John Lydon’s political stance has wavered with age, and, in his autumnal years, he’s morphed into a character he’d have likely resented in his youth. While today, it might be a surprise to see Johnny Rotten urging people to vote for Donald Trump while donning a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat, the former punk pioneer, when at his best, had the ability to express the dismay of a South African apartheid regime eloquently.
With Public Image Ltd, Lydon still fought against the injustices that he saw in front of his eyes, and on ‘Rise’, he didn’t need to raise his voice to get the point across. Although the track is related to apartheid South Africa, the lyrics are universal, especially, “I could be wrong, I could be right”, which makes ‘Rise’ applicable to anybody’s life, no matter what the circumstances.
Nelson Mandela was 23 years into his prison sentence when ‘Rise’ was released in 1986, and it would be another four years until he’d be granted permission to leave Robben Island. It wouldn’t be until 1994 when South Africa lifted the apartheid measures, and for a long time, it looked as though the abhorrent rules were permanently in place.
In what was a brutally turbulent period, even the UK supported the apartheid in South Africa during Margaret Thatcher’s reign in Downing Street, and Mandela was merely dismissed as a terrorist. It was seemingly incomprehensible for a track like ‘Rise’ to infiltrate the mainstream from a band such as the angsty PiL. However, somehow, it did. The song played a role in educating the younger generation about an atrocity happening on the other side of the world.
Music, unfortunately, doesn’t hold sufficient power to shift the world, but it can play a part in changing the mindset of specific individuals. It can stoke a fire within people to fight for justice, which is precisely what Public Image Ltd did with the powerful release of ‘Rise’. The poignant effort became Public Image’s highest-charting single since their 1978 debut and received prominent airplay from across the board. Even the pop-focused Smash Hits magazine made Lydon a cover star following the success of the song.
During the interview, Lydon opened up about ‘Rise’, stating: “I read this manual on South African interrogation techniques, and ‘Rise’ is quotes from some of the victims. I put them together because I thought it fitted in aptly with my own feelings about daily existence.”
Despite never living through apartheid or fully comprehending the struggles of the black South African diaspora, Lydon didn’t lack empathy, and that emotion fuelled ‘Rise’. Furthermore, the song also includes a direct translation of the old Irish blessing, “go n-éirí an bóthar leat”.
During an interview with MTV, Lydon explained that the track was also partly inspired by the troubles in Northern Ireland and their sickening liberal use of electric torture techniques. Lydon’s political views have shifted in the years since the song’s release, but his love for ‘Rise’ and pride in speaking up against South Africa has only grown as time has descended.
Speaking to Mojo in 2016, Lydon commented: “I think it’s one of my best pop songs. The content of what it was about got me into hot water. It was that time when everyone was talking about how great Nelson Mandela was; but my history lessons went back further…people died.”
Adding” “My message is there’s no political cause worthy enough that people should die for it. Once you start murdering your fellow human beings it’s over. ‘Rise’ is about the stop of that. I related it to my own background. I’ve got Protestant and Catholic relatives in the north of Ireland, why were they killing each other.”
Lydon channelled his frustrations on ‘Rise’, which is more beautiful, subtle, and heartbreaking than anything he’d released prior to that moment. The change of pace and sincere sadness that he felt about the diabolic situations in South Africa, and Ireland, empowered Public Image’s message.
Thankfully both situations are now resolved, but Public Image’s plea for the world to show a degree of humanity in ‘Rise’ is sadly still applicable today.