How the unlikely partnership of Steve Vai and John Lydon forged one of the most unforgettable alt-rock hits of the '80s

John Lydon (left) and Steve Vai perform onstage
(Image credit: Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives, Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

When you think of the guitarists who shaped the sound of John Lydon-fronted alt-rock legends Public Image Ltd, the first name that usually comes to mind is Keith Levene, the unorthodox six-stringer who passed away last week (November 11).

One name that probably doesn't come to mind is that of electric guitar extraordinaire Steve Vai, famous for – his solo work aside, of course – his fretboard acrobatic-filled stints with David Lee Roth and Whitesnake, not the artists you would typically associate with anti-establishment firebreather and punk legend John Lydon.

In the mid-1980s though, Lydon found himself at an impasse, looking – at the suggestion of bass guitar player Bill Laswell – toward top-tier session guitarists to fill the void left in Public Image Ltd by the departure of Levene a couple of years earlier.

For PIL's 1986 LP, Album, Laswell put Lydon in touch with a who's who of rock royalty, including Ginger Baker and a certain Frank Zappa alum who'd just joined David Lee Roth's solo band as the singer's six-string sidekick: Steve Vai.

The unlikely partnership would produce Rise, a top 20 UK hit that stands to this day as one of Public Image Ltd's most memorable songs.

Rise is an oddity, certainly. In retrospect it's somewhat improbable that Lydon and Vai of all people – one a punk all-timer and the other one of the great shred guitar heroes – together made something that slotted so perfectly into its era. 

It was the mid-1980s after all, a time when the Smiths and R.E.M. ruled the alt-rock roost. Vai's pristine, chiming rhythm work on the song – which meshes effortlessly with the phenomenal rhythm section of Laswell and jazz legend Tony Williams on drums – would've sounded right at home on any college radio playlist.

Of course, though, Vai doesn't spend the whole track doing his best Johnny Marr impression. He gets multiple epic solo spots, laden with some of his trademark whammy bar dramatics, with a couple of harmonics and licks here and there that could pierce steel. 

It's a tasteful display of technical prowess, to be sure, but one that also sounds decidedly of its time. It's not a stretch imagining some shock-and-awe montage of militaristic power – multi-million dollar fighter jets breaking the sound barrier, tanks rolling unbowed through distant desert landscapes – unfolding on screen as Vai holds a high-register note for all it's worth. 

On paper, it really shouldn't work – especially when one remembers that Rise is a rumination on apartheid-era South Africa's brutal treatment of then-prisoner Nelson Mandela – but somehow, someway, it all adds up.

That musical tightrope walk, according to Lydon, was always part of the equation.

"It's not just musicianship that I have a keen ear for," Lydon told MusicRadar in a 2012 interview (opens in new tab), "it's sheer bravery and audacity, and people who are prepared to stretch the boundaries of what most musicians call 'common sense.'"

When asked by MusicRadar in the same interview if Vai contributed that kind of musical adventurousness to Album, Lydon replied in the affirmative.

"Steve Vai, I think he kind of altered his perspective after working with us," Lydon said (opens in new tab). "He did some wonderful stuff after that. You know, his mind… He got out of just heavy metal, and that's a good, good thing. 

"To this day," Lydon added, "I rate the man very, very highly. Very highly!"

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Jackson is an Associate Editor at GuitarWorld.com. He’s been writing and editing stories about new gear, technique and guitar-driven music both old and new since 2014, and has also written extensively on the same topics for Guitar Player (opens in new tab). Elsewhere, his album reviews and essays have appeared in Louder (opens in new tab) and Unrecorded (opens in new tab). Though open to music of all kinds, his greatest love has always been indie, and everything that falls under its massive umbrella. To that end, you can find him on Twitter crowing about whatever great new guitar band you need to drop everything to hear right now.