FACT Magazine, January 2004
© 2004 FACT / Kris Needs
FULL METAL JACKET
With the curtain closed on the Sex Pistols pantomime, in 1978 a still-searing John Lydon teamed up with Jah Wobble and Keith Levene to form PiL. A year later the band released 'The Metal Box', tearing up the rulebook and turning musical convention inside out to produce one of the most influential records ever made. A gibbering Kris Needs was there.
"You could only take the punk thing so far. You had to try to listen to new things. I'm talking about the influence of PiL. 'Death Disco' had a reggae bassline, disco drumming, 'Swan Lake' on the guitar and then Lydon singing lyrics about his mother dying. It's the most bizarre mix up. It's inspirational really."
That was Bobby Gillespie talking when I interviewed him around the time of 'Screamadelica', but it still applies today to Primal Scream, the band PiL helped inspire him to create. 'The Metal Box', Public Image Ltd second album (recorded in 1979) provided a model for subsequent deconstructions of rock and is considered one of the most influential records ever made. If phrases like 'ahead of its time' are to be bandied about, then this is the chappie. You can hear echoes and reverberations of 'The Metal Box' in modern music of all strains. From New York bands like Radio 4 (whose name comes from one of the LP's tracks) and The Rapture (whose 'Echoes' cut is pure PiL) to the electronic trickery of Two Lone Swordsmen, and the Scream. From Alan McGee (who called his label Poptones and his club night Death Disco, both names are swiped directly from songs on the album) to a young Mancunian called Mani (who was hammering the LP while learning to play bass and gearing up for his band The Stone Roses).
It's hard to believe that 'The Metal Box' was created nearly 25 years ago. It still sounds like nothing on earth . The key players were behemoth – bassist Jah Wobble, incendiary guitar architect Keith Levene…and a bloke called John Lydon , hell bent on exorcising his past.
If the Sex Pistols had sparked an instant revolution that found them in pieces after just one album, John Lydon's next group ignited a brand of slow-burning insurrection that has simply grown as the decades roll on. When Public Image Ltd unveiled itself, the vultures were poised to pounce and peck. After the undignified demise of the Pistols, there was only Rotten left to fuck up, Except he didn't.
From the cavernous rumble of the first, eponymous single it was obvious that he was up to something that would soon tear into existing musical traditions – by now that included punk rock – and turn everything upside down.
PiL confused, confronted and declared war on the past. They set their cards on the table with a controversial debut on Christmas Day at London's Rainbow Theatre, where they kicked off with ten minutes of psychotic white noise called 'Theme'. You knew that no way was this going to be any Pistols retread. Their debut album, 'First Issue' (1978, Virgin), hammered a path of vicious four-prong attack and saw Lydon savaging everything from the church to his past with a depth and fury which made it more effective than anything the Pistols ever did. He cajoled, howled and ranted with a maturity born from not having to live up to expectations – but rewrite them. It was surprising, stunning stuff that got many a punk scratching their Mohican and many a journalist sniping.
At the time I was editing a magazine called Zigzag, which John liked. He gave us one of the first PiL interviews and set out the bands ideal: "We are all equal. No Rod Stewarts. We all do equal amounts of work. We all produce equally, write songs and collect the money equally."
Lydon's bitterness towards Malcolm McLaren's manipulation and the way he'd been shoved out of the Pistols was the spur that wrote the PiL manifesto, in blood, in sand and in John's brain. It would sprout into full fruition with the second album, 'The Metal Box'. The music is sparse, the mood dark and brooding with intensity. Unearthly and more dubbed out than 1978's debut and, as a result, the perfect platform for Lydon's incisive, barbed and emotional observations on late 70's Britain and matters more personal. When it emerged in late 1979 the album was greeted by either devotion or derision. No middle ground. The adventurous yet strange mix of musical sources and sound-bite slogans stirred Bobby Gillespie's imagination. "Me and my friend used to play along to PiL records. We would learn how to play bass by listening to Wobble basslines, which in turn got us into reggae. The first couple of basslines I learned were 'Metal Box' basslines."
I did the first interview about the new, so-far unheard album. A last-minute job that was so hastily arranged the cover had already been printed. It was a Friday night in November when I arrived at John Lydon's Chelsea abode. It would be another 18 hours before I'd leave.
"Hello, coming down the offy?" greeted the familiar figure who opened the armour-plated front door. Lager obtained, we adjourned to a room, sat on a mattress and watched Coronation Street. It was in the days when TV shut down around 11pm, so after the little white dot had disappeared, we went down a floor to John's front room for the first public preview of the album. Also there were Keith Levene plus publicity-backroom operator Jeannette Lee and secretary Dave Crowe, who were both considered equal members of PiL. They never had a permanent drummer.
John whacked a record onto his mighty sound system and soon the room was pulsating with the foreboding and bottomless opener, 'Albatross'. It was like nothing I'd ever heard before in my life. Wobble's bass booming like a prowling psycho, Levene ripping broken gashes out of his poor instrument and a metronomic beat not unlike John's beloved German experimental band Can. Then comes Lydon, wailing impassioned – more amphetamine-driven-Eastern prayer-caller than 'Pretty Vacant'. It's like the soundtrack to falling into a black hole.
This is followed by the inflammatory charge of 'Memories', which is two mixes spliced together (a fairly radical move in the days before everything was done by computer). At the time I called it 'innovative fun'. Most of the album was recorded live over the period of a year, in different studios, with the band learning how to use the mixing desk as another instrument as they went along (Lydon and co. would later be one of the first pop bands to fully utilise sampling).
Then comes the first single to be taken off the album, 'Swan Lake'. This later became Gillespie's beloved 'Death Disco' in twelve-inch form, where it turned into thunderously frightening dance music (strains of which can still be heard via labels like DFA and Output). Wobble's elephantine bass lopes aboard a tin can gallop of a drum pattern, while Keith strangles his guitar into the melody. Meanwhile, the anguished, near-possessed Lydon laments the recent death of his mother. It's a shatteringly intense classic.
Next comes the sardonic drone of 'Poptones', with Keith playing clattering dustbin drums in the absence of Jim Walker, who departed during the sessions. 'Careering' is another in a series of monsters with Keith using a string synthesiser as a menacing drone over a throb-bed for John's (more relevant-than-ever) lyrics about the modern paranoia of society.
Thick and fast now: the bleak 'No Birds Do Sing'. A slashing instrumental called 'Graveyard', John's sardonic swipe at posers on 'The Suit', 'Bad Baby', 'Socialist' and a closing segue between the manic, stomping 'Chant' and the album's killer touch, 'Radio 4'. It's like Blackpool Pier organ gone to hell, swaying about and encountering the strolling bass of Mr Wobble in a sonic haze.
"We're more interested in sound and the overall effect of sound on people," Keith would later tell me. "We concentrate on that and progressing at those skills. I think we're one of the most advanced groups around now. We spend hours working."
At the end of the first sitting I just sat there with my mouth open and could only gibber in the affirmative when the band asked what I thought.
During the playback John went off and changed his jacket six times. It wasn't just the music that made 'The Metal Box' so special. The first pressing came in an embossed aluminium container containing three 12" singles.
"That's really important because it's not really an album, it's a load of singles", said Keith. "We thought it was a good idea. Instead of putting out albums you're putting out loads of material."
"It's simple", weighed in John. "Twelve-inches have a better sound quality. You can go mad and get it all on plastic without distortion and racket, its just sense. You put it out in a way that you think will sound best. It's not an album anyway. It's a tin of material."
The boxes were manufactured by the famous Metal Box Company – hence the title – and cost 75p a throw to make. Virgin wouldn't rise to a lyric sheet so there was a sheet of paper with the track titles instead. Because of this John had the lyrics written out for me. I duly published them, writing: Why not rip this out and stick it in your 'Metal Box?'
Virgin refused to go along with the group. The label agreeing to press only 50,000 copies, even though 100,000 would have made it cheaper. "We wanted as many as fucking possible, and more", John told me. The second pressing emerged as a double vinyl album called 'Second Edition'. The group did have a last chuckle by supplying photographs specially treated "to make us look like a bunch of ugly sods." At the time a normal album cost around a fiver and lasted no more than 40 minutes. 'The Metal Box' lasted over 100 minutes and went for £7.45, with dynamite sound quality. Now thanks to the conflict with Virgin original copies can go for three figures!
"It was just being bored with the way albums are just continually thrown out: the same fucking shape and format forever and a day," John reasoned to me at the time. "You go back twenty-five years. They're still the same. Nothing has changed, and it has to. I'm afraid I don't live in history books. We're trying to write the next chapter, not look back pages."
"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. If we hadn't been given a release date on 'Metal Box' we'd still be making it. It'd come out eventually like an encyclopaedia! It would have been a laugh but that is going too far! We had to cut an hour of it anyway."
Many groups might have used that material for a readymade follow up album. Not PiL. 1980's 'Paris Au Printemps' may have been scrappy by comparison, but it was certainly different (Wobble left soon after to work with ex-members of Can). 1981's 'Flowers & Romance', meanwhile, found John and Keith shredding the rulebook once again, most notably on the title cut – surely one of the most outlandishly bizarre hit singles in pop music's short but sweet history. Then, of course, there was 1983's brilliant 'This Is Not A Love Song' (that modern producers such as Blackstrobe claim their favourite ever 'disco' track). Lydon later hooked up with Bill Laswell for 1986's 'Album', an enjoyable record that also featured a great single in 'Rise'. 'The Music Box' though was never bettered. PiL eventually disbanded in 1992. Their most striking legacy seems certain to live on for quite some time longer.
Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)
© Metal Box