Tuesday, January 6, 2009

PiL: The Commercial Zone Funhouse

After releasing Flowers of Romance in October of 1981, Public Image Limited found itself in a state of entropy.  

Whether it was darker drugs revealing fangs, John Lydon's lessened involvement due to outside interests, or power plays by both guitarist Keith Levene and on-again-off-again drummer Martin Atkins, the Limited Corporation mirage that all parties had strived so hard to present as viable since their foundation in 1978 threatened to splinter.  

Frankly, when one considers all that the band had to go through in their first few years, it is a surprise they survived as long as they had:

* A seemingly never-ending legal tussle between Lydon and former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren set the table for...

* A crippling lack of funds, which resulted in guerilla production, performance and management methods that more often than not pissed off fans and...

* A hostile press which attacked the band - and in particular Lydon at almost every opportunity.  Pay back for Lydon acting such a jerk to them during the Pistols days?  You betcha.

- Public Image Ltd., Phase One - (L-R) Keith Levene, Jah Wobble, Johnny Rotten

When you also factor in the loss of founding member and bass sculptor Jah Wobble in 1980, the four baseless police raids in a little over a years time, the infamous American Bandstand, Tom Snyder, and Ritz nightclub appearances - not to mention Warner Brothers Records dropping the band in early 1982 and the band's fateful decision to forgo touring, a state of entropy was probably to be expected.  

After all, these were 20-something year old kids on the proverbial chopping block.  The most grounded of adults tend to crack under such immense pressures; asking and expecting it of someone so young is a cracked mirror reflection of our own seemingly low-key and unimportant lives.
The 20th century taught us to throw entertainment figures on lavish pedestals. And we complied.  Lucky Lindy, Houdini, Frankie, Elvis, Bobby Zimmerman, The Beatles, The Sex Pistols, Little Michael, Madonna, Britney, Princess Diana's Car & Anna Nichole's Corpse... on and on and on; an endless parade of cultural icons for our purchasing pleasure.  

You know they are cultural icons because keychains, tee-shirts, and Rolling Stone Magazine would never lie.   Would they?  

Then again, who is at fault?  The con man who sells the snake oil, or the sucker who constantly buys it?

- Commercial Zone: Limited Edition (Front), 1984 - PiL Records Inc. #XYZ007
To the members of Public Image Limited, the snake oil was becoming a hemlock.

The partnership between band (and corporate) visionaries Lydon and Levene began to deteriorate to the point of no return during early 1983.  The official story is that arguments over mixing the This is Not a Love Song 7" single (Virgin Records #VS 529, September 1983) would lead to Levene's departure from the group.  Of course, He said/She said also points towards Levene's escalating drug problems, Lydon's selling out the 'PiL Ideals', and Atkins' spiteful power plays as the true culprits.  Who really knows.   

It has been argued that Keith Levene's departure from Public Image Limited significantly impacted the creative output for the remainder of the band's run.  Isolationists... er, I mean Purists will even suggest that PiL essentially died with Levene.  

Perhaps.  Perhaps the charges are nothing more than a case of sour grapes.  The same type of sour grapes that saw the PiL debut release and first line-up slandered to high heaven by a large segment of fans as not being 'Punk' enough.  And the same type of sour grapes that contemporary Lydon champions chew on during their 'Never Judge Eras' slants.

It is always best to judge for oneself.              
- This is What You Want...This is What You Get (Front), 1984 - Virgin Records #V2309  

Five of the recordings that the band had been working on at the time of Levene's departure would eventually be rerecorded for the eventual (and official) This is What You Want... This is What You Get album (released: July, 1984).  

In a preemptive strike, Levene would release the original recordings in the United States as Commercial Zone in November of 1983.  In August of the following year - and a month after This is What You Want... was released, Levene pressed 30,000 copies of the tweaked Commercial Zone: Limited Edition long player for European release.  
Lydon and Virgin Records, Public Image Limited's record company at the time, were not pleased.  Virgin going so far as to order all pressings of Commercial Zone: Limited Edition destroyed.

Thankfully enough copies of the album survived, as it offers fascinating contrast to the 'official' releases of the immediate post-Levene period -- This is What You Want... and the Live in Tokyo album, which was recorded mere months after Levene left.  

- Live in Tokyo (Front), 1983 - Virgin Records # VGD3508

One suggestion:  Follow the link, check out the blog that hosts it, then download Live in Toyko.  Afterwards, burn the mp3s onto a compact disc and promptly throw it out of a window.  Or force your Hannah Montana loving daughter to listen to it as punishment.  

It is about the only satisfaction you'll be able to muster after listening to such crap.
If you dig it, so be it.  Who am I to question anyone else's opinions.

I could end this with a joke about how it doesn't matter what you think, because everyone knows that PiL died after Wobble left; thereby making the entire piece a contradictory farce.  

Haha!  Isn't that a riot?  

Just like Johnny Rotten!!

Links of Interest:

* Fodderstompf -- A Communications Company.  Not a website.
* Commercial Zone (U.S. Pressing) -- Commercial Zone Blog
* The Ritz Nightclub Riot! -- The Mayfly

Note:  As an example of the emotions that Public Image Limited brought out in people, I've thrown out a link to the infamous Ritz nightclub riot.  I've pieced together various sources in an effort to replicate the events of the evening in as accurate form as possible. 



  1. Baker, to get the answers to PiL 1978-1983 questions, follow Keith @missingchannel on twitter or visit his website www.keithlevene.com...