Public Image Ltd. Invades American Bandstand

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Never mind the bollocks...

Never mind the bollocks…

You might think that Dick Clark would have been peeved, but he called it one of his favorite TV moments: that time when John Lydon—a.k.a. Johnny Rotten—and his band Public Image Ltd. created chaos on the set of the American Bandstand.

The date was May 17, 1980. Two years earlier Rotten had turned rock music upside down and inside out as the frontman of punk progenitors the Sex Pistols. After that band imploded in early 1978, Lydon wasted little time putting together a new one: PiL, as they were often called, retained much of the Pistols’ punk spirit while offering up a more rhythmically complex, danceable brand of off-center rock. Their first couple of albums, particularly 1979’s Metal Box (released as a set of three 12-inch 45s housed inside of a metal box), received ecstatic reviews for the band’s daring, experimental mix of clanging, dissonant post-punk guitar, deep dub bass and funky drumming, with Lydon spitting out his often dense if nakedly emotive lyrics in an atonal yowl that virtually ensured PiL would never find commercial success in a U.S. market dominated by disco and treacly pop.

Related: Sex Pistols release “God Save the Queen”

So what was Public Image Ltd. doing on Bandstand? Only Dick Clark and his bookers know for sure, but there they were, visiting the venerable music program, where they were expected to faithfully mime two of their tunes, “Poptones” and “Careering.” John Lydon would have none of that.

Seconds into the clip we see Lydon, sitting off to the side, sporting a bored mug, while the others in the band—bassist Jah Wobble, guitarist Keith Levene and drummer Martin Atkins—do their best to deal with the fake playing. Lydon bounds up suddenly, dances like a deranged chicken for a few seconds, then heads straight into the audience, mingling with the bemused crowd—we hear him singing but his mouth is nowhere near the microphone. He’s got other plans. He grabs a girl and pulls her to the stage, then returns repeatedly to drag others where he wants them. Finally, he’s surrounded by a couple dozen dancing fans, the band gamely “playing” as all of this anarchy unfolds. By the time “Poptones” ends, PiL has turned American Bandstand into a free-for-all the likes of which Clark had surely never seen on his well-mannered program.

Related: John Lydon sued on Judge Judy

“Are you feeling alright, Johnny?” Clark asks Lydon between tunes, and assured that he’s feeling just fine, Clark inquires whether the singer would like the guests to remain onstage or return to their seats. He chooses the stage and Wobble ups the ante by inviting the others in the audience to the stage too. The band launches into “Careering,” Lydon wandering amidst the gyrating throng, grinning madly, not even bothering to pretend he’s singing anymore. The microphone in his hand has become a prop, a percussion instrument. As the song winds down, we see a closeup of drummer Atkins, the cameras pull away, and that’s that for PiL on Bandstand. We imagine Dick Clark, pining for an earlier time, when well-behaved pinup boys like Frankie Avalon and Fabian ruled the world.

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Related: Never Mind the Bollocks has gotten a 40th anniversary release

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