1979 was the year that the Sex Pistols enjoyed the most success in terms of the singles charts with three Top 10 hits. But by then they were a parody of a band – after all it was two Eddie Cochran numbers covered by Sid Vicious plus a Steve Jones rocker that we’re talking about.
The spin-off however was that John Lydon could do no wrong, and even some of his strangest recordings were huge hits.
mp3 : Public Image Ltd – Death Disco
There’s probably never been any better description of this record than that penned by Gary Mulholland in his brilliant book This Is Uncool – The 500 Greatest Singles Since Punk & Disco.
Despite turning his back on the Sex Pistols’ audience, John Lydon could’ve farted into a paper bag and made the British charts in 1979. The more he told us to fuck off, the more we loved him, at least, for a while longer anyway. So he pushed it as far as it would go.
This record did just about everything a punk rocker was not supposed to, It was long, It had no shoutalong choruses. It has a disco beat, of a sort (the NME originally announced that it was called ‘Death to Disco’, in a air of punk-reactionary wishful thinking). It was based on a diseased Arabic mutation of Tchaikovsky’s ‘The Dying Swan’ from Swan Lake. And it was about his mother, who was dying of cancer. The result was disturbing, blackly comic, moving, profound and so far removed from anything resembling punk, pop or anything else that it had the desired effect – it got rid of the punks.
Oh, how I struggled with this when I was 16 years old. So much so, that it is one of the few records I bought and then gave away to someone else. I got two old singles by The Jam in exchange, which at the time felt like a bargain.
Fast forward to 1990 and my purchase of a CD copy of the P.I.L. greatest hits compilation and me listening to Death Disco again for the first time in eleven years. By now I knew that great songs didn’t need hooks or memorable, hummable tunes, and that a cauldron of noise in which a screaming vocal fights for your attention alongside screeching guitars over a bass/drum delivery that on its own would have you dancing like a madman under the flashing lights could be a work of genius. I was now able to appreciate Death Disco…..
It is astonishing to realise that this song spent 5 weeks in the charts in the summer of 79, entering at #34 on 7th July, and then taking the #32, #20, #26 and #28 positions thereafter, which means it got at least five plays on Radio 1 (but I’d place a bet there weren’t many more than that unless John Peel gave it a spin).
Mulholland was right. Thanks to Death Disco and follow-up 45 Memories, the punks truly denounced Lydon as an art-rocker. But then again, if the punks had paid closer attention to what he was always saying about his main musical influences, the early P.I.L. material shouldn’t have come as a big surprise.
Here’s yer b-side:-
mp3 : Public Image Limited – No Birds Do Sing