In the larger narrative of pop music history, John Lydon’s stint as frontman of the Sex Pistols remains his most memorable work. Sure, Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren came up with a large chunk of the group’s sound, aesthetic, and approach, but it was Lydon — performing as Johnny Rotten, of course — who served as its public face. With his atonal sing-talking and exaggerated bad attitude, Lydon’s style would be ripped off by later punk rockers for decades.
But it’s his later group, Public Image Ltd., that may have fomented more actual music evolution. While the Sex Pistols helped define punk in international cultural annals, they weren’t the first or only band of their ilk. At the same time, the American version of punk rock was happening even earlier in the States, with acts as early as the Stooges beginning to cement our country’s raw, messy version of it by the early ’70s.
The Pistols may have become some of the most famous punks ever, punk rock still would have happened without them. Truly, what they excelled at was bringing a real showmanship to the whole affair, rather than any kind of musical boundary-pushing. At their essence, Pistols songs are great rock and roll songs, but they’re pop songs in structure — just purposefully, inexpertly played.
Public Image Ltd., Lydon’s band after the Pistols’ break-up, worked in the opposite way. Here was a group that sounded hard to approach for a casual listener, but in a completely different way. Where the Pistols were deliberately anti-art, PiL, as the later group came to be known, aimed for a sort of high art.
Actually, PiL often boasted just the kind of art-school pretension that the Sex Pistols, as public characters, anyways, would have despised. Of course, Lydon still couldn’t sing, and he continued to embrace that. But instead of trying to bark along with straightforward melodies as he had done previously, he worked with his voice as an instrument, stretching his sing-speak into weird wails and yelps.
But it was bassist Jah Wobble, born John Wardle, who really helped define the group’s sound by bringing a sort of dub-reggae sensibility to his playing, opting for deep tones and in-the-pocket playing that gave PiL a rhythmic low end. Couple this with the fact that original guitarist Keith Levene barely strummed recognizable chords, and the effect overall was alternately minimalistic and expressive. Truly, PiL came to sonically define a particular sector of the post-punk landscape, helping lay the groundwork for dancier punk-funk bands, and making it cool for punks to get truly weird.
Bands that co-opted the Sex Pistols sound were playing themselves into a dead end — see self-styled, plaid-loving orthodox “street punk” bands these days, who sound the same as they did 10, 20, and 30 years ago. But those who looked to PiL and their cohorts, instead, looked to a more open palette, and to more artistic open-mindedness, in general. Whenever post-punk sounds gain favor in hip circles these days, you can still listen for the echo of PiL’s influence.
Unfortunately, Jah Wobble isn’t part of the group’s current, re-formed lineup. But Lydon, of course, is, and longtime fans will be ecstatic to see him take the stage in Miami this Friday, when PiL headlines at Grand Central.
His group of backing players are no slouches, though. Post-punk nerds will love finding Bruce Smith on drums — he is, after all, an original member of the English post-punk outfit the Pop Group, which treaded similar funky, reggae-tinged turf as PiL. Guitarist Lu Edmonds, meanwhile, has done time on and off with PiL, the Damned, and the Mekons, among others, while bassist and keyboardist Scott Firth is a talented session man who also played on PiL’s latest studio album, This is PiL. Expect a handful of songs from this well-received latest effort, as well as old hits and obscurities.
Public Image Ltd. 8 p.m. Friday, October 5 at Grand Central, 697 N. Miami Ave., Miami. Admission is $30 in advance, $35 at the door; all ages. Call 305-377-2277, or visit grandcentralmiami.com