NME, March 1999
© 1999 NME
Plastic Box (4CD box)
At the start, it was assumed Public Image Limited were motivated solely by revenge. Formed by John Lydon in the aftermath of the final and humiliating Sex Pistols show in San Francisco in January 1978, they were to be -as this four-CD box set spanning their career chronicles -everything his previous band weren't: a personality-free, anti-rock'n'roll, avant-noise assault on a music industry Lydon felt had cheated and abandoned him.
Their eponymous debut album, where Lydon was joined by guitarist Keith Levene and virtuoso dub bassist Jah Wobble, was nightmarish. Brutal and frequently unlistenable, it was a raw howl of intent that stretched way beyond a simple flicked V at the music industry. Far from being a random assault on people's nerves, PiL were creating a New Music with something approaching scientific vigour. Arguably the first post-rock group, they traded traditional rock influences for something far more interesting. Can, Lee Perry and Captain Beefheart replaced The Who, the Stones and Eddie Cochran, and brought a densely layered and fiercely rhythmic sound.
Their next two LPs ('Metal Box' and 'Flowers Of Romance', both featured here almost in their entirety) showcased this giant leap forward. 'Metal Box' was the first time PiL really assimilated their influences. Underpinned by gargantuan dub basslines, and drenched in reverb, it's a heavy, abstract collage of distorted drum patterns and spray-on guitar effects, thrilling to listen to even today. The sound of grey paint and '70s tower blocks made all too tangible.
Wobble left soon after, but 'Flowers Of Romance' is even further out there, songs being abandoned altogether in favour of spliced noise, relentless percussion and looped tape effects. Lydon's sneer was still smeared liberally over the top, but now had just become another instrument lost in the mix. Despite being critically reviled, it was the logical conclusion to a journey Lydon had set out on three years before.
In 1983, PiL mutated once again when Lydon relocated to LA and Levene departed. From 1984 to 1992, they released five LPs, which, while musically conservative, were commercially (more) successful. The last two CDs of this set chronicle this period all too extensively, although on the plus side they do include PiL's two biggest hits -'This Is Not A Love Song' and 'Rise'. What had started as a radical experiment had ended up as bland formula, with the amiable eco-friendly message of 'Don't Ask Me' representing the real nadir. If you're interested in how that happened, invest in 'Plastic Box'. Otherwise, just get the first three LPs. Twenty years on, nobody's come close to matching them.
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