Review Summary: Nevermind the Sex Pistols, here's John Rotten with a band far better.“To me The [Sex] Pistols were the last Rock ‘n’ Roll band, whereas PiL really felt like the start of something new.”
– Keith Levene
The scar that The Sex Pistols left on the face of music was still fresh when Public Image Limited formed in 1978. No doubt Nevermind The Bollocks hit like a ton of bricks when it was released (call it overrated, it certainly is, but it’s still a pretty shocking record) but anyone expecting the same beating with First Edition (PiL’s debut record) would have been thrown for a loop. It would have been fair to anticipate angry, after all, the singer was
Johnny Rotten (though he had reverted back to his Christian name, John Lydon, at this point) and the band did
include a founding member of The Clash. It also would be forgivable to predict the same kind of simplistic chord progressions punk tended to employ, after all, Jah Wobble, the band’s bassist, was completely untrained in the field of music. But any pre-conceptions would have been shattered within the first few minutes, and no doubt many were. Metal Box was PiL’s second record, an even larger step into the bizarre from a group of people as ready as any to change the face of music yet again.
Metal Box might just be the most unwieldy album of all time, 3 records, one embossed 16mm film canister. Packaging an album, or vinyl, at least, in metal certainly wasn’t any sort of music industry standard, (though it would happen again with Big Black’s Bulldozer EP, packaged in sheet metal as an homage to PiL) but perhaps that was appropriate seeing as what came inside was almost radical as the packaging. Albatross kicks the album off solemnly, Wobble’s loud, though not necessarily heavy bass line remains stagnant through out, as does an almost disco-esque drum beat (the band were known to be fond of the genre, a huge no-no in punk) laid down by one David Humphrey (PiL had no permanent drummer at this stage in their career.) Keith Levene’s brittle guitar harmonies and Lydon’s tuneless howls seem only to emphasize the starkness of the composition; constant reminders of the empty space punk recordings (or at least Nevermind The Bollocks) seemed to lack. It’s a strange choice to open a record, clocking in at almost 11 minutes in length and lacking any dynamic changes whatsoever, but it seems to make sense in some obscure way.
Influenced heavily by the sounds of German “Krautrock” acts like Can, Neu! and Kraftwerk, the band is, at the same time, both wildly ahead of its time and curiously behind it. They skim the fat from the Progressive sound almost too well, leaving it a curious mass of clanks and squawks. It could be called Industrial music, at least in an age where the word Industrial doesn’t bring to mind Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson and the rest of that vain crowd. The loud, dub-influenced bass, the shattering-glass guitar, the dancey drums, these are the elements (all showcased within Albatross’ 11 minutes) that define PiL. But even with Wobble’s distinct bass melodies and Levene’s signature guitar sound, Public Image Limited would not be Public Image Limited without John Lydon’s mercilessly sardonic vocals. Throughout the opening number, and for over a minute into the second, we hear them, but gone is the sinister sneer many had fallen in love with. In fact, if one wasn’t in the know, he might suspect [late Joy Division frontman] Ian Curtis to be the group’s vocalist, what with all the baritone moans Lydon tosses around. But no, at 1:33 Lydon throws the mask aside and finally lets loose. Its hook is similar to what would become PiL’s biggest hit, Rise, but Memories’ brooding music and dingy production immediately set it apart from the alt-rock sheen of later career PiL.
Chant’s bizarre tribal chanting (for lack of a better verb) and mess of high frequency guitar is enough to drive a man mad, but oddly enough, it makes for one of the best tracks on the album. Richard Dudanski’s absolutely ferocious drumming and Lydon’s screeching vocals couldn’t be called much less than brilliant, and the actual chant does much to strengthen the tension created by the two. It’s certainly a more interesting track than Levene’s slightly limp solo instrumental, Radio 4, as strange a choice to close the CD as Albatross is to open it (though Keith’s more complex bass work is certainly refreshing to hear after an album’s worth of Wobble’s creative, though technically unsatisfying playing.)
But Poptones is almost definitely the album best song, though its frantically freaky predecessor, Swan Lake, puts up quite a fight. Jah’s lolloping bass work, the lazily-picked, but oh-so-brilliant guitar work and the skewed technicality of the drumming (put down by Levene himself, quite the multi-talent) are what sets the song off, but its Johnny’s snarling vocals, not to mention his bizarre, distinctly British delivery, that are going to leave an impression on you. At near 8 minutes it’s the only thing on the album that even comes close to matching Albatross in length, but the thing that is most impressive about ‘Tones is the fact that is never gets boring. The beat trips and skips, like a rag doll, or a small-framed woman with one too many glasses of wine in her system, but it never falters (unlike, say, a small-framed woman with three too many glasses on win in her system.) Stylistically, Poptones is everything I wish Metal Box could be, freaky, unique, a blur of influences from across the board, but most importantly, incredible. Unfortunately, the middle section of the album is near unbearable. Listen to the record if you have the stomach for it, because it definitely houses more than its far share of gems, I just wish all the songs were of that level of goodness.