Review Summary: Pushing Punk to the Breaking Point
In all of music culture, few words are as difficult to define as punk. Specifically, is punk a distinct musical subgenre or in rock or is it more of an attitude or an image? This tension goes all the way back to punk’s beginning and specifically to the band most associated with establishing punk in the UK, The Sex Pistols. The Sex Pistols meteoric rise in 1977 was a textbook example of generating controversy in order to gain publicity and of course make money. Everything about the Pistols was almost scientifically engineered by the band’s manager Malcolm McLaren, to piss off the older and more conservative elements of British society. It’s hard to overstate the impact that this had on British culture and for just under a year, they dominated both the headlines and the charts.
This formula though was not built to last and by the beginning of 1978, the band had completely imploded. The primary reason for this was tension between McLaren and the members of the band, particularly lead singer John “Johnny Rotten” Lyndon. As the frontman, Lyndon was pretty much the public face of the The Sex Pistols and like the rest of the band, McLaren assembled them based on their look and attitude rather than any musical talent. Lyndon was famously just found my McLaren loitering outside his clothing boutique and was picked just for his belligerent attitude. This meant though that by necessity, The Sex Pistols music was nowhere near as bold or transgression as their image. The songs on the group’s sole album “Nevermind the Bollocks” despite their posturing are all really basic and simple, with standard pop songs chords and verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge structure.
Ironically, despite their vocal disdain for pop music, that’s pretty much what their music was. This was a smart move from a business perspective as the familiar and basic structure was both more likely to sell to a popular audience and easy for the band to cover up their near incompetence with. However, this tension between the band’s public image and their music was palpable, especially for Lyndon. He constantly butted heads with McLaren, one notable instance of many was when Lyndon talked about his appreciation for progressive and experimental rock like Can, Captain Beefheart and Van Der Gaaf Generator. This was exacerbated when bassist Glen Matlock, the most competent musician in the band, quit and was replaced by Sid Vicious who not only could hardly play a note but was also suffered from a debilitating heroin addiction. This all lead to Lyndon going around McLaren’s back to announce the end of the Sex Pistols in January of 1978.
Lyndon’s bitterness and anger towards his experience with the Sex Pistols would go on to be the fuel that would spark his next band. He spent 1978 getting together a group of highly talented musician including future bass legend, Jah Wobble and early member of The Clash, Keith Levene. What they ended up recording and releasing was an album that would shatter the dissonance between punk’s image and sound. First Issue is a record that feels meticulously engineered to piss off as many people as possible including not just the same old pearl clutchers who were appalled by the Sex Pistols, but also Sex Pistols fans as well. And of course, this whole album can also be read as a direct personal attack against Malcolm McLaren.
Simply looking at the cover reveals Lyndon’s contempt for him, the band name Public Image Ltd. reflects how Lyndon came to see the Sex Pistols, as a company selling an image, product masquerading as rebellion. The image of Lyndon on the cover, with his hair neatly done and wearing a suit, communicates that his days as Johnny Rotten are over. It would actually be a pretty bland and ordinary picture were it not for Lyndon’s eyes piercing directly through your soul. The cover even looks a bit like a magazine cover, reflecting the only thing that Lyndon though McLaren really cared about in regard to the Sex Pistols.
First Issue’s efforts to piss off and alienate as many listeners as possible begins right from the opening track Theme. After an unnerving wail from Lyndon, we’re thrown straight into a monster bassline that erupts from the speakers and might just knock you on the floor. Unlike Nevermind the Bollocks or most rock albums in general, the mix heavily favors the drum and bass while pushing the guitars and vocals more into the background (the bass was mixed so hot that the American branch of Virgin records actually remixed the album to dial it back a bit. That version never got an official release until 2013. Regardless, the original heavy bass mix is without a doubt the definitive version). It’s seriously one of my favorite basslines ever which is good since this song is almost 9 minutes and 10 seconds of the pulsing bass and pounding drums rattling your skull. Wobble and drummer Jim Walker do an incredible job of anchoring what is essentially, a heavy krautrock monster jam.
Levene’s guitar is mostly just there to provide texture and ambience to the pounding drums and bass. His guitar was also fully made out of metal, giving it a bit of a shriller sound. It’s about as far a cry from the simple buzzsaw attack of the Pistols as one can get. Lyndon’s vocals, buried way back in the mix are often difficult to make out, save for the incessant repetition of “I wish I could die”. After all of the venom Lyndon spit out against society on Nevermind the Bollocks, it’s quite a drastic change to take that rage and focus it inward rather than outward. When it’s all taken together, Theme represents almost the total antithesis to a Sex Pistols song and it’s lengthy run time and placement at the very start of the album act almost as a means of intentionally repelling any Sex Pistols fans who bought the record solely because of the man on the cover. It’s a song that doesn’t give a *** about what you think and in that regard, it’s way more punk rock than anything the Sex Pistols had ever done despite being musically as far removed from it as possible.
This isn’t to say that First Issue is uninterested in also provoking and enraging the same people who were also horrified by the Sex Pistols. Lyndon originally wrote the lyrics for Religion !&II for the Sex Pistols but organized Christianity proved to be far too sacred a cow for even the Sex Pistols to butcher. First Issue though, gleefully shoves a machete straight into this sacred cow. Because of how loudly the bass and drums are mixed on this album, Lyndon’s lyrics can often end up being overpowered. However, Lyndon was so determined to get the full seething contempt towards Christianity within these lyrics across, that a separate track was recorded with Lyndon simply reciting the lyrics. This track became Religion I with the song itself being Religion II. While I generally find Religion I to be pretty skippable, I do appreciate the fact that it’s on there. Religion II though is a ***ing Molotov cocktail thrown right through a stained glass window. The aforementioned lyrics bite like a rattlesnake (“fat pigged priests with sanctimonious smiles/they take the money, you take the lies). The music though also compliments the lyrics perfectly, it’s largely a bass driven funeral march. A particularly ingenious touch is that at the point in the song where you might typically see a guitar solo, we get a harpsicord that sounds like it’s been tortured to within an inch of its life. I just love how devilishly subversive it is for them to take the very instrument upon which Bach wrote so much deeply religious music and just desecrate it for the sake of a song that is intent on tearing down what he sought to venerate. The sheer glee with which Lyndon belts out the final lines “This is your religion/and it’s all falling to bits/gloriously!” concludes the song in appropriately provocative fashion. The next song Annalisa is also about religion, in particular the case of Annalise Michel who starved to death while in the care of priests conducting an exorcism on her. Lyrically, it’s fantastic but those lyrics do get drowned out by the music, especially Jim Walker’s drums. The drums here almost foreshadow the manic power of Dave Grohl (in fact, the Nirvana song Radio Friendly Unit Shifter sounds like a grunge rewrite of Annalisa). That drum beat and the rock groove that accompanies it really make the song, I just find it impossible not to headbang along to it. The one vocal part that really stands out is Lyndon just barking, screaming and snarling out the name Annalisa over and over again, it’s clear that he really wants you to remember her name and what happened to her. It is the closest thing on this album so far to a straight ahead rocker but the length and the rhythm do a lot to set it apart.
The song Public Image acts as a mission statement for both the band and this album. This was the first song the group ever recorded and it’s amazing how crystal clear the group’s vision is even at this early stage. Musically, this is by far the most conventional thing on the record so far, it basically sounds like what a Sex Pistols song would sound like if the Sex Pistols could play worth a damn. It keeps the simple verse/chorus/verse/ structure but with driving bass lines and guitar arpeggios that would simply have been out of the Pistols league. The powerful bass and echoing guitars on this song would go on to influence legions of post punk bands such as The Cure and Sonic Youth. The lyrics directly address Lyndon’s dissatisfaction with the Sex Pistols and McLaren (“You never listened to a word that I said You only seen me from the clothes that I wear/Or did the interest go so much deeper/It must have been to the color of my hair”). It’s an angry and bitter song but the music here is so good that the bitterness is actually rather pleasant to swallow. Low Life is a song in a similar vein. The lyrics here are thinly veiled attacks against both Malcolm McLaren and Sid Vicous (to Lyndon, the insults “burgeois anarchist” and “ego-maniac traitor apply to both. Musically it’s the same sort of thing as Public Image, a simple punk rock song that’s really elevated by the ace musicianship on display. I like it but I also think it’s the least interesting thing on here. The next song Attack is one that I really dig just for the bass line, it’s really simple but it’s pretty damn infectious. Lyrically, I think it’s a step below some of the other stuff, it’s mostly just about attacking a bunch of nameless random targets. It lacks the pointedness that I think really lent most of the rest of the lyrics on this album so much venom and firey passion. Still though, that bass line is tight as *** so I can’t complain too much.
And now we come to the closer, without a doubt the most polarizing and divisive thing on here, Fotterstompf. The song itself actually tells you how it came to be in the lyrics “We only wanted to finish the album with the minimum amount of effort which we are now doing very successfully.” That’s pretty much exactly what went down, the album was short and incomplete but Virgin wanted a record out by the end of 1978 so they just shat this out with bare minimum effort and bolted it on to the end. The song is just a simple as *** bass loop, a basic drum machine and various members of the band saying ***, mainly Jah Wobble who puts on a voice that’s like when the Monty Python guys played old British ladies, it starts kinda funny but it gets grating after a while (the song is almost eight minutes long and you feel every second) The main refrain of the song is “we only wanted to be loved” repeated ad nauseum. The ending is genuinely funny with Jim Walker saying “I will show our frustration at society by picking up that fire extinguisher over there and spraying it at the mic” and then ending the album with the fire extinguisher going off. It’s a terrible song but I gotta admit that in the context of the album, it does kinda work. If this whole album has been an attempt to piss off as many people as possible then there really is no better ending than this giant middle finger of a song. It’s ballsy and punk rock as hell, I’ll give it that certainly. I must admit though, if I’m in a particularly silly mood, I can kinda sorta get into it. I also must point out that Fotterstompf was adopted by the gay, studio 54 crowd in NYC who took to its simple dance beat and lyrics about wanting to be loved and accepted. While I dislike the song, I think it’s so ***ing cool that a group of people can find joy and meaning in a song that was simply shat out by a band desperate to fill time on an album. There’s something beautiful in that.
Unsurprisingly, when it was first released, First Issue was eviscerated by critics. This was probably exactly the reaction that Lyndon and co were expecting, like true punks they didn’t give a *** about what critics thought. Over the years though, the album’s reputation has improved considerably with critics now seeing it as a crucial turning point in the development of post punk. Personally, I don’t think this is the best Public Image Ltd album. Their follow up to this, Second Edition (sometimes referred to as Metal Box) is much better overall, it’s ***ing incredible from front to back. However, this record’s sheer brazenness keeps me fascinated and coming back to it again and again. Where the punk rock of the time talked a big game about being subversive and rebellious, First Issue walks the walk by making music that actually sounded that way. It’s an album that just does whatever the *** it was and extends a giant middle finger to you if you don’t like it. If that’s not the essence of punk rock than I don’t know what is.