Classics Critiqued

This is a monthly feature where classic and cult albums are revisited and reassessed for the modern listener. The only rule is that it must be a critically acclaimed or cult record released before 2000.

May 2010: ‘Metal Box’ by Public Image Limited (Virgin Records, 1979)


For this month’s Classics Critiqued I revisit a post-punk classic which fuses together dissident elements of propulsive disco beats, deep dub bass lines, shards of metallic guitar and caterwauling vocals. To say that Public Image Limited (PiL) were ambitious is an understatement and it is a credit to their ability to harness these elements that this album still stands up under scrutiny today.

Formed by John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) in the aftermath of the Sex Pistols’ break-up. PiL are often considered the original post-punk band though this is a subject of much debate as the term is a vague phrase. Lydon asked old school friend John Wardle, who was rechristened Jah Wobble due to his dub-influenced bass sound, to be PiL’s bass player and recruited ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene. An ad for a drummer was placed in Melody Maker from which they acquired Jim Walker. The band locked themselves away in rehearsal crafting their own style, fusing influences such as the Krautrock of Can, the dub of King Tubby and Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Levene’s ‘metallic’ guitar style and Lydon’s sneering and howling vocals. During this Lydon concocted the idea that they should be not just a band but a ‘communications company’ called Public Image Limited who credited musical and non-musical members at all times.

PiL were a fractious and embattled set of individuals at the best of times (the album features five drummers) whose sound was bound together by Jah Wobble’s dub bass lines. ‘Pure vibration’ is the phrase Wobble used to describe his grooves that brought movement and dread to the mix. Above this Levene chips, scraps, splutters and riffs on his aluminium necked guitar reflecting the album’s film canister casing with his shards of silver. Previous to their second release, Lydon’s central emotional expression had been one of anger at the establishment be that the Royal family, government or religion. Though there are still moments of this during ‘Metal Box’, it is an album preoccupied with death, destruction and darkness, the music acting as the perfect foil to Lydon’s wailings.

This creates a collection that can appear difficult to actually listen to and enjoy. At the time of release it was met with either devotion or derision by the music press yet ‘Metal Box’ is far from unlistenable. It is a well executed group of strong musical elements and personalities that could so easily have gone awry but instead produced excellence. ‘Produced’ is a key word for ‘Metal Box’ as the band recorded improvised takes in the studio and edited, layered and mixed multiple versions of these into the final album versions. Though tape editing and composite takes were not new in 1979 the manner in which they were exploited was ahead of the curve of modern music production and PiL used it to their advantage on tracks like ‘Memories’, ‘Careering’ and ‘Radio 4’, which are master classes in the employment of studio-as-instrument.

In some respects ‘Metal Box’ is the last true PiL album. Wobble departed to pursue a solo career shortly after its release leaving Lydon and Levene to persevere once more for ‘Flowers of Romance’ through fug of heroin addiction. Lydon spent days watching films while high as Levene struggled to overcome his drug induced creative block. When he did, however, his injecting of the drug meant Levene couldn’t play guitar and so with the tapes constantly running he slowly composed the album with Lydon occasionally joining in on a variety of acoustic instruments and treated vocals.

Yet the magic was gone. The glue that had held the band together and propelled it forward had dissolved and Levene left after an aborted attempt at a fourth album. Lydon continued alone with a shifting line-up of other post-punk musicians such as Bruce Smith (ex-Pop Group drummer), John McGeoch (former Magazine and Siouxsie & The Banshees guitarist) and Lu Edmonds (ex-Mekons guitarist) and a succession of session musicians. In some ways Lydon can be forgiven for what could be viewed as betrayal because PiL were a ‘communications company’, not a band and with each album released after ‘Flowers of Romance’ there is a different and diverse sound that is true to their origins.

Though they are rarely cited as a direct influence, PiL and ‘Metal Box’ have impacted on the music scene since its 1979 release. New York based post-punk revivalists Radio 4 named themselves after the album’s last song and The Rapture’s debut album ‘Echoes’ owes PiL a debt in many places, especially the claustrophobic production style. Many acts on DFA and the now defunct Output Records exhibit a tendency towards Wobblesque bass lines (check out ‘Make It Happen’ by Playgroup) and the dank and deathly atmospherics as employed by the likes of Tall Blonde.

Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream has spoken about PiL inspiring him to create their masterpiece ‘Screamdelica’ and their bass player Mani was influenced by ‘Metal Box’ during the formative years of his first band the Stone Roses. Two Lone Swordsmen’s electronic studio trickery renders PiL’s influence in a new context and Alan McGee named his record label Poptones and his club night Death Disco after two classic PiL moments. In truth, any deconstruction of rock music and retooling of studio created ideas are easily linked back to ‘Metal Box’ and its pioneering sound and style.

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