P.I.L.’s “The Order of Death” with a ’15 flashback to the Fonda

I’ve got one final post for August, which I’m attempting to squeeze into this semi-spotty workday. It means I’ll probably be penning this in fits and spurts throughout the day. But with any luck, I’ll have a semi-coherent piece on today’s featured artist, Public Image Ltd.

My original intention was to post P.I.L. (as they’re commonly abbreviated) alongside the previous entry on Butthole Surfers, back on the 15th. But I got busy and sidetracked, and time and the requisite inspiration slipped by the wayside. So here we are today. And I probably shouldn’t admit this, but since I’m technically at work, I’m still getting paid. Hence, while awaiting my next work-related assignment, I might as well do something worthwhile with my spare time – i.e. this post. The surreal and often baffling nature of working from home …

Anyway, the track that caught my attention, and conjured up all these old distant memories, is titled “The Order of Death.” It dates all the way back to ’84, and comes courtesy of legendary troublemaker and instigator John Lydon and his long-running and totally legit post-punk outfit Public Image Ltd. It’s also another unexpected surprise culled from indulging in season two of the Netflix series “The Umbrella Academy,” which is where I was also reminded of the Butthole’s “Pepper,” thus the intended reason to feature them back-to-back.

If you know alternative music history, or at least have an inkling of what went down in the late ’70s to mid ’80s, then you’ve probably had a few brushes with Lydon and P.I.L. Or at the very least, know him by his more more infamous moniker Johnny Rotten, and the accompanying pinnacle of Brit punk rock, Sex Pistols, to which he served as provocative vocalist and controversial wordsmith.

Lydon is one of the original, if not the original, bad boy of anarchist, fuck-all music, leading the rebellious charge with such legendary fringe agitators as “Anarchy in the U.K.” and ” God Save the Queen.” I often find it surreal and amusing that those early punk rock classics are practically common knowledge in this day and age.

But history and time have a funny way of shifting the boundaries and redefining the extremities. That’s probably why Lydon changed gears back in ’78 to form P.I.L., getting out while the getting’s good. Having offered a staggering contribution to punk rock, his next venture would openly revolt against his past, consequently, and perhaps inadvertently, creating the genre we now know as post-punk. Of course, that’s entirely debatable, which artist got there first. But with Lydon, it’s pretty obvious that he was one of the instigators.

P.I.L. didn’t quite scream the in-your-face anger that was Sex Pistols, or for that matter, any of their ilk. But that was strictly by design, opting to head in more experimental directions, including, but not limited to, dub, new wave, funk, and avant-artsy whatever else. The punk aesthetic and rock mindset were always deep-seated in the background, yet strictly as a foundation to build a disruptive future upon.

That brings me to the subversive synthesis of “The Order of Death,” a fairly ominous and moody synth-motivated concoction from the ’84 release “This is What You Want … This is What You Get,” the title of which doubles as its primary featured lyrics, repeated ad nauseum to hypnotic effect. 

The blunt messaging was originally intended as sharp commentary on the state of art, and the artist himself, namely Lydon. Provocation was a given, as were the augeries of future portents. And given the perilous times we currently find ourselves in, perhaps that’s why “The Order of Death” has returned once again.

Curiously, this track was originally intended for a film soundtrack, the antithesis of all things “anti-,” which might explain its tonal and textured indulgence in electronic atmospherics. The film in question was the ’80s Harvey Keitel thriller “Copkiller,” a title which remains consistent in circles of controversy and rebellion.

Since then, it’s continued to grace the silver screen, as well as many smaller at-home LEDs, with such early genre fare such as “Hardware” and “Miami Vice,” and contemporary offerings like “Mr. Robot” and the aforementioned “Umbrella Academy.”

Here’s P.I.L.’s “The Order of Death” to tell it as it was, and more importantly, how it is.

“The Order of Death” from the 1984 album “This is What You Want … This is What You Get.”

Now that I’ve got that long-winded intro out of the way, hearing “The Order of Death” inspired me to dig into my concert footage archives and see what P.I.L. gems (more like diamonds in the rough) I could uncover and tack on to the end of this post.

Sadly, I have nothing from their heyday of the early-to-mid ’80s, nor their unexpectedly (and somewhat ironic) commercial resurgence during the latter years of that seminal decade. Although, I can state that I had the opportunity to interview Lydon for the ’87 release “Happy?”, back in my early music journalism days. It was a meeting I was undoubtedly nervous to attend, given all his sordid history. But surprisingly, he was a totally cool dude, polite and respectful, even when I was a bit ignorant in my questioning. Unfortunately, those transcripts no longer exist. Just a distant memory of a great experience.

What I do have is a P.I.L. performance from 11.29.15 at the Fonda Theatre in L.A., which marked the first time I saw Lydon and co. perform since the late ’80s. At the time, they were still active and crafting new material, the latest being the ’15 release “What the World Needs Now…,” which admittedly I wasn’t yet familiar with. I was in attendance out of pure nostalgia for the old, and curiosity for the now – as in, what does a P.I.L. show look and sound like in this day and age.

Other than the obvious scars of age, and the occasional audience member seeking by-gone punk-influenced conflict, the P.I.L. of ’15 was pretty much all business. A few Lydon rants here and there, but for the most part, less anger and more straight-up performance. I guess it’s hard to remain that irritated and vexed for three-plus decades. But then again, the ’16 election hadn’t yet reared its ugly head …

“The Order of Death” didn’t make the cut for this particular show. But a trio of recognizable classics did, which if memory serves, I was expectantly keen to hear performed live once again. I probably say that about all the acts I haven’t seen in decades. It still remains true, nonetheless. These are also the only tracks I was able to uncover from the archives, so there’s that.

First up is the legendary producer/bassist Bill Laswell collaboration “Rise,” from the generically titled and packaged ’86 release “Album.” It features the classic refrain “Anger is an energy,” set to a deceptively uplifting tune, which after all these years, still feels relevant, especially in today’s upside down world. For this performance, British bassist Scott Firth fills in, originally joining for the ’12 release “This is PiL.”

Public Image Ltd perform “Rise” at the Fonda on 11.29.15 .

Next up is the anti-love song, appropriately titled “This is Not a Love Song,” from the aforementioned ’84 release “This is What You Want … This is What You Get.” Apparently, this was a blunt jab at an insistent music industry that was only interested in cranking out hit singles. Although we don’t have much of a traditional industry today, its sentiments still ring true in our corporatized pop culture consumerist world of the present.

Public Image Ltd perform “This is Not a Love Song” at the Fonda on 11.29.15 .

Lastly, there’s the ’78 debut single “Public Image,” which on its surface seems self-referential, yet deep down is intended as criticism aimed at his previous band – i.e. Sex Pistols. It features another legendary bassist, Jah Wobble, who, as an original founding member, was integral to the band’s sound until his departure in late ’80. It’s also one of the closest in spiritual kin to those prior punk days. And again, despite differing intentions, this one feels especially prescient, given our our prevalent socially engineered, social media culture.

Public Image Ltd perform “Public Image” at the Fonda on 11.29.15 .

Having wrapped up this revolutionary and rebellious reminiscence, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I’m of the belief that P.I.L. feel pretty darn important for this present day world, even if their music might seem of a bygone era.

Back when these tunes first graced the ears, I was focused on the obvious stuff, the discontent, anger, and frustration, regardless of the cause or focus of the criticism. I even carried a little bit of that with me going into that Fonda show. But in the last five years, we’ve all been through a lot and experienced things we never believed possible, mostly negative, but some positives. And time has a way of reframing context … or adding new ones.

So yeah, Public Image Ltd make a whole lot of sense as we head into this uncertain future. And on that note, I’ll sign off and let their music do the talking.

Until the next one, stay safe and enjoy!