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Music / Public Image Ltd.

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Public Image Ltd. (PiL for short) are a Post-Punk band (and possibly an Ur-Example of the genre/aesthetic) formed by John Lydon in 1978 after his departure from the Sex Pistols, a move that freed him to pursue his interest in experimental music, dub, prog rock, and various other types of music that were non grata in the world of late 70's Punk Rock that the Pistols had helped cultivate. The group has gone through a bewildering range of changes of personnel and musical styles, and occasional hiatuses, and at this point effectively consists of Lydon and whoever else is in the band at the moment.

The group has at various points included, among others, Jah Wobble and Keith Levene (founder members), Ginger Baker, Steve Vai, and Magazine's John McGeogh.

The band split in 1992, and Lydon attempted a solo career (that only resulted in a single album, Psycho's Path, which bombed) and then reunited The Sex Pistols. In 2009, Lydon reunited PiL with a lineup consisting of Lydon, former members Lu Edmonds and Bruce Smith, and multi-instrumentalist Scott Firth. A new album, This Is PiL, was issued in May 2012; a follow-up, What the World Needs Now..., was released in September 2015. The band's next album, End of World, will be released in August 2023.

Studio discography:

  • First Issue (1978)
  • Metal Box (1979) (an hour of music packaged as 3 12" 45 RPM discs in a metal film can)
    • Second Edition (1980) (double album reissue of Metal Box without the elaborate packaging)
  • The Flowers of Romance (1981)
  • This Is What You Want...This Is What You Get (1984)
  • Album (1986, also called Compact Disc and Cassette depending on the format)
  • Happy? (1987)
  • 9 (1989)
  • That What Is Not (1992)
  • This Is PiL (2012)
  • What the World Needs Now... (2015)
  • End of World (to be released on 11 August 2023)

May the tropes rise with you:

  • Album Filler: Lampshaded for "Fodderstompf", which was slapped together at the last minute to meet the 40-minute runtime quota that the band's contract with Virgin Records specified:
    We only wanted to finish the album with the minimum amount of effort
    Which we are now doing very successfully
  • Album Title Drop: This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get in both "Bad Life" and "The Order of Death". Also Broken Record in both cases.
  • Alternative Rock: Transitioned to the genre after the other members beside Lydon left.
  • Anti-Love Song: Averted with "This Is Not A Love Song", which is more of a double-edged Take That! at the music biz and fans accusing Lydon of selling out. Probably.
  • Avant-Garde Music: Their early music (particularly Metal Box and The Flowers of Romance) was never commercial in the slightest; Lydon even called The Flowers of Romance one of the least commercial albums ever created.
  • Brand X: Album parodies the trope in its title and cover art, the latter of which takes after the packaging for generic goods in Ralphs grocery stores.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Some of the band's members gained this reputation, not helped by an Urban Legend that alleged one of them tried to set the Fall's drummer Karl Burns on fire during a recording session.
  • Darker and Edgier: The creative output of Public Image Ltd. as a whole is this to John Lydon's previous work with the Sex Pistols. Metal Box in particular stands out as a surprisingly bleak record for someone who once irreverently proclaimed himself "an Antichrist".
  • Double-Meaning Title:
    • The title Second Edition fits this trope on several levels. It's the group's second album, it's the second edition of the album (as noted, it was originally released as a set of 12" singles in a metal film canister as Metal Box), and it's the second edition of the band itself (with original drummer Jim Walker replaced by a variety of session players).
    • One of the songs from that album, "Careering", also fits this trope as described below.
  • Epic Rocking:
    • First Issue: "Theme" is 9:13, and "Fodderstompf" is 7:46.
    • Metal Box/Second Edition: "Albatross" is 10:32, and "Poptones" is 7:46.
    • B-side "Home Is Where the Heart Is" is 7:34.
    • Album: "Ease" is 8:09.
  • Exactly What It Says on the Tin:
    • Album, aka Compact Disc or Cassette, depending on the format. Might also count as Shaped Like Itself, since, well, it's what the cover says it is.
    • Similarly, "Rise", from that album, has the word "Single" printed prominently on its cover (with "12 inch" added on the 12" version, of course).
  • Face on the Cover: Played with. Lydon is on the front cover of First Issue, but Levene appears on the front of Second Edition, while band associate Jeannette Lee is featured on The Flowers of Romance.
  • Flowers of Romance: The Trope Namer. John Lydon named the song after a band his sometime friend Sid Vicious had led before joining the Sex Pistols, which itself took its name from Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal ("The Flowers of Evil"). "Flowers of Romance" deals with an imminent breakup:
    Behind the dialogue
    We're in a mess
    Whatever I intended
    I sent you flowers
    You wanted chocolates instead
    The flowers of romance
    The flowers of romance.
  • Greatest Hits Album: The Greatest Hits, So Far, which had a chronological track-listing (covering 1978 through 1990), and featured one new song, "Don't Ask Me".
  • Green Aesop: "Don't Ask Me".
  • Grief Song: "Death Disco", aka "Swan Lake", is about the death of Lydon's mother. This may not be immediately obvious.
  • Hidden Depths: People were surprised to find that Johnny Rotten is a fan of Progressive Rock. Keith Levene also had a background in prog as a former roadie for Yes.
  • "I Am" Song: "Public Image", which Lydon described as "a slagging of the group I used to be in" when it was first released. He claimed that his former bandmates were concerned only with the Pistols' outrageous image, neither knowing nor caring what his lyrics were about.
    Two sides to every story
    Somebody had to stop me
    I'm not the same as when I began
    I will not be treated as property
  • I Am the Band: Following Levene's expulsion, Lydon took over as de facto band leader and the only constant member.
  • Insistent Terminology: In interviews, John Lydon and Keith Levene would insist that Public Image Ltd. wasn't a band, it was a communications company.
  • It's Been Done: Flipper came out with a "generic album" before PiL did. Flipper released a Live Album called Public Flipper Ltd. as a Take That!.
  • Lead Drummer: On The Flowers of Romance, Martin Atkins' drums are as prominent in the mix as Lydon's vocals, sometimes overshadowing Levene's guitar and synthesizer.
  • Madness Mantra:
    • "We only wanted to be loved" from "Fodderstompf".
    • "This is what you want, this is what you get" from "The Order of Death".
    • "Mob, war, kill, hate" (which sounds an awful lot like, "Love, war, fear, hate" It's hard to tell, but Lydon has said that the former version is correct) from "Chant".
  • The Man Is Sticking It to the Man: Lydon likes playing with this trope. A lot.
  • Mars and Venus Gender Contrast: Subverted in "Like That" (aka "Just Like A Woman"), with the "Just like a woman/and every man" refrain.
  • New Sound Album:
    • The Flowers of Romance dropped the metallic guitars and thick basslines in favour of a proto-Post-Rock sound consisting of percussion textures and aural chaos, inspired by Peter Gabriel's Melt. It wasn't just that they'd heard the album, though. There was also an in-house connection: Nick Launay, who produced The Flowers of Romance, knew and was friendly with both Melt's producer, Steve Lillywhite, and the album's engineer, Hugh Padgham, as he had earlier worked with them as an assistant on various projects.
    • This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get was a dance and pop record.
    • Album began a more accessible, Alternative Rock era.
    • This Is PiL returns to the Dub and Krautrock-inspired sound of their early records.
  • Nobody Loves the Bassist: Averted by Jah Wobble, recognized as one of the most distinctive bass players in rock.
  • One-Word Title: Several examples, including seven of the 12 tracks on Metal Box.
  • Packaged as Other Medium:
    • The cover images on First Issue are a series of magazine cover parodies.
    • Similarly, the "Public Image" single originally came in a fold-out sleeve that resembled "red-top" scandal sheet tabloids such as The Sun.
    • Metal Box came in a film canister.
    • Album is designed to resemble a generic product from Ralphs; the concept also carries over to the single releases of "Rise" and "Home", the title card for the former single's music video, and the home video release of Videos.
  • Punk in the Trunk: "Poptones" is based on an incident where a girl was kidnapped, stripped naked, stuffed in a car trunk and left for dead in the woods. She was apparently able to get back to civilization and was able to describe the tape the kidnappers were playing in the car, and they happened to be playing it when they were arrested.
  • Punny Name: The band name is not just a dig at Lydon's post-Pistols image (and an oblique reference to Muriel Sparks' novel The Public Image), but also plays up the "band as corporate entity" angle, also featured in a tendency to Heavy Meta ("Poptones", "Chant", "Death Disco" etc.) and naming records so as to lampshade their status as product (First Issue, Second Edition aka Metal Box, Album) They also pronounced the acronym of Public Image Ltd.—PiL—as "pill" and, indeed, their circular logo with a diagonal line running through it was meant to imply a pill (with the line being the "scored" part of the tablet so it could be easily broken in half).
  • Post-Punk: One of the best-known bands in the genre.
  • Post-Rock: One of many arguable Ur-Examples, especially on The Flowers of Romance (to the point where Wikipedia outright classifies that album as post-rock).
  • Revolving Door Band: Lydon has been the only constant member. Played for Laughs with "We are a company" as a justification.
  • Religion Rant Song: Heavily featured in First Issue ("Religion I", "Religion II", "Annalisa").
  • Ridiculous Procrastinator: The first lineup of the band had this reputation, much to the exasperation of their record company. Wobble noticed that that Keith Levene used to call the telephone in Lydon's Gunter Grove flat on a regular basis. Wobble still lived at home with his parents, and had no idea where Levene (along with Jeanette Lee) lived. He eventually realized that Levene and Lee also lived at Gunter Grove, on the floor directly below Lydon. Presumably Levene was too lazy to venture up the flight of stairs to talk to Lydon—although it seems more likely that Levene would have been (ahem) "committed to other [non-musical] pursuits to be bothered to leave his own flat.
  • Sampling: A loop of John Lydon singing "no future", taken from the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen", shows up near the end of "Acid Drops". And one extended remix of "The Body" uses the oft-sampled drum machine beat of Schoolly D's "PSK (What Does It Mean?)".
  • Self-Deprecation: From "Fodderstompf": "We only wanted to finish the album with a minimum amount of effort, which we are now doing very successfully!"
  • Shout-Out:
    • Include The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ("Albatross") and Keats' La Belle Dame sans merci ("No Birds")
    • The cover art for Album parodies the packaging style for generic products at Ralphs grocery stores. John Lydon even appeared in print ads for Ralphs during the album's promotional campaign to highlight the reference.
  • Spoken Word in Music: Lydon recites the words to "The Room I Am In", a track from This is PiL.
  • Stepford Suburbia: "No Birds" (originally titled "And No Birds Do Sing" as the b-side to the 7" version of "Death Disco." This was actually a misquote as it was meant to refer to the refrain of John Keats' "La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad" which repeats the line, "And no birds sing.")
    This could be heaven
    Shallow spreads of ordered lawns
    I like the illusion, illusion of privacy
    The careful trees blending so perfectly
    Bland planned idle luxury
    A caviar of perfect dignity
    Life in lovely allotted slots
    A token nice, a nice constitution
    A layered mass of subtle props
  • Step Up to the Microphone: Lydon is joined by Jah Wobble on "Fodderstompf".
  • Surprisingly Gentle Song: "Hawaii", the band's entry for the 2023 Eurovision Song Contest, is an unusually calm, peaceful song dedicated to Lydon's wife.
  • Take That!: It's a band led by John Lydon. A lot of things and people get on his nerves. The other Sex Pistols (see "I Am" Song), their manager Malcolm McLaren ("Low Life", "Attack", "Albatross"), the music industry ("This Is Not a Love Song"), religion (see Religion Rant Song), Seattle and its hotels ("Seattle"), Lou Reed ("Where Are You," which appeared on "Commercial Zone" under the title "Lou Reed," parts 1 and 2. The acoustic Part 1 has a mid-to-late period The Velvet Underground sound, but Lydon and Levene both later stated that the lyrics were about Jeannette Lee, who had left the PiL organization. In it's re-recorded form the song was dubbed "Where Are You?" a phrase which almost serves as a chorus to it.), broadsheet newspapers ("Chant"), George H. W. Bush ("U.S.L.S.1"), intrusive fans ("Banging the Door"). Every so often, for variety, he has a go at himself, too. And quite a few songs are Take Thats taken to a level of abstraction where you're definitely sure he's having a go at something or someone, even if you're not sure exactly what or whom.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Quite a few bits, notably the Muriel Spark reference in the band name, and the way "Careering" plays on the double meaning of its title.
  • We Used to Be Friends: A recurring lyrical theme, even if it seems mostly to be a subtrope of JL's fondness for Take Thats in general ("Disappointed", "FFF" ["Farewell, my Fairweather Friend"]note , "Albatross"note )


Video Example(s):


Comedy Interrogation Act

In this notorious 1979 clip from the music show Check It Out, John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten of Sex Pistols) abandons a particularly patronising interview when trying to promote his new band Public Image Ltd. PiL bassist Jah Wobble soon follows suit, but not before delivering an epic string of (bleeped out) obscenities.

How well does it match the trope?

5 (5 votes)

Example of:

Main / ScrewThisImOuttaHere

Media sources: