‘Public Image’, despite what most of the press seemed to misinterpret it to be, is not about the fans at all, it’s a slagging of the group I used to be in. It’s what I went through from my own group. They never bothered to listen to what I was fucking singing, they don’t even know the words to my songs. They never bothered to listen, it was like, ‘Here’s a tune, write some words to it.’ So I did. They never questioned it. I found that offensive, it meant I was literally wasting my time, ’cause if you ain’t working with people that are on the same level then you ain’t doing anything. The rest of the band and Malcolm never bothered to find out if I could sing, they just took me as an image. It was as basic as that, they really were as dull as that. After a year of it they were going ‘Why don’t you have your hair this colour this year?’ And I was going ‘Oh God, a brick wall, I’m fighting a brick wall!’ They don’t understand even now.
— John Lydon in Melody Maker, 1978
After the spectacular collapse of their 1978 American tour, the members of the Sex Pistols found themselves at loose ends. Sid Viscous pursued an ill-fated solo career. Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren took off to Brazil with Paul Cook and Steve Jones and attempted to recruit fugitive Ronnie Briggs to be the band’s new lead singer. Meanwhile, the band’s former lead singer, Johnny Rotten, returned to the UK and announced to the world that he still had more to say.
Of course, he wouldn’t be saying it as a Sex Pistol nor would he be using the name Johnny Rotten, though whether that was primarily by choice or due to legal issues with McLaren and the Sex Pistols’s management team depends on which source you consult. Using his real name, John Lydon reemerged as the founder and lead singer of Public Image Ltd. With PiL, Lydon retained the anger and the wit that made him such an exciting figure with the Sex Pistols but he also took control of his own musical destiny.
PiL’s first single (and hit) was Public Image and, appropriately, it was a song that Lydon had originally written to express his displeasure with the direction of the Sex Pistols. The song criticized the Pistols (and McLaren, specifically) for being more concerned with maintaining the right image than with actually saying anything. The video, which came out before MTV, shows that Lydon didn’t need the Sex Pistols to get across his withering message.