Lurking in the shadows: “Death Disco” was PiL frontman John Lydon’s anguished cry of grief

By on March 29, 2018

20 Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll Style: Punk Rock” — which originally aired on November 5, 1988 — features Public Image Ltd.’s spooky tenebrous video for “Death Disco,” an anguished cry of grief written by John Lydon for his mother, who was dying of stomach cancer.

Watch it now Night Flight Plus.

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The episode begins with short interviews with Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren and former Pistols frontman John Lydon (who for some reason is identified as “Johnny Lydon.”

Lydon — who would later from Public Image Ltd., or PiL — has very little nice to say about McLaren, who he calls a “thief.”

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American rock critic Greil Marcus — writing in a July 24, 1980 Rolling Stone article — described Public Image Ltd. as being at the forefront of “Britain’s postpunk pop avant-garde.”

Marcus thought most post-punk recordings were “willfully obscurantist and contrived,” while some of the better albums — particularly the late ’79 debuts by Essential Logic, the Raincoats and the Gang of Four — were “sparked by a tension, humor, and sense of paradox plainly unique in present-day pop music.”

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“Death Disco”‘s video was directed by Jon Roseman, best known for directing videos for Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).”

The song is a dense, dark-hued throbbing, hypnotic groove, part dub and part disco, propelled forward by Jah Wobble’s deep bass in sync with drummer David Humphrey’s straight 4/4 beat.

Keith Levene’s guitar swerves in and out of the track’s propulsive rhythms before careening into an out-of-tune guitar quote from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake” (Act 2, Scene 10: Moderato).

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The track — described by Paul Lester of The Guardian as “the biggest hit with a load of rhythmical dissonance…” — is highlighted by Lydon’s keening vocals, which he once described as sounding “like a bag of cats being slung down a staircase.”

His vocals on the track were an anguished cry of grief, because “Death Disco,” it turns out, was written by Lydon for his mother, Eileen, who was dying of stomach cancer at the time (she passed away on November 27, 1978).

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“Choking on a bed/Flowers rotting dead” Lydon howls. “Watch her slowly die/Saw it in her eyes”.

Lydon, in his 2014 autobiography Anger Is an Energy: My Life Uncensored, says he only got to play her a very rough version of the track, which was released in June of 1979, months after her death.

“She knew what I was up to. I had to curtail it a bit, because what I wrote is very directly about death, so I wanted her to feel it was more about the challenge of an illness. A rough demo of it, with indistinct lyrics, would be slightly milder than the full clarity of ‘You’re dying — urgh!’

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Read more about Public Image Ltd.’s “Death Disco” below.

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Writing about “Death Disco” in In the Fascist Bathroom: Punk in Pop Music, 1977-1992 (1999), Greil Marcus says that the song’s “beat is absolute, some uncanny synthesis of reggae and disco, with Lydon offering full-blown shrieks. The taste of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ that long ago became name-that-tune schlock is quoted at every turn, until Lydon’s cry rises in one great swoop and the production is cut off at it’s height.”

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Lydon and PiL appeared on the UK’s “Juke Box Jury,” where Lydon insulted the show’s host before stomping off.

Also  in 1979 Lydon would perform the song with his back to a bemused audience on “Top of the Tops,” while Jah Wobble played his bass, sitting down, flaunting a huge grin with one of his teeth blacked out.

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“Death Disco” made it into the UK’s Top Twenty, becoming the band’s biggest hit.

Peter Shapiro, writing in Turn the Beat Around; The Secret History of Disco, described the song as “perhaps the most uncompromising record ever to make the Top 20 chart [in Britain].”

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Lydon: “When we released ‘Death Disco,’ it caused great confusion. Was it a dance record? What was it? It certainly didn’t meant ‘death to disco,’ as some people had interpreted it.”

“To our punk followers, it was saying, ‘Look, why are you lurking in the shadows, boys and girls, get out there under that glitterball! Here’s your opportunity! And get a load of it, you’re dancing to the death of my mother, you bastards!'”

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The song encompasses the certainty of death and the uncertainty of an afterlife, Lydon told the AV Club in 2015:

To this day, it’s very hard for me to conceive of people dying. I don’t know if there’s a heaven. There’s no evidence of such. There’s just people’s opinions. Even our worst enemies, we say if they die, ‘I miss their space on earth.’ So it involves much more than just a trite little song.”

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According to Phil Strongman’s Pretty Vacant: A History of UK Punk, Lydon later said that his mother had laughed upon hearing it, but he doesn’t mention that fact in his own memoir.

Lydon: “I’ve never come to grips with death, but through music I kind of found a way of dealing with it. I’m questioning myself very seriously in songs like that. It’s borderline mental breakdown. It’s me howling in bitter agony. Grief, grief, grief, but at the same time, you’ve got to give joy for those you’ve loved. Not wallow in the self-pity of it, but rather celebrate the good things about them when they were alive.”

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Watch Public Image Ltd.’s “Death Disco” video in “20 Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll Style: Punk Rock” — which also features videos by the Clash, Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys and more — on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, 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.