Monday, November 25, 2019

PiLhead's Progress (happy 40th Metal Box)

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
Frieze, 2007

by Simon Reynolds

My most vivid memory of Metal Box is a week before Christmas Day, 1979. My parents went out, so I sneaked PiL’s 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 sixteen, I just couldn’t wait to play the record that was universally acclaimed as a giant step into a brave new world beyond rock’s confines, and 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 hold movie reels. Like the band-as-corporation name Public Image Ltd, the matt-gray box 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 to carefully ease out the records, separated only by paper circles the same size as the platters, from the container. Removing the 45rpm 12 inches without scratching them was a challenge. Almost thirty years later, my three discs look in remarkably good nick, but then I was precious about my possessions, owning approximately six albums in toto then. I was an avid postpunk fan hamstrung by weak finances, and Metal Box’s  hefty 7 pounds 45 pence price was the reason I requested it for Xmas, despite the delay in listening to its contents that would result.

All this user-unfriendly palaver did have the effect of heightening 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 insisted 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 an hour or so’s music across three records encouraged listeners to reshuffle the running order as they saw fit; as a result, each track stood out more. The record became a set of resources rather than a unitary artwork. “Useful” was a big PiL buzzword (that’s what they liked about disco, that it was danceable). 
It was a term that allowed Lydon to carry on opposing himself to all things arty and pretentiousness, even as he perpetrated a supreme feat of artiness with Metal Box.  

Like Factory Records exquisitely framed releases of the same era, Metal Box simultaneously extended the art rock tradition of extravagant packaging (Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, for instance) while subverting it through its apparent plainness (which ironically, cost a bleedin’ fortune). The only precedent I can think of is Alice Cooper’s 1974 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  home in Gunter Grove, Chelsea, and also a member of the all-black PiL-like band Basement 5. Where the first album Public Image lampooned rock’s cult of personality (Morris photographed the band in Vogue-style make-up and suits) Metal Box went one step further to blank impersonality, the absence of any kind of image at all. Flowers of Romance, the third album, took a step too far towards not-giving-a-toss with its desultory Polaroid of band associate Jeanette Lee, but by that point Morris had been ousted from the PiL milieu.

Morris’s crucial contribution to PiL is something that comes through loud and clear in the new PiL book,  Metal Box: Stories from John Lydon’s Public Image Limited [sic]. If
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 PiL 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 PiL brand-disgracing travesties Lydon  released immediately after first Wobble (PiL’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 Eighties and early Nineties. Still, Strongman’s account of the “good years” is rich in new data, from deliciously bizarre trivia (Ted Nugent was Levene’s choice to produce the first album! Led Zep manager Peter Grant was mad keen to take on PiL as clients!) to more compelling revelations (the mystery of whether “Poptones”, the stand-out track on Metal Box, is sung by a murdered corpse or an abduction survivor abandoned and shivering in the woods, is settled).

As so often with rock biographies, though, quite a lot 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: drug addiction and paranoia, egomania, money disputes, mismanagement. (PiL actually had no manager, on account of Lydon’s bad experiences with Malcolm McLaren;  tasks were portioned out to various cronies and the band 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-Fall drummer, Karl Burns, stayed in the band for just a few days, exiting 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 not surprising, because he’s conscientiously distanced himself from PiL over the years. At some point he must have grasped that his place in Rock History (and future income) depends on the Sex Pistols adventure and then threw all his energies into burnishing the Johnny Rotten legend. But I wonder if it’s not also because the PiL years are painful, 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, Beefheart, Peter Hammill, dub)  meant so much to him. He really believed all that “rock is dead” rhetoric, meant it when he dismissed the Sex Pistols as way too trad. And for a moment there, rock’s intelligentsia agreed with him. Metal Box’s stature in 1979-80 was so immense that many commentators invoked Miles Davis’s 1970s music as a reference point. Lester Bangs declared that that he’d stake a lifetime’s writing on Metal Box and Miles’s Get Up With It. When his apartment caught fire, the first and only thing Bangs grabbed as he fled to the street below in his jim-jams was that gray tin can.

It’s the music inside that counts, though, doesn’t it?  I guess so. 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 and superior to contemporaries like The Police or indeed Old Wave rock gods like The Stones when they disco-rocked it with “Miss You”. But the lasting proof of PiL’s innovations is the 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 rumored, 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, might be their rhetoric. The idea that “rock is obsolete” (as Wobble put it in 1978) became a kind of self-replicating meme that inoculated an entire generation against the idea of retro. A perfect alignment of packaging form and sonic/lyrical content, Metal Box gave substance to PiL’s tall talk and pointed to a post-rock future. In the age of downloading and dematerialized sound-data, Metal Box has a fresh resonance for me as a powerful argument in favor 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 thousand 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 inch format. Most crucially, you simply weren’t meant to listen to Metal Box as one long uninterrupted 70 minute sequence. A 1979 pressing fetches 200 dollars on Gemm; while 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. 


bonus beat - a Brexit-boosted bit of Lydon-bashing

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Birthday Party / Nick Cave and the Bad Seed

[from a guidebook to alternative rock, 1995]

Emerging, like some hideous butterfly, from the Bowie-damaged New Wave chrysalis of The Boys Next Door, the Birthday Party were the most abandoned, sensorily deranged Dionysian rock'n'rollers since The Stooges.  But although Nick Cave's self-confessed ur-Text was Funhouse, his grandiose delivery and baroque lyrics were actually closer to Iggy's own model, Jim Morrison.  Like Jimbo, Cave had poetic ambitions that eventually blossomed in his Southern Gothic novel And The Ass Saw The Angel.

The first B. Party LP (actually a compilation of single and EP material, later reissued as Heehaw) sees the band shaking off quirk-out influences like Pere Ubu and Captain Beefheart and getting ever more primal. An  awesomely original sound'n'vison takes shape in macabre ditties like 'Happy Birthday', 'The Friend Catcher' and especially 'The Hair Shirt', where Cave's grotesque vocals are doused in Rowland S. Howard's brimstone gtr.  After this debut, The Birthday Party left Australia for London, pilgrims in search of infernal post-punk clamor.  But instead of kindred extremists, they found the irony-clad poseurs of early '80s New Pop (ABC, Human League etc) with their synths, suits and string sections.  Doubly exiled, The Birthday boys soon gathered around them a cult of those disenchanted by the new regime of health and positivity.  Against this squeaky-clean backdrop, their marauding music shone like a murky beacon of obsession, sickness and debauchery.

 Abjection--the base materiality of fleshly existence-- figures vividly in Cave's lyrics for Prayers On Fire and Junkyard, as a source of both voluptuous allure and skin-scrawling revulsion.  On Prayers, Tracy Pew's scabrous bass is the obscenely throbbing heart of the Birthday Party's itchy, twitchy music of disequilibrium and malaise; he provides both motor and melody in the lust-stricken bacchanal "Zoo-Music Girl", the Artaud-meets-Screaming-Jay-Hawkins paroxysms of "A Dead Song" and the spasming swamp-funk of "King Ink".  Where Prayers is idiosyncratic and eclectic, Junkyard is more homogenous, closer to the live BP's dense frenzy (as heard on *It's Still Living* and *Drunk On The Pope's Blood*). Some tracks are a bit of a turgid slog. Still, 'Big Jesus Trash-Can" and "6 Inch Gold Blade" have a rollicking jazz-punk swing, and the album starts and ends with two absolute BP pinnacles: "She's Hit", where cadaverous guitars frame Cave's grisly gynocidal lyrics ("there is woman-pie in here"), and "Junkyard", whose downward-spiralling noise and opiate imagery ("garbage in honey's sack") seethe and roil like rock's own death throes. Amazingly, the Birthday Party staggered on through two more EP's.  Possibly their finest hour, The Bad Seed is a concentrated spurt of refined dementia, and wickedly witty to boot--from the "fingers down the throat of love" chorus of 'Fears Of Gun' to the Disney-on-bad-acid talking trees of 'Deep In The Woods'.  The patchier '*Mutiny* peaks with the Faulkner-esque psychodrama 'Swampland' and the verminously detail-infested soundscape of 'Mutiny In Heaven'.

After Mutiny, the Party broke up. Rowland S. Howard joined Crime and the City Solution, swathing surrogate-Cave figure Simon Bonney's boomy baritone and moody lyrics with decidedly Doors-y atmospherics; later Howard formed These Immortal Souls, whose ghost-town dereliction paved the way for the country-blues despondency of Mazzy Star.  Nick Cave assembled the Bad Seeds (whose core remains Einsturzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld on guitar and keyboardist Barry Adamson) for the splendid From Her To Eternity.  Framed in cinematic but still rough-hewn arrangements, Cave staked out some of the themes that would occupy the rest of his career: amorous murder (the title track, "Well Of Misery"), the Artist abandoned or misunderstood by his audience ("A Box For Black Paul", "Avalanche") and Elvis (a cover of "In The Ghetto").  The Firstborn Is Dead plunges deeper into Americana: the 'talking blues' Elvis-myth of "Tupelo", the murder ballad 'Say Goodbye To The Little Girl Tree', homages to Dylan and "Blind Lemon Jefferson", and so on. But Cave's hammy delivery and use of Old Testament lingo make this LP a bit hokey.  Still, the mock-ethnological sleevenotes are a hoot: "The Black Crow King" is the tale of "a king surrounded by followers who have learned to imitate him"--a sly dig at Cave's Goth cult.

1986's all-covers album Kicking Against The Pricks not only recharged Cave's aesthetic battery, it sets the terms of the remainder of his career. Subsequent albums merely juggle different ratios of the three styles on offer here: blues, C&W noir, and what Cave called "entertainment music, although some might call it corn".  A masterful feat of canon-formation and career-realignment, Kicking repositions Cave as showman not shaman. He convincingly brings out a latent dimension of tragic pathos in such '60s melodrama as Gene Pitney's "Something's Gotten Hold Of My Heart", Glen Campbell/Jimmy Webb's "By The Time I Get To Phoenix", and even The New Seekers' "The Carnival Is Over".  Later in '86, and clearly on a creative roll, Cave & Co came up with a terrific bunch of original songs in similarly epic vein for Your Funeral...  My Trial.  On the shimmering majesty of the title track, Cave rivals the ruined grandeur of the anti-hero persona patented by folk-blues singer Tim Rose (whose "Long Time Man" is covered here).  Only an acrid strain of misogny (the Biblical rape fantasy of "Hard On For Love", the inner sleeve's Madonna/Whore imagery) mars a masterpiece.

Tender Prey's 'The Mercy Seat' is Cave's last towering moment.  As in 'Long Time Man', he plays a wife-killing convict, his ruminations and no-regrets gusted along by a Velvets wall-of-noise. The rest of the LP is a grab-bag of mostly ill-conceived essays in genres like gospel, garage punk and '70s soul. Tender Prey sets the tone--bitty, dwindling-for what has so far proved to be Cave's artistic twilight.  The Good Son wanders into Neil Diamond terrain (the cover depicts Cave at the grand piano, surrounded by l'il red-headed girls). Some swear by the MOR balladry of "The Ship Song"; most find it a crock of schlock.  Henry's Dream is rawer, but a bore. Let Love In rallies musically (the Bad Seeds' arrangements are deft, humorous, almost poppy), but on the story-telling front it's Cave-by-rote, in-a-rut.  Back in '88, the singer declared: "lyrically, thematically, my work is still chained to the same bowl of vomit". But once upon at time, at least, that puke tasted fresh.