I’m crossing over into enterprise: Best of John Lydon

I did the noble thing in December 1998: I ordered Second Edition over Never Mind the Bullocks. “What the fuck is going on?” a friend asked on the phone as “Albatross” throbbed and moaned on my stereo. Long past his peak, John Lydon became the vessel through which I registered a frustration that in its public demonstrations remained inchoate and sent the strangest mixed signals. I wrote a column for my college newspaper in which for all intents and purposes I came out, with a key line from “Rise” (Anger is an energy) as leitmotif. I didn’t need U2 — I had “Public Image,” which invented them.

Admired as a subversive element of marketable ugliness, ossified into a symbol of capital-r-rebellion suitable for a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame standing ovation, Johnny Rotten-Lydon had no place in the unforgiving musical landscape of the eighties and nineties. But faded avatars attract me, as I hope Bowie and Ferry picked up in 1993. I loved him for the awkwardness: aware that rage hardens into a manner, he bellowed, often ineptly, as if he were trying to stay alive mid phrase. To sing and write “I am not commodity” before your twenties have ended is to signal, at a subterranean level of which you have no awareness, that the end is nigh. Twenty years after my first listen, “Bodies” remains the most savage vocal performance ever committed to tape. Fuck this and fuck that — a response to an abortion inspires a rage that consumes the woman who ended the pregnancy, the child who will have or will have not fucked his future, and himself; it spares nothing and no one. But Lydon isn’t a nihilist: I’m not an animal, he insists as Steve Jones’ guitars play Mott the Hoople chords and Paul Cook’s drums struggle to keep up, to hold a semblance of a rhythm. The nihilist didn’t emerge for another twelve years on a Bush I-era throwaway recorded for a greatest hits collection with a cynic’s elementary school idea of a title. Called “Don’t Ask Me,” it denatures Lydon’s (self-)contempt into second-rate INXS dance pop. At least on 1986’s “Rise,” one of the loveliest and most subversive pop moments of its decade, the line “I could be wrong, I could be right” didn’t sound like a both-sides-do-it cop out. 1997’s solo album and 2012’s This is PiL, the latter of which boasting a reduced but compelling vocal range, showed the old boy’s croaks and yelps still had the power to charm.

1. Bodies
2. Rise
3. Swan Lake
4. Anarchy in the UK
5. Public Image
6. The Animal Speaks (with Golden Palominos)
7. This is Not a Love Song
8. God Save the Queen
9. Memories
10. Albatross
11. Holidays in the Sun
12. World Destruction (with Time Zone)
13. Pretty Vacant
14. Disappointed
15. Poptones
16. Fishing
17. Flowers of Romance
18. I Must Be Dreaming
19. Fat Chance Hotel
20. Low Life

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2 Responses to I’m crossing over into enterprise: Best of John Lydon

  1. Tim Niland says:

    “Bodies” has always fascinated me. Is it a pro or anti abortion song or a calculated spleen-vent?

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