Wednesday, 5 October 2016

Public Image Ltd. - Second Edition (1979)

...or Metal Box or whatever you want to call it. I have a great many all-time favourite albums, and of their number this is the one I have probably heard the least. I'm pretty sure that at some point an entire decade has passed without my having listened to this record, quite possibly two decades.

Public Image Ltd. were the first proper group that I liked when, at the age of about twelve, I graduated from playing my trusty quartet of Beatles albums into flexidiscs to listening to the top forty countdown on the wireless and noting that I quite liked some of this new punk rock stuff, or whatever it was, and I found Public Image particularly hypnotic. It wasn't that I hadn't liked anything before that point, but it had mostly been Abba and that sort of thing - tastes which neither translated into vinyl nor endured beyond puberty to any great extent. Public Image expressed something I didn't even know required expression, a sort of alienation or sense of distance dividing myself from almost everyone else; and the weird thing - at least with hindsight - is that I discovered Public Image Ltd. before I'd even heard of the Sex Pistols and spent a couple of months doubting that there was really any connection.

Having discovered music, it still took me a while to see the benefit of spending my pocket money on something other than Doctor Who books or Micronauts, and it didn't quite dawn on me that there might be a Public Image Ltd. album until Dean Howe tried to sell me his copy of Metal Box. I think he'd found it disappointing. Conversely I thought it was great, but those three discs didn't seem to like my record player, and the needle jumped all over the shop. Looking closely at the vinyl, the grooves resembled little zig-zag lines presumably due to the deep bass frequencies. Dean sold it to someone else, and I eventually bought the reissue when it came out as a more conventional double album. Annoyingly I've found this version similarly difficult to play even now that I have a relatively fancy record player, and so the thing has just sat in my collection ignored more or less since I bought it.

I suppose the benefit of all this, if there is one, is how fresh it still sounds now that I've chanced upon a copy on compact disc. By means I don't even understand, I know the thing like the proverbial back of my hand - every last little scrape and clang - and yet listening to it in 2016 is much like hearing it for the first time.

The Public Image Ltd. debut album, which I heard after I'd bought this one, seemed a transitional affair - a great big noisy discordant fuck you with all of the Chuck Berry sucked out of the mix just in case anyone had been anticipating Sex Pistols part two. Rotten seemed on the defensive, very much resenting the mechanics of his own fame, and yet unwilling to quite disappear off the deep end like some spoilt rock star recording an album of his own farts, so for all the walls of noise, First Issue pulls back from rewriting Metal Machine Music and heads off in roughly the same direction as Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Metal Box was where everything really came together. Rotten no longer sounds like he's even thought about anything relating to the Pistols for at least a year, and more than anything they're making the record they want to hear. You probably already know what it does - lengthy jams which sound very much as though they were improvised live, repetition and a certain minimalism allowing one to fully appreciate the acoustics, and easily as hypnotic as that first single. Coming back to this, I've also been surprised at how much electronic sound is woven through the structure of the record - often barely within earshot - and also how much is entirely instrumental. It's a frosty affair succinctly encapsulating how Britain felt in 1978 without recourse to slogans - damp and conducive to death - born as a vague fusion of dub reggae and all the German stuff of which Rotten was a fan, but not quite sounding like either. Aside from my preferring Another, the b-side of Memories, to its instrumental which appears on here as Graveyard, this really is a perfect record, and it will remain a perfect record regardless of how many Country Life butter adverts he appears in.

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