Saturday, December 20, 2008

Public Image Limited

- First Issue (Front), 1978 - Virgin Records #V2114

One of the more important and fertile periods of music history was the 8-year stretch between 1975 and 1982.  Other than the 1963-1970 generational gash, I doubt any other era can state as strong of a case.  
And frankly, remove Dylan and the Beatles from the sixties equation, and what would you have had?  

Without Dylan, Ricky Nelson might have been the guy everyone wanted to emulate.  And were it not for the Beatles proving that a band (a British band, no less) could successfully write and perform their own compositions, Elvis and his increasingly sanitized Roustabout-like soundtracks could very well have dominated and shaped the American pop music landscape.  

You can argue that someone else would have stepped into the roles that Dylan and the Beatles played.  But that would just extend this here rant.  And no one wants that.

No... I'm sticking with the '75-82 period as my favorite.  Nostalgia, after all, is my drug of choice.  

At the forefront of that era, in my humble opinion, is Public Image Limited.  

Formed in 1978 by former The Mama's & The Papa's crooner Johnny Rotten after the cheated ending of that band during a San Francisco Hippy Day Parade float mishap, Public Image Limited were not a band, curse you!  They were a multi-media corporation that posed as a band.

When the drugs ran out.  

And the last original corporation member resigned his seat in 1982.

Only then could they be called a band.
At that point Public Image Limited were bought out by John Lydon, former mastermind behind the Archies and the Banana Splits.  The "band" would go on to release some interesting material until the late 80s, when Lydon mysteriously and unexpectedly announced that Public Image Limited were to go on temporary hiatus.  

Lydon's attention would be diverted by the Reunion Craze of the 1990s, which allowed him to reform Spinal Tap for the lackluster 'Gimme Some Money' tours.  He would then devote the next ten years working on his acclaimed solo album, Psycho's Path (released in 1997) - which would garner him multiple Grammys and a permanent position as butter spokesman of the United Kingdom.  

It's really a heart-warming story.  And it is also quite a Prindle.

- (L-R) Jah Wobble (bass), Keith Levene (g.), Jim Walker (d.), Johnny Rotten (v.)
Early Period Public Image Limited

For my money, from the 1978 debut album, First Issue, to their third album, Flowers of Romance in 1981, Public Image Limited (PiL) were one of the most challenging, exciting and innovative bands of their - or any other era.  With a fierce rhythm section dominated by Jah Wobble's snorting rhino bass, Keith Levene's space metal guitar work and Johnny Rotten's caustic and right-on lyrics, there were very few that could top them.

And they'll be the first to tell you!

The media doesn’t give a fuck like that now... Though a lot of people talk about ‘Metal Box’ these days and they don’t get it wrong, they know we put out a serious fucking record. And I dare anyone who’s into music to listen to the first record and tell me it’s not a great first record, for any band. 
- Keith Levene, Fodderstompf interview, 2003

... what is not understood is it’s took people a long time to catch up to what we were doing in the first three or four albums. And now that period from us has somehow managed to have been blended into modern culture, but they don’t understand what came after. What came after was us going into ‘Pop structure’, in a deadly serious way and restructuring the concept of a pop song. Which was great fun, and just as important to us as anything else, and it’s not for anyone to say ‘That’s not as good as’ it IS PiL, and it’s beyond judgement, it is what it is, and it is honest and it’s not done for any other fucking reason.
- John Lydon, Fodderstompf interview, 2004
They were sitting about the Manor [Studio] all day, and I was going and doing stuff and saying look I've done some stuff do you want it? So I started working on my own stuff, I'd have been happy working on PiL stuff, I just wanted to work. Because I'm starting to play, I love it! I've been on the dole. All I wanted to do was play with this fucking group, and I still feel like that, you've got to get out and do stuff, what's the point of sitting at home if you can go out and play to people, that's what you do. So I got very frustrated... 
- Jah Wobble, Fodderstompf interview, 1999

'Low life' and 'Attack' were meant to be properly made songs. But recorded in a basement dungeon of a demo track studio. No live drum sound everything done on the cheap. Appalling result. 'Fodderstomph', the same sad sick story. Not even a song just a wank. Ripping off our fans. It still turns my stomach thinking about it. Same story with the 'Cowboy Song' .One decent track for the price of two. PiL were in effect mocking those who were feeding us. Our fans. I hated this sort of rubbish but by then I had given up hope for PiL. 
- Jim Walker, Fodderstompf interview, 2001


It would not surprise me if music critics someday rank PiL on the same level as the Velvet Underground: Influential to everyone that happened to buy into them - yet considering their inability to crack into the public consciousness, a complete and total failure.

And as is typical in pop culture, PiL's failure was generally better than the greatest of successes.

No doubt, Public Image Limited is a tough pil to swallow...

HAHA!  Tough PiL to swallow?  That one never gets old.  Kind of like the one about Sid Vicious.  You know... 'He made a stab at the top, but hit Nancy instead!'  

... but like PiL's direct ancestors, Germany's Can and Neu! and Venus' favorite son Captain Beefheart, once the myth is stripped away, you are left with a rewarding listening experience.

As they should have said on American Bandstand, 'It's got a good beat and I can trance to it!'

- Flowers of Romance (Front), 1981 - Virgin Records #V2189

So why was PiL such a failure?

Because whether it relates to silly entertainment figures or each and every one of us, wasted potential is one of the bitterest of failures.  

From their formation in 1978 through 1981, the band released 5 7" singles, 3 12" singles, 4 long players (if you include the Paris Au Printemps live album), and played a grand total of 22 shows (with two cancellations).  7 of those 22 concerts in the first two years!  
Think about that.  22 shows.  In 4 years.

Good luck trying to destroy rock and roll from the comfort of your shooting dens, guys.

That more people did not have the opportunity to experience such a brilliant band live is a rotten shame.  The potential to influence a countless amount of young people was wasted.  And if anyone could have influenced them, it would have been that first line-up of Wobble, Levene, Lydon, and a power drummer of the week.  

They were that good.  

Links of Interest:

* Fodderstompf - The one stop source of all things PiL.  Excellent.
* First Issue - Hong Kong Gardens Blog.  Superb.
* Plastic Box (PiL Box set) - Jake & Elwoods Greatest Hits Blog
* Metal Box (second album) - Baratomusical Blog

Note:  The Plastic Box set is probably all you really need, considering their first and third albums are represented in their entirety here (save one cut from First Issue, which I have also linked).  I included a link to Metal Box; i.e., Second Edition - their second album, as it is not represented as strongly on the box set.  And you really need to hear it.  Jah Wobble is in his glory.  Typical of PiL, it would be Wobble's last album with the group before he quit in disgust.  Or got fired for stealing backing tracks for 'unauthorized' solo material.  Whomever you believe. Regardless, Wobble's departure would hasten the band's descent into safer and shallower waters.  The Idiots...  

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