In January 1978, the Sex Pistols, then and now the most famous punk band in the world, split up. Johnny Rotten, the band's singer, most unstable musical element, and most adored and reviled member, had had enough. For the next nine months he largely disappeared from view, except for a promise to the music press that he would return with a new band who would be 'anti-music of any kind'. That autumn, Rotten unveiled his new enterprise: Public Image Ltd, or PiL for short. Starting with its name, inspired by Muriel Spark's novel The Public Image, PiL was intended to be a step away from the rock tradition, which punk, for all its reforming impatience and vaguely revolutionary sentiments, had still belonged to. PiL were going to be not just a band, but a 'communications company': a film-maker and accountant were members, along with Rotten - now using his more sober real name, John Lydon - and three other musicians. In October, PiL released their first product, a single called, with corporate thoroughness, 'Public Image'. It was a streamlined, surging noise that hadn't been heard before, and reached number nine in the charts, impressive even in the volatile British Top 40 of the late 1970s.
LRB 1 September 2005 | PDF Download