Following the Sex Pistols' break-up in 1978, photographer Dennis Morris suggested that Lydon travel to Jamaica with him and Virgin Records head Richard Branson, where Branson would be scouting for emerging reggae musicians. Branson also flew American band Devo to Jamaica, aiming to install Lydon as lead singer in the band. Devo declined the offer.
Upon returning to England, Lydon approached Jah Wobble (né John Wardle) about forming a band together. The pair had been friends since the early 1970s when they attended the same school in Hackney (both belonged to a circle of friends Lydon informally dubbed "The Gang of Johns" – John Lydon, John Wardle, John Gray, and John Simon Ritchie, a.k.a. Sid Vicious). Lydon and Wobble had previously played music together during the final days of the Sex Pistols. Both had similarly broad musical tastes, and were avid fans of reggae and world music. Lydon assumed, much as he had with Sid Vicious, that Wobble would learn to play bass guitar as he went. Wobble would prove to be a natural talent. Lydon also approached guitarist Keith Levene, with whom he had toured in mid-1976, while Levene was a member of the Clash. Lydon and Levene had both considered themselves outsiders even within their own bands. Jim Walker, a Canadian student newly arrived in the UK, was recruited on drums, after answering an ad placed in Melody Maker.
PiL began rehearsing together in May 1978, although the band was still unnamed. In July 1978, Lydon officially named the band "Public Image" (the "Ltd" was not added until several months later), after the Muriel Spark novel The Public Image.
PiL debuted in October 1978 with "Public Image", a song written while Lydon was still a member of the Sex Pistols. The single was well received and reached number 9 on the UK charts, and it also performed well on import in the US.
Public Image: First Issue (1978)
The photography for the album was shot by Dennis Morris who also created the PiL logo.
In preparing their debut album, Public Image: First Issue, the band spent their recording budget well before the record was completed.
As a result, the final album comprised eight tracks of varying sound quality, half of which were written and recorded in a rush after the money had run out.
The album was released in December 1978.
The single "Public Image" was widely seen as diatribe against Malcolm McLaren and his perceived manipulation of Lydon during his career with the Sex Pistols. The track "Low Life" (with its accusatory lyrics of "Egomaniac traitor", "You fell in love with your ego" and "Bourgeoisie anarchist") has also been regarded as an attack on McLaren, although Lydon has stated that the lyrics refer to Sid Vicious. The two-part song "Religion" refers contemptuously to Roman Catholicism; Lydon came up with the lyrics when he was part of the Sex Pistols but he claims the other members of the band were reluctant to use them. The closing track "Fodderstompf", heavily influenced by dub, comprises nearly eight minutes of a circular bass riff, played over a Lydon/Wobble double act lampooning public outrage, love songs and teenage apathy. The track culminates with the sound of a fire extinguisher being let off in the recording studio, as Lydon had lit a fire whilst in a weird trance-like state during the recording session. The first album was subsequently renamed as First Issue.
"PiL was the simple thing of four different people doing different drugs at different times," Wobble observed to Select. "It was only in any way together for the first two months of its existence. We had a fuckin' good drummer called Jim Walker, but he fucked off after a few months [in early 1979] and it just fell apart. Somehow it had sort of death throes that produced a couple of blinding albums."
Metal Box (1979) and Paris au Printemps (1980)
A PiL promotional poster, 1980.
The departure of Jim Walker made way for a series of new drummers. Auditions were later held at Rollerball Studios in Tooley Street, London Bridge. David Humphrey was their second drummer, who went on to record two tracks at Manor Studios in Oxford, "Swan Lake" and "Albatross", for Metal Box. "Death Disco" (a.k.a. "Swan Lake") was released as a single in 1979 and reached No. 20 in the charts. The majority of the drumming on the album was provided by Richard Dudanski, PiL's drummer from April to September 1979. He was replaced by Karl Burns (formerly and latterly of the Fall). Following sessions took place in which Martin Atkins would show up for an 'audition' and discover himself in the middle of a recording session with the tape rolling. The recording was released on Metal Box as "Bad Baby". Atkins was PiL's drummer from 1979 to 1980 and 1982 to 1985.
Metal Box was originally released as three untitled 45-rpm 12-inch (30-cm) records packaged in a metal box resembling a film canister with an embossed PIL logo on the lid (it was later reissued in more conventional packaging as a double LP set, Second Edition), and features the band's trademark hypnotic dub reggae bass lines, glassy, arpeggiated guitar, and bleak, paranoid, stream of consciousness vocals. Metal Box is starker than First Issue, more spread out and uncompromising, and scattered with bits of ambient synthesiser. The design for Metal Box was the brainchild of Dennis Morris.
PiL had a series of contentious live shows and behind-the-scenes controversies during their first American tour in 1980. Their appearance at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles was fraught with hostile exchanges between Lydon and the audience. Tensions offstage mounted as well. PiL demanded that they work only with local promoters, bucking the promotional machinery of Warner Bros. Records, their American label. For both the Los Angeles and San Francisco appearances, PiL agreed to work with David Ferguson and his independent CD Presents label. This business arrangement pitted the band and CD Presents in a pitched battle against San Francisco-based promoter Bill Graham, who negotiated with concert venue owners and San Francisco government officials to deprive PiL of a concert location. Fearing public outbursts if the show was cancelled, San Francisco city officials instead opted to allow the CD Presents-sponsored event to proceed.
On 17 May 1980, the group appeared on the teenage music show American Bandstand at the invitation of host Dick Clark. PiL's performance was chaotic; they abandoned lip syncing, invited the audience onto the stage while the music played and Lydon clowned. Clark would go on to name the performance among his top 100 AB favorites.
In June 1980, Lydon and Levene were interviewed on NBC's The Tomorrow Show by host Tom Snyder. The interview was awkward (and combative at times), and ended with Snyder apologising to the audience: "The interesting part is, is that we talked to these two gentlemen a couple of weeks ago, a pre-interview, apparently that went all just fine and it made great sense, and what I read about them this afternoon, but somehow it got a little lost in translation tonight. But that's probably my fault." Lydon re-appeared on Tom Snyder's show in 1997, and Snyder apologised about what happened that night. Lydon shook it off by saying "it's just entertainment", and the completely normal interview proceeded without difficulty.
1980 also saw the release of PiL's first live album, Paris au Printemps – also the group's last album featuring Jah Wobble. On this release's album sleeve, the band's name and all of the track titles were translated into French. The album cover was a painting by John Lydon depicting himself, Keith Levene and Jeannette Lee.
In May 1981, PiL appeared in New York at the Ritz, playing from behind a projection screen. Lydon, Levene and Jeanette Lee were joined by a new drummer, 60-year-old jazz player Sam Ulano, who had been recruited for the gig from a bar, having apparently never heard the band before. While something reminiscent of but clearly different from PiL improvised behind the screen, PiL records were played simultaneously through the PA. Lydon taunted the audience, who expected to hear familiar material (or at least see the band), and a melée erupted in which the audience pelted the stage with bottles and pulled on a tarp spread under the band, toppling equipment. The promoters cleared the hall and cancelled the next night's show, and a local media furore ignited in New York.
The Flowers of Romance (1981)
Later in 1980, Jah Wobble left the band and was not formally replaced. The resulting album was notable for its almost complete lack of bass parts. Martin Atkins, who had initially joined at the tail end of the Metal Box sessions, was re-recruited to drum on The Flowers of Romance. Levene had by then largely abandoned guitar in favour of synthesiser, picking up a new technique although owing a debt to Allen Ravenstine of Pere Ubu. Atkins' propulsive marching band-style drumming, the lack of bass and guitar, and Lydon's increasing lyrical abstraction made this LP a difficult listen for rock fans, and contemporary reviews expressed great confusion. The record consists mostly of drums, vocals, musique concrète, and tape loops, with only gestures toward bass (played by Levene) and keyboards. Its forceful drum sound was widely copied, notably by Phil Collins, though the drum sound was initially influenced by Collins' own work on Peter Gabriel III. The title "Flowers of Romance" was the name of a short-lived band featuring Keith Levene, Viv Albertine, and Sid Vicious in 1976. The track "Francis Massacre" was partially inspired by Lydon's incarceration in Mountjoy Prison and the track "Hymie's Him" began life as an instrumental piece intended for the score of Michael Wadleigh's 1981 werewolf film Wolfen.
1983–1986: Commercial Zone, This Is What You Want... and Album
Atkins, like Levene and Lydon, was a control freak, but Levene had the disadvantage of having repeatedly fired Atkins over apparent trifles, and of being incapacitated on heroin much of the time—so when conflict arose again, Levene was the one to goCommercial Zone, which included contributions from bass player Pete Jones. Lydon and Atkins claim that Levene stole the master tapes. Atkins stayed on through a live album (one of the first digital live albums ever recorded), Live in Tokyo (1983) – in which PiL consisted of him, Lydon, and a band of session musicians—and left in 1985, following the release of This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get (1984). This album consists of re-recorded versions of five songs from Commercial Zone (several of which feature a horn section) and three new tracks (four songs from Commercial Zone were not re-recorded for the new album). PiL was moving towards a more commercial pop music and dance music direction, and while many new fans found PiL, little of their original audience (or sound) remained.
. An aborted fourth album recorded in 1982 was later released by Levene as
During this interim period, the band released the single "This Is Not a Love Song" in 1983, the song's lyric lampooning the ire from some fans and the music press over the band's movement towards a more commercial style. The song's title was inspired by a line in the song "Her Story" (1979) by Virgin label stablemates the Flying Lizards, about bands 'selling out' their artistic principles for commercial success ("But you can still make money, by singing sweet songs of love... this is a love song"). Ironically, it gave the band their biggest international hit single, reaching No. 5 in the UK singles charts and No. 12 in the Netherlands.
A re-recorded version with harsher vocals and a brass section was included on the album This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get.
In 1985, Lydon recorded a song entitled "World Destruction" in collaboration with Afrika Bambaataa's band Time Zone and producer Bill Laswell. PiL's 1986 album release was simply entitled Album, Compact Disc, or Cassette, depending on the format. The cover's blue typeface and spartan design parodied generic brands; promotional photos featured Lydon in a "generic blue" suit surrounded by generic foods and drinking generic beer. Produced by Bill Laswell (despite Lydon-fuelled faction and disunion ) and with many of Laswell's usual rotating cast of musicians, it also featured guitar solos by Steve Vai, considered by Vai himself to be some of his best work. Jonas Hellborg, solo bassist and at the time, member of John McLaughlin's reformed band, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, played bass on the album. Jazz great Tony Williams and legendary Cream drummer Ginger Baker drummed on the album, which also featured Ryuichi Sakamoto of the Japanese electropop group Yellow Magic Orchestra. Controversy reared again, with claims that the album cover and title concept had been stolen from the San Francisco noise/punk band, Flipper, contemporaries of PiL, whose album, Album, featured a similarly unadorned sleeve. Flipper retaliated by naming their next album, Public Flipper Limited.
To tour Album in 1986, Lydon recruited former Magazine and Siouxsie and the Banshees guitarist John McGeoch, world music multi-instrumentalist (and former Damned guitarist) Lu Edmunds, bass guitarist Allan Dias, and former The Pop Group and The Slits drummer Bruce Smith. (Dias had previously played with David Lloyd and Andrew Edge in Uropa Lula).
As the years went on, PiL's line-up grew steadier as the sound of the albums drifted toward dance culture and drum-oriented pop music. Edmunds left due to tinnitus in 1988, and Smith left in 1990. McGeoch and Dias were members of PiL from 1986 until 1992, making them the group's longest-running members besides Lydon.
1987–1992: Later career
PiL released the album Happy? in 1987, and during early 1988 were the supporting act of INXS' Kick tour in the US. Bill Laswell, who produced PiL's previous album, was at one point supposed to produce Happy?, but this idea fell through allegedly because Laswell wanted to replace the PiL line-up with his own session musicians (as had been the case with Album), a request John Lydon would not agree to. Happy? was ultimately produced by Gary Langan and PiL. The album produced the single "Seattle" as well as the abortion-themed single "The Body", a sequel of sorts to the similarly titled Sex Pistols song "Bodies". In 1989, PiL toured with New Order and The Sugarcubes as "The Monsters of Alternative Rock". PiL's seventh studio album, 9 – so called as it was the band's ninth official album release, including the two live albums – appeared in early 1989 and featured the single "Disappointed". The album was produced by Stephen Hague (who was known for working with the Pet Shop Boys and New Order), Eric "E.T." Thorngren and the band.
In 1990, Public Image Limited's song "The Order of Death" (from This is What You Want...This is What You Get) was prominently featured in Richard Stanley's movie Hardware. That same year saw the release of PiL's first compilation album The Greatest Hits, So Far, which featured one new song, the environmentally themed single "Don't Ask Me". The rest of the album consisted of previously released material (remixes of several songs were used rather than original album versions. Also, the album remake of "This is Not a Love Song" was included rather than the original single version). Lydon claims that he wanted the album to be 28 tracks long; the eventual 14-track listing was a compromise with Virgin Records (who, according to Lydon, originally wanted only 8 tracks). The compilation – which boasted album-sleeve artwork by Reg Mombassa – made No. 20 on the UK album charts.
PiL's last studio album of this period, 1992's That What Is Not, included a sample from the Sex Pistols' song "God Save the Queen" in the song "Acid Drops" (the younger Lydon's voice is heard chanting the words, "No future, no future..." in the outro). Lydon disbanded the group a year later after Virgin Records refused to pay for the tour supporting the album, and Lydon had to pay for it out of his own pocket. The band's last concert was performed on 18 September 1992 with the line-up of Lydon, McGeoch,
Ted Chau (guitar, keyboards), Mike Joyce of The Smiths (drums), and Russell Webb (bass). Allan Dias, PiL's bassist since the spring of 1986, quit the band in the summer of 1992, some months before PiL itself went on hiatus.
In 1993, Lydon worked on his memoirs, first published in 1994 as Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, and in 1996 he regrouped with Steve Jones, Glen Matlock and Paul Cook for the Sex Pistols' Filthy Lucre Tour. Lydon released a solo album, Psycho's Path, in 1997. 1999 saw the release of the 4-disc PiL compilation Plastic Box; it offered a more comprehensive retrospective of PiL's recorded output than the 1-disc The Greatest Hits, So Far. Plastic Box comprised a mixture of previously released and previously unreleased material spanning PiL's entire career up to that point, although no material from Commercial Zone or PiL's two live albums was included (in the compilation's liner notes, Lydon wrote that "this collection represents a comma not a full stop, I fully intend to carry on with PiL, and there will be more in the future.")
2009–present: Reunion and new albums
In September 2009 it was announced that PiL would reform for five UK shows, their first live appearance in 17 years. Lydon financed the reunion using money he earned doing a UK TV commercial for Country Life butter. "The money that I earned from that has now gone completely – lock stock and barrel – into reforming PiL", said Lydon.
On 15 October 2009, Lydon registered the private limited company PIL Twin Limited as his new music publishing company in the UK.
John Lydon and Bruce Smith on stage with Public Image Ltd at the Manchester Ritz during the This is PiL
tour, 7 August 2012
The new line-up (consisting of Lydon, earlier members Bruce Smith and Lu Edmonds, plus multi-instrumentalist Scott Firth) played to generally positive reviews in late 2009 – coinciding with the thirtieth anniversary of Metal Box. However, protested Lydon, "This tour is absolutely nothing to do with an anniversary of anything… We didn't even know that Virgin were planning on releasing a very limited edition of Metal Box because they never bothered to confer with us." The tour spawned a live album, ALiFE 2009.
In April 2010, PiL began an extensive North American tour, including a sub-headlining appearance at the Coachella Festival. The band played several European concerts in July 2010 and at the Summer Sonic Festival in Japan in August 2011.
In November 2009 Lydon said PiL might re-enter the studio if they could raise enough money from their December tour or from a record company.
PiL went to Tel Aviv to headline the Heineken Music Conference 2010 Festival in August 2010. The group met with criticism for breaking the artistic boycott of Israel by some British musicians, done in protest over Israeli policies towards Palestinians. Lydon said in response:
I really resent the presumption that I'm going there to play to right-wing Nazi Jews. If Elvis-fucking-Costello wants to pull out of a gig in Israel because he's suddenly got this compassion for Palestinians, then good on him. But I have absolutely one rule, right? Until I see an Arab country, a Muslim country, with a democracy, I won't understand how anyone can have a problem with how they're treated.
On 30 November 2011, the band's own label PIL Official Limited was registered as a private limited company in the UK.
PiL released the vinyl-only EP "One Drop" in late April 2012, which was eventually made available for streaming. The new 12-track studio album, This is PiL, followed in May. This is PiL was the band's first studio album in twenty years.
On 28 July 2015, the band uploaded a promo video for their lead single "Double Trouble" off their next album via their YouTube channel.
On 21 August 2015, PiL released the lead single "Double Trouble" backed with "Bettie Page" and a non-album track "Turkey Tits" from their upcoming album.
PiL's tenth studio album, What the World Needs Now..., was released in September 2015, with lead single "Double Trouble".
On 17 November 2015 the group played "Double Trouble" on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
In December 2016, the group released super deluxe editions of Metal Box and Album.
In 2018, a documentary film The Public Image Is Rotten was released. Also in 2018 the band
released The Public Image is Rotten - Songs from the Heart, a compilation CD/DVD box set to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the band. It consists of five CDs and two DVDs which include B-sides, rarities, radio sessions, live concerts, 12" mixes and promo videos.