Memories: Martin Atkins reflects on his five years with Public Image Ltd., and the true genius of Jo
From 1979 through 1985, Martin Atkins was on the road playing drums with Public Image Ltd., John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols, post-punk agent provocateur that emerged intent on smashing the tropes of popular music. In a 1980 interview with Tom Snyder for The “Tom Snyder Show,” Lydon explained: “We ain’t no band. We’re a company. Simple. Nothing to do with rock ‘n’ roll doo-dah.” … For Lydon, that vision evolved over the years. For Atkins, the time spent touring with PiL and co-writing songs that appear on albums such as 1979’s Metal Box, 1981’s Flowers Of Romance, and 1984’s This Is What You Want...This Is What You Get inspired a 40-year DIY legacy. The spirit of listening, collaborating, and allowing other voices to flourish was an integral part of the post-punk experience that he carried into performing with the likes of Killing Joke, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Pigface, and more, all while running his own industrial music imprint, Invisible Records. In 2018, as Atkins enters the final stages of a Pledge Music campaign to fund a new book titled Memories: My Time With Public Image Ltd. (1979-1980), he is booking on speaking engagements across the United Stages and elsewhere around the globe. He’s also listening to people’s stories about their experiences from seeing PiL live during either of its 1980 or ’82 trips to the States. The first of these speaking engagements took place Thursday, August 23, at Avondale Towne Cinema. Before taking the stage for an evening in Atlanta, Atkins took a few minutes to talk about his book, discovering music amid the U.K.’s creative flashpoint of the late ’70s, and the trouble with misconceptions about John Lydon’s true brilliance.
CR: You played Atlanta twice with Public Image Ltd., at the Agora Ballroom once April of 1980 and then it looks like two nights in December of ’82.
MA: The 1980 show at the Agora was our fourth U.S. date. We did Boston, New York City, the Palladium, and then a show at a place called Great Gildersleeves, which was a biker bar a few doors down from CBGB. That was a very PiL thing to do, play next door to CBGB but not actually play CBGBs [laughs].
CR: How far along with the book are you?
MA: Mentally, I’m substantially along. I didn’t want this book to be perceived as me saying, “No, I did this!” I didn’t want it to be my version, so you have to read five different people’s PiL books to get a remote idea of the story. It was a struggle for me, and I knew early on that I wanted to talk with Keith Levene, Jah Wobble, and Pete Jones, Bob Miller, Nick Launay. I ended up speaking with the guy who was involved in the Australian tour, and I talked with the guy who filmed the show at Great Gildersleeves, which is included in the PiL documentary, The Public Image is Rotten, and I started getting stories from Mark Kates, who manages MGMT now. So, it became a different kind of book. Of course, my opinions are in there. I drive it. But I’m feeling the influence of my Master Degree. I got my Masters in Creative Media earlier this year through Middlesex University, and I absolutely feel the impact of that work in researching. Not just coming up with ideas and putting them on paper, but in substantiating the points I’m putting forward.
The interviews are transcribed, and I have my diaries. Some of those will go directly into the written pieces for the book. But finding a way to grapple with this five years of my life was a big piece of it for me. Now, aside from traveling and doing other things, it’s just a matter of sitting down and threading this needle. My diaries — 1980, ’82, ’83 — I have those resources to look at along with my own recollections and pieces of memorabilia.
Public Image, Ltd. on American Bandstand, May 1980 - John Lydon and Martin Atkins NYC, 1983
CR: You mention a lot of PiL alumni. Have you worked with John Lydon on this book?
MA: He’s not involved. It occurred to me, after watching the Public Image is Rotten documentary, I really like the first half. Perhaps it’s me: I like the bit before I joined the band; it’s very interesting. It’s great to see all of my friends again on screen. But it did not feel correct that Keith Levene, Bob Miller, and Larry White, for instance, were not included in the documentary. It was a turning point for me. I spent three hours skyping with Keith Levene. It was revelatory in an interpersonal way. Keith and I have had a checkered past, to say the least. At one point I said to Keith, “Listen, man. I was 23 years old.” And he said, “Listen, man. I was 22.” We both just sat there and said this is ridiculous … at the time of the first tour, I was 20-21 years old.
I thought, maybe I should talk to John. I have hung out with him a time or two here and there over the last 35 years. But his management wanted an editorial read-through. I thought cool, I can understand they want to read through John’s interview. But no, they wanted final approval. I thought absolutely not. John’s view of events is everywhere. He has a loud enough megaphone to say what he wants, so I’m not going to do that.
CR: So, you will have a slightly different angle on the story.
MA: I’m not sure that it’s slightly different. I’m getting an idea that there’s been an incremental revisionist history of this particular band. I can see where, perhaps, John does an interview, and someone says, “John, you’re a genius!” Flowers of Romance is great!” And he says, “Thanks!” And over the course of 35 years, it’s become that he’s responsible for the whole thing. But the truth is, in my opinion, the tracks that I play on for Flowers were fully formed by myself and Nick Launay before John walked into the room. And it was very much him saying, “Hey, what have you got for me?” Now, I know, that must sound like I am criticizing John. But I’m not. He was absolutely brilliant in that he just walked in … imagine walking in and hearing “Four Enclosed Walls,” “Under the House,” or “Banging the Door” for the first time, sitting there for a few minutes and saying, “Alright, I’ve got something for it.” Imagine just walking in and singing that song, fully formed in his weird, creative way!
The album after I left, Album, was produced by Bill Laswell, and it was exactly the same situation. I could quote you from an interview with him, which I need to find, but he basically said, “We had no idea if this relationship would work with John. But at least if these songs didn’t work out, I could use them for something else.” So, these are a producer’s songs put together for John to sing on. One of the guitarists said that John wasn’t around much at all except for at night when he came in to sing. I’m not trying to have a go at anyone. I’m just saying here are all of these interviews — all of these stories — so you can make up your own mind about what happened.
PiL Years: The Flowers of Romance (1981) and This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get (1984)
CR: In your experience, is it a pretty common for producers to put together tracks with a specific singer in mind to come in and sing them, but it’s ultimately perceived as the singer’s vision?
MA: Of course, he’s fucking Johnny Rotten. But it also happens the other way around: A singer will walk in and say, “Hey everybody, I’ve got this idea, and it goes like this!”
But that probably happens 90 percent of the time. It’s perfectly understandable for somebody to assume that John walked into the studio and said, “Martin, here’s this Mickey Mouse watch. I want you to keep wearing it at all times, and keep a beat to it. Create loops based on it while the speed winds down.” But that’s not what happened.
I get the idea that this is John’s position. But it denies the true, super-cool genius of John, which is that he used his position with the Sex Pistols to carve out the unique incubator of the fuck you awesome post-punkness for us to blossom within. To paint John as a singer in a band who tells everybody what to do is denying what is absolutely unique about John.
The album after me is a pop album. I still talk with Jebin Bruni, who is still touring on a very high level, and he co-wrote some of the songs on Album. This is mentioned a little bit in the documentary, but he was half of the band when we were auditioning, along with Flea, at the time. I think Bill Laswell pulled that New York producer move and said, “Hey, these cats can’t really play. Let me bring in my guys. It’s interesting that John went along with that.
This is something interesting about Flowers of Romance. I thought, when you hear the toms on the song, “Flowers of Romance,” that you could hear me playing. I went back and forth with John, and after a while, he said, “You know what, Martin, it is you playing on that.” I thought ok, and suggested that we fix the credits. They sent me a letter saying that it is me playing on that track. But, when talking with Nick Launay, as we went through the session logs, he said, “Hold on a minute, I distinctly remember John playing a high hat, and if you listen to those tom-toms it’s not your accuracy. I think it was Keith. So, I thought, if I’m going to see this investigating thing through it needs to be in the book. I got them to admit that it was me on “The Flowers of Romance,” but it wasn’t me!
Something else that’s interesting about the Flowers era: There are three songs. One is called “1981.” One is called “Vampire.” They just put the drum beat from “Vampire” on the new 40th anniversary box set. The version I have has guitar, bass, and fully-formed vocals. If you take “Vampire” and “1981,” which are very similar, heavy percussive tracks on Flowers of Romance, I think there could be a very interesting listen, to say the least. I’m not sure why some of those songs made the cut and others didn’t.
Brian Brain: Unexpected Noises (1980), Fun With Music! (1984), and Time Flies When You're Having Toast (1987)
CR: Part of the book, as you mentioned, are your diaries and your stories. I saw in the Pledge video that you got into a fight with GG Allin! Who started it?
MA: So, threaded through my time with PiL, I had a three-piece punk outfit called Brian Brain. We were in Atlanta all the time. We stayed with Virginia Moriarty, the grandmother who catered to us at Oz Records when PiL did the in-store. We played the 688 Club, the Velvet, we were there a lot. In 1981, we did 23 shows with Brian Brain, during which time I was bottled in the face in Washington D.C. — 16 stitches. I ended up in New Orleans general down there. I got alcohol poisoning in San Francisco. So, we had one night in Boston before flying back to the U.K. We went out with these girls we stayed with. The same girls that U2 stayed with — every band stayed with them. They were awesome. So, we’re out having a drink, and there’s this guy: “Fuck you, fuck your sister, fuck this, fuck that.” Pete Jones, the bass player, says to me, “I will buy you a White Russian if you kick his mic stand over.” So, I said, “Make it two White Russians (because I am a negotiator), and I’ll do it.”
So, I jump up, knock GG Allin on the ground, and I picked up a monitor, and I throw a monitor at him, and then kick over all of their mic stands. Then I realized I’ve gone a little too far with it. And they just stood there, waiting for his fans and his crew to jump on me. Maybe I was just this demented figure with these Frankenstein stitches in my forehead. Nothing happened ... until two hours later, when I was pissing in the bathroom. GG came up behind me and smashed my face into the wall. It broke my nose. As I fell backward and landed on the floor unconscious, he kicked me in the face and broke my jaw. It was a pretty wild three week tour.
MA: We were all just crazy idiots back then.
The Sensational Alex Harvey Band – Next... (1973) - Martin Atkins with Pigface
CR: I saw you play with Pigface many times in the ’90s, and with Ministry. You always wore a long-sleeved, black and white striped shirt. I have always thought this was your homage to Alex Harvey of the Sensational Alex Harvey Band. Were you a fan?
MA: Yes! Absolutely correct! I saw Alex Harvey very early on. In time, the Sensational Alex Harvey Band became a sell-out stadium band in the U.K., which was crazy in the late ’70s. I saw him play when I was like 12, 13, or 14, with like 20 people. He had an album called Framed, and he played a song called “A Hole in Her Stocking (and she keeps on rocking).” It’s a classic. He had this stocking, and he pulled it over his head like a bank robber and put it in his mouth to do like a Godfather impersonation. He threw it into the audience I caught it, and I got beaten up because everybody wanted it to get it from me.
Later, when I was touring with PiL and Brian Brain, it turned out we had the same music publisher, Panache Music. They had all of these original paintings that looked like Alex Harvey album covers. I thought, that’s weird that someone would do these paintings. They turned out to be the original artwork. I told them I was a huge fan, and I saw him when I was 12. They said, let’s all have dinner. So, I was really excited, but then he died coming back on the ferry from a European tour, a week before we were going to have dinner. So, I wore that shirt in Killing Joke, Ministry, and Pigface as an homage, for sure.
CR: That’s a story for your next book.
MA: I was approached by a couple of publishers who wanted me to write my story: Brian Brain, PiL, Killing Joke, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Pigface, Damage Manual, Murder, Inc. I thought, it will take me five years to write that. So, I said no, and I think I was right on the mark. The tangled headphone cable that is Public Image Ltd. is consuming me at the moment. So, what I’m doing is my five years with PiL and my three years with Killing Joke — that’s two separate books. The third will be the end of Killing Joke, Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Pigface, Invisible Records, Damage Manual.
CR: The idea for the third book really does encompass a specific era and aesthetic for your work that stands apart from your earlier work.
MA: Yeah. So, if somebody wants to edit it all together and put it into a lawnmower, that’s fine. I just want to get my story out there.
Martin Atkins - Tour Smart and Break The Band (2008), and
CR: You’re sitting down and writing this book — physically typing it out, correct?
CR: I spoke with Richard Lloyd from Television recently, who used a voice application to dictate, and that became his book, Everything Is Combustible.
MA: This is my fourth book, and I used to write for Boston Rock magazine in the early ’80s. I have that app as well, but I feel like I’m finding my feet as a writer. That involves typing, looking at the page, editing, and thinking. It’s a lot like making music.
CR: Writing does require a lot of the same kind of energy that a songwriter puts into a song, or that an artist puts into a painting.
MA: Yes, it does. And a few people have talked with me about reading books that they say feel like they were recorded onto a cassette, or someone else ghost wrote it. But I think of doing these interviews and getting this version down is almost like recording a demo. Some of the updates on my Pledge site aren’t from the book. You’ll get an excerpt from the book every two weeks, but some of it is me writing about the process of making the book. This weekend, one of the levels of pledge is for $200: I’ll send out four beats that people can just use in a really punk rock, funky copyright kind of way. So, we’re describing the process of reconnecting one of my tape machines, which is Steve Albini’s original 8-Track machine.
CR: I often say that looking at the process is just as important as the finished product when you’re trying to understand it.
MA: With this event in Atlanta, I’m doing the same thing with a little bit more of a celebratory mood. I’m doing it in Manchester, Chicago, New York, and LA. It’s like, “What is this? Where is everybody’s head at?” The first North American tour is worthy of its own book. Everybody remembers! In the beginning, I thought, “I’ll call up a few people in Boston who might remember.” But when I called up one guy in Boston, he said, “Every year the 13 of us who were at the show at the Orpheum in 1980, we get back together.” I thought holy shit! There are so many little stories, “I cut my grandmother’s lawn to get money for tickets!” Or, “Somebody broke my windshield outside of the LA show.” Or, “I was selling acid at the show, and it was so hot and sweaty, and the acid leaked onto my palms, and I started tripping so hard I missed half of the show.” All of these stories are an almost cinematic distillation of what this all was.
CR: Punk and post-punk inspire a deeper connection with people than most other forms of music. They inspire these kinds of memories. I grew up around Omaha, Nebraska, and I remember being totally gothed out, and driving to Kansas City to see Pigface. My car was overheating, so I pulled over every 35 minutes to let it cool down. Each time these farmers and rednecks pulled over to see if they could help, which was really nice, but they looked at me and my friends like we were from Mars, asking us questions like, “What are you supposed to be?”
MA: Where was that show?
CR: It was at an F.O.E. Hall. Caspar Brötzmann played. Taime Downe from Faster Pussycat played in the group.
MA: Danny Carey from Tool played with us that night in the car park. We set oil drums on fire, with a band called Evil Mothers, and we played in the car park! I still have a really nice, vibrant, hand-screened poster from that show.
Pigface - Gub Double Vinyl Reissue (Invisible Records, 2017)
CR: What’s the state of Invisible Records? How has it adapted as physical media plays an increasingly declining role in people’s relationship with music?
MA: So PiL is 40, Killing Joke is 40, and Invisible is 30 this year. We just did a total rewire of the studio, which is a very interesting hybrid of all the working analog equipment, tape machines, and state-of-the-art digital. We reissued Pigface’s Gub album with hand-screened, limited edition signed, glow-in-the-dark covers. I’d never heard of a glow-in-the-dark album cover. Glow-in-the-dark vinyl, yes. I also was in China in 2007-2009. That was a really interesting time for me, signing some Chinese artists, and making my own album with some scratch DJs, musicians, and some young punk rock kids.
I’m taking it very slowly. I am proud of that legacy. We released some total crap, but we released some amazing stuff. I’m having some of my students get involved with that, and we’ll see where it goes from here.
I came up through punk. I don’t know if I’ll make this point in the book. But I was in a band with John for five years. Some of what John used to talk about that directly rubbed off on me as I started my own label, is that after a few years I saw most of my money going to recording studios. So, I taught myself to engineer and built my own recording studio, the first of three that I’ve had built. I put my own rehearsal studio together, which allowed for a degree of creative freedom where I didn’t have to run my ideas through any filters, like engineers, producers, record labels, or managers. As you say, music sales have declined. Well, now I’m working on my fourth book. I get paid to speak in places like Brazil, Colombia, Australia, Norway, Toronto, Manchester, New York. On occasion, I’ll get paid a lot and give away my books, or I’ll sell my books and not get paid a whole lot to speak. I also have my own brand of coffee, called Get the Fuck Out Of Bed, which I have said for eight years, because I am a father of four boys. It just made sense. This should be a coffee. Now it is through Dark Matter Coffee here in Chicago, and I think it has sold out five times already.
That’s what Invisible Records looks like now: Selling limited edition artwork, or we released a white vinyl 7-inch single with a scratch-n-sniff cover — it smells like blueberry muffins. You have to look outside of the music to find value.
Damage Manual Hammer framed scenery and original artwork "Dot Screen Madonna" by Martin Atkins
CR: Do you think it’s a matter of diversifying and being a good survivor?
MA: I’m a hardworking guy who likes to express himself. The scenery I made for Killing Joke’s stage, or the different scenery I made for every Pigface tour is now quite valuable. So, I can have a museum show, or sell parts of it. I don’t think I’m a good survivor. I think I’ve worked hard and always continued expressing myself, and it turns out that the fruit of that continued expression is the ability to survive and thrive.
CR: The kind of ingenuity you’re talking about is something that a lot of people don’t have. It requires a lot of motivation.
MA: Well, those people should come to one of my business talks [laughs]! My god, who doesn’t want to be on stage, surrounded by scenery that’s 30-foot-high and goes all the way stage left and all the way stage right, and you see these photographs of giant Madonna heads with glow-in-the-dark halos. When the lights go down, you hear the intake of breath as the lights from 60 halos shine brightly. Who wouldn’t want to do that? It’s not motivation for a revenue stream — although that’s a nice byproduct — it’s motivation to be theatrical, and to entertain and enlighten people.
CR: Yes, but you have to be able to reinvent yourself as you move forward.
MA: With the state of music being what it is, Invisible is exactly where I would like to be, which is creating these objects that I’m interested in. I think that’s our job. Did you see the limited edition cover of the Damage Manual CD? So where did that come from? Honestly, it has to be Metal Box. It’s like, wow, this is possible. Why isn’t everybody doing this all the time? There are all kinds of reasons why.
I wasn’t involved in the creation of Metal Box in any way, shape, or form. I played on and co-wrote one of the songs, “Bad Baby.” But to be around, and sign that album, and bathe in that album, and play those songs live. I think it just starts you off. You look at any 12-inch by 12-inch cardboard album cover and think ok, what else can we do? I had a release on Invisible by a band called Bizarre Sex Trio, and there are 700 albums with massively different album covers. It took a month to do them. It wasn’t until those albums went out all over the world that I realized no one would ever see them more than one at once.
CR: The time when Metal Box was released was a intensely creative flashpoint for the U.K. There are so many records from that time and place that will always find a new generation of kids: Joy Division records are timeless, the Cure, Throbbing Gristle, Bauhaus, Siouxsie, Wire, Crass, PiL, and so on. What was going on that yielded so much great music? Was it all just a reaction to the Thatcher regime?
MA: You had a bunch of art school university kids. I think John was one. I think Gang of Four and Mekons … it was a time of question everything. What can we do? We weren’t in competition with each other, or maybe we were. We were in competition with boredom. It’s pretty amazing, and it’s something I would try and give to new artists coming up. I remember talking with my dad about it, I left an apprenticeship to become a professional drummer. He was in the mindset of, “Look, you’re going to have 10 years of this, Martin. Do you really want to do it?” That was not helpful for me. It created this kind of smash and grab attitude of, “I’m in this club in Chicago, I need to take all of these 10 bottles of whiskey. I still know Joe Shanahan from the Metro, and I think I met him in 1981. Had I known then that I’d still be networked with these people 40 years later … Everything you’ve got, this piece of scenery or that album cover, put everything you’ve got into it, because sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes, it comes back to you.
CR: And do you still call Chicago home?
MA: Yeah, I’ve been here since ’89. I moved here because it reminded me of London in ’78 or ’79. All of this crazy shit was going on with Wax Trax Records, Chicago Trax Recording, Ministry, Revolting Cocks, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, and I wanted to be in the middle of it. That’s not so true for me creatively now. I can be creative at my place in Chicago or in Beijing. But back then the things that were going on in Chicago were an influence.
Martin Atkins is speaking in NYC on Tuesday, Sept. 11, at The Bowery Electric. More spoken word performances are in the works. Dates, cities, and venues will be announced soon.