John Lydon, the punk icon occasionally known as Johnny Rotten, knows a little something about public images. As he says, his was once "corrupted" by the Sex Pistols's infamous manager Malcolm McLaren, whose death last month ignited another debate over their shared legacy.
"To be hoodwinked off into a Malcolm parody is a grotesque miscarriage of justice. That man had nothing to do with the songwriting or the content or anything at all to do with the Pistols, really," spits Lydon, 54, over the phone from the 31st floor of Chicago's Four Seasons hotel amidst a revival tour for his other seminal band, Public Image Ltd. The band played Toronto last night and Montreal tonight.
"He was quite a jealous man and didn't have the wit or wisdom to write a song himself, so he was quite happy to coast on it," Lydon says, while admitting McLaren "did bring some very interesting aspects to that band - ... the chance to be in a band. So I am very, very grateful for that. I remember very many good things about him, but I really wish people would also remember the bitter truth. For anybody to have the audacity to say we were Malcolm's puppets shows a real connivance and contrivance of the truth, a lack of insight and a spiteful malevolence."
"If Malcolm was such a genius," Lydon adds, "how come that's the only thing he ever did? He's done [nothing]ever since, and here I am. I'm PiL. I'm fully loaded."
Lydon's opinion of McLaren seems to have soured in the weeks since his former manager's death. Upon hearing of McLaren's passing on April 8, Lydon released a statement, signed Johnny Rotten, reading: "For me Malc was always entertaining, and I hope you remember that. Above all else he was an entertainer and I will miss him, and so should you."
But the flood of articles eulogizing McLaren's role in the Sex Pistols and the punk revolution have seemingly put Lydon back on the offensive. It was much the same in 1978 when, months after the Pistols' 1978 implosion, Lydon formed Public Image Ltd as a means of reclaiming his independence from McLaren - leading the influential group through numerous albums and lineups before pressing pause in 1993.
"I was left penniless and stranded in America by bad management and record company mishandling," Lydon laughs, recalling PiL's long-ago origins. "I was loaned the airfare, went back to England and immediately wanted to form a new band. Once I'd got the songwriting bug in me that was it, there was no turning back."
Joining forces with schoolmate Jah Wobble on bass, Canadian drummer Jim Walker (hired via a Melody Maker ad) and early Clash member Keith Levene on guitar, the band initially lived at Lydon's place and recorded on the sly. ("We'd sneak into studios when bands had gone home for the night.") Forty musicians played in PiL over 15 years, with Lydon the only permanent member and the current incarnation's lone founder.
Wobble demanded too much money, Lydon says, and Lydon also won't work with Levene. Walker left the music business altogether. "I miss Jim like mad, y'know? He was such a stunning drummer and then he just decided no more. He's off into film world. He's doing odds and sods in London in weird ways; he's always been a strange fellow. Very original drummer, very unique style. Public Image is always open to new ideas, we're not a selfish consortium - we've always tried to expand the boundaries of music."
PiL pioneered what became known as post-punk, combining the heavy bass of dub reggae with "astringent" rock guitar and experimental dance beats to deconstruct whatever music the Pistols had left standing. Their sound changed regularly and collaborations ranged from Afrika Bambaataa to Bill Laswell to Leftfield.
"The area I was brought up in, Finsbury Park, was a cultural melting pot. So these sorts of music would be part of your natural upbringing," he says, rattling off Motown, reggae, Beatles, Irish traditional folk music and mod rock. "For many others though, and bands like The Clash, they didn't have that mixed cultural background....So when they tried to absorb influences like reggae they were really trying to genre hop. It wasn't in them instinctively. So I'm very wary of people who describe PiL as blending of different types of music. It actually isn't at all."
This isn't Lydon's first rock reunion - he prefers "reaffirmation" - having brought back the surviving Pistols several times. "Our legacy was stolen there for a while, and so we decided to correct that issue and put ourselves together because it was our right. There were only four people who can claim that and Sid's dead, so you can count that one out."
But as an ardent Mel Brooks fan, Lydon knows how dangerous it can be to try and recapture the past. He grouses about the appalling movie remake of The Producers - "they've lost the essence of it. They've lost the danger. What a pity!" - and knows that's precisely why so many mock reunion tours.
"Really, who needs KISS to be trotting the boards? When we were rehearsing in L.A., they were in the room next door. Oh my God, they sounded like a karaoke air guitar version of themselves. It's because they have no content. They don't believe in what they're doing, they care about making the money. It's all rather a callous enterprise, there's no love of it. And there be the difference - PiL is a folk band.
"It's about communication and humanity, it's never been about making huge amounts of money, indeed, how could it be? PiL has never been a high-octane, gas-burning industry mover and shaker yet somehow we've been able to influence every corner and niche of the entire music business."
Lydon used earnings from a controversial butter ad campaign - "I thought it was an amazingly anarchistic thing to be involved with, promoting butter. I mean how politically incorrect can you get?" - to mount the current PiL tour as, essentially, a fundraiser for future recordings.
"The reviews have all been astounding, and I'm quite surprised because the press is usually extremely bitter towards me. But I think we're so damn good that even they have to face up to the facts: Public Image Ltd is just about the best band in the world."
Public Image Ltd. plays Montreal's Olympia Saturday night at 8:30.
Special to The Globe and Mail