Smash Hits magazine, April 16th 1981
Transcribed by Karsten Roekens
© 1981 Smash Hits / STEVE TAYLOR
LYDON, LEVENE & LEE
Not a firm of solicitors but the directors of Public Image Ltd. STEVE TAYLOR checks the accounts while STUART FRANKLIN takes away photographic evidence.
It isn't exactly reassuring to pass one third of a band which you're about to interview in five minutes driving hell-for-leather in the opposite direction. Panic. I'm heading towards Virgin's West London headquarters for a chinwag with Public Image Ltd. on the day their brand new single 'Flowers Of Romance' steams into the chart at number 50, and there's Keith Levene. He's behind the wheel of a red car, his pointed face hidden under a trilby and a ring of orange hair. He looks unusually determined, purposeful. He's also heading east.
Inside, John Lydon is in an upstairs office making himself a cup of tea. I shake his hand, taking in the garish green checked jacket, army strides and black work shoes.
"Keith's just gone to the bank," says John, "and to look at a car he wants to buy. That's the sort of thing he's into."
Jeannette Lee appears, tiny and black-haired and – dare one observe? - pretty.
"Keith's a bit unreliable, you know, I don't think we ought to rely on him being back."
We don't. Lydon settles into a chair behind a desk, a mock chairman sipping tea and belching. Close up he has a remarkable appearance, his long face is a slightly yellow colour under the carroty hair and the skin has the strange shine of a waxwork mannequin. Lydon's blue eyes, which seem to stare out in faintly different directions, add to this distracted, haunted look. The effect is disturbing and keeps you on your guard.
Why, I wonder aloud, has the PIL corporation shrunk to just three members? Since the departure of bass player Jah Wobble a few months ago, 'accountant' Dave Crowe has also gone.
"We've just eliminated a few problems," says Lydon, sounding like a Mafia godfather.
What happened to Crowe?
"He came to a stop," explains Lee. "He did nothing, so we got rid of him."
Lydon and Lee refuse to explain what that has meant for the division of labour within PIL.
"There are no set roles," says Lydon.
"We do everything that needs to be done," adds Lee.
Does that mean she was involved in making the music for the new album, also titled 'Flowers Of Romance'?
"Of course," says Lydon forcefully.
"I didn't play anything," she explains, "but I was involved with the mixing. We talk about everything we do. It might sound ambiguous but that's the way it does work."
Has it put any extra strains on them, having to cope with everything, including all the business side of their activities, themselves?
"It's made life so much bloody easier," says John. "Once you start adopting fixed roles, it gets really poisonous because people start saying 'This is my role, I will do nothing else.'"
This, as I discover later from Keith, is the main reason for Wobble's departure. PIL thrive on commitment. The drop in numbers hasn't made recording any more difficult, as John explains.
"This is the quickest we've ever worked on an album, even though, as always, we wrote everything in the studio. We've worked out what we want out of it. Before, it was a lot of experimentation, sussing out how gadgets work. Now we know all that."
Lydon complains that in the past some of the early PIL members have expected to simply appear at the studio and do their bits. The only other musician on 'Flowers Of Romance' is drummer Martin Atkins, who plays on two tracks. What bass there is, is bowed "like a cello."
Asked if such changes are deliberate, Lydon replies that "it's just the way it works, it's much better now. We're not trying to make a second 'Metal Box'. We've done that, we've achieved that sound and there's no point in continuing it. 'Metal Box' was a really heavy sound, loads of layers and loads of instruments, almost like an orchestra. We wanted to get away from that over-complication and get things down to simplistics. On this album very few instruments are used, but what is used is used to maximum potential."
This boils down to some extremely dominant percussion, a certain amount of electronic doodling, some strangely simple – childish almost – Levene guitar, and that familiar Lydon whine, to which he has now added the Arabic-sounding wail that occurs on 'Four Enclosed Walls' and the single. Does this indicate an interest in ethnic music?
"I don't think we're influenced anymore by anybody," claims Lydon. "There's nothing that I really like to listen to musically."
What about his passion for reggae?
"I've given up on that, I really think that's become the pits. It's just so limited. The same records are being pumped out as four or five years ago, but they're not as interesting."
Lee says she lost interest in reggae five years ago "when everything went religious."
What about the, er, Maroccan-sounding vocal on 'Flowers Of Romance' then?
"What about it?" she shrieks mockingly. "Tell him!" she instructs Lydon, who explains:
"It's not Maroccan, it's Renaissance, early English and French 15th century. That's what I've been listening to a lot, that's real traditional English music. Nowadays when anyone wants to make a record they seem to look to any far-off distant place they can imitate. They never realise it's here on their own doorstep."
Lydon's answer leaves me puzzling about the lyric to 'Four Enclosed Walls' with its references to mosques, Saracens and even Allah himself.
"Not in a favourable context, though," he retorts. "Get the last two lines – 'I take heed, arise in the west'. I don't like all that looking to the east for religious guidance crap."
But hasn't he maybe got an obsession with religion?
"No," he replies cheekily. "It's there as a political threat."
Afghanistan and all that, I guess. It may be a deliberate change of policy or attitude on Lydon's part, but he seems more than usually willing to discuss the lyrics on 'Flowers Of Romance'. Perhaps he's never been asked nicely enough in the past? I suggest that 'Go Back' with its references to the extreme right is one of the most explicitly political things he has yet written.
"In what way did you see that, for or against?" he enquires.
"Good. That's just the way things are going in this country."
Lee chips in: "The government's changed since we made the last album."
Do they feel more drawn into that political arena now?
"You can't afford to pretend it's not happening," he replies. "You see, I don't like escapism of any kind, it makes situations like that worse and it's about time somebody was very clear about where they stand. I think that in all the songs I write I have to be very clear about what I'm dealing with. I can't get involved with the intellectual ins and outs of it. I'm very specific, but each line can mean several different things. As long as it stirs your mind …"
'Under The House', which closes the first side of 'Flowers Of Romance', is one of the album's most stirring tracks with its dramatic atmosphere of gothic doom and gloom. That, it turns out, is about the Manor, Virgin's country house recording studio outside Oxford.
"I'd seen a few things I didn't like," says Lydon significantly. "I ended up sleeping in the coal shed, I couldn't bear it in the house any longer. When a place is haunted there's an intensity which is insufferable. I do tend to see a lot of that kind of thing, ghosties and ghoulies. I saw shadows, people in rooms who weren't there, felt intense cold for no reason."
Could this not be the result of excessive lager consumption?
"I don't put it down to that," he replies, "though I'd dearly like to."
The album closed with what is perhaps its most personal litle story, 'Francis Massacre', which Lydon says is "about this geezer I met in Mountjoy", the Dublin prison where he spent two nights after a fracas involving his brother Jimmy's band, the 4" Be 2"s, on one of their Irish jaunts.
"His case has never gone back to court," explains John. "He's not allowed to receive any mail, he can't speak to his lawyer, he's just rotting there, literally. He was denied all communication with the outside world, so I just passed on some information to some people who might be able to do something about it. For me that song just sums up the way I felt when I was in there – grating noises."
He mimics an anguished expression and shakes imaginary prison bars.
"Aaargh, let me out!"
Lydon was in there just two days, but "that was long enough, believe me. I don't want to have to go through that ever again."
Our John and the police force seem to get together with unhealthy regularity. There hasn't been another incident like the raid on his Chelsea home, the supposed drugs raid when he confronted the police at the top of his stairs wielding a ceremonial sword (out of sheer fright), but he says he's "waiting for it."
John and Jeannette are laughing off the "incompetence" of this event when Levene arrives, two hours after he left for the bank. It's a bit like shift work, Keith taking over as the other two leave.
When he can be distracted from discussing the workings of a particular lens with the photographer, Levene settles enthusiastically into explaining Public Image Ltd.'s non-musical activities. They've always stressed that PIL, which really is a limited company (I've looked up their registration at Companies House, but only found that the board of directors changed every time a member of the band left), is a vehicle for a lot more than merely fulfilling the demands of their Virgin contract. But nothing concrete has yet appeared.
Keith reiterates what John has said earlier, that they're learning to use the video and film equipment which they now own, sticking to Lydon's motto that doing it yourself is no substitute for doing it properly. As John says: "No amateur hours, thank you."
Keith puts the visual side of PIL's aspirations down to Jeannette's influence.
"She worked a lot with Don Letts on his punk movie, more than she's ever been credited for. She's got a very good movie camera and a video system which I put together from the best choice out of the domestic stuff you can get in the shops."
Nobody is letting on about specifics, although Lydon has gone as far as saying that they may use 'Flowers Of Romance' (which was to have been called 'Ten Short Stories') as a jumping-off point for some short films. They are all dead set against video or film just as "product", promotional videos where the band leave all the technical side to professionals and learn nothing about the medium for themselves.
Levene also reveals plans to manufacture electronic equipment, one project being based on Lydon's experiments with inexpensive domestic hi-fi, and another based on the guitarist's plans for a sophisticated portable miniature recording studio.
Our discussion of this becomes bogged down between Keith's fears of having his ideas nicked and my confusion over analogue and digital computer systems. Pass.
Levene has the speedy temperament of a real enthusiast, but he's anxious, as was Lydon, to point out that they're deadly serious about what they do. He's concerned to turn the conversation finally from his own obsessions back to the all-important joint venture, Public Image Ltd.
Why bother at all, I ask?
He plays around with the topic, before sheepishly answering.
"I know it's going to sound dreadful," he explains, "but it's … spiritual. It just feels right, it's the right way to do it, the best way to work. I couldn't think of a better way to move ahead if I wanted to!"
Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)
© STUART FRANKLIN