in the studio…”, already unhappy with their situation, the performance of the deliberately difficult ‘Chant’—made more awkward by poor quality monitors that required headphones—is a relatively good one.
“We’re back for the nice people…” says Lydon at the beginning of the sardonic performance. Charged with the band’s burgeoning power the group look in fettle, Lydon even joking at the end, “And we get paid for this!”
But as PiL fansite Fodderstompf report, it was when the group sat down with TV presents Chris Cowey (future producer of Top of the Pops) and Lyn Spencer that things all went wrong. To start things off on a bad foot, after agreeing to interview the whole band, the show only set out two seats for Lydon and Jah Wobble (in the footage you’ll see Keith perching on the arms of the two seats and Richard Dudanski crouched behind.) The band insisted and the whole group were eventually welcomed on set.
For an artist like Lydon and Public Image Ltd. there probably isn’t a question on earth that you’d consider more inane than, the presenters’ first brain-draining remark, “Where did you get the name Public Image Limited from?” The collective sound of four pairs of eyes rolling back in their heads can just about be heard on the audio.
Cowey has a devilish glint in his eye as he pushes for soundbite answers and deliberately tries to rattle another Grundy episode out of Lydon. He almost takes the bait but pulls back and instead replies through gritted teeth, “Public Image. We do not like cheap publicity, pseudo gimmicks, condescension, and crawling. And that’s what was expected from us tonight. Was it not?” the show answers with a pre-recorded videotape that was always destined to ruffle some feathers.
The clip sees presenter Cowey interviewing a Tyneside punk band of the time named the Angelic Upstarts. Guitarist, Mond Cowie, is the main man in the group and takes centre stage as he delivers a barrage of insults about Lydon and the band.
“I’d like to state first of all, I’m much better looking than Johnny Rotten…” says Mond. He continues saying, “Rotten’s finished” and that “he’s an old man” and that PiL are the “worst band that have ever came about…”, all the while the cameras are on and Lydon is shown in split-screen, his eye twitching with vicious intent.
The expectation is that Lydon will lose his cool but instead he rather channels a blizzard through his eyes at the presenters sitting across from him. “Look, I don’t have to explain myself to anybody, and I ain’t gonna really bother… We’re facing a cheapskate comedy interrogation act and it just ain’t on pal. It’s a joke. It’s a farce…” he eventually removes his microphone and storms off set.
The group are left with the slack-jawed presenters and are intent on continuing the interview, even after Cowey provocatively asks if they will “follow the leader?” After the air turns even colder, with Wobble a particular menace from behind his shades, Spencer and Cowey cancel the interview as the group call “cop out!” before leaving in an expletive-laden tirade. It ends one of the most bizarre interviews we’ve ever seen.
It has to be said that the ploy to try and antagonise the tempestuous Lydon into losing his cool by saying he only loses his cool for effect is a pretty cheap one. With that said, Check It Out likely got everything they wanted out of their ambush interview. Now you can watch the whole unedited interview below in great quality.
Watch John Lydon and Public Image Ltd. in one of the most bizarre interviews of all time on ‘Check It Out’ in 1979.