Simon Reynolds begins his definitive history of post punk, Rip It Up and Start Again with “Public Image” and this album. He argues that Lydon leaving the Sex Pistols, recording and releasing a song about them and releasing this record mark the point at which punk wasn’t just punk, but evolved into something else. It feels like a compelling argument but I only recently discovered it’s not true. Howard Devoto had already left the Buzzcocks to form Magainze and they released Real Life in June, six months before this record and four months before “Public Image.” Magazine not post punk enough for you? Well Wire put out the very post punk Chairs Missing in August, again months before this record or the single. So, this is not the first post punk album. Glad we got that out of the way.
It’s still a pretty huge statement record, though, as Lydon was the face of punk music in 1978 and here he was completely renouncing it. “Public Image” isn’t quite the full renunciation it’s often portrayed as, as I think you could still claim it’s “punk” music.
But the rest of this record… I have no idea what anyone who was a Sex Pistols fan or follower or observer would have felt about “Theme” but I know that it would be something in the realm of shock. And the same is true for most of the rest of the record save the single (which was buried on side 2). Though other bands might have beaten PiL to the punch in terms of musically moving beyond their punk roots, I’m not sure anyone did it as drastically or dramatically as Lydon and PiL. Still, 40 years later, if you only know Lydon from the Sex Pistols, this record must be shocking or confusing or some combination of the two.
My one problem with it is I just don’t love what PiL do musically. I admire it, I admire it a lot. Nobody else was doing stuff like this in 1978 and Lydon certainly had the courage of his convictions. But I like my post punk a little more musical and so, for me, this record is more a historical landmark than it is something I would put on just because.