Sunday, June 14, 2009

Blog Post

My friend Jennifer held a party every year to celebrate Johnny Rotten's birthday.

It's not Johnny Rotten's birthday today (that was back on January 31st), but it is Jennifer's birthday -- so please celebrate it as you see fit. For me, it's more of a generic celebration.

After the Sex Pistols imploded, billionaire Richard Branson decided to cash in on Johnny Rotten (who bucked the marketing program and went back to his given name: John Lydon).

This was long before Branson was knighted (in 1999 for "services to entrepreneurship"), back when Branson ran Virgin records (first as a string of record stores -- later to be known as Mega Virginstores which, oddly enough, sold no virgins -- and then as an actual record label).

It was years before Branson's Virgin Records would lead to a long-simmering feud with XTC that caused the band to go on strike for six years (a strike that may have been more effective if anyone had known about it at the time).

And it was almost a lifetime before Branson would douse Stephen Colbert for insufficient zeal in promoting Branson's airline.
The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Richard Branson
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorStephen Colbert in Iraq

In 1978, Branson thought Lydon's post-Sex Pistols band would be huge, if he could find the right musicians. So Branson flew Lydon to Jamaica and they spent weeks scouting local reggae players. Branson then flew Devo to Jamaica and tried to convince them to bring in Lydon as their new lead singer (they declined, although I still salivate at the thought of Johnny Rotten singing "Whip It").

What finally emerged from the ganja smoke was Public Image Ltd., where Lydon chanted (rather than shouting or really singing) over dub/reggae music. They edged away from the avant garde and closer to traditional songs and song structure over the next four records. Meanwhile, in the United States, there was a craze for "generic" brand products (sold in white packages with a distinctive blue typeface that had the type of product, such as "Beer" or "Breakfast Cereal").

By 1986, PiL had become a fairly standard rock band (albeit one with an off-kilter sound). As the music became more mainstream and commercial, it also became less distinct; maybe this was the type of meta-joke that let Lydon laugh all the way to the bank. The band parted ways with Virgin and Branson, signing to Elektra. Ginger Baker and Steve Vai (whom Johnny Rotten would have spit on a decade earlier) played on the new album, the generically titled Album (which was also known, depending on the format as Cassette or Compact Disc), with its single "Rise" (released as a 45 with a sleeve that just said "Single"). And even when Lydon proclaimed "anger is an energy," it came across less as a snarl and more as a tired grumble.

And, because it was 1986, it was inevitable that there would be a video (and perhaps unavoidable that it would be marked by the simple title "Video"):

It was ironic that Baker, drummer for Cream, one of the groups Johnny Rotten labeled as dinosaurs, participated... especially after Lydon, years earlier, made an April Fool's joke of announcing that Baker was joining Public Image Ltd. But the bigger irony was that, by completely subsuming music to product, Lydon obscured the fact that he had finally created something that could stand as music (and not just as attitude dressed up in musical clothing).

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, when it comes to Lydon/Rotten, "music" is kind of a relative term, innit?