5 Album Set (EMI), Plastic Box (Virgin), Metal Box Super Deluxe Edition & Album Super Deluxe Edition (Virgin/ UMC) - Public Image Limited
In one way, every box here rates five bottles. They’re essential; if not for the music, then the history and their place in it. In another … every box rates between four and five bottles. Why?
Well, all but two of the PiL albums represented here were patchy. One of those unpleasant truths we must all know (another is the knowledge that some our (many) rock ’n’ roll heroes have been anything but loveable rascals, but thugs of considerable degree who richly deserve four walls and a small barred door with the occasional beating…)
Partly PiL’s LPs are patchy because they’re a glorious thumbed nose at the expectations of the wider world; partly it’s because Lydon’s creativity is a nagging sore which requires scratching, and it doesn’t always come out even (Lydon is a bit like Iggy Pop in that respect). Here’s a quote from the unofficial PiL site, fodderstompf.com
FS: The difference between each album is unbelievable, and the thing is, when you came out and did 'First Issue', people wanted to hear 'Never the Mind the Bollocks', when you did 'Metal Box' they wanted 'First Issue'...
Lydon: Yeah, then when we did 'Flowers...' and they wanted 'Metal Box' and so on, that's exactly right.”
That’s how it was, for decades. Even now people assert that “Metal Box” is ‘the only decent PiL album’, and I often wonder just how many people have only come round to Lydon’s new PiL because he’s so well known now, he’s become (by virtue of being persistently around for so damn long) part of the furniture (if not, by virtue of being a cheeky chappie on the telly, a “national treasure”). People who’d have rolled their eyes and stayed away in droves, now flock to the bugger, seeing, perhaps, themselves in a parallel universe.
You wanna be someone
Wanna be someone
Wanna be me
That’s from the flipside of the first Sex Pistols single, “Anarchy in the UK”, recorded in October 1976, well and truly before the Grundy Incident (or Ground Zero as I like to think of it; 1st December 1976: “Grundy Day” should be a public holiday somewhere in the world)) and the birth of “punk as we know it”. Lydon is of course singing about the stardom principle as espoused by the glossy magazines; but you’ve got to ask yourself - what on earth is running through a young man’s mind when he writes
You wanna ruin me in your magazine
You wanna cover us in margarine
So Lydon and the rest of the band had young man’s dreams of stardom. And Lydon perhaps felt the pressure already, perhaps already felt isolated and something of a victim.
How the hell he survived - and was able to move forward - during the next few years is one of those things which you look back on in amazement.
Forty years on John Lydon, the fucker at the pointy bit of the punk rock pin - who's been bottled, attacked and spat on for 40 years now - you reckon if he’s not living in a box down the Embankment with mad writing on it, he’s sold out? I don't have a problem with Lydon doing a bloody butter commercial. It could have been far worse. He could have gone into politics like that bald bloke from Midnight Soil.
Of the 17 discs in these four boxes, only one of them actually demonstrates the predicament Lydon has been in for years.
It’s on the “Album Super Deluxe Box”: PiL live at the Brixton Academy, almost 10 years after the Grundy Incident. By this time, the fad for spitting on the band you admire (or even despise) has long since been over; yet throughout the gig Lydon has to cope with ardent followers gobbing at him and the band.
He insults the idiots (those of you with long memories will doubtless recall assorted numbskulls doing that here in Australia, and while I know the fad was short-lived, rather like flares they made a mark and seem to repeat like reflux after a curry every now and again. I don’t remember seeing it here after 1980, and I don’t think it lasted much later than 1981 in the UK except at punk-specific gigs, and even then I think it was a rarity. Bob Short, any ideas?
A friend of mine witnessed a later London show and wondered at Lydon’s ego, where he declared that how much he’d “suffered for you” and, while on the bald face of it that might seem ludicrous if not insanely arrogant with a touch of paranoia, Lydon has been the target of all manner of arsewipes and ambitious journos trying to set him up for decades - and contrary to public belief, it’s actually quite difficult to live in the spotlight, and almost impossible to be a normal person because of it.
The gig begins with a careful, clever version of the Led Zeppelin song (you might not have heard of them, but they were quite popular for a while there) “Kashmir”. The band are fuelled and pumped and the next song, “FFF”, comes out like a tiger.
The recording is not without fault: there’s a too-heavy kick-drum for most of the set, Lydon’s vocals occasionally veer off-mike, and there’s that weird ‘recorded through the mixing desk’ feel where the audience noise is distant and sounds a tad like seagulls at the beach (ever notice that?) and there’s one astonishing moment (it’s only a moment, thankfully) where the entire band sound as if they’ve suddenly been teleported to the bottom of a well in Tajikistan, then teleported back.
But, it’s the event, and the shitty crowd - and I’m guessing that it’s a rowdy bunch dahn tha frunt who want to show their love but can’t in any way which isn’t manly, so they gob at the singer and if they can’t reach him, the band will do. And, like anyone else in the world, the band and the singer do not appreciate being gobbed on.
“Still gobbing. This is the last time I’m ever going to play London again, you do not deserve me. You are filth, you are a product of the Daily Mirror and you deserve what you get!”
Threatening to leave appears to work, and eventually the idiots leave off, but in the way of such creatures, return to gob some more. At one point someone gets onto the stage and appears to attack him, at another time a character clambers to the top of the PA and moons the band and the crowd.
The last song in the set, Public Image, John cuts short, telling the crowd, “you’re not worth it” and “you deserve nuclear war, you really do”…
Professional to the end, Lydon returns for a two-song encore, tries to be nice about it but the idiots have performed that clever British punker/ hooly trick and pulled the cables out. This is usually done to prevent a band the hoolies hate from playing, so when the encore comes, PiL have to scramble to fix the mess.
This disc is, in many ways, the most interesting and revealing PiL recording I’ve ever heard; showing Lydon struggling with his new success as opposed to his apparent humble origins (Brixton Academy would’ve held more people than ever saw the Sex Pistols in the UK, and probably the European gigs as well); a hit single with a new sound which people (for some unearthly reason) described as “heavy metal” - the outfit on “Album” and onstage here sound like a very fine, smart AOR albums band - that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but they’re definitely a commercial outfit. Lydon appears like he’s finally about to shed the millstone from around his neck and move on - then the gobbing starts.
Curiously, the band play Pretty Vacant and Public Image - as it happens, while six of the songs come from his new “Album”, a couple from the first LP turn up (which you’d expect), as do two from “Flowers of Romance” (which you don’t) - the title track and (gulp) Banging the Door (where they’ve swapped drum patterns for guitar patterns); and only one from their second - much lauded - LP (you do expect more from that LP).
Bruce Smith is his usual brilliant self (although you don’t hear enough detail of what he’s doing, sadly); the late John McGeoch translates Keith Levene’s scything guitar lines admirably and slots perfectly into place with the newer songs; bassist Allan Dias and polymathic instrumentalist Lu Edmonds make up the ensemble. Truth to tell there’s not enough detail in the recording to make this a great live record …
… but it still is a great live disc - and far better than the rubbish C90 tape which would have been available in the markets the following day, where every band with anything like sellability was being flogged.
Lydon’s flogging of British butter (in 2008) gave him a new lease of life, and with the money, he was able to reinvent PiL. Not only did Lydon’s commercials boost British butter (I am told there were 'butter wars’), the product wasn't evil (tho’ clearly antivegan - a word I might just copyright. It would also make a fine name for a band. The Antivegans).
Now, yer “political punks” and them what lived in black leather biker jackets were forever trying to find fault with every punk (remember all that aggrieved nonsense about 'selling out' which chuntered on into the early 90s?) had an attitude straight from the lefty 60s handbook (that’s what The Who was parodying on their LP “The Who Sell Out”). The concept of being a “good leftist” or being “politically correct” always makes me think of Stalin’s cheery ‘dob-in-a-loved-one’ policy. Equal rights (and gulags) for all.
This ‘sell-out’ shit is a bolt-on, presumably made by political types who weren’t quite hippies, who thought punk was about politics first, which it wasn’t - if it was anything definable, punk (as it appeared in both the US and UK) was a humanist movement (go on, sue me).
I don't recall any of the first or second wave brit punk/alt bands in the ‘70s stating that they were committed socialists (in fact, I recall Siouxsie and the Banshees copping stick for turning up at a gig in a limo); the Clash certainly maintained that pose, but if you’ve seen ‘Rude Boy’ (1980, but shot during 1978 and 1979) you kind realise that well, this is a pose too: Strummer’s explanation of why he’s wearing a Red Brigade t-shirt (from memory) is not the explanation of anyone with a degree of political knowledge. I remember seeing the film before I’d got anywhere near university and thinking that I knew more about socialism than Strummer - and I was a lot younger.
The number of unaware berks in studded black leather motorcycle jackets (with band names on the back in white paint - remember them? endangered species today. Lifestyle decisions, no doubt) who banged on about punk bands ‘selling out’ and how they, the honest punks, had been “ripped off” as though they were part of some sort of entitled species …
The nature of control is one which marked Lydon’s early and mid-years. He seems to have had several pivotal, personality-shaping events, some very public. Let’s not be shy about this: regardless of who you think you are, fame will turn your head. It helps other people, who have no interest in who you are, only in what you appear to represent, to take advantage and derail you. And it’s damned easy to lose control over your own life (never mind your career) in those circumstances.
The formation of the Pistols, the Grundy Incident, the breakup of the Pistols, establishment of Gunter Grove and early PiL, the suing of McLaren and the long illness and death of Lydon’s mother while they were recording ‘Metal Box’, then the Gunter Grove mates pad became increasingly tense, Wobble leaving and then the “Flowers of Romance” recordings, then the relocation to the USA and Levene’s betrayal … the slow struggle for independence, self and a valid musical career… these are the pivotal moments in Lydon’s life. “5 Album Set” overlaps all of these events; “Plastic Box” going a little further in John’s career, filling in a few blanks along the way.
“5 Album Set” was issued in 2013 by EMI, mimicking Rhino’s “Original Album Series” and Sony’s “Original Album Classics” sets. Record companies had realised that they could issue 5 CDs of an artist’s back catalogue in a simple repro LP cover for $A17. Bargain by any stretch. They didn’t last long, of course, otherwise they’d still be in print… Can you imagine your response to discovering that the record company was issuing little boxes of your music for fuck-all? - not as bad as Spotify’s percentages of a cent, but the royalty would have been minute (if anything).
Lou Reed had all his studio LPs issued thus (except, of course, “Metal Machine Music”, the bastards) and I’m sure you have a few of these sets in your home (and if not, you’re daft as they cost less than $20 each for, usually, 5 LPs). PiL’s “5 Album Set” comprises PiL’s first five studio albums (omitting the band’s third LP, a live set, “Paris Au Printemps”, issued in November 1980).
After each track on “5 Album Set” is the words; ‘Remastered 2011’ (except ‘Second Edition’ (aka ‘Metal Box’) which has “Remastered 2009”), as if to say, “hey, all those repeated words mean you’re getting more…”
There are no details about this remastering. Given that the copyright is Virgin Records, one assumes that it’s the record company doing a transfer from analogue to digital, and that issuing them in this fashion allows them to retain and extend their mastering rights.
But first, I’m afraid we require a little context, a little introduction to how PiL came about in the first place.
What Lydon, Matlock, Jones’n’Cook were about in 1976, and what Lydon thought the movement (which got dubbed “punk” after the Grundy Incident, utilising a term already in use about the very different NY scene) was about (the rediscovery and reinvention of modern music, art and culture and so on - the intentions in UK were quite different in the USA), turned out to be very, very different to what came after the Grundy Incident.
“Being open-minded to all kinds of music was Lesson One in punk, but that didn’t seem to be understood by many of the alleged punk bands that followed after, who seemed to be waving this idea of a punk manifesto. I’m sorry, but I never did this for the narrow-minded. I was horrified by the cliche that punk was turning into” - Lydon: “Anger is An Energy”
During, I think, an interview with Conan O’Brien in 1994, Lydon describes the entire life of the Sex Pistols as “a fiasco”, which it was. The mismanagement of bands and their funds is hardly unusual, and the list of bands who manage to irritate the wrong people at the wrong time and simply vanish must be longer than a pollie’s list of hidden expenses … but. The Sex Pistols sparked a revolution more or less by accident, and were the spearhead of a world-wide movement which they weren’t able to capitalise on (in any sense) … and ‘punk’ was frankly passe by the middle of 1977 (despite the huge and ever-expanding fanbase, it was rightly considered a bit of a flash in the pan which the labels were desperate to leap at) while new bands were forcibly trying to move forward.
When record companies initially heard the punk word they fled to the hills (“I’ve got a family to consider!”). Then, as they realised that these indefinable monsters were flooding the charts like squid ink in lemonade, they unwound and pounced on everyone who looked remotely punk. Ian Dury was suddenly somehow new wave, and The Stranglers and Generation X were punk.
“Ah ha-ha. Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” are the last words Lydon spoke on stage with the Pistols in January 1978, their last gig. You might imagine that the star of the show would then head to a posh hotel with assorted trappings of fame, but … no. There was nowhere for him to sleep. In his first autobiography, “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” (Hodder and Stoughton, 1994), Lydon demonstrates the level of betrayal he must have felt at Malcolm McLaren’s hands. McLaren was a dreamer, an amateur rock manager well and truly out of his depth. And he did manipulate the band - but against each other, not to infamy and fortune.
Some ten years after the Sex Pistols’ were everywhere, Lydon talked to Jack Barron of the NME:
When you say I have a suit of armour, well, it's more like you build up a resilience to protect yourself. I'm sick to death of being abused, right from the start. I find it disgustingly insulting that because I'm working class people assumed I was a cretin. Stuff like that can be very irritating and hurtful.”
John looks at his fingernails. They’re bitten down to the quick.
It's due to nerves. I'm a very nervous person.
In ’78-79 Lydon had serious problems. I can’t tell you what they all were, except to say the man had had a background of being on the receiving end of catastrophic betrayal (McLaren’s abandoning Lydon at a time where he needed a sensible father/protector figure most; also placing Lydon in a place where he was in danger of being attacked - it was only luck he escaped with not only his life, but avoided being - in his own words - “a one-legged hoppity” due to wearing leather jeans on one occasion), abandonment and fear of isolation (put that down in part to meningitis). Add that to a high intelligence coupled with an ability to discern bullshit from flannel and a big mouth meant that the young Lydon had, to put it mildly, a whopping chip on his shoulder and an intellect to express it.
On the fodderstompf.com website, there’s a revealing exchange…
Lydon: The transition between the Sex Pistols to PiL, that wasn't just a pop star having a whim, there was a serious court case, serious pressure and serious bankruptcy, and somehow in between there I went to Jamaica for Virgin Records and helped sign up reggae bands. And more or less introduced reggae to the commercial world that way.
F: Yeah, that whole Jamaica thing needs documented, it's often written off as 'Johnny goes on holiday', there was a lot more to it than just that. Quite a lot of those bands wouldn't have signed without you being there.
Lydon: That’s right. In fact, there would probably be none of them actually! It's not understood that when I did the Capital Radio show and brought in things like Big Youth and whatever, it was never heard on radio. It was a complete mystery and it shocked people.
Here’s a different bit of context.
Remember the Pistols’ version of Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner” which turned up on the “Swindle” LP? I have vivid memories of people just getting into punk quoting Lydon’s mock-serious “vocals” to “Roadrunner” on buses the year it came out: “I ‘ate songs like this! aaargh! Torture!”
The Pistols’ originally recorded this in October 1976, along with several other songs. After Lydon had left the band, Cook’n’Jones re-recorded the music in 1978, retaining Lydon’s ‘vocals’ to about seven songs, the LP was the ‘soundtrack’ to “Swindle” (which wasn’t released as a film until 1980).
PiL’s “First Edition” had come out in late November 1978; shortly afterwards, his mum, Eileen, who suffered from cancer for a year, died. Lydon’s mate Sid Vicious died in New York on February 2,1979; the ‘Swindle’ LP came out four weeks later.
Can you imagine having to live with some privately recorded throwaway rubbish from when you first started, competing with your current, more developed creative work in the music papers, radio and charts? Would you feel betrayed? Not just by ol’ Malcolm, but by your mates, Cook and Jones as well.
It’s no great stretch to imagine just how ripped apart Lydon must’ve been from 1978-1981 at the very least.
The first time I heard “First Edition” (in November or December 1978, shortly after it came out) I was a bit bemused - partly because, at 15, I hadn’t had the breadth of experience to “get it” first go. Truthfully, I haven’t played it a lot in the intervening years; although I recall being astounded at ‘Rock Australia Magazine’s curt dismissal - they called it ‘unlistenable’, which at the time I didn’t think was either true nor fair.
By that stage, punk had long since become a niche akin to a football terrace; what Lydon wanted was to make something genuinely new and exciting. With Wobble’s rumbling bass lines, Jim Walker’s cracking drums and Levene's spiky, scabrous guitar (both styles influenced everyone from Killing Joke and The Gang of Four, The Birthday Party, and also (now you may not have heard of this bloke) The Edge out of Irish band U2), PiL had worked out another way forward.
If you’re not entirely sure what I mean by “the terrace-minded”, take a squint at the Cockney Rejects documentary, “East End Babylon” (2012). What the terrace-minded wanted, of course, was more of what they thought the Pistols were about. God alone knows what the editors of RAM wanted, but it wasn’t that. More soft core Rose Tattoo and Skyhooks, perhaps. Neither the media nor the terrace-minded were fans of Krautrock.
One thing which gets missed today when re-visiting both The Sex Pistols and PiL, is that Lydon’s early work was characterised by an incendiary, venomously furious voice. Very few punks ever came remotely close to sounding so incensed, so floridly unhinged with rage. Yes, there was humour in it, a little similar to Australia’s famous dead-pan humour, but mostly … what impressed and to some extent confounded was the savage delivery in conjunction with this humour. They might have been having a laff, but the laff definitely had acerbic intelligence behind it. Lydon is known to say things to get a response (as a form of aggressive self-protection), but you know you’re forced to pay attention.
The concept of the public image (inspired by Muriel Spark’s 1968 novel “Public Image”) revolves around John Lydon like a combination Superman cape and shroud. The idiocy of impossible expectation resting on his 21 year-old shoulders must have seemed like a sort of goad, weight, curse and a blessing all at once.
As Keith Bourton points out in the too-brief liner notes to “Plastic Box”:
It is probably difficult for many of us who were around at the time to recall, and for those who weren’t around, to understand, that when PiL were formed in 1978 there was a certain amount of resentment towards them… emanat[ing] from the Pistols fans, who didn’t want the Pistols to end, and the UK press who to a great extent felt the same way.
Another reason why the “Swindle” LP did better business than “First Edition”.
Small wonder that, in the years after the collapse of the Pistols, Lydon appeared to develop something of a siege mentality, a sort of desperate urge to be in control while allowing things around him to spiral out of control. I’m partly reading between the lines a bit, here, partly from Phil Strongman’s book "Metal Box’"(Helter Skelter, 2007), but also Lydon’s second autobiography, "Anger is an Energy" (Simon and Schuster, 2014; get it at bookdepository.com ). In the latter, while Lydon excoriates Malcolm McLaren, he seems to indicate that it took him some time to realise that he had to exercise control over what he was doing publicly.
The first song on “First Edition”, “Theme”, is quite moving. Wobble’s lackadaisical throbbing bass synced up with Levene’s sniping sharp guitar is hugely effective; Lydon’s vocal is horrifyingly believable: “I wish I could die”… over and over… of course, he negates it right at the end with a one-liner, but… the emotional damage is there in his voice. He sounds like he’s been torn in two.
The two versions of “Religion”, one just the vocal, the other the song proper… they never really convinced me. Brought up a Catholic (long-since lapsed) I recall thinking, “he’s got this wrong, he really has”. I think my first irrit was about ‘the liar on the altar’ - you’d be surprised how many priests (at that time) did believe, and quite firmly; and possible how many now.
Lydon’s layering doesn’t quite work (“Do you read who’s dead/ In the Irish Post”) is a great anti-war line, but as John should’ve known even then that The Troubles in Ireland had little to do with religion but mostly about prejudice toward one group or another (‘proddy’s and ‘catholics’ were both Christian, but The Troubles bore precious little Christian mercy) and was insanely complicated by 1977.
Lydon is right about the links of dosh to religion, but it’s all expressed poorly, more like a schoolboy poem, to my mind; even the best couplet, ‘This is religion and Jesus Christ/ This is religion cheaply priced’ seems to stand on its own, as if to say, ‘Oy! this is where you need to be writing! Not the other juvenile vitriol!’.
Compare the above couplet from “Religion” with the brilliant “I’m not the same as when I began/ I will not be treated as property” or “I’m not the same as when I began/ It’s not a game of Monopoly”, from “Public Image” and you can see the writing is uneven.
But fuck. The man was 21 or 22 or so when he wrote it; you can’t always write brilliantly. And here’s a quote from Brussels music magazine Muziekkrant Oor in January 1979 (pinched from fodderstompf.com)
MO: You sing ‘There's a liar on the altar’ and I think it fits, because a stage is also some kind of altar, and you are some kind of priest to a certain part of the audience yourself, and so you are probably a liar, too.
John Lydon: At least! You understood the beginning, the end and everything in between. That's precisely what it's all about. That's all I have to say. That's all what Public Image Ltd. Stands for. ‘Don't worship me’, that's all I want to say for the time being. Until the Pistols are finally forgotten I can't think about music. First I have to come to terms with what happened. And I have to come to terms with the idiot that I was. I'm not such a cunt like the others. I said it before, but I try to be honest.
MO: If you put it that way then Public Image Ltd seems to be a kind of Kamikaze operation.
Lydon still rates “Religion” enough to play the song live today. But I still don’t like the versions on the album (‘Attack’ similarly leaves me cold).
“Annalisa” is also a bloody fine song (parents starving their daughter to death because they thought she was possessed by the devil; another control/religion themed song), as is “Low Life” (Bourton quotes Lydon, “Low Life is about Sid, and how he turned into the worst kind of rock’n’roll star. I was disgusted, let’s leave it at that”).
“Fodderstompf” is somewhere between hilarious and moving; Wobble is a proper studio head, love tinkering with mixes. In one interview he commented that he must have dozens of mixes of “Fodderstompf”. It’s a killer bassline.
Given the nature of the new direction this now-famous man and his band was heading in, small wonder that “First Issue” caused confusion (at best).
Here’s that unknown journo fronting Lydon and Wobble in Brussels:
MO: … you are a personality which is part of a chapter of this century's history. You are not anonymous and you can't get it again anymore. The 'public image' is pinned down. By the media, by yourself, perhaps also by Malcolm McLaren. You can rage like a devil in a [baptismal] font now, but you can't get rid of this image.
John Lydon: If this is true then it will destroy me. But if I'll be destroyed by Rock 'n' Roll I will make sure Rock 'n' Roll will be destroyed with me. I was being cheated like an idiot in my Pistols time, and since I came over it I gathered enough 'anger' to defend myself until everything will be devastated.
The way in which Lydon moved forward upset terrace-minded punks who thought Lydon was a punk god who should join them brawling with skinheads and rockers and coppers and everyone else, who should have reverted to tough, acerbic rock’n’roll and live in a squat with a collection of venereal and skin diseases.
Lydon under-estimated the willingness of the punk audience to involve themselves in what he considered to be what punk was about. After all, he’d been with the movement from its early stages.
But punk had quickly changed from an open-mind to a closed one. Punk became a closed, narrow-focused genre incredibly rapidly (take a listen to the Psycho-Surgeons’ 7” from 1977) and the new wave became quickly synonymous with arty pop or unlistenable rubbish.
So when PiL started doing live gigs in late December 1978 there was more than tension in the air. Reading Strongman, early gigs (a total of four in 1978, and three in 1979) came close to full-bore riots. And if you’ve seen any footage of British hooligans, you’ll have an idea of what I mean.
“Metal Box” (or “Second Edition” if you prefer) is a very strange place. Initially issued as 3 x 12” EPs in a metal tin in mid-November 1979, and later as a double LP called “Second Edition” (the first PiL LP was called “First Edition”. Are you still with me? alright then.) Despite the original issue in the metal tin selling quite handsomely it hardly ever turns up secondhand, yet I’m sure people don’t listen to it that often. They must be hanging onto it for the novelty.
“Metal Box” was lauded to the heavens when it first appeared, and, if assorted Facebook pals are anything to go by, it’s the only decent thing Lydon’s ever done. ‘Metal Box’ was also hugely influential, not least for the ‘gated’ drum sound which became more famous during 1980 on Peter Gabriel’s third solo LP (which had been recorded in the spring and summer of 1979), although PiL’s “Death Disco” 12” (released late June 1979) seems to indicate that PiL might have been exploring the same sort of terrain around the same time. The ‘gated’ drum sound is now a staple effect, and underpinned the careers of many pop stars in the 80s and 90s.
I’ll approach both “Metal Box” and “Album” in more detail later when I get to the two Super Deluxe Boxes. The third and fourth of PiL’s studio LPs are both quite remarkable.
After the release of “Metal Box” and the 13 gigs in the earlier half of the year, first Martin Atkins (drums) left to pursue a band called Brian Brain (there’s not even a wikipedia page), and later, Jah Wobble, whose solid rumble was a hallmark of PiL’s sound, left the band/ was pushed out of the band. The release of PiL’s live LP, “Paris Au Printemps” (recorded in January 1980, released in November 1980) showed an (uncredited) Lydon caricature of Keith Levene, Lydon and Jeannette Lee - but not Wobble, or Atkins.
By this stage PiL (in this case, Lydon and Levene) had begun work on their next LP. Strongman has Martin Atkins recalling his arrival at these sessions: “… some bizarre recordings of golden oldies: ‘John sang ‘Twist and Shout’, and John and Jeannette did a duet on ‘Johnny Remember Me’, the old John Leyton hit. Which actually sounded fantastic.’’ Which I think you’ll agree sounds fascinating but hardly auspicious for the birth of another LP by PiL, the band who wanted to put ‘a full-stop after rock’n’roll”.
In an interview by fodderstompf.com, Lydon recalls that there were certainly other tracks recorded for “Flowers of Romance”…“but it was all kind of rubbish. There was one good song from around then that was called 'Vampire'. I think I've got that on master somewhere”.
Even by the standard set by PiL’s first two studio LPs, “Flowers of Romance” was alienating. A key feature was the drumming - often wonky, off-beat; layered against it are the most fascinating series of sounds. Levene, who was gaining great kudos as an original guitarist, plays the instrument on only one song. The rest is drums (or, percussion) and treated sounds by Lydon and Levene, with vocals by Lydon.
While there may or may not have been cross-pollination between Peter Gabriel and PiL’s “Metal Box”, the influence was clear with ‘Flowers of Romance’. On top of this Lydon and Levene appear to have walked away from rock’n’roll in every form - if you could liken “Metal Box” to Can, then you could liken ‘Flowers of Romance’ to Krautrock’s next step forward.
“Flowers of Romance” is not only the most cohesive, well-structured of PiL’s first five albums, but one of the few LPs I’d consider borderline demonic. The remastered edition here has three extra tracks, two b-sides of the LP’s singles, and the b-side of “Metal Box”s “Memories”. It’s an amazing period of creativity for PiL.
This third PiL studio album also seems to be far more influential than “Metal Box”, far more disconnecting (oh, we don’t have Wobble anymore. Shall we replace him? Nah, let’s just ignore the whole guitarbassdrums thing) and disturbing, and thoroughly majestic.
And one more observation: for all everyone bangs on about Wobble’s dubby bass on PiL’s first LPs, it strikes me that Lydon knew more about dub than Wobble at the time (having a deep knowledge of who’s who, and let’s not forget that Branson sent him to Jamaica to sign reggae band - Branson knew Lydon knew the scene intimately), and that, on “Flowers of Romance”, the drumming occasionally bears more than a glancing resemblance to the drummers of Burundi.
Looking at producer Nick Launay’s list of credits following this LP is instructive: Killing Joke, Kate Bush, Gang of Four, The Birthday Party, The Slits, Virgin Prunes, Midnight Oil (we’ll stop there, I’m going to be sick). It’s likely Launay would have had a hell of a career anyway, but “Flowers of Romance” really demonstrated his broad skill at the recording desk - and in people handling.
The last disc in “5 Album Set” is 1984’s “This Is What You Want…” and, while at the time it was largely regarded as Lydon’s sell-out LP, there’s a huge semi-legendary backstory to it. By November 1982 the band had at least 6 songs sorted, intending them for a mini-LP, but they changed their minds and went to make an entire LP. Certainly there’s a streak of the autobiographical about this LP.
Here’s a quote from symphonyofghosts.blogspot.com.au :
By May 1983 a new track ‘This Is Not A Love Song’ was earmarked as a new single for Virgin Records, but PIL broke up when first Pete Jones and then Keith Levene left the band [arguing over the mix]… John Lydon and drummer Martin Atkins hired session musicians to fulfill touring commitments and carried on [as] PIL. The single ‘This Is Not A Love Song’ (with ‘Blue Water’ as the 12" single b-side), both from the Park South sessions, was released by Virgin Records in September 1983 and went to no.5 in the UK single charts.
After the expenses incurred by Virgin for the first few LPs with not much by way of return, I’m sure they were glad of the hit “This Is Not a Love Song”. It’s worth mentioning that Lydon, in ‘Anger is an Energy’, reveals that Branson had refused to issue “This is Not…” as a single, so Lydon found a company in Japan to issue it, and it “turned into a big hit in the clubs of Japan”, which allowed Lydon to take PiL to Japan, and Lydon to then take it back to Branson - who issued it. “This Is Not a Love Song” was a hit all over Europe.
Around this time, Levene took the unfinished album tapes and did his own mix. He then flew over to London and presented them to Richard Branson as the finished new PIL album for Virgin Records, but John Lydon decided to completely abandon the tapes and re-record the whole album from scratch with session musicians. This new version of “Commercial Zone” became “This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get” in 1984.; while "This Is What You Want…" had been recorded (during 1982 and 1983).
One can imagine Lydon’s rage (not to mention his sense of betrayal by a friend); turned down by Virgin as Levene issued ‘Commercial Zone’ in November 1983 on his own PiL Records label; two months after Branson had released the double LP ‘PiL Live in Tokyo’.
recordcollectormag.com has this to say:
Reputedly with Virgin boss Richard Branson’s blessing, however, Levene also semi-officially released the original 'Commercial Zone' (through his own PiL imprint), and it’s his version of the project that usually wins the plaudits from long-term fans.
This probably isn’t close to the real story; in “Anger is an Energy” Lydon states:
...the water of that whole relationship with Virgin was muddied when Keith Levene sneakily tried to release an album of the stuff we’d been working on before he left. It’s called ‘Commercial Zone’, it was incomplete, some of it was very scrappy… …and then it went into trying to get the reel masters and they were all a mess, so I had to rerecord … I felt I had to backtrack to get those songs back into the fold, and not let them be stolen away. I must agree, though, that we didn’t manage to get the intensity of those original demos.
"Bad Life" opens with this loopy, trippy bass and drum-machine but, by now this sounds, frankly, like a reversion back to that funky-discoesque stuff from the late 70s. Think not quite Chic with Lydon on vocals: it’s clearly a jab in the eye to both the record industry and his audience with the repeated line “this is what you want, this is what you get”. Everyone knows “This is not a Love Song” (similar attitude to “Submission”), so when we find that the third song “Solitaire” features similarly aggressive bass and lyrics, we can only conclude that this is Lydon’s ‘fuck you I’m off’ LP.
“Tie Me To the Length of That” concludes the first side, John appearing to justify a kind of paranoia; it’s the best track on the side to my mind:
When I was born, the doctor didn't like me/ He grabbed my ankles, held me like a turkey/ Dear Mummy, why'd you let him hit me?/ This was wrong, I knew you didn't love me.
The second side opens with “The Pardon”, the drums and (whatever the hell that thing is) reminding me of (again) Burundi drumming and traditional arabic music with a rather wonderful bass line (if that sound is in fact a bass). “The Pardon” is an excellent track and like Lydon’s best lyrics, can flicker in meaning:
Follow these rules of life/ Never the same thing twice
...which of course is as much a disastrous piece of advice as it is a curse.
“Where Are You?” is another brilliantly realised piece of bonkers pop aimed at the unreliable folk of the world. “1981” recalls the “Flowers of Romance” spartan spaces between drums, and a bloody odd honking percussion - to the point that one wonders how accurately it portrays his position in 1981, which is the year Lydon finally left the UK. Again, it’s a forceful statement.
“The Order of Death” closes the second side, and once more one wonders why on earth film producers weren’t clustering to Lydon’s door as they did Graeme Revell in 1988. Perhaps it simply wasn’t quite as obvious back in 1983. “Order of Death” is not a particularly brilliant song, but the second side is considerably better than the first side. One wonders whether Lydon could’ve gotten away with releasing a few 12” EPs instead. Probably not, since that didn’t happen…
So, while there are several damn fine, and some very interesting songs on “This Is What You Want…” (one or two recalling steel pan drumming), but it would be a frustrating business being a PiL fan, particularly if they’d bought “Commercial Zone” in good faith. “This Is What You Want…” is certainly not a dismissable LP, but it’s not as good as it could be, and that’s disappointingly obvious; time to apply the mix-tape idea.
In Strongman, Wobble and Levene and Atkins all point to a deeply troubled Lydon from 1978 to about 1983 (perhaps encouraged by Guinness and amphetamine sulphate) becoming increasingly controlling, somewhat paranoid and spiteful. Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing; Levene was addicted to heroin, and Wobble remains (famously) accused of nicking bass lines from PiL; Lydon states, “While we were recording ‘Metal Box’, he was secretly taking the tapes of some of our backing tracks to use on a solo album he was making for Virgin. One time, I actually caught him in the act. One of my best mates!”
Wobble, in Strongman:
A lot of time got wasted. The studios and engineers were booked, but they would just be sitting there idle for hours on end. … I couldn’t stand that so I would always initiate things and start something off. … I would go down to Gooseberry and do stuff and take it … and drag John out of the TV/ video lounge and get him to listen to what I had done. …once he was faced with a backing track to something like ‘The Suit’ he would take notice. I had worked on that track at Gooseberry with Mark Lusardi. I had put lyrics to ‘Blueberry Hill’ over that. However, I thought that it was also a must for PiL…
Which all rather looks like Lydon was unaware that Wobble had already used that particular track, and that Wobble seems to have a bloody strange idea of ownership, given who was paying for the sessions in the first place. Even so, it’s difficult if not impossible to figure out what really happened.
Clear communication if not clear perspective seems to have been rather lacking at Gunter Grove (PiL HQ). And, in these early days, it seems that it never occurred to Lydon to actually say, “Look, I’m the boss. We’re going to do stuff that’ll bend people’s heads, so I want your imagination and your input, and we’ll have fun … but ultimately, what I say goes.”
This observation will not be new to almost anyone in a band; you always need that one person to make the final decision (and it’s usually the singer). If it’s an outfit run like a bunch of mates, or (god forbid) an autonomous collective, then there’s going to be problems as minor disagreements build up to tipping points for all the other unexpressed issues.
Money, and time wasted, are often major issues - PiL just happened to be firmly in the public eye. Had they been a bunch of nobodies in a schloss in Germany, I’m sure few people would have noticed; what may seem to be forget-and-forgivable excesses in 2017 do not appear like that to those who not only lived through the period - but those who lived through the period with what felt like the beady eyes of the world peering in. Lou Reed’s description still fits; “Growing up in Public” would still be the most emotionally debilitating of all the adverse effects of stardom. And RIP Erin Moran (if not Michael Jackson).
The last disc in the “5 Album Set” is “Album”, but like I say, I’ll come to that with the Super Deluxe Box. ‘5 Album Set’ gets, for all its wayward patchiness, four and a half bottles. Why so high, when there are obvious flaws? Well… Lydon’s PiL pawprint on modern music is far greater than people realise, and each LP is significant in its own way.
Onwards to “Plastic Box”.
“Plastic Box” is a kind of grab-bag of chunks of PiL LPs spread over four discs, taking us up to PiL’s 8th in 1992, with a few mixes and miscellaneous tracks.
The first disc includes the first single “Public Image” plus its B-side “The Cowboy Song” (written while the Pistols were touring the US), six from the first LP, three John Peel Sessions from December 1978, the “Death Disco” 12” remix and megamix (and a couple from “Metal Box”); five more from “Metal Box” plus a B-side, “Another”, follow on the second disc, which means that you effectively have an alternate version of “Metal Box”, albeit spread over two discs. The second disc also bears most of “Flowers of Romance”, plus “Pied Piper” which turned up on a compilation LP.
The third disc covers most of :This is What You Want…” (including a 12” mix and two flipsides), plus six of the seven tracks of PiL’s US-breakthrough, “Album”.
The last disc cover the next two LPs “Happy” and “That What is Not” with four tracks from the February 1992 John Peel Session previewing “That What is Not”. The decision to include so many tracks directly from the LPs and not enough extras, mixes and so on rather limits what “Plastic Box” could have been although in itself it’s a great compilation. However, it’s essentially for two types of person, them what don’t have the LPs, and them what have the LPs but not all the fiddly bits in between.
Sure, it’s all been released before, but quite a bit will be unfamiliar unless you’ve already got everything. (The 1990 PiL compilation “Greatest Hits, So Far” features different versions of some of the songs here. Just to frustrate the PiL collector). So, if you’re new to PiL, “Plastic Box” rates four to four-and-a-half bottles. If not, you’re going to feel it’s more like two, cos you’ve got so much already
Also, if you’re not going to splash out on the Super Deluxe Boxes below, you could do worse than get “5 Album Set” as it’s a cheap way to familiarise yourself with what you probably should already know (in the same way that you should have the Velvets LPs in one form or another, the Dolls’ first two, the Ramones first three, and Elvis’ first few… Cohen’s first four and so on…).
Now. On to the Super Deluxe Editions.
Caution: do not order the bloody Super Deluxe things through the PiL website, which diverted me to Universal (rather Huxleyesque) and I found I’d ordered the things when I was only trying to work out the postage, and my card was severely spanked. Investigate your options…
While I’m having a whinge, all the discs come in little cardboard sleeves - in shrinkwrap, which is a bit awkward to get off without creasing the cardboard and makes a grown man feel like a clumsy child peeling an almond.
However, Lydon in 2017 is a very different man from the man who made “Metal Box” with his friends in 1979; once more he’s succeeded in reinventing PiL with significant success. As with innumerable other LPs hailed as significant at the time (with this opinion clung to like a barnacle to a barge for decades) “Metal Box” is more quoted as an influence these days, I think, than either an actual influence, or an admitted influence (broadly speaking, I reckon “Flowers of Romance” is more important, but that’s partly because it’s easier to see its influence after nearly 40 years). I still maintain that The Pop Group’s “Y” (and their live shows) were just as big an influence as “Metal Box” on what came after.
Anyway. Comparing the sound of the various editions of “Metal Box” I now have… well, you can do a lot with remastering. The 1996 CD sounds a bit like they’ve just taken it from the LP (“I could be wrong, I could be right”). And the 2009 remaster sounds identical to Disc One of the new 2016 edition. So, I’ve got three CDs of the same LP; two, it seems, with the identical remaster. Blimey. (After reading this, I gave the remasters of “Second Edition” and “Album” from “5 Album Set” away).
All the stuff relating to “Metal Box” on “Plastic Box” is here, plus the relevant John Peel Session (also previously released); as well as a couple of tracks issued for Record Store Day 2015. If you’re a PiL nut, I suppose you’ll be buying it for the last two discs. Even so, it is a Super Deluxe box, and although it’s not going to be on a par with the Velvet Underground Super Super Deluxe editions there’s plenty here that most of us won’t have.
You may wonder why I decided to review these Super Deluxe Boxes, by the way. It’s partly because I remember the impact the two LPs caused at the time, and partly this comment during a ZigZag interview by Kris Needs in late 1979:
ZigZag: How long did the record take to do?
John Lydon: We started immediately after the last album, and recorded it on and off. Lots has been thrown out. We don't just go into the studio to record a track. We go there to learn stuff to fucking progress, know what's happening, generally mess about with sound and anything else.
Let me just repeat that juicy line;
“Lots has been thrown out.”
Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m dead curious about that. I’m sure we all remember Eno recording 100 tracks for “Before and After Science” (1977) and only using 10 (now there’s a Super Deluxe box waiting to happen), so I was quite curious to see what would emerge from PiL HQ for “Metal Box”. And I’m hardly alone: the making of “Metal Box” has proved so intriguing that Strongman’s book of the same title swiftly went out of print.
Since (as far as we can tell) all the important stuff is finally all in one place, this means you can do that thing we all love to do, compile a mix-tape of favourites.
The packaging is sweet; in a metal tin a bit like a biscuit tin we find four A5 cards representing the band, a contents insert in the style of the original metal box, a folded A3ish poster depicting the “Second Edition” cover but labeled “Metal Box”, and a 72 page book on the subject.
With one page per disc, with a very small amount of 2016 notation, and apart from some 2016 credits, the book comprises lyrics and magazine cuttings of news and reviews (including the amusing transcript of “Check It Out”, a Tyne Tees TV magazine show - Lydon and Wobble walked out after feeling, rightly, that they’d been set up to be insulted)… Presumably expense was an issue, as the review by Angus McKinnon of the NME and Kris Needs’ of ZigZag (from an 18 hour session!) and Lester Bangs weren’t included.
The second disc, “B-Sides, Mixes and BBC Sessions” is self-explanatory, which rather emphasises the mix-tape idea.
So, while there are a total of seven versions of “Swan Lake” aka “Death Disco” here, you’d think they’d all be fairly similar - and while in a way that’s correct, that’s not right. There are significant differences.
And while the goodies are fantastic, one rather wonders… just how much is in the vault..?
For example, the monitor mixes of “Swan Lake” and “Albatross” on Disc Three - they’re very interesting - there are notable differences, particularly in the overall feel of the songs. Which makes you wonder how a ‘monitor’ mix of the entire “Metal Box” would compare to the LP as-issued. Lydon likes monitor mixes, so it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that he’s kept those.
And the “master” mix of “Swan Lake” - that’s different again, which begs the same question about a ‘master’ mix of the whole LP.
Tasty, isn’t it? The very idea of “Metal Box on the Monitor”, “Metal Box Jams” and “Metal Box Masters” discs is enough to fill the ol’ trousers with glee.
Then there’s the jams and early versions and “original mixes”… while I’m thrilled to discover Disc Three’s goodies because they’re so damned interesting - and really show the band at their soundscape best. Even when they’re faffing about in the studio - “Unknown Jam 2 (megachant)” - it’s interesting to see what they kept and what they ditched. Disc Three is compelling in its own right, but like I say, opens up the can of wormy possibility.
The fourth disc is a live gig; hardly just any old gig (given that PiL’s then-seige-mentality prevented such r’n’r staples as major tours); this gig was an impromptu show in June 1979 at the club which became Manchester’s famous The Factory.
But “Metal Box Super Deluxe Edition” is still fucking excellent - after hearing it you might, like me, want more, and maybe this was a bit of a teaser for a further box in the future (monitor and master mixes of the first three PiL LPs would be rather tasty) but the truth is - this is just great.
While “Metal Box” was issued in November 1979, “Death Disco” had been released in June the same year, with “1/2 Mix”, and “Megga Mix” on the 12”, and “No Birds Do Sing” on the flip of the 7”; in October, the single chosen to lead into “Metal Box” was ‘Memories’/ ‘Another’.
There are 12 songs on “Metal Box”; four previously released on the two preceding singles. So, while certainly “Metal Box” opened eyes and ears, there was most certainly 6 months’ worth of precedence.
But let’s pretend, just for the sake of the review, that it’s Saturday the 24th November 1979, we’ve just been to the city and bought the tin can. We haven’t heard the singles … and we tug at the fucking vinyl to get it out and realise unless we tip the things out onto our bed we’ll scratch the records. As we curse the name of Lydon, we also see the funny side. Bloody impractical fucking packaging. And, being a fuss-budget, instead of listening randomly to the various sides in various orders, we listen to them in the way they’re ‘supposed’ to be heard.
The first track - the only one on side A of the first 12” - “Albatross” sets the scene with Lydon singing (no, really, he’s making a determined stab at singing rather than working on his stylised voice) while a throbbing bass grooves up alongside the drums (take your pick, it was one of five), with Levene’s metallic guitar nagging like a migraine. It’s a sprawling, freeform piece which, if you’re not into musical landscapes and melting into the rubble in the bath, you’ll find either uncomfortable or unsatisfactory. Typical bloody-mindedness of Lydon to put what is probably the most difficult track at the beginning (he did the same with PiL’s next studio LP).
As I’ve indicated earlier, Lydon had the knack of writing a lyric - as opposed to a couple of verses and a chorus of obvious meaning - quite early on. Even his obvious songs aren’t really that obvious. Which means that you can listen to the songs over and over and they continue to alter over time. "Albatross" I recall being hugely impressed with at the time, and later finding it irritating beyond belief. And now… damn, this is good.
“Albatross” is an excellent example of Levene’s claim (found in the book) that ‘when you initially hear it, it just sounds like very fucking heavy and intense, yeah, but if you sort of introduce yourself to it, then you realise it’s the ultimate mood music.’ Levene’s correct: the entirety of ‘Metal Box’ is like a warm bath where your concentration wanders not too far removed from … gulp … a meditative state. At least until the end, where the song seems to tremble, then dissolve into its component parts.
The version of “Memories” is a blend of two takes - and it’s 15 seconds longer than the single version, which was one take; you’ll spot when the second take comes in, the volume abruptly goes up… the basic loop/ loping bass and drums, with Levene’s swirling guitar … and the track flicks back and forth to either take … by this time the journos have pulled out their old Can albums for comparison. But… really? “Metal Box” is one of the LPs which so heavily influenced the Birthday Party when they arrived in the UK a few months after. Another of course is the Pop Group’s ‘Y’. But you’d struggle to pinpoint precise comparisons, as of course you’ll struggle to nail identikit Can stuff here.
“Swan. Lake” (“Death Disco” reverting to its original title) is the most fantastic disco/ anti-death song. Levene’s opening guitar harks back to Eno, and it’s haunting. Lydon’s vocal here is pure him, he gets right to the agonising vulnerability he feels. Lines like ‘Never really know, til it’s gone away’ and ‘watch her slowly die/ saw it in her eyes’ are just crushing - Lydon’s delivery throughout is devastating, and Levene’s endlessly staircasing guitar rises like a musical form of an M.C. Escher work.
By now we’ve removed the first 12” EP from the turntable and slid the thing back into the tin. Putting on the second 12”, “Poptones” abruptly staggers from the speakers, the bass and drums lurching from doorway to doorway, Levene’s guitar accentuating the wonky totter down the street, occasionally accompanied by some eerie sounds in the background. Which all hints at the harrowing experience of the subject, (as Lydon explains in “Anger is an Energy”):
She had been captured by two men, blindfolded, bundled into the boot of a car, driven out to the country, and raped. If she hadn’t run away she might even have been murdered … all she did remember was a tune played on the cassette deck in the car - and that’s how they caught the men responsible - when they traced the car, the cassette was still in the tape deck. It was the tune she remembered.
“Poptones” comes across as quite jaunty, but it’s cut through with dis-ease and unsettlement. Rightly, Lydon lets the band get on with the music after he’s finished his bit, which actually rams the lyrics into your head - you remember them as the music continues.
“Careering” is hands-down a crowd-pleaser, a thumping wolf-step of a rhythm, set off with squirling synth and John’s voice. It’s another grim topic: an IRA killer with a London business career; ‘the pride of history/ the same as murder’ is one of the most astute lines Lydon ever wrote, and it’s perfect that he writes it of his family’s homeland.
Flipping the second 12” over, “No Birds (Do Sing)” is, musically, rather fantastic, Lydon’s tinkling piano beneath the jerky guitar and rhythm. At the time, I recall wondering at how spot-on it was. Today I find Lydon’s vocal a bit too mannered, and think had he approached the vocal in a more straightforward way it would’ve been far more effective - either deadpan intoned, or snarled. However, it’s a super little song. “Lawful order, standard views/ this could be heaven”. Sardonic? Surely not…
“Graveyard” is an instrumental version of ‘Another’, and again, you can all but hear the journos whipping out their old Can LPs (presumably they didn’t know many other Krautrock bands bar Kraftwerk and Faust). Curious; another band might have put the (shorter) instrumental on the flip of ‘Memories’ and saved the vocal version for the LP. But not PiL.
After removing the second 12” and placing it gingerly on top of the first 12” (there’s a circle of paper there to protect the grooves, but how effective that’s going to be …), we place the final 12” onto the turntable.
Distinctive Wobblian bass rumbles out and Lydon wears his best pulpit sneer for ‘The Suit’ is a projection of the hordes of men in pinstripe suits who travel to and from the City every day, diligent, false, hypocritical.
“Bad Baby” tumbles after it, a grooving dance beat rotating with a high pitched scream in the background as Lydon tells us to go about our daily business rather than attend to the cries of a baby left in a car park. Not the first of the songs here which remind us a little of a modern horror story.
The last side of the last 12” we can tell from the grooves that the three songs, “Socialist”, “Chant” and “Radio 4” more or less run together. "Socialist" serves as an insistent rocky instrumental with irritating little twiddly synth bits. Given the nature of the previous songs, the impression I received then and now from the song is not that of socialism being a positive thing, but rather risible. Typically, that’s not how Levene recalls things. However, even though "Socialist" is a groovy little piece, it seems to have little substance - curiously I find myself thinking there’s more than a passing resemblance (musically) with Joy Division (whose first LP “Unknown Pleasures” had been released six months prior.
The band had previewed “Chant” in their few live gigs (along with “Careering”) and initially seems to be about the reception London had given the band, although in a broader sense it’s certainly accurate. PiL had aroused the ire and buried violence in the mob, hence the parodic chant “Mob, War, Kill, Hate”. The last song, “Radio 4” is, quite simply, a lovely, lilting, gorgeous piece which, in a more balanced world, would have brought film producers trotting with offers of soundtrack work.
“Metal Box’”was, in spite of all negative expectations, something of a triumph for PiL and, while I still think there are a few tracks which are a bit wonky, that in itself fits the experimental nature of PiL’s brief.
After the last disc has finished, the rather shellshocked punter would then wonder which disc to then re-listen to, and presumably would have ever so much fun fiddling about with the things as they attempted to manoeuvre the things to and from the wretched tin (it was quite a tight fit). Some of us simply got hold of their lesser LPs and recycled the plastic sleeves for each disc, and laid them alongside the actual tin box; though you could buy the sleeves from record shops.
One assumes thousands of Sunday dinners across the nation the following day were punctuated (if not ruined) with heated discussion of the virtues or otherwise of “Metal Box”. At the time the thing was ground-breaking, although times have moved on somewhat and the whole thing now seems a tad clumsy. But that, of course, is hindsight speaking.
Now then, let’s proceed to Disc Two. We’ll skip the 7” version of “Death Disco” and go straight to the meat: the extended 12” mix and the flipside, “1/2 Mix/ Meggamix”, a re-recorded and renamed version of ‘“odderstompf” which, the notes say, was ‘re-recorded an abandoned reworking of the [first] album for Warner Brothers in the States’. Which rather boggles the mind; one wonders just how much material there is surrounding ‘First Edition’ - enough for a decent three disc package, I would have thought if they issue both gigs recorded for ‘“aris Au Printemps”.
The next track, “Death Disco”, is an audio recording of the band’s live appearance on Top of the Pops, and this is followed by the alternate mix of “Another” (which appeared on the 7” and 12” singles), and “Another” - “Graveyard” from “Metal Box”, but with lyrics.
A little after “Metal Box” had been released, PiL recorded a John Peel Session; Peely broadcast it for the first time a week later, on 17th December; it’s a cracker. ‘Poptones’, “Careering” and “Chant” hammered into a Monday night the week before Christmas Eve.
Two months later, after several gigs, the band appeared live on another TV show, the Old Grey Whistle Test and performed “Poptones” and “Careering”.
The last track on the disc is “Pied Piper”, recorded after ‘Metal Box’ which turned up on a rather synth-heavy Virgin compilation LP called ‘Machines’ in 1980 (you know the sort of thing, OMD, Numan, Foxx, Fad Gadget and Human League; even XTC’s track is rather synthy and experimental).
As a disc to listen to, then, Disc Two isn’t really the thing you immediately put on; I think you’ll find yourself skipping some songs. Which brings us again to the beauty and facility of making your own mix-tape.
As I mentioned earlier, Disc Three is one of the reasons I shelled out. It’s like a very different variant to the LP itself. Two of the songs, “Swan Lake” and “Albatross” are described as monitor mixes; that in itself is exciting. But again, the good folk at fodderstompf.com have been there before us;
Lydon: Martin [Atkins] … was a fucking stunning drummer. He doesn't like drumming, I don't understand it. On 'Flowers of Romance' Martin was going off on tour with Brian Brain and he only had two bloody days, so I just started to lay down loads of different drums beats, and we didn't have any time to set up any real sound, the Townhouse in Goldhawk Road was being built at the time so the drum kit was on a wooden frame over this huge deep hole in a stone room and that's what created that incredible sound, Nick will tell you this, we just heard it and went 'Ooh, lets just have some top mikes for the echo off it, and fuck it, don't do any EQ.
Where people make mistakes with production is they go into fiddling with EQ's. You should just go to monitor mix. A monitor mix is without any of that huge equipment attached to it, which always dissipates the energy. It's just as it is, as you hear it, and when you put that down you get that live sound, you get that spaciousness, it isn't all compressed.
I’ll leave it there. Onward to Disc Four, the live gig in Manchester. The newspaper cuttings tell you all you need to know, I think, and (apart from the recording not capturing “Albatross”) it’s an accurate representation of the gig. Rowdy, rather raucous. The recording fades in to “Chant” and out on “No Birds (Do Sing)”; you can hear banter and assorted crap from the crowd and Lydon’s responses - you can also hear someone - not Lydon - asking Levene which song they should do next. “Chant”, “Swan Lake”, and “Memories” are the songs the band know best; “Public Image” and “Annalisa” are endearingly ropey.
It’s entirely within PiL’s rather wayward personality that they shouldn’t include a decent, kick-in-the-doors type live gig. Every band does that on a box set. Understandable, too; who wouldn’t want to present the band in the best way possible? The Russell Club recording shows a band playing an off-the-cuff, unrehearsed gig in a pissy club which shows the band, with glimpses of the personalities of the members, more or less deshabille. Which I suppose, now I write it down, that that’s the point. It’s as revealing a snapshot as we’ll get. On the other hand, it does point the way to a larger, broader version of “Paris Au Printemps” (composed from two gigs) or a PiL live box from this period.
But here’s another blasted question. A CD goes for what, over 80 minutes? so why is this disc so short? As I’ve indicated, I reckon there’s a lot more hiding away back there. The audio of the band’s Top of the Pops and Old Grey Whistle Test appearances (3 songs) could surely have slotted onto the end of this gig; if not the entirety of the John Peel Session as well (6 songs) - the BBC stuff was heavily bootlegged in the 1980s. The remainder of Disc Two could then have accommodated a few more mixes, surely? I suppose all this is down to who chose what - not just why. From indications inside the book, that would seem to be John “Rambo” Stevens.
It is, of course, quite possible that what remains/ remained usable after all this time is what the compilers were able to draw on, and that the remainder of the recorded material is either non-existent, or deemed beyond recovery or sub-standard.
Us poor buggers, we’re not to know.
So is “Metal Box Super Deluxe Edition” worth your hard-earned? If you’re already a fan, that’s a no-brainer, you either have it or have ordered it by now. If you’re not, I’d suggest either snaffling “Plastic Box” or “5 Album Series”.
For me, Disc Two and Three are entertaining and illuminating grab-bags (and you’ll do a solid mix tape from these, I’m sure), and Disc Four is highly entertaining, but … to be honest, I had expected a bit more from a ‘Metal Box Super Deluxe Edition’, and I would dearly like to know what happened to the other stuff.
What other stuff, Robert..?
In that ZigZag interview (published December 1979), Kris Needs reveals how much fun the band had in the studio:
Lydon: Put it this way, if we weren't given a release date on 'Metal Box' we'd still be making it. It'd come out eventually like an encyclopaedia! Would have been a laugh but that is going too far…
Keith Levene: Plus they cut an hour of it.
Zig Zag: Uh?
Levene: How many tracks didn't they release, seven?
Lydon: Twenty-four wasn't it? No, seven were actual tracks, the rest were one-second things, remember?
Levene: We had lots of short tracks, one and two seconds, right?
Now, splice it any way you like, that’s a hell of an intriguing possibility; if that’s true, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t be, where on earth are these other tracks? You can understand Virgin’s reluctance to issue a wallet-breaking box containing not three but five 12” eps.
One wonders if Virgin would dare release such a thing now, in its entirety. Perhaps the tapes have been lost. Perhaps the tapes have corroded. Or, more likely, they’re sitting in a bloody box somewhere. But yes, if you can imagine a more sprawling two CD set of ‘Metal Box’…, along with all the master mixes and monitor mixes and jams and … fuck.
Call me greedy, but that’s kind of what I’d hoped for.
Even so, as a stand-alone collection with deep historical significance, you know this is at least a four and a half bottle item, in some senses rather like the Velvet Underground’s box ‘Peel Slowly and See’ - the apex before the Super Deluxe Boxes began to appear.
And now we can move on to Lydon’s huge break-through LP, “Album”, which the record company nearly didn’t release…
In the notes for “Plastic Box”, Lydon says; ‘In some ways ‘Album’ was almost like a solo album. I worked alone with a new bunch of people. Obviously the most important person was Bill Laswell.’
Well, no, John. Actually the most important person was you. But that’s neither here nor there.
Unlike other Super Deluxe Editions, then, Disc One is the remastered LP, which does sound better than the original issue, but even so one wonders about the amount of space left on the disc of a Super Deluxe Edition.
Disc Two is a live gig, PiL’s first gig in London since 1983.
Disc Three is mixes, out-takes and BBC recordings (the 7” mixes of “Rise” and “Home”, and the instrumental version of “Rise” I would’ve thought better applied after the first disc, “Album)”; which leaves two remixes and the audio of two songs performed on the Old Grey Whistle Test, plus two mixes of Time Zone’s World Destruction. There’s about four songs on this disc the average PiL fan probably hasn’t heard or got.
Disc Four is one of the main reasons we’re here: the original recordings of the LP, with PiL’s travelling band, before Laswell came on the scene.
But let’s quickly observe that, even before being “discovered” and recruited for the Pistols, Lydon - along with many of his friends, including Billy Idol and Siouxsie Sioux and Chrissie Hynde - was a keen clubber.
Because..? Because Lydon loves music, and people, and you’d meet all sorts of odd and interesting misfits in London’s clubland.
In fact, in most clublands you find that city’s misfits. They find each other in the flickering dark where the pulse of life is strongest…
Howard Johnson in Kerrang (February 1986);
Lydon: ‘I had a live band before recording took place and a lot of material together before going into the studio. But the band was totally inexperienced, they would have put the budget up by an incredible amount.’
Lydon in ‘Anger is An Energy’; ‘I brought my young band with me [to New York] from LA - minus a drummer of course - and it really didn’t work. My little whippersnappers fell apart under the pressure. They couldn’t cope with flying to New York, hotel rooms, rehearsal rooms, other bands walking in and out, as indeed happens in New York - everybody’s involved in rehearsal studios, everybody is your friend - and they panicked.’
Howard Johnson in ‘Kerrang’ again;
‘So we decided to use session people – and why not get the best available? Steve Vai is obviously up there, so we went to him. I didn't like his stuff with Alcatrazz, it was fairly humdrum, but his stuff with Zappa – he's a boy genius of the guitar! Just like Ginger Baker is a bloody good drummer and always has been, to my mind. It was a wacky combination of musicians, with Bill Laswell on bass who's never worked with rock music before, and Ryuichi Sakamoto's eclectic jazz keyboard angle. But it's all high-energy stuff, cos that's my business!’
Here’s what noisy critic Robert Christgau thinks of ‘Album’:
“John Lydon's name on the sticker, combined with his sudden eagerness to shoot the shit with representatives of the press, has everybody confused. This isn't a Lydon record that (the conveniently uncredited) Bill Laswell happened to produce, it's a Laswell record custom-designed for Lydon, with whom the auteur shares a disappointed revolutionary's professional interest in power. Just abstract the production style Laswell's adapted to artists as diverse as Mick Jagger and Herbie Hancock, think Sex Pistols, and you'll get something like this, as clinical as brain surgery and as impersonal as a battering ram, with unlikely virtuosos playing the Cook and Jones parts. It kicks in because they're both cold bastards; it feels out of whack anyway because Lydon can't match Laswell's commitment and still has too much integrity to fake it (and maybe also because he has never been in the same room with most of the musicians in this “band”)." (http://robertchristgau.com/get_artist.php?name=Public+Image+Ltd)
Personally I think Christgau’s one of those bleeders who enjoys finding fault because he can, which is very pimply teenager. So. Dunno if you’ve heard the whole of “Album”. But it requires volume. And it is good.
It’s the immaculate structuring of the songs, with the elegant piecing together of hooks and earworms which really get this LP beneath the skin. It is hugely commercial. Remember the fantastic violin (L. Shankar) solo in "Rise", and the lovely little arpeggio just after?
“FFF” (aka ‘Farewell Fairweather Friends’) starts the LP kicking, a sort of combination of stadium rock and drawn-down HM. Another of John’s tirades about betrayal (there’s been a few, haven’t there? “EMI”, “Low Life”, “Albatross” … even “Banging the Door”, inspired by all the people banging on his door at Gunter Grove - including the upright British bobbies just following orders). It’s a strong, strutting barge through the doors to confident form, with some lovely unexpected guitarwork from either Steve Vai or Nicky Skopelitis. The guitars are perfectly chosen, not too long, just right to slap you in the face with a wet barramundi. Curiously, the huge drum sound could have been pinched from “Flowers of Romance”.
“Rise” - that’s the huge crossover hit most know Lydon for - is a hugely positive song. Lydon’s indicated that it’s about Nelson Mandela - it may well have been inspired by Mandela, but like the best lyrics, it goes far further than this. Apart from being the most lovely, moving tune, we’re hearing a protest song with a difference: an admission that what you believe, when it’s self-evident that it’s correct, is worth fighting for.
In February 1986, Tom Hibbert quoted Lydon (in Smash Hits):
I read this manual on South African interrogation techniques, and 'Rise' is quotes from some of the victims. I put them together because I thought it fitted in aptly with my own feelings about daily existence.
Given Lydon’s background, for this song, and its success, the man should be forced to accept a knighthood.
“Fishing” is another full-bore rocker, complete with spectacular (and brief) guitar solos. It’s also one of John’s “this is where I am” songs - with another touch of rage against another betrayal, the refrain “go crawl back into your dustbin” is the most venomous vocals he’s delivered since “Flowers of Romance”; and the line ‘people who need people are the stupidest of people’ is one of his most shocking lines, I think. You’d want to hope he’s being sarcastic, that line is fucking brutal.
When “Round” begins, the introductory music is instantly captivating, but the song shifts twice within 45 seconds … it’s a slow-burning fury at the endless stupidities of the modern world, from the children in third world factories to nuclear war.
Now, look - pretty much anyone under 27 won’t remember the ultimate totem which the world … simply accepted. Armageddon just a phone call away - there’s a huge literature on the subject; and if you have a look a little further, the world nearly went kablooie on a number of occasions - and these are just the ones we know about. As John says, ‘Deaf ears provide/ Perfect pure protection’. Of course, nothing much has altered - human nature still runs the world rather than sense and morality, around and around again.
Hibbert quoting Lydon again:
I can definitely see nuclear war coming. I can't see anybody doing very much to stop it. Both those camps - Russia and America - despise each other so much, and that malignancy will not go away overnight. They are not going to put their bombs and bullets away. You can't get rid of all that. You can't. It's there. How are you going to dismantle all that… danger?
And of course, even though the Berlin Wall came down nearly 30 years ago, assorted emotional idiots with access to nuclear weapons still threaten us all. This is clearly still in Lydon’s mind during the gig at Brixton Academy, remember.
The remaining songs are “Bags”, “Home”, and “Ease”; they’re also very good.
But overall, "Album" is a bit samey. A bit mid-range rockish. Yeah, there are elements in there which are great, but it seems perhaps too… laid back. Or something.
Now, we’ve looked at Disc Two (the Brixton Academy gig), so let’s skip Disc Three (mixes and BBC stuff) for now and go straight to the meat.
Disc Four is brilliant. Really. Six of the eight songs on ‘Album’ first up, (Ease is still an instrumental) and, frankly, it’s like a vastly more interesting version of “Album”.
Why did Laswell come in? He’d worked with John, and called him up. Perhaps Lydon went with him because he’d had a taste of what being in a decent rock band was like? The gigs in Tokyo in 1983 and 1984 were received a rapturously, as were his gigs in 1984 in LA: no gobbing, no antagonism - just acceptance. So when the band stopped touring, Lydon invited the band (there are pictures of them in the book here), Mark Schulz (guit/ bass), Jebin Bruni (keys) and Brett Helm (bass) convened at Lydon’s home in LA and recorded a swag of demos.
The liner notes say:
The band began initial recording sessions with Laswell in Autumn 1985 but were dropped mainly due to [Laswell’s] insistence on using his own musicians, coupled with concerns about the band’s studio inexperience and the impact it could have on the recording budget. Bruni and Schulz [do] receive co-writing credits on several tracks on ‘Album’ and were heavily involved in the 1985 demo sessions.
Lydon’s book ‘Anger is An Energy’ make it clear that this decision was not just Laswell’s, but also Lydon’s.
The liner notes more or less apologise for the “very rough takes”, recorded “with a programmed drum beat due to Martin Atkins’ departure” and entreat us to “please note the tracks were originally recorded on a portable eight-track mixing desk then later dubbed cassette to cassette on Schulz’s boom-box”.
Well, that’s crap: the “Demos” disc is fucking great. The early versions of the stuff on “Album” are filled with more vim and vigour, there’s a vivid immediacy about them. Schulz’s guitar is fantastic, I love it a sight more than the stuff on “Album”.
The press spoke about the funk aspect to “Album” but again, that’s nothing compared to the demos. One song manages to blend elements of reggae as well as funk, and the programmed beat - well, that’s easy. Stuff a drummer in the studio with the beat track and tell him to record a guide track around the beat track. Tear the beat track off and then get the band to play … fuck. How hard’s that? Each song should take no more than a day, surely. Eight days. Four for mixing.
I do feel sorry for Lydon’s young whippersnappers, and I hope they got further along in their careers.
Laswell gave Lydon a hit, and an album which got people’s attention across the board. “Demos” sounds like a much better, more credible step on from “This is What You Want…”; the instrumentals still stand up very well. One wonders if Lydon was having trouble writing lyrics at this time; of the 5 instrumentals, only one found lyrics on “Album” (Things in E - aka Ease). I will definitely be going back to this disc, over and over; the other discs here will require a mixtape (as the young folk call it, so I’m told). This is stand-alone; another great lost PiL album.
Finally we come to the third disc; “Mixes, Outtakes and BBC Recordings”. And one wonders, one really does, about the logic of putting the 7” edit of “Rise” and the instrumental version on here; surely they’d be best stuffed at the end of ‘Album’ (partly to save space, FFS); and ditto the 7” edit of “Home” (the second single from the LP). That leaves the alternative Laswell mix of “Ease” (which begs the question: were there others?); Bob Clearmountain’s remix of “Rise” (again, were there others?); PiL’s live in the studio versions of “Home” and “Round” on telly’s Old Grey Whistle Test - which has turned up on countless bootlegs and Youtubey and frankly I feel they’re kinda there to fill space.
I appreciate that you know, you gotta put "the lo"’ on, but a bit of judicious juggling could have seen that alt Laswell “Ease” next to, say, Bob Clearmountain’s “Rise” and the two Time Zone ‘World Destruction’ mixes - but that leaves a big chunk of space. Were there other mixes? Why not commission a couple? The Cult released a 10th anniversary of that horrid Sanctuary song on two CDs featuring assorted mixes - including three by Jim Thirlwell which utterly stomp all over the ponce rock classic. I know this stuff is pricey to put together… but like the “Metal Box” flipsides, BBC and mixes, the disc itself is a bit of a disappointment - in the sense that to slap it in the machine doesn’t really work. In the sense that you have a bunch of stuff to slide into a mixtape, then it’s fine, of course.
So the “Album Super Deluxe Box” I would also rate at four-and-a-half bottles, adding that, if you have the original, and are debating… Disc Two, the Brixton gig, is mighty fine; Disc Four, however, is essential. You really don’t have ‘Album’ without ‘Disc Four: Demos’, not in any sense. And if you already have PiL’s studio LPs, and wonder where it went wonky with “This is What You Want…”, you need to hear the demos disc too.
Time marches on. In an interview in Newsweek online in April this year, Lydon remembers; “There was a magazine in England called Spearhead. It was very right-wing and Nazi-inclined. They did a delicious interview with me, and on the cover they put the body of a gorilla and my face. And the title was, “Is This Man an Albino Nigger?” This is what you get into, you see? People misinterpreting for their own political agendas.”
Today, Lydon has found more acceptance than he could have dreamed in 1979, when Danny Baker hung out with PiL in an interview with the NME:
‘Lydon, Wobble and myself arrive at the Albany. John shows his trepidation about entering the packed house, I don't think all those gags about superstardom and clothes-ripping seems all that funny as he enters the darkened stage area. Immediately a sea of swooning zipper trippers gush around, throwing arms round his shoulders, asking for him to sign shirts and running off to tell others ‘'Johnny Rotten's in the club!’
One berk with a mouth like a clown's pocket shouts ‘Fuckin' Popstar!!’ and stands looking as mean/nervous as possible. By now PIL's singer is looking shaken though he keeps a sickly smile all round and signs the various articles jammed about him.
Two blokes, well-oiled, raise their cans of Heineken and terrace holler 'Anarchy in the U.K.' as though he will at once make them a trio. Various shapes of punkette cruise him in a more dignified fashion, occasionally allowing ‘'Alright, Johnny?’' to fall from their shakey lips, others making it clear that given the chance they'd show him more sex than a policeman's torch.’
Granted, Strongman quotes Julie Burchill in 1978 predicting that by 1988, John Lydon ‘would end up … like Iggy Pop’. This wasn’t a compliment, but damning criticism. In one sense she was spot-on; in another, she wasn’t.
Hibbert (1986, before the Brixton gig):
I can walk around quite happily and fit in with all the other loonies and blend into the background. Which is bloody difficult to do here. Just walking to the end of the street here I get yelled at by truck drivers who grind their lorries to a halt and come out and give me verbal abuse for ten minutes. Still, it doesn't turn vicious and nasty like it used to. Time seems to have healed the wounds. I now seem more like a folk hero than a demon. But what do people expect of me? To be their guiding light or whatever? The role some people want me to adopt - that of everybody's hero - is one I find offensive.
Baker (from the NME in 1979):
Baker: C'mon! It's your fault. You started it!
Lydon: Don't you think I have sleepless nights over it! No, I opened the gate but I refuse to stand trial for the deluge that followed. I said it was there for anyone to grab and use, not, y'know, go out and record tenth rate versions of our records. But what do you do about it.
Who and what Lydon is now is anyone’s guess. He’s 61. And he shows no sign of slowing down. You might not like who and what he is now. But then … not many people have done down the years, so nothing much has changed.
Here’s the website: http://www.johnlydon.com
1/2 - 5 Album Set
1/2 - Plastic Box
1/2 - Metal Box Super Deluxe Edition
1/2 - Album Super Deluxe Edition