John Lydon & Public Image Ltd. Sow Chaos on American Bandstand: The Show’s Best and Worst Moment (1980)

Amer­i­can Band­stand is best remem­bered these days not for doing the job it set out to do–presenting safe pop stars in the com­pa­ny of a stu­dio audi­ence to move units–but for when it ran head­long into the chang­ing cul­ture around it. Or at least that’s what Open Cul­ture thinks. We’ve seen the begin­nings of the Sum­mer of Love with Jef­fer­son Air­plane and chip­per Dick Clark try­ing to fig­ure out why hip­pies wouldn’t cut their hair. We’ve also seen a bemused Clark attempt­ing to inter­act with David Byrne when the Talk­ing Heads played the show. But noth­ing real­ly tops the time Pub­lic Image Ltd. brought true chaos to the Band­stand.

Dick Clark called it the worst moment in Band­stand his­to­ry; Lydon, in his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, said the oppo­site, say­ing Clark told him it was one of the best per­for­mances in the show’s his­to­ry. Some­where in between lies the truth–no doubt Clark knew it was great tele­vi­sion.

It all took place on May 17, 1980, one full month before John Lydon and Kei­th Levene’s con­tentious appear­ance on Tom Snyder’s pro­gram, where Lydon insists that Pub­lic Image Ltd. is not a band. “It’s a com­pa­ny,” he shot back in his finest nasal cock­ney.

PIL was on Amer­i­can Band­stand to pro­mote their album Sec­ond Edi­tion, their dark dab­bling into dub and post-punk. The first song may be called “Pop­tones” but there’s noth­ing pop­py about it.

Accord­ing to Cole Coonce in his book Sex & Trav­el & Ves­tiges of Metal­lic Frag­ments, Lydon told Clark that he had a cold. “He said that because he wasn’t feel­ing well he was just going to go up there and take the piss out of me. So I said, ‘Go ahead.’ And he did.’”

Lydon’s account is dif­fer­ent, say­ing the show’s pro­duc­ers cut down “Pop­tones” and “Career­ing” (a total of 13 some min­utes) down to a man­age­able length.

“I don’t know where the vocals are going to drop. What are we sup­posed to do?” Lydon thought.

What PIL did is what was broad­cast. Adrift from their own song, Lydon starts “Pop­tones” sit­ting on the front of the stage, then grabs the micro­phone and wan­ders into the audi­ence. He makes no attempt to lip sync. The audi­ence isn’t sure what to do. Lydon isn’t sure. There’s an ele­ment of dan­ger and excite­ment. Lydon grabs audi­ence mem­bers and takes them onto the stage to dance. By the end of the first song the audi­ence has tak­en over the stage and then Dick Clark has to intro­duce the band. It doesn’t last long, and “Career­ing” begins.

The dan­ger of punk and post-punk that evening wasn’t in the per­for­mance of the band or of a volatile audi­ence. It was in the break­ing down of a tele­vi­sion show’s arti­fice and the sep­a­ra­tion of band and audi­ence. Check it out.

Some great pho­tos of the show can be viewed over at Flash­bak.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Nev­er Mind the Bol­locks, Here’s … John Lydon in a But­ter Com­mer­cial?

John­ny Rotten’s Cor­dial Let­ter to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Next to the Sex Pis­tols, You’re ‘a Piss Stain’

John­ny Rot­ten Goes Before TV’s Judge Judy in 1997 … and Wins!

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the artist inter­view-based FunkZone Pod­cast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, read his oth­er arts writ­ing at and/or watch his films here.

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  • Mr. Beer N. Hockey says:

    Saw PIL on the tour they were on in 1980. Best rock ’n’ roll fog machine show ever. Did not have a tv in those days so I missed them on Band­stand. Takes me back it does. Way back…

  • Rich in Washington says:

    I remem­ber watch­ing Band­stand when I was a teen — back when you watched what­ev­er was on because it was on — and even then think­ing the show and Clark were real­ly unhip and I recall all these weirdo New Wave bands com­ing on and more or less mak­ing fun of the clue­less and square Clark — I espe­cial­ly remem­ber both Wall of Voodoo and Devo at dif­fer­ent times mak­ing him look kind of sil­ly and refus­ing to be seri­ous at all.
    I don’t remem­ber see­ing the PIL episode. I would­n’t have known what to make of it at that age but I am sure it would’ve rewired my synaps­es if I had.

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