This Public Image Ltd article was written by Ian Bourne, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Natalie Whitehouse
“What the world needs now is love, sweet love,” goes the mid-sixties classic written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach. PiL don’t agree. The world still needs John Lydon to keep us on our toes, or that’s what he thinks. Instead of love, final track ‘Shoom’ tells us, the world needs “another f*** off”. There’s a fair bit off effing and blinding throughout, a celebration of the richly expressive English language. The third word on the album is “f***ing”; the last two are “f*** off”. ‘Shoom’ has hardly a single lyric that’s printable on a family website.
The vocal delivery employs all of the tricks, ticks and quirks that Lydon has built up since he joined the Sex Pistols. The deeply rolled r’s; the heightened anger and rage, the ranting. But ever since 2012’s ‘This is PiL’, he’s added a mellifluousness and range born of age. He does accents too, like a bit of American learned from his home in LA on ‘Bettie Page’ and ‘Big Blue Sky’. It’s often intonation rather than singing, but it’s not spoken word. Comparisons with Sleaford Mods don’t do justice to Lydon’s vocal inventiveness. On ‘Corporate’, Lydon is at his most haranguing and pedagogic. You wouldn’t want to argue with him down the pub.
If it weren’t for the swearing, opener ‘Double Trouble’ may get radio play. It has a racing and memorable melody. You could imagine people singing along. It’s a bit like Slaves. Or rather Slaves are a bit like PiL’s Lydon at his most commercial. Sometimes on this album, the music comes across as a bit bombastic and cluttered. But when allowed to breathe, it’s excellent. ‘Big Blue Sky’ has one of those lovely deep dub reggae motifs that PiL made so famous in their ‘Metal Box’ heyday, when the bass was played by the unforgettable Jah Wobble.
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On ‘I’m not satisfied’, ‘C’est La Vie’ and ‘Know Now’, the guitar similarly harks back to the late great John McGeoch’s innovative flanged metallic guitar swirls. A long-serving PiL member after working with Magazine and Siouxsie and the Banshees, McGeoch moved post-punk guitar so far from the simple rock riff that his influence can’t be overstated. But on ‘Spice Of Choice’, modern PiL’s sound is more like David Bowie stadium rock circa ‘Let’s Dance’. And ‘The One’ sounds a bit like Mungo Jerry’s ‘In The Summertime’ blended with T-Rex’s ‘Get It On’.
So, there’s nothing predictable, musically, which is no mean feat for someone who’s been around for so long. ‘Whole Life Time’ has a funky riff. At the very start it could almost be Prince, but it turns quickly into a classic PiL chant, held together by that funky bass but more interesting for Lydon’s committed verbal delivery. “What happened to me” makes it a song about Lydon, just as the first single was autobiographical, all about living his ‘Public Image’ as a Sex Pistol. He launched PiL saying that the public image (formerly known as Johnny Rotten) was his “own creation”, but it was time for a “grand finale” and “goodbye”. It’s been a long goodbye. Most PiL is all about Lydon, as made clear in ‘I’m Not Satisfied’. Unlike many modern lyricists — whose songs are miniature narratives where invented characters play out observational vignettes — with PiL, it’s personal and still seems heartfelt.
Again and again, fury comes to the fore. The great man’s motto is “anger is an energy”; it’s his philosophy. The tune on ‘Corporate’ drives hard and relentless, but it seems that the most important thing to Lydon is that it doesn’t distract from the message he’s trying to impart with his lyrics. The internet, the cloud and everything modern are the dystopian world of a faceless “murderer”. Success and contracts are all “bollocks”, says the guy who told us “never to mind the bollocks”. He deserves to be listened to.
‘What The World Needs Now…’ is out now via PiL Official Records.