Tuesday, April 30, 2013
I see that Public Image Limited's debut LP from 1978, Public Image: First Issue, is getting its first ever official US domestic release c/o the good folks at Light In The Attic on both vinyl and compact disc formats. They've probably made enough money off Rodriguez that they can release whatever the damn hell they want these days. It's strange to think that this classic - and it is a classic - was never deemed commercial enough at the time to get a US release (even though Warner/US printed a test pressing), but then again, Never Mind The Bollocks kinda stiffed in the American marketplace at the time (it eventually went Gold) and I guess Warner weren't about to take a gamble on John Lydon's new group, a goddamn "art band" at that. PiL's 1979 meisterwerk, Metal Box/Second Edition, was seen as such a monumental shift in sound, that the band's debut, barring the well-known "Public Image" single, is often viewed as merely a lead-up to a much more satisfactory sophomore effort. I would almost claim that Metal Box can be seen as a warm-up to the even more mind-blowing Flowers Of Romance LP from 1981 - their last gasp as a "real" band and the end of Lydon's musical career as a true innovator (there's some great PiL singles from the rest of that decade, I'll admit), but maybe that's an issue between myself and my therapist. The fact is: the first 3 PiL longplayers represent three brilliant successive leaps in the career of Lydon, a guy whose life in music very well could've been deemed dead on arrival the moment the Sex Pistols called it quits in early '78.
Lydon's "new" PiL toured Australia just a couple of weeks ago. It was steeped in predictable controversy after he acted like a jackass to other, even bigger jackasses on an annoying TV panel show down here (watch it), something which guaranteed him headlines for at least a few days, and yet all of this brouhaha couldn't drag my sorry bones out to see him play live... and I was offered a free ticket! I just don't really care what John Lydon is doing in the year 2013 - musically or in other aspects of his entertainment career - and the thought of seeing him whining on stage, acting the fool and wearing some godawful multi-coloured suit sounded like a chore rather than a treat. Word is the shows were very good - the Melbourne show the best of them all - so I guess he got the last laugh. His band, featuring longtime member Bruce Smith (ex-Pop Group guy) and a guy who's played w/ the Damned, apparently played the material faithfully and w/ energy and vigour, whilst Lydon kept the tiresome/predictable obnoxiousness to a minimum, concentrating on being a jovial and engaging frontman. Who'da thunk such a description would define a "good" Lydon show in the 21st century?
Where was I? The first album... Some of the tracks on the debut were written whilst Lydon was still in the 'Pistols: he tried to get Jones & co. to jam on "Religion" when the band was in its dying days, though apparently they wouldn't have a bar of it. Glen Matlock always said that Lydon was just a messed-up Catholic, and he was probably right. I can't imagine Jones and Cook getting their heads around such subject matter, and I can't imagine Sid getting his head around much at all by that stage. First Issue is an excellent combination of the two records it's sandwiched between; sonically, it's a perfect balance of the two - "art-rock" which actually rocks. It was recorded in three separate studio sessions, though the sound throughout is seamless. The one great (and obvious) anomaly is the end track, "Fodderstompf", nearly eight minutes of a repetitive drum-machine track interpersed w/ giddish vocals and electronics. It could be dismissed as aimless farting about, or filler to pad out the album (the latter it actually was), although as a complete song it's entirely listenable and points forward to their epic 1979 double/triple set. The rest of it could well have wound up on a second 'Pistols LP if Lydon could have convinced "the lads" to expand their horizons a little.
The rock & roll tracks on First Issue are a real treat. There's seven of them, and there's not a dud in the batch. The opener, "Theme", probably wasn't a good way to convince coked-out Warner execs that they had a possible hit on their hands. At nine minutes long, it's probably ther least-commercial song on the LP, and not just because of its length: it's a torturous, screeching sludge, a decent blueprint for Flipper's subsequent career in audio annoyance (though when I asked Steve DePace if the band listened to much PiL in their early days, he responded in the negative. He said Flipper were inspired by the Stooges, Leonard Cohen and Led Zep[!!]), a great, cavernous-sounding production. Much hoo-ha has been made about the alleged dub influence in PiL. It's more prominent in Metal Box, but the massive echo on First Issue's drum sound shows it was there from the beginning.
"Religion I" is Lydon's anti-religious spoken-word rant, nearly two minutes of it. He really was a fucked-up Catholic. "Religion II" is the five-minute musical accompinament and it "rocks" in the way the 'Pistols did; more obtuse in approach and rhythm, although the guitar riff isn't a thousand miles removed from AC/DC. "Annalisa" and "Public Image" follow; the former could've been a hit, the latter was (down here and in the UK, at least). Jah Wobble's opening bass rumble remains one of the great opening moments of it or any other song the past 35 years. Levene's guitar shards lead the way for the likes of U2 and every other annoying idiot from the UK and its hinterlands who discovered a flange pedal in the '80s, but you can't always blame a good idea for inspiring bad ideas further down the track. My fave number from the LP is next: "Low Life", an anthemic number which harkens back to 'Pistols tracks such as "Bodies" and "Liar", only there's no Jones Wall Of Sound, but a Levene Sheen: no low-end on the strings, but this was when every punker in the UK was de-rockifying themselves in the pursuit of some righteous goal I don't quite understand, but at least PiL did it well for a handful of platters. Second-last is "Attack": more of the same, still good.
Lydon was only 22 years old when First Issue came out. He'd already played in the most important UK rock band of the 1970s, and his reinvention at such a young age, and one done so publically, isn't something to sneeze at. Lesser men would have fled for the hills. He later got fat, lazy and stupid and everything else he said he'd never be. By 1983, PiL's musical quality took a serious nosedive and he took to hiring sessions musicians to back him up. Right or wrong, he did it his way. He's an asshole, though I'm glad he's still around and still getting up people's noses (even mine), and First Issue is more than a mere footnote. As I am fond of saying: you need it.