Listen to this track by rotating cast of musical characters in orbit around one-time Rotten singer John Lydon; Public Image, Ltd. It’s “Rise”, a single and top twenty record as taken from the imaginatively titled 1986 LP, Album (or Cassette, or Compact Disc, depending on format…). The album was the fifth released under the name Public Image, Ltd. since forming in 1978. By this period, it was more like a John Lydon solo record with some very notable, and very unexpected players featured on it.
The musicians on this song alone are a fair distance away from the musical world with which Lydon was generally associated. Stylistically, they’re even pretty far from each other in terms of genre, coming in from parallel stylistic universes to make a (perhaps) surprisingly complementary set of noises together while still retaining their own signature styles. This internal cohesion is largely down to the involvement of producer, bassist, musical director, and co-writer of this song Bill Laswell, well known for his knack for finding common threads between genres and musician’s styles to create something seamless out of them.
What does singer John Lydon himself bring to this song in the middle of all of that, a charting hit that reached #11 on the UK pop charts? Well, perhaps unexpectedly from the guy who wailed “no future for you!” at one point in his career, I think this song is about hope for the future itself. But, it’s hope with a cost.
As mentioned, this album is bolstered by an impressive list of guest personnel. This was after Lydon and Bill Laswell fired the inexperienced touring group with whom Lydon worked under the band’s moniker. Instead of full-time band members, guests were brought in to add individual parts in isolation. Guitar pyrotechnics specialist Steve Vai, legendary jazz drummer Tony Williams, and sought after session violinist L. Shankar all weigh in on this song. Ryuichi Sakamoto appears on several cuts. So does Ginger Baker, just because Lydon joked to Laswell that Baker would be a good choice as PiL’s drummer. And likely because of the Tony Williams connection, even Miles Davis showed up at the sessions one day, although he doesn’t play.
At the center of this song is John Lydon, who carries a musical signature all of his own with an instantly recognizable vocal delivery. His half-spoken style lends the song a sort of Anglicized hip-hop feel (Liam Howlett and Keith Flint of The Prodigy were listening …), with a decidedly Celtic twist that perhaps is a reflection of Lydon’s own Irish background. The “may the road rise with you” lyrical hook that helps to give this song its title is a paraphrase of the Irish blessing “may the road rise up to meet you/may the wind always be at your back …”. Yet because this is a song co-written by John Lydon, another phrase that reflects his worldview is undeniably “anger is an energy!” belted out as convincingly as any “get pissed, destroy” of the past.
This time though, it’s the anger on which this song touches is productive, not destructive. It implicitly contains vision for a better world, while also acknowledging the lies and injustices that are commonplace in the world as it is. There is a sense of solidarity to anyone who has experienced oppression and who stands up for what they believe in anyway, whether black or white, or for the things one has done or said because of strongly held convictions even under the most harrowing conditions. At a time when Apartheid in South Africa was becoming more and more evident to the world, and with violence in Northern Ireland also making headlines in the UK, this song hooked right into the zeitgeist without needing to go into too much detail. In 1986, it was in the air anyway.
As mentioned, I think this song is ultimately a hopeful one, seeming to take the side of those that struggle just by evoking the reality of those struggles. Yet it takes care not to call too much attention to itself, not falling into the trap of turning itself into an exercise in fashionable political posturing or worse, a dour polemic set to a beat. Maybe that’s why it’s so effective. It acknowledges the contributions of those who have chosen their side. But the lines “I may be wrong, I may be right …” lets the listener decide which road to take when it comes to figuring out the political side of things, even as it suggests the oppressive climate of its times.
This isn’t a political anthem with answers. With “Rise”, we have to decide for ourselves how we respond to the turbulence of the times in which we live, while reminding us of the grave sacrifices that some have made to do the same.
John Lydon is an active musician and songwriter today. You can learn more about some of his more recent activities at johnlydon.com.
For more on PiL, here’s a review of the documentary The Public Image is Rotten from Variety magazine, a film which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in April of this year.