Public Image: First Issue (Virgin 1978)
Metal Box (Virgin 1979)
Second Edition (Island 1980)
Paris Au Printemps (Virgin 1980)
Flowers Of Romance (Warner Bros 1981)
Live In Tokyo (Elektra 1983)
This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get (Elektra 1984)
Album (Elektra 1986)
Happy? (Virgin 1987)
9 (Virgin 1989)
The Greatest Hits, So Far (Virgin 1990)
That What Is Not (Virgin 1992)
[from Spin Guide to Alternative Rock, 1995]
If Johnny Rotten had gotten his way, the Sex Pistols would never have made the thuggish but populist hard rock that make them such a world-historical force. Instead of mod, glam and proto-punk (The Stooges, New York Dolls), the Pistols would have been informed by his favored listening: Captain Beefheart's fractured avant-boogie, Peter Hammill's art-rock exorcism, the space and stealth of Can and dub reggae. Of course, if Johnny had prevailed, the Pistols wouldn't have revolutionised rock, merely exempted themselves from it. Which is precisely what Rotten did with Public Image Ltd, the studio-based experimental unit he formed after he turned his back on punk rock godhood in 1978.
Making a sharp left away from the 'heavy-metal production' of Never Mind The Bollocks, Rotten (who'd now reverted to his given name, Lydon) made bass the centre of PiL's sound. He brought in his dub-freak pal Jah Wobble, a self-taught but instinctively spiritual bassist who worshipped Can's Holger Czukay. That said, PiL would have been nothing without the ferociously unorthodox guitar-work of Keith Levene. Furthermore, for all the 'anti-rockist' ideology the group spouted (much hot-air about branching out into other media like film, never touring, not being a 'band'), the debut album rocks surprisingly hard. "Public Image" is a searing statement of intent: the glorious minimalism of Wobble's chiming bassline and Levene's ringing chords mirrors Lydon's thrust for purity, as he sheds the Rotten persona and declares "I will not be treated as property". "Lowlife" puts further distance between Lydon and his Pistol-packin' past, lambasting the "egomaniac trainer" and "bourgeoisie anarchist" Malcolm McLaren. Other tracks--the brutalist funk of "Annalisa", the dessicated dub-disco of "Fodderstompf"--look ahead to Metal Box.
Initially released as three 12 inches in a tin canister (an attempt to deconstruct the 'album', that actually succeeded in making you approach records in a new way), subsequently repackaged as the double LP Second Edition, Metal Box is where PiL's anti-rockism ceases to be a pipe-dream and starts looking like the future, your future. From the soul-flaying savagery of "Chant" to the appalling grace of "Poptones", Levene's guitarwork makes him post-punk's very own Hendrix; he's equally stunning with synths on the apocalyptic "Careering" and Satiesque "Radio 4". Lydon's scalpel-sharp words--dissecting suburbia's "layered mass of subtle props" on "No Birds", anatomising the abject horror of his mum's death on "Swan Lake"--are matched by his most untethered singing. But it's Wobble who is PiL's heart-and-soul: his deep-strata bass is what drags you through the terror-ride, but it's also the hand-rail that keeps you hanging in there.
After Paris Au Printemps (live-and-inferior-sounding), Wobble left PiL acrimoniously; after a decade in the wilderness, he resurfaced in the '90s with his ethnodelic dance ensemble Invaders of The Heart, peddling a distinctly New Age creed of 'healing rhythms'. Without Wobble's vital pulse, PiL's next effort Flowers Of Romance was decentered and sterile. Levene & Lydon's methodology was to generate a heap of raw sonic material using motley acoustic instruments, from which they constructed 'songs' using the mixing desk as compositional tool. Flowers was touted by PiL, and received by critics, as a revolution in music; in retrospect, the LP can be seen as a half-assed reprise of pre-punk avant-garde ideas, betrayed by its creators' inveterate laziness. Only the demonic strings and spectral voices of the violin-scented title track, and the tribal tumult of "Under The House" (inspired by a real-life ghost story) establish any kind of compelling atmosphere. The rest is lifeless dirge-beats and random smears of texture, topped by Lydon's now self-parodic muezzin-howl and sour subject matter (the misognyist sexual reminescence of 'Track 8', the anti-nostalgia rant 'Go Back').
Then Levene left too. For This Is What You Want...This Is What You Get, Lydon hired a bunch of anonymous session musicians to lay down a shockingly thin-sounding New Wave/muzak hybrid, complete with asthmatic sax-honks. "This Is Not A Love Song" is catchy enough, with its disco walking bassline and multi-tracked vocal bedlam; Lydon's avaricious intentions are shamelessly proclaimed with lines like "I'm crossing over into enterprise". If This Is What is money-for-nothing cynicism at its most audience-contemptuous, the four PiL albums that follow at least offer solid, professional product in return for your hard-earned dollar. In '86, Album (a.k.a. Cassette, Compact Disc--geddit?) seemed refreshing, with its Led Zep riffs (Lydon was now a rockist) and crisp Bill Laswell production. Now, it exudes the stale airless reek of a superstar-plus-session-players career-makeover bid, a la Robert Palmer or Stevie Winwood. Still, "Rise"--with its radiant guitar-peals, undulant bass and Irish-folk chorus--is Lydon's last gasp of brilliance.
Happy? continues the stadium-wannabe drift, with John McGeoch's rippling chords straying into U2 territory or--on "Rules and Regulations"--glossing up Killing Joke for FM-radio. Lydon's lyrics dramatise himself as the Last Individual, but his imagery is standard-issue Noo Wave ("cows now join the herd", "a mass of mindless ants", "like lemmings to the cliff"), and his music utterly depersonalised. Only "Fat Chance Hotel"--a fine whine about a rotten holiday, with lines like "the dinner gave me the splattery botty" and a weird horn-sample like a mariachi band going down a whirlpool--sounds remotely distinctive.
The slick, glib 9 and the litely metallic That What Is Not failed to fulfil their manifestly mercenary motives, and PiL was unceremoniously ditched by Virgin. Since then, the only peep we've heard from Lydon is a one-off single with house outfit Leftfield (this despite his oft-proclaimed contempt for rave culture), plus some talk about reforming the Pistols, if the price is right. Don't bother with Greatest Hits (it's half-shit). Go straight to Metal Box, when there was "meaning in the moaning".
Public Image Ltd
Metal Box (deluxe expanded reissue)
Pitchfork, November 1st 2016
by Simon Reynolds
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 post-punk 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 keeps 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 wanted to “see mega light displays and all that shit,” they should go watch 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 post-punk 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’ 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’ 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’ 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 Issue, 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 post-punk’s promise(s) to a degree rivaled 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 many such 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’ 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. There are even a few 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 just like the protracted assault of “Theme” that launched First Issue 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. 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 lyrics—“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 post-punk move, exposing pop as a prettified lie that masks reality’s raw awfulness: for some post-punk 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 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 smears of synth, while Lydon’s helicopter 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 post-punk, Metal Box’s remainder is merely (and mostly) excellent, moving from the juddery instrumental “Graveyard” (oddly redolent of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ 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 bass line overlaid with reedy keyboards that swell and subside. 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 Zeppelin. It works on the same terms as Zoso: 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. 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 ’60s and first-half of the ’70s—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 Devils 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.
Metal Box remembered
by Simon Reynolds
bonus beat - a Brexit-boosted bit of Lydon-bashing