In late 1978, one year after the tumultuous break up of the Sex Pistols, John Lydon (AKA Johnny Rotten) launched his new band, Public Image Limited, featuring his childhood friend Jah Wobble on bass, and Keith Levene, former guitarist for The Clash, on guitar. Lydon had had a rough time of it; by the time the Sex Pistols disintegrated, he had no money, no privacy thanks to the band’s enduring notoriety and no real control over his punk past (former manager Malcolm McLaren had staked claim to the Sex Pistols’ image, forbidding Lydon to use the name Rotten for future endeavours). As a result, he deemed that Public Image Limited would be different: a band-cum-company comprised of trusted co-collaborators.
Shortly after founding the band he approached Jeannette Lee, now best known as the co-director of iconic independent label Rough Trade Records, inviting her into the PiL fold as a “non-musical member” of the group to help with press, promotion and general administration. Thus ensued a magical period of innovation and cooperation which saw PiL rise to greater and greater heights, blazing an avant-garde, post-punk trail. Now, a new limited-edition book of Polaroid photographs taken by Lee during her three or four-year tenure with the group, and published by IDEA, sheds candid light on this formative period of the band’s history.
Lydon and Lee had met through Don Letts, the then-manager of famous punk-reggae clothing store Acme Attractions on the King’s Road (where Lee also worked), and bonded over a shared love of reggae and their north London council estate backgrounds. “He came to me and said, ‘I’m starting this new thing. I want to work with people that I trust. I don’t want to work with any more idiots’,” Lee recalls in an interview with Jarvis Cocker – a close friend, whom she also manages and who helped her compile the publication – for the book’s accompanying text. “There was no real job description: just likeminded people joining forces.” Alongside the key band members, these included Don Letts, Sheila Rock, Judy Nylon and Plaxy Locatelli, among others, all of whom set up office in Lydon’s house in Gunter Grove, between Fulham and the King’s Road, and spent their days, in Lee’s words, “making manifestos and then living according to them”.
It is in this intimate setting that many of Lee’s pictures are staged, taken from 1980 onwards, after the purchase of her Polaroid SX-70 camera on a trip to New York. “The quality of the pictures was so good. I had a stint of having it with me all the time. Taking pictures everywhere I went,” she tells Cocker. Lee was a natural photographer, her snapshots rendered in dreamy hues and boasting compelling compositions. Some of the images from the book will be recognisable to PiL fans – such as the brilliant photograph of Lydon gazing furtively into a spiderweb-etched mirror, which was used as the cover for the Flowers of Romance single – while many more have never been seen, and offer viewers wonderful insight into the very private world of Public Image Limited. There’s a picture of one member tenderly clasping a puppy, one of Levene sitting in front of a strawberry milkshake, traces of its froth forming a moustache across his top lip, another of Lee and a boater-topped Lydon grinning goofily into the camera: the softer, sillier side of punk.
In the interview with Cocker, Lee shares some of the fabulous stories behind the pictures – from the pair of exuberant, Tudor pantaloons that Lydon rented from a Hampton Court costume shop and had copied because he became so attached to them; to the infamous 1981 Ritz gig where the band performed behind a screen onto which a live video, filmed by Lee, was projected, prompting outrage and rioting from the audience; to the story of a police drugs raid, which saw the PiL members outwit the cops using a secret hatch in the Gunter Grove flat.
Viewed as a whole, the striking images serve to illustrate Lee’s telling description of PiL’s raison d’être: “It was all or nothing. It was living.” As Cocker observes in the book’s introduction, “You can look at these pictures and see people living together, working together, exploring together, experimenting together. Where does the play end and the work start? Can anyone tell? Is there a difference? Witness an attempt to found a new society, behind closed doors, staying up for days on end, definitely not playing by the rules.” Lee has famously hitherto remained quiet about her days as part of Public Image Limited – she accompanied the group on its relocation to New York but left it there in 1982 and returned to London, joining Rough Trade Records four years later. “In that whole period [with PiL] I was learning to do what I do now,” she tells Cocker. And while she doesn’t explicitly describe what that entails, as Cocker notes shrewdly, “if you study these photographs closely you might pick up some clues.”
Private Image by Jeannette Lee, published by IDEA, is available to buy from May 18, 2017. Lee and Jarvis Cocker will sign 100 copies at Dover Street Market London from 6-7.30 at Dover Street Market London on May 18, 2017.