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Johnny Rotten vs John Lydon on Leftfield's 'Open Up' [November 7, 1993]
The old punk struggles with his past; plus, Wu-Tang Clan release 36 Chambers
Hey, welcome to This Week In The 90s where we tell stories loosely based on what was in the UK charts 30 years ago.
This week, we’re talking about the song that was at Number 14 on November 7, 1993…
Leftfield & Lydon, ’Open Up’
2023 is the year that my kid discovered Johnny Rotten and the Sex Pistols.
We watched Pistol in January, Danny Boyle’s mini-series told from the perspective of Pistols guitarist Steve Jones. My kid found it entertaining and was captivated by Johnny Rotten, whom Boyle presents as a hilarious, trouble-making lunatic goblin.
It’s not the most authentic biopic ever, and Anson Boon plays Johnny Rotten as a bit of a one-note caricature. But, to be fair, that’s also how John Lydon played the role.
A few months later, my kid experienced the real Johnny Rotten when John Lydon competed to become Ireland’s Eurovision entry. His song was ‘Hawaii’, a strange, slightly off-key tribute to his wife, Nora, who has dementia.
I actually quite liked ‘Hawaii’, but most people hated it, with many thinking it was some kind of Situationist prank or protest against Eurovision (and Ireland has already tried that). My kid seemed very confused, trying to reconcile this warbling old weirdo with the deranged anarchist she knew from Pistol.
Imagine how confused she’d be if she saw his butter commercials.
You lied, you faked, you cheated
Revisiting the Sex Pistols story now, what strikes me is…they were all so young.
John Lydon was just 19 years old when he walked down Oxford Street in a homemade “I HATE PINK FLOYD” t-shirt. Bernard Rhodes (who would one day manage The Clash) spotted him and thought he had the right vibe for a new band his pal Malcolm McClaren was trying to launch. Lydon went to rehearsal and immediately started fighting with the other members, Steve Jones and Paul Cook, who hated him. Jones took one look at his terrible teeth and renamed him Johnny Rotten.
Lydon was only 20 when Jones called Bill Grundy a “dirty fucker” on live TV, causing a national scandal. He was 21 when ‘God Save The Queen’ became the gravest internal threat to the British monarchy since Cromwell. Whether you view the Pistols as true anarchists or a bunch of posers, there’s no denying that Lydon caused a commotion. He was being discussed in Parliament as a national security threat while still too young to get into most nightclubs.
Then, when he was 23, it all ended.
Lydon walked out on the Sex Pistols during their American tour shortly after sneering, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” at an unhappy audience. Johnny Rotten was dead, figuratively. A few weeks later, Sid Vicious, Lydon’s childhood friend, was dead for real.
If Johnny had stayed and Sid lived, McClaren probably would have kept them going for years until they became a sad cabaret act, like those old guys with mohawks in Trafalgar Square who’ll sneer and pose for photos if you give them a tenner. Even when Sid and Johnny were gone, McClaren kept exploiting them, believing that he owned those characters in the same way JK Rowling owns Harry Potter.
Lydon and McClaren ended up in court for years, until McClaren finally caved in 1986. The band settled for £1 million in back royalties, plus full control of their image and catalogue. This was good timing, as Alex Cox’s movie Sid and Nancy became a cult hit, establishing the Pistols as part of rock’n’roll’s mythic past.
Lydon was now 30.
Take down Tinseltown
One of the reasons Lydon left the Pistols was, according to him, a disagreement about his taste in music: things like reggae, krautrock, Captain Beefheart. McClaren was furious because these records didn’t fit the image—Johnny Rotten was supposed to hate that hippy shit.
Lydon started looking to do something new after the Sex Pistols, so he returned to "The Gang of Johns”, a group of childhood friends him and John Richie (better known as Sid Vicious). One of these Johns—John Wardle—agreed to become Lydon’s bass player despite not knowing how to play bass. Sid had made the same deal but never learned to play; luckily, Wardle was a natural bassist. He renamed himself Jah Wobble and became a minor legend in his own right.
Lydon and Wobble formed Public Image Limited and surprised the world with a brutal, industrial sound mixed with irresistible grooves. The first single, ‘Public Image’, opens like a Pistols song before evolving into a kind of proto-Pixies number. By the time of Metal Box, PiL had become one of the most innovative bands in the world, dropping classics like ‘Death Disco’, which sounds like Boney M meets Joy Division.
They even found chart success, with ‘This Is Not A Love Song’ reaching Number 5 and ‘Flowers Of Romance’ earning Lydon his first Top Of The Pops appearance.
PiL’s line-up kept changing. By 1986, it was filled with people who would have been anathema to the old Johnny Rotten: guitar virtuoso Steve Vai and former Cream drummer Ginger Baker. They released ‘Rise’, which is perhaps the most commercial thing Lydon has ever done. It was a decent-sized hit.
‘Rise’ was his ‘Blue Monday’ moment, the chance to detach from that other band and finally become known as John Lydon from Public Image Limited.
But… it didn’t quite happen. Maybe it was impossible. PiL never quite had the same strong identity as New Order, while Sex Pistols were vastly more famous than Joy Division. Sid and Nancy and the Pistols revival didn’t help either, and to the public, he remained Johnny Rotten.
All in all, a three-ring circus
1992 was a vital inflexion point in Lydon’s career.
The Pistols decided to jump on the Best Of bandwagon and release a CD collection called Kiss This, which is really just Never Mind The Bollocks with a few bonus tracks. Lydon put some effort into mixing and sequencing, but it was only intended as a cash grab.
Of course, this sparked rumour of a Pistols reunion, to which Lydon replied:
“That would be thoroughly awful and cynical and vile and I would feel guilty as hell and I'd never be able to look myself in the face. It would be a disaster for me, emotionally. I'm not going to play the Johnny Rotten cartoon character for anybody."
Meanwhile, Public Image Limited were ready to release their eighth album, That What Is Not, a back-to-basics effort with all of the 80s synth sounds stripped out. In another interview, Lydon explained why he wanted to this PiL album to move away from dance music:
“I wanted a live rock band, thank you very much. [Rave culture] is mindless bollocks. Opium for the masses. I hate raves. It's just like going to someone's annoying party where there's only four cans of light ale in the corner. And that horrible thumpy beat, it's dreadful, it's all too fast."
That What Is Not is a pretty good album (it mostly sounds like The Fall). The opening track, ‘Acid Drops’, ends with a fade-out of John singing “No future, no future”, as if the ghost of Johnny Rotten still haunted the studio.
But critics wrinkled their noses, and it barely troubled the album charts. The consensus was that Lydon was over the hill. After all, he was now 36. Practically a dinosaur.
Meanwhile, Kiss This, went gangbusters, charting at Number 10 before going Gold. It also sparked a fresh wave of interest in punk.
I remember it being a sensation in my peer group—I have a core memory of listening to Kiss This on a school trip and briefly thinking Johnny Rotten was the coolest person who’d ever lived. I didn’t know anything about John Lydon or Public Image Limited, apart from maybe hearing ‘Rise’ on the radio.
I was 15. Just a kid. Four years younger than John Lydon when he walked down Oxford Street in an “I HATE PINK FLOYD” t-shirt.
Go for the money, honey
‘Open Up’ is a terrific single and a really clever idea.
Acts like KLF and The Shamen had sold rave music to indie kids, but it never became a genre in itself. ‘Open Up’ was a crossover that opened the doors for dance music aimed at a non-raver audience: The Chemical Brothers, Fatboy Slim, Basement Jaxx, not to mention ‘Firestarter’, which is essentially just ‘Open Up’ with slightly different drum loops.
Was Lydon selling out, or was he genuinely enthusiastic about working with Leftfield? As ever with Johnny, it’s hard to tell, although it’s ironic that he became a rave icon after trashing the genre in the past.
Whatever the truth, this is probably the last time we saw him make art as John Lydon. ‘Open Up’ feels like a PiL song, although it inadvertently caused some Sex Pistols-style controversy—California was being ravaged by wildfires, so BBC refused to play it due to the ‘Burn Hollywood burn’ line.
Public Image Limited went on hiatus for the next 20 years, and John began to lean more and more into his punk persona, first publishing an autobiography called Rotten, then agreeing to the inevitable: putting on the Johnny Rotten cartoon costume for a Sex Pistols reunion, just slightly after his 40th birthday. But that’s a story for another day.
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New in this week’s charts
Some of the latest hits (from 30 years ago…)
6—Goodmen, ‘Give It Up’
Infectious Latin-flavoured anthem with lots of drumming. It was later sampled by Simply Red on their hit ‘Fairground’, but don’t hold that against them.
9—Urban Cookie Collective, ‘Feels Like Heaven’
Of all the doomed follow-up dance singles we’ve discussed recently, this might be the best. It’s not a patch on ‘The Key, The Secret’, but it does have some brand new ideas that are well-executed.
10—The Orb, ‘Little Fluffy Clouds’
In one of John Lydon’s interviews from 1993, he complains about how rave records often have vocals from “a pop star floating around on top like a little fluffy cloud.”
The voice here is actually Ricki Lee Jones, singer of 70s classic ‘Chuck E’s In Love’. The Orb sampled an interview where she spoke about her childhood and stretched the vocals out into this strange, mind-bending masterpiece.
Jones wasn’t happy and sued for an undisclosed sum. When asked about the song in 2019, she simply referred to The Orb as “those fuckers”.
A weird hit, considering its sexy lyrics. Even weirder that it was prominently featured years later in American Pie and is now their most-streamed song.
35—David Hasselhoff, ‘If I Could Say Goodbye’
You have to admire the man’s stamina. This is from his 8th studio album, recorded during the 4th season of Baywatch. It is, of course, terrible, but boy was he productive.
Hear all of this week’s new tracks in the ever-growing 1993 playlist!
Album of the Week
Wu-Tang Clan, Enter The Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
It’s barely a year since Dre reinvented rap with The Chronic, and already it’s being reinvented again.
The origins of 36 Chambers are steeped in legend. Tommy Boy Records decided to focus their resources on House of Pain rather than New York artists Prince Rakeem and Genius. New York was dead anyway; all the heat was on the West Coast. Rakeem and Genius rebranded themselves as RZA and GZA, then formed a collective of like-minded rappers, with RZA as the producer/gang leader.
Their studio was too small to house the entire Clan, so RZA made them rap battle each other for a spot on the mic, which he recorded with a shoe-string budget and creaky old technology. The whole project should have sounded like just another mixtape.
Except…the crew happen to be maybe the single most talented collective of people in hip-hop history. And the record is a masterpiece.
Method Man is the only member who gets the spotlight to himself, given a whole five minutes to dazzle us on the rambunctious ‘M.E.T.H.O.D. Man’. Everyone else is constantly fighting for mic time, like on the sprawling posse cut ‘Protect Ya Neck’. Even RZA and GZA have to split their time on their team-up, ‘Clan In The Front’.
If there’s a “winner” on 36 Chambers, it’s probably Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who tends to pop up at random, asking questions like “Do you wanna get your teeth knocked the fuck out?” and complaining about people trying to buy groceries from his hip-hop store. He’s hilarious and impish, but that ODB charisma becomes a throughline that allows the record to gel.
And that’s what’s most amazing about 36 Chambers—it feels like a proper record by a real group. These individuals would go on to produce an astonishingly diverse range of solo albums, but right now, they’re a team.
‘C.R.E.A.M.’ (featuring Method Man, Raekwon and Inspectah Deck) is probably the highlight, but honestly the whole album is a highlight. 36 Chambers is a debut record that sounds like a Best Of. Incredible stuff.
That’s it for this week! Leave a comment if you have any thoughts on the music featured today.