Public Image Ltd's Metal Box remembered
Frieze, November 2007
by Simon Reynolds
My most vivid memory of Metal Box dates to a week before Christmas Day 1979. My parents were out, so I sneaked Public Image Ltd's (PiL) album out of the airing cupboard, where they stashed the presents, and for the first time prised off the tin's lid, then gingerly extracted the three discs tightly crammed inside. Aged 16, I just couldn't wait to play the record that was being universally acclaimed as a giant step into a brave new world beyond rock's confines. As a result I crossed a line myself, between innocence and adulthood.
Demystification was the whole point of Metal Box's packaging, a metallic canister of the type that ordinarily contains movie reels. Like the band-as-corporation name Public Image Ltd, the matt-grey tin was an attempt to strip away mystique, all the 'bollocks' of rock romanticism. But Metal Box, of course, just added to the mystique around PiL, the group John Lydon formed after splitting with the Sex Pistols. Drab yet imposing, standing out in record shop racks or on the shelves of a collection, the can instantly became a fetish object. And although its aura was utilitarian, the packaging was actually less functional than a normal album jacket. Instead of slipping the disc out of its sleeve, you had carefully to ease out the three 45 rpm 12-inches, which were separated only by paper circles of the same size as the platters. Removing the vinyl without scratching it was a challenge. Almost 30 years later my three discs look in remarkably good nick, considering I must have played them hundreds of times. But then I was precious about my possessions: an avid post-Punk fan hamstrung by weak finances, I owned about six albums in toto, and Metal Box's hefty £7.45 price tag was the reason I'd requested it for Christmas, despite the delay this would mean in hearing it.
All this heightened the experience of playing Metal Box, giving it an almost ritualistic quality. PiL's own motivations were partly malicious pranksterism and partly a serious attempt to deconstruct 'the album'. In interviews bassist Jah Wobble was adamant that you should definitely not play Metal Box in sequence but listen to one side of a disc (two or three tracks at most) at a time. Spreading over an hour's worth of music across three records encouraged listeners to reshuffle the running order as they saw fit; as a result the record became a set of resources rather than a unitary art work. 'Useful' was a big PiL buzzword (that's what they liked about disco – it was danceable). It was a term that allowed Lydon to carry on opposing himself to all things arty and pretentious, even as he perpetrated a supreme feat of artiness with Metal Box.
Like Peter Saville's exquisitely designed releases for Factory Records, Metal Box simultaneously extended the art rock tradition of extravagant packaging (Led Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti, from 1975, for instance) while subverting it through its stark plainness (which ironically, cost a bleedin' fortune). The only precedent I can think of is Alice Cooper's 1973 album Muscle of Love, which came in a brown cardboard carton (Lydon, as it happens, was a huge Alice fan). The concept for Metal Box originated with PiL's design-conscious friend Dennis Morris, the court photographer at Lydon's house in Gunter Grove, Chelsea, and also a member of the all-black, PiL-esque band Basement 5. Where the sleeve of the début album Public Image (1978) lampooned rock's cult of personality (Morris photographed the band in Vogue-style make-up and suits), Metal Box went one step further to a blank impersonality, the absence of any kind of image at all. Flowers of Romance (1981), the third album, took a step too far with its desultory Polaroid of band associate Jeanette Lee, but that was long after Morris had been ousted from the PiL milieu.
Morris' crucial contribution to PiL is something that comes through loud and clear in the new book Metal Box: Stories from John Lydon's Public Image Limited (2007). If author Phil Strongman is savvy enough to name his book after PiL's totemic masterpiece, he's less shrewd in doggedly pursuing the story long after the band ceased to be a creative force. As Mark Fisher has noted, every pop story, followed through to its narrative (in)conclusion, ends in ignominy or disappointment. So it is with the brand-disgracing travesties Lydon released immediately after Wobble (the group's heart and soul) and then guitarist Keith Levene (its musical brains) were ejected. More disheartening still, in a way, was the mediocre competence of the PiL albums of the late 1980s and early '90s. Still, Strongman's account of the 'good years' is rich in new data, from deliciously incongruous trivia (Ted Nugent was Levene's choice to produce the first album! Led Zeppelin manager Peter Grant was mad keen to take on PiL as clients!) to more compelling revelations (the book settles the mystery of whether 'Poptones', Metal Box's stand-out track, is sung by a murdered corpse or an abduction survivor abandoned and shivering in the woods).
As so often with rock biographies, though, much of the information tends to tarnish the reputations of the protagonists. Ironically, given their fervent anti-rock stance (Lydon derided rock as a 'disease', something to be 'cancelled'), PiL's productivity was disabled by a thoroughly rock'n'roll set of failings: paranoia, egomania, money disputes, mismanagement (PiL actually had no manager, on account of Lydon's bad experiences with Malcolm McLaren; the role was portioned between Jeanette Lee and another Lydon crony, and the band's finances were kept in a box – cardboard, this time – under a bed). Equally lamentably rock'n'roll is the Spinal Tap-like procession of drummers: five in the first two years (one of whom, ex-drummer for The Fall, Karl Burns, stayed in the band for just a few days, quitting after being the victim of a dangerous prank involving fire).
All the main players (and numerous extremely minor ones) are interviewed, with the glaring exception of Lydon himself. But that's no surprise, because he's consciously distanced himself from PiL over the years. At some point he clearly grasped that his place in rock history (and future income) depended on the Sex Pistols adventure and subsequently threw all his energies into burnishing the Johnny Rotten legend. But I wonder whether another factor behind Lydon's silence is that the PiL years are painful to contemplate – not just because of bad blood (Wobble was one of his best friends) but because the music of Metal Box, rooted in his true loves (Can, Captain Beefheart, Peter Hammill, dub), meant so much to him. He really believed all that 'rock is dead' rhetoric, and was sincere when he dismissed the Sex Pistols as way too traditional. And for a moment rock's intelligentsia concurred. Metal Box's stature in 1979–80 was so immense that many commentators invoked Miles Davis' early-1970s' music as a reference point. Lester Bangs declared that he'd stake a lifetime's writing on Metal Box and Miles' Get Up With It (1974). When his apartment caught fire, the first and only thing Bangs grabbed as he fled to the street below in his pyjamas was that grey tin can.
It's the music inside that counts, though, isn't it? My other vivid memory of Metal Box is bringing it to school after our music teacher asked each member of the class to bring in a favourite record and talk about it. I played 'Death Disco' and 'Poptones', then regurgitated stuff I'd read in NME about how PiL were radical for absorbing the influence of funk and reggae. I wasn't able to articulate what made their mutational approach different from and superior to contemporaries such as The Police or indeed Old Wave rock gods such as The Stones when they disco-rocked it in 1978 with 'Miss You'. But the lasting proof of PiL's innovatory power is their music's ever-widening ripples of influence, which encompass Massive Attack, Primal Scream (they hired Wobble for 1991's 'Higher Than The Sun'), Tortoise, Radiohead and many more. You can trace a line from PiL via On U Sound (whose Adrian Sherwood had dealings – musical and, it's rumoured, otherwise – with Lydon, Levene and Wobble back then) to today's dubstep, which, like Metal Box, is Jamaican music with the sunshine extracted – roots reggae without Rasta's consoling dream of Zion.
PiL's biggest influence though, may be their rhetoric. The idea that 'rock is obsolete' (as Wobble put it in 1978) became a self-replicating meme that inoculated an entire generation against the retro-virus by directing them away from rock's back pages and towards the cutting-edges of contemporary black music. In the age of downloading and dematerialized sound-data Metal Box has a fresh resonance for me as a powerful argument in favour of the necessity for music to be physically embodied. The record was significantly diminished in its subsequent incarnation as Second Edition (the gatefold-sleeved double album it became when the 50,000 limited edition Metal Box sold out). The CD reissue, housed in a miniature metal canister, is almost risible to behold, while its digitized sound lacks the warmth and weight of the original deep-grooved 45 rpm 12 inches. Most crucially, you simply weren't meant to listen to Metal Box as one long, uninterrupted 70-minute sequence. A 1979 pressing fetches $200 through Internet sites such as Gemm; the reproduction antique vinyl reissue of Metal Box from a few years back isn't cheap either. But this is one record you simply must have, hold and hear in its original format.
More on Metal Box
Public Image Ltd
director's cut version, Pitchfork, November 2016
by Simon Reynolds
Public Image Ltd
Out of all the fascinating alternate takes, B-sides, rare compilation-only tracks and never-before-released sketches that comprise this expanded reissue of Public Image Ltd’s postpunk landmark, it’s a live version of “Public Image” that is the real revelation. Part of an impromptu June 1979 concert in Manchester, the song keep collapsing and restarting. “Shut up!” snaps John Lydon, responding to audience jeers. “I told you it’s a fucking rehearsal.” Another PiL member explains that the drummer, Richard Dudanski, only joined three days ago. PiL relaunch the song only for Lydon to halt it with “miles too fast!” The jeers erupt again and the singer offers a sort of defiant apology: if the crowd really want to “see mega light displays and all that shit”, he advises them to go see properly professional bands who put on a slick show. “But we ain’t like that... We’re extremely honest: sorry about that... We admit our mistakes”.
This performance – an inadvertent deconstruction of performance itself – takes us to the heart of the PiL project as well as the postpunk movement for which the group served as figureheads. At its core was a belief in radical honesty: faith in the expressive power of words, singing and sound as vehicles for urgent communication. After the Sex Pistols’s implosion, Lydon was trying to find a way to be a public figure again without masks, barriers, routines, or constraining expectations. So it’s especially apt that “Public Image” – PiL’s debut single, Lydon’s post-Pistols mission-statement – is the song that fell apart at Manchester’s Factory Club. “Public Image” is about the way a stage persona can become a lie that a performer is forced to live out in perpetuity. Lydon sings about “Johnny Rotten” as a theatrical role that trapped him and which he’s now casting off. Starting all over with his given name and a new set of musical accomplices, Lydon was determined to stay true to himself. The group’s name came from Muriel Sparks’s novel The Public Image, about a movie actress whose career is ruined but who, the ending hints, is freed to embark on an authentic post-fame existence. Lydon added the “limited” to signify both the idea of the rock group as a corporation (in the business of image-construction) and the idea of keeping egos on a tight leash.
A comparison for Lydon’s search for a new true music – and a truly new music – that would leave behind rock’s calcified conventions is Berlin-era Bowie’s quest for a “new music night and day” (the working title of Low). Indeed it was Virgin Records’s belief that Lydon was the most significant British rock artist since Bowie that caused them to extend PiL such extraordinary license and largesse when it came to recording in expensive studios. That indulgence enabled the recording of three of the most out-there albums ever released by a major label: First Edition, Metal Box, Flowers of Romance. But it’s the middle panel of the triptych that is the colossal achievement: a near-perfect record that reinvents and renews rock in a manner that fulfilled postpunk’s promise(s) to a degree rivalled only by Joy Division on Closer.
The key word, though, is reinvention. Lydon talked grandly of abandoning rock altogether, arguing that killing off the genre had been the true point of punk. But unlike the absolutely experimental (and as with most experiments, largely unsuccessful) Flowers of Romance, Metal Box doesn’t go beyond rock so much as stretch it to its furthest extent, in the manner of the Stooges’s Fun House or Can’s Tago Mago. It’s a forbidding listen, for sure, but only because of its intensity, not because it’s abstract or structurally convoluted. The format is classic: guitar-bass-drums-voice (augmented intermittently by keyboards and electronics). The rhythm section (Jah Wobble and a succession of drummers) is hypnotically steady and physically potent. The guitarist (Keith Levene) is a veritable axe-hero, as schooled and as spectacular as any of the pre-punk greats. And the singer, while unorthodox and edging off-key, pours it all out in a searing catharsis that recalls nothing so much as solo John Lennon and the intersection he found between the deeply personal and the politically universal. Also, there’s even some tunes here!
But yes, it’s a bracing listen, Metal Box, and nowhere more so than on the opening dirge “Albatross”. 11 minutes-long, leaden in tempo, the song is clearly designed as a test for the listener (get through this and it’s plain sailing!) just like the protracted assault of “Theme” that launched First Edition had been. Absolutely pitiless music (Levene hacking at his axe like an abattoir worker, Wobble rolling out a looped tremor of a bassline) is matched with utterly piteous singing: Lydon intones accusations about an oppressive figure from his past, perhaps the master-manipulator McLaren, possibly his dead friend Vicious, conceivably “Johnny Rotten” himself as a burden he can’t shake. “Memories”, the single that preceded Metal Box’s November ’79 release, is more sprightly: brisk funk over which Levene’s cracked-kaleidoscope guitar scatters glassy splinters. Like “Albatross,” though, the song is an embittered exorcism: Lydon could almost be commenting on his own nagging vocal and fixated lyrics with the line “dragging on and on and on and on and on and on and ON,” then spits out “this person’s had enough of useless memories” over a breath-taking disco-style breakdown.
With “Swan Lake”, a retitled remix of the single “Death Disco,” Lydon is possessed by an unbearable memory that he doesn’t want to forget: the sight of his mother dying in slow agony from cancer. If the wretched grief of the lyric - “silence in her eyes”, “final in a fade”, “choking on a bed / flowers rotting dead” – recalls Lennon’s “Mother”, the retching anguish of Lydon’s vocal resembles Yoko Ono at her most abrasively unleashed. On the original vinyl, the song locks into an endless loop on the phrase “words cannot express.” But “Swan Lake” - named after the Tchaikovsky melody that Levene intermittently mutilates - is nothing if not a 20th Century expressionist masterpiece: the missing link between Munch’s “The Scream” and Black Flag’s “Damaged I”.
Just as placing “death” in front of “disco” was an attempt to subvert the idea of dancefloor escapism, the title “Poptones” drips with acrid irony. A real-life news story of abduction, rape and escape inspired the lyric, with one detail in particular triggering Lydon’s imagination: the victim’s memory of the bouncy music streaming out of the car’s cassette player. This juxtaposition of manufactured happiness and absolute horror is a typically postpunk move, exposing pop as a prettified lie that masks reality’s raw awfulness: for some postpunk groups, an existential condition (dread, doubt) and for others, a political matter (exploitation, control). On “Poptones” this truth-telling impulse produces one of Lydon’s most vivid lyrics (“I don’t like hiding in this foliage and peat/It’s wet and I’m losing my body heat” ), supported and surrounded by music that’s surprisingly pretty, in an eerie, insidious sort of way. Wobble’s sinuously winding bass weaves through Levene’s cascading sparks as well as the cymbal-smash spray he also supplies (PiL being temporarily drummerless during this stage of the album’s spasmodic recording).
With PiL still between drummers, on “Careering” it’s Wobble’s who doubles-up roles, pummeling your ribcage with his bass and bashing the kit like a metalworker pounding flat a sheet of steel. Levene swaps guitar for swooping smears of synth, while Lydon’s helicopter-eye vision scans the border zone between Ulster and the Irish Republic: a terrorscape of “blown into breeze” bomb victims and paramilitary paranoia. “Careering” sounds like nothing else in rock and nothing else in PiL’s work – as with several other songs on Metal Box, it could have spawned a whole identity, an entire career, for any other band.
“No Birds Do Sing”, unbelievably, surpasses the preceding five songs. Levene cloaks the murderous Wobble-Dudanksi groove with a toxic cloud of guitar texture. Lydon surveys an English suburban scene whose placidity could not be further from troubled Northern Ireland, noting in sardonic approval its “bland planned idle luxury” and “well intentioned rules” (rolling the ‘r’ there in a delicious throwback to classic Rotten-style singing). For “a layered mass of subtle props” and “a caviar of silent dignity” alone, Lydon ought to have the 2026 Nobel locked down.
After the greatest six-song run in all of postpunk, Metal Box’s remainder is merely (and mostly) excellent, moving from the juddery instrumental “Graveyard” (oddly redolent of Johnny Kidd’s early British rock’n’roll classic “Shakin’ All Over”) through the rubbery-bassline waddle of “The Suit” to the stampeding threat of “Chant”, a savage snapshot of 1979’s tribal street violence. The album winds down with the unexpected respite and repose of “Radio Four”, a tranquil instrumental entirely played by Levene: just a tremulously poignant and agile bassline overlaid with reedy keyboards that swell and subside like surges of emotion. The title comes from the U.K.’s national public radio station, a civilized and calming source of news, views, drama and light comedy beamed out to the British middle classes. As with “Poptones,” the irony is astringent.
Listening to (and reviewing) Metal Box in a linear sequence goes against PiL’s original intent, of course. As the flatly descriptive, deliberately demystified title indicates, Metal Box initially came in the form of a circular canister containing three 45 r.p.m 12-inches – for better sound, but also to encourage listeners to play the record in any order they chose, ideally listening to it in short bursts rather than in a single sitting. But what once seemed radically anti-rockist (“deconstruct the Album!”) is now a historical footnote, because anyone listening to a CD or other digital format can rearrange the contents however they wish. And if you do doggedly listen to Metal Box in accordance with its given running order, what comes across strongly now is its sheer accumulative power as an album. That in turn accentuates the feeling that this is a record that can be understood fairly easily by a fan of, say, Led Zep. It works on the same terms as Zozo: a thematically coherent suite of physically imposing rhythm, virtuoso guitar violence, and impassioned singing. Lydon would soon enough ‘fess up to his latent rockism on 1986’s hard-riffing Album (also reissued as a deluxe box set at this time) on which he collaborated with Old Wave musos like ex-Cream drummer Ginger Baker. That incarnation of PiL even performed Zep’s “Kashmir” in concert.
Listening to Metal Box today, the studio-processing – informed by PiL’s love of disco and dub – that felt so striking at the time seems subtle and relatively bare-bones, compared to today’s norms. As the Manchester concert and some wonderfully vivid live-in-the-studio versions from the BBC rock program The Old Grey Whistle Test prove, PiL could recreate this music onstage (despite that fumbled “Public Image”). Levene, especially, was surprisingly exact when it came to reproducing the guitar parts and textures captured in the studio. Even the band’s debts to reggae and funk can be seen now as a continuation of the passion for black music that underpinned the British rock achievement of the Sixties and first-half of the Seventies – that perennial impulse to embrace the formal advances made by R&B and complicate them further while adding Brit-bohemian concerns as subject matter. If PiL’s immediate neighbors are The Pop Group and The Slits, you could also slot them alongside The Police: great drummer(s), roots-feel bass, inventively textured guitar, a secret prog element (Levene loved Yes, Lydon adored Peter Hammill) and an emotional basis in reggae’s yearnings and spiritual aches.
Metal Box is a landmark, for sure. But like Devil’s Tower, the mountain in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it’s an oddly isolated one. In marked contrast to Joy Division, PiL’s spawn was neither legion nor particularly impressive (apart from San Francisco’s wonderful Flipper). Nor would PiL’s core three ever come close to matching the album’s heights in their subsequent careering (Wobble being the most productive, in both copiousness and quality). I was apprehensive about listening to this album again, fearing that it had faded or dated. But this music still sounds new and still sounds true to me: as adventurous and as harrowingly heart-bare as it did when I danced in the dark to it, an unhappy 16-year-old. Metal Box stands up. It stands for all time.