Part 44 of a series that will run throughout 2013 as I discuss records that have affected me throughout the years – Flashback Fridays
What does the term “punk” mean? The other day I was driving in my suburban neighborhood and noticed a group of teenagers hanging outside of Starbucks (Dr. Evil’s Headquarters). Does social and monetary status define how we define ourselves? It’s a difficult question to answer, really. I remember in the early 90’s when I was discovering the original punk scene I’d mock those kids who wore Rancid shirts (I probably hadn’t heard of Operation Ivy yet) and blabber on about the Sex Pistols and The Clash. An old friend recently sent me an article on The Onion from 2003 featuring a guy ranting on about how he was a true punk – cause he’d seen the 1996 Sex Pistols reunion show and how could kids in 2003 be old enough to remember that? Sigh. I was BORN in 1977.
Although my primary interests quickly moved on from punk to post-punk, I’ve always held on to a deep love for several of the original punk bands – The Sex Pistols being an obvious one. What is startling about the career of John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) is how quickly he transitioned from being one of the true originals in punk to a true original in the post-punk scene (with a little help from his friends). Out of the 1st 4 LP’s Lydon was involved with, no less than 3 of them are considered masterpieces by most music critics (I’d count all 4 as masterpieces – Never Mind the Bollocks, 1st Issue, Metal Box, The Flowers of Romance – and don’t count The Great Rock n Roll Swindle as a full length record). Things are a little hit or miss after that for me.
In 1997 I happened to be at Tower Records in Philadelphia with a friend and heard a unique blend of electronic music & ghostly vocals. It seemed familiar yet I just couldn’t grasp what it was. After checking with the clerk I was stunned to find out it was the new John Lydon solo record, Psycho’s Path. I instantly bought the CD and was mesmerized by the sounds contained within. It has been a record that I’ve come back to often over the last 15 years or so.
…like a drowned man, clutching at straws (album breakdown)
Grave Ride – ominous bass heavy synths fill the mix, almost screaming “90’s Electronica” until the sinister voice of John Lydon enters the mix. Whispering / singing his way through the track as an overall feeling of dread never lets up. Towards the end of the track Lydon lets his emotions loose as his vocals are sung with a sense of urgency. The music might sound different from his other projects but the lyrics tie it all together:
I heard some friends got taken for a ride,
A one way journey, everybody died.
It’s not unusual, many go that way.
Their numbers mounting every single day,
Dog – One of the greatest songs Lydon has ever been involved with and I don’t say that lightly. The track slowly fades in with wordless vocals and slight electronic embellishments before a heavy beat enters the mix. Lydon chants “You can look to the future when you’re confident” repeatedly before asking various questions and answering himself. Sounds a bit…unhinged. And it is, brilliantly so. Features some vintage Lydon lyrics:
Nothing has an answer and that’s a fact
And all religions are the devils pacts
And one step forward is two steps back
And you know and I know and that’s a fact
And as we stand, we are innocent
Adam and Eve are innocent
And all mankind is innocent
We can all do without judgement
Psychopath – the title track ebbs and flows, building atmosphere without reaching the climax the listener might hope for. Is this a bad thing? Not for me – sometimes a tight track is perfect for the feel of the record. This track is one of the few that sounds like it’d fit in on a Public Image Limited record. Noisy guitar squalls compliment Lydon’s smooth vocals perfectly. “And as I reach into the sky, the Devil and the Angels just pass me by.”
Sun – An accordion led waltz – of course this was the single! I honestly can’t imagine any form of radio playing this track very much, especially when it was released. That being said, this track is perfectly executed and will have you muttering “the idiot dance” under your breath after you’ve heard it just once. As always, Lydon’s vocals never cease to amaze. He dances around phrases, rhymes where it doesn’t seem possible and generally holds everything together.
Another Way – One of the strongest tracks on the record, if not THE strongest track. The electronic beat is front and center in the mix with Lydon turning in a Johnny Rotten worthy vocal performance. One of those tracks that builds and builds on the dark atmosphere as it progresses, it is a remarkable song. The way the song allows the layered atmospheric build up stand in stark contrast to the isolated (and amazing) vocals by John Lydon is something that needs to be heard to be believed. Another set of lyrics that are stunning:
One Upmanship is a game you play.
Competition is a game you say.
Well rules are rules
And rules are for fools.
This gravy train led by mules.
Dis-Ho – The track starts off with an uptempo beat before suddenly shifting about a minute in. The track morphs into a dark techno masterpiece, the incessant beat combined with sinister vocals providing an intoxicating mix. “Now don’t be told your life is order / You bite this hook, your life is over”
Take Me – This is the track I would have chosen for the single off of the record, if I had been a record company executive in 1997 and not a 20-year-old hipster geek. Very strong chorus, catchy music and perfect vocals. Shows a slight electronic influence but isn’t afraid to show off its pop leanings. Key lyrics:
Don’t want your world
Don’t want nothing in it
I seen your world
Don’t want nothing in it
I been around
Don’t know why we’re in it
A No and a Yes – a case of Lydon sounding like the bands he has influenced on this track, but no one has the golden pipes that he does. Is that damning praise? I don’t know – this is a deeper album cut that has a weak chorus, strong music, and absolutely stunning vocals. Key lyrics:
Too much confusion these days
Between a no and a yes who knows?
Now which side of the fence
Is best who knows
Stump – a masterpiece sequenced towards the end of the album. Dark electronic music, evoking visions of a carnival in hell. Lydon spouts off various lyrics about hypocrisy in others as well as ourselves and whole track seems to be heading off a cliff. This is a classic Johnny Rotten – I mean Lydon – vocal performance. Key lyrics:
You will condemn in me, the things you
Love the most
You will condemn and roast the things you want the most
You could never find an answer inside a book
Armies – A Nine Inch Nails type industrial beat opens the track as synthesizers fade into the mix. Nursery rhyme vibe married to a sound collage – this could be released in 2013 and still sound current. There isn’t a strong chorus to the track, but that really isn’t the point. Key lyrics:
And every scene is seen as obscene
The spoken word should never be heard
And every nude is soon subdued
And every thought should end in nought
Open Up (Chemical Brothers remix) – There are a few remixes tacked on to this album, but this is the only one that is a unique track (and thus the only one broken down here). More of a techno feel to this track, which might not come as a surprise since the Chemical Brothers are involved with the mix. The beat is dance floor ready, fading away as Lydon delivers his vocals in a ghostly affectation. Lyrics aren’t quite as strong as the music here, but this is a nice line: “You lied. you faked. you cheated. / You changed the stakes.”
Another decade and a half would go by after the release of this record before the world heard the famous Johnny Rotten lend his pipes to new compositions (with the 2012 release of Public Image Limited’s This is PiL). I think this record (again, the ONLY one released under his own name) gets unfairly overlooked. Am I really comparing it to his groundbreaking work with the Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited? Not really – I think it exists in a universe of its own. Nothing else sounds like it in the Johnny Rotten / Lydon discography and is a record that deserves to be sought out and listened to by music fans. Join me next time as I discuss my favorite record by The Beatles, Rubber Soul.