“I may be wrong, I may be right”: John Lydon’s revealing “Rise” claimed “Anger is an energy”

By on December 28, 2017

In this episode of Night Flight’s New Sounds” — which originally aired on April 4, 1986, and you can now find streaming on Night Flight Plus — we took a look at some of the then-current cutting edge music videos, including Public Image Ltd’s “Rise,” which John Lydon says was inspired by CNN news reports he’d seen about the struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

“Rise” was a track from the Public Image Ltd album called Album — similarly the cassette was titled Cassette and the CD was titled Compact Disc — which was released on January 27, 1986.

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The deliberately generic conceptual packaging was a parody of the generic brand products which had begun being sold in the early ’80s.

The San Francisco punk band Flipper had already released their Album – Generic Flipper in 1982, so the idea itself had already been parodied at least one time previously.

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Album — produced by Lydon and Bill Laswell — featured some of the best studio musicians around, including Ryuichi Sakamoto, Steve Vai, Ginger Baker and Swedish bass connoisseur Jonas Hellborg.

While Lydon was working on the album in New York City in late ’85, jazz legend Miles Davis reportedly came into the studio to listen, and later reportedly told Lydon he sang like Davis played the trumpet.

Lydon later wrote — in the liner notes to the Public Image Ltd “Plastic Box compilation (1999) — that it was “still the best thing anyone’s ever said to me.”

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In the song, Lydon seems to be saying that he’s considering both sides of the argument — “I may be wrong, I may be right” — which is something he’d done often in his lyrics, providing two contradictory points of view and letting the listener choose which one represents the truth for them.

Read more about “Rise” below.

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In the introduction (“May The Road Rise with You”) to his memoir, Anger Is an Energy: My Life Uncensored, Lydon writes:

“Anger is an energy. it really bloody is. It’s possibly the most powerful one-liner I’ve ever come up with. When I was writing the Public Image Ltd song ‘Rise,’ I didn’t quite realize the emotional impact that it would have on me, or anyone who’s ever heard it since.

I wrote it in an almost throwaway fashion, off the top of my head, pretty much when I was about to sing the whole song for the first time, at my then new home in Los Angeles. It’s a tough, spontaneous idea.

‘Rise’ was looking at the context of South Africa under apartheid. I’d be watching these horrendous news reports on CNN, and so lines like ‘They put a hotwire to my head, because of the things I did and said,’ are a reference to the torture techniques that the apartheid government was using out there. Insufferable.”

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“You’d see these reports on TV and in the papers, and feel that this was a reality that simply couldn’t be changed. So, in the context of ‘Rise,’ ‘Anger is an energy’ was an open statement, saying, ‘Don’t view anger negatively, don’t deny it — use it to be creative.’

I combined that with another refrain, ‘May the road rise with you.’ When I was growing up, that was a phrase my mum and dad — and half the surrounding neighborhood, who happened to be Irish — used to say. ‘May the road rise, and your enemies always be behind you!’

So it’s saying, ‘There’s always hope,’ and that you don’t always have to resort to violence to resolve an issue. Anger doesn’t necessarily equate directly to violence. Violence very rarely resolves anything.

In South Africa, they eventually found a relatively peaceful way out. Using that supposedly negative energy called anger, it can take just one positive move to change things for the better.”

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Lydon also writes in his memoir that “Anger is the root core of why I write songs,” which is one reason his line “Anger is an energy” resonated with so many Public Image fans, and why the video elevated Lydon to the next level.

“That song was changing people’s perceptions of me towards the positive. We did a great video showing washing line in some of the more tormented neighborhoods of London — stirring imagery from the kind of place I grew up in — which actually got us on MTV. We were on ‘Top of the Pops’ too, and everyone seemed to be connecting with the song — even the critics.”

Lydon’s Public Image Ltd “TOTP” appearance from 1986, with Don Letts on keyboards

Lydon also writes that he loves making videos, specifically saying he enjoyed the process “when they’re on the cheap — to me they’re the most fun. I see these hundred thousand dollars pumped into other things, and I don’t think they’re anyway near as effective.”

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The video for “Rise” was directed by filmmaker Peter Care, noted for directing videos for R.E.M., Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Depeche Mode, New Order, Killing Joke, and many, many others, and for his filmic work with the band Cabaret Voltaire (in 1979, he directed the short film Johnny Yesno, which we told you about here).

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“Rise” would end up charting at #11 on the UK Singles charts, while Album peaked at #14.

“I never thought this album would be commercial in any shape or form,” he said in an interview for Melody Maker in May 1986.

“I thought it would be the absolute kiss of death for me. I grabbed rock ‘n’ roll by the testicles. I wasn’t interested in anything other than I wanted to be uptempo with a serious content.”

Watch “Rise” and more videos in Night Flight’s “New Sounds” episode from April 1986, now streaming on Night Flight Plus!

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.