John Lydon experienced a brief fallow period during early 1978. Having departed the Sex Pistols and forever rescinded his Johnny Rotten moniker, Lydon managed to make it to New York to announce the end of the band before running out of money. Desperate, he called up Virgin Records founder Richard Branson, who agreed to get him back to England with a short stopover in Jamaica.
In an interview with Record Collector back in 2018, Lydon recalls the brief and strange few days that he spent in Jamaica. Famously, Branson attempted to install Lydon as Devo’s lead singer as the band stopped by to see their record label head on their way to Germany to record Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo! with David Bowie and Brian Eno. Neither party seemed interested, and Lydon instead rested up with a couple of Branson’s friends. It was then that he got an invitation to visit a somewhat unlikely contemporary — Joni Mitchell.
Mitchell had released her experimental double LP Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter two months prior. Other than a direct potshot at Bob Dylan, the album contains sprawling and dense orchestral jazz pieces that finds semi-improvised suites (‘Paprika Plains’) and tribal drum-driven experimental tracks (‘The Tenth World’) rubbing up against more traditional fair (‘Jericho’, ‘Off Night Backstreet’). Like Lydon, Mitchell was also resting in Jamaica when she invited Branson over for a listening party, and Branson brought Lydon.
When Lydon arrived, he found a pristine and sanitised living space with a fair amount of formality and order, something that obviously didn’t appeal to his sensibilities. One of Lydon’s friends reportedly told Mitchell that the album made him “want to eat white people.” That got a giggle out of Lydon, who recalled, “I don’t remember who would’ve said that. But when you ask people over for a listening session, it can never go down well.”
“It should’ve been more social,” Lydon explains. “Oh, the restraint of it! It went off really badly. We all wanted to get drunk and stoned and have
a laugh. Not be contained in chairs and disciplined into listening and nodding politely. That’s absurd. It backfired on Joni, poor thing. I know she meant well. But this is Jamaica, man! Haha! What do you think we’re going to be like?”
Mitchell responded by tossing Lydon, Branson, and their collective out of her house. Despite what Mitchell might have thought about Lydon, the future PiL singer was a self-professed fan of Mitchell. “There’s definitely huge chunks there that are absolutely wonderful. The sheer bravado of
a woman at the piano at that time was magnificent. And challenging. I never thought her words were silly, not ever.”