Public Image Ltd. are an entirely underrated band. While John Lydon’s project following the Sex Pistols was always going to be a difficult transition, PiL made an undeniable impact on music.
Much of their influence can be traced back to this performance on the legendary British music show The Old Grey Whistle Test, a stage where Lydon and his band delivered a game-changing performance of ‘Poptones’ and Careering’ in 1980.
To move from one musical project to the next is always a challenging thing to do. When you move on from a successful band that difficulty is increased again. When that band almost single-handedly sparked a cultural movement and formed a genre of music, it’s damn near impossible—and so, John Lydon has always struggled to establish Public Image Ltd. as his main body of work.
Looking back at PiL now it can be easy to draw relatively pallid comparisons with the Sex Pistols output. But while the Pistols were a sparking match head, PiL were the bomb it was lighting. With their arthouse ambition and deliberate distaste for the tasteful, PiL influenced countless bands around them and still do to this day.
The band had formed following Lydon’s departure from the Sex Pistols and had begun to gather a following outside of Lydon’s fandom with a new, industrial sound that put them at the forefront of the post-punk movement. By 1980, the group had released two studio albums Public Image: First Issue and Metal Box, the latter of which was about to establish the band in their own right.
Released in November 1979, the record would garner a heap of critical acclaim and push the group further towards avant-garde pop. It was a perfect time then to be invited onto a British institution, The Old Grey Whistle Test. Lydon and his band took to the acclaimed show to perform two tracks from their latest album and offer up a taste of the future.
First up to bat was Public Image with their Metal Box track, ‘Poptones’. It’s a song which has always been a mark of the band’s new sound. Far from their debut record, ‘Poptones’ was a deliberate attempt to slow things down and let the words, rather than the riffs, take over. The performance of it on OGWT is sardonic and menacing like they’re post-apocalyptic zombies. Lydon later joked: “We were all on something and none of it was legal!”
The band’s next performance was another moment from the new album and another taste of the experimental electronic sound that was to come in the decade ahead. PiL performs ‘Careering’ another noise-tastic poetic performance which sees Lydon even reading the lyrics directly from the album sleeve (he’s always a master marketeer.)
Ann Nightingale who introduces the appearance describes it as, “the most powerful performance I’ve ever saw on Whistle Test” and it’s hard to argue. Prior to this performance, though the music may have been highly-charged and fast-paced, nothing ever felt this menacing or foreboding. No performance had felt so entirely captivating and transporting at the same time. It sent a shockwave through the scene.
Soon enough post-punk acts, pushing artistic endeavour as hard as record sales began to pop up across the nation. Manchester became a hotbed of industrial acts and PiL, along with a few other bands, began to turn the energy of punk int something far scarier.
It’s a game-changing performance from Public Image Ltd. and showed that behind all the bravado, John Lydon was capable of making some truly poignant art. Watch PiL performing ‘Poptones’ and ‘Careering’ on The Old Grey Whistle Test.