It’s hard to overestimate the sense of anticipation and mystery surrounding the return of Johnny Rotten after the dismal demise of The Sex Pistols onstage in San Francisco in January 1978.
On 13 October – the day after Nancy Spungen was found dead at the Chelsea Hotel in New York – his new band released their first single. They were called Public Image Ltd and Johnny Rotten was now John Lydon and the song was called Public Image.
I can remember the shock of the former and the excitement of the latter as if it were yesterday – and the surprise at how it sounded. It was, in short, everything that the Pistols weren’t. And it sounded nothing like them.
It started off with Wobble’s rolling bassline, Jim Aitken’s spare drums and Lydon’s goofy “‘Allo!” (borrowed from Ian Hunter) echoing into the void. Then a cackle of laughter and Keith Levene’s squall of double-tracked guitar, creating an insistent circular motif around Lydon’s whiney vocal swathed in reverb and delay, with lyrics listing a litany of complaints about his treatment at the hands of Malcolm McLaren.
The production owed more to the swampy dub experiments of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry – perhaps an influence of the three weeks Rotten had spent in Jamaica scouting for reggae bands for Virgin Records to sign – than the crisp, clear rock sound we might have expected.
The video, too, presented an entirely new look for Rotten/Lydon – underlit in baggy trousers, a silk jacket, collar and tie: no bondage trousers, badges or safety pins anywhere.
It was, if I recall correctly, hard to know what to make of it. It wasn’t what anyone expected, that’s for sure. And it baffled Pistols fans, stalling at no.9 in the singles chart – their lowest position since Anarchy In The UK.
As if to reinforce their unconventional approach, and determination not to be predictable, they made their UK live debut at the Rainbow Theatre on Christmas Day 1978.