Musical Epiphanies #5 – Public Image Ltd

This piece, much like the first Musical Epiphanies piece, doesn’t put the spotlight on a certain release or album; rather, it will focus on two television appearances by John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd, during the promotion of their seminal second album Metal Box (or Second Edition, whichever takes your fancy).

PiL, for me, epitomise what post-punk should sound like. Along with acts such as Wire, Magazine, The Slits and Killing Joke, there’s an undeniable bravery and courage in the music they meticulously mastered, which took ideas of genre and style to the absolute limits of anyone’s imagination and scope.

Take First Issue – the opening track ‘Theme’ was summed up aptly by the NQGRD blog as ‘worth the price of admission alone’, while it also, of course, featured the classic track ‘Public Image’, which I feel is an often overlooked and sometimes forgotten masterpiece of the movement.

The Flowers of Romance, subject of another article of mine, is probably one of the most outlandishly stunning records ever released. Traditional structure and form was thrown out the window and smashed to pieces as experimentation was given a new standard, and, without a bassist, one of the most gloomily surreal albums ever was distributed to the masses.

However, I think it’s almost universally accepted that their second effort Metal Box is the defining moment of their discography. Blending the sounds of dub, punk and goth (to name a few) PiL embarked on the creation of one of the most influential albums of all time.

With this album came the television appearances. I focus on two which have always remained strong favourites of mine. Though some enjoy the absurdity of their performance on Bandstand and the filthy anger of Jah Wobble after a performance of Chant (for which programme I can’t seem to figure out…), I’ve always preferred the moments of artistic brilliance. Firstly, I’ll look at their performance of ‘Death Disco’ on Top Of The Pops, before going onto the stunning OGWT performance of ‘Poptones’ and ‘Careering’.

‘Death Disco’ – Top Of The Pops – 1979

Now, credit has to go to TOTP for allowing this to broadcast. For even thinking about letting this go on air. For imagining for a second that PiL were the right band for the show. I’m convinced they hadn’t actually heard the song before they played it. And credit again, for TOTP, for letting Lydon sing it live, in all its glorious ugliness. Even the visual effects, often terribly wheeled-out on TOTP, were absolutely perfect for capturing the utter macabre of the moment.

Look at the state of it – Lydon, headphones on, swinging around on the mic, wailing and crying out disgusting, high-pitched gargles, placing his gaze on anywhere but the camera, and Jah Wobble with his teeth blacked out, grinning at the camera while sitting down playing the bass. It’s magnificent, isn’t it?

I’ve always loved this song, the thumping disco beat contradicted by the scratchy mess of strings offered by Levene, a reggae-esque bassline from Wobble and, of course, Lydon’s soaring yelps.

But what absolutely sticks with me is that families, children, mums and dads, sitting in their living rooms for a usual innocent serving of TOTP (mostly) tripe, were instead welcomed by this. The punk panto-villain, who they all thought they’d got rid of, on their TV screens yet again, screaming the least tuneful, most aggressive vocals they’d probably ever witnessed, and giving the biggest metaphorical middle finger to TOTP custom ever recorded.

A fantastic YouTube comment by ‘Sometimes I Talk’ just about sums up the whole dire affair:

And now, for all you cool, hip teens out there, here’s John Lydon singing about his dead mother.

Everything about this performance spits in the face of normality. A disco song about a dying Mother, Metal Box era PiL on Top of The Pops, Lydon’s near demented demeanour. It’s simply stunning. For the deluge of disgusted parents and pensioners, I imagine they were matched by an admiring army of post-punk puritans in total amazement at the performance, at their band, being shown on TV, on the BBC, to the frightened masses who just want their weekly hit of soft-boring-stupid-pop. I’m sure this gained them no fans whatsoever, but I’m also sure that was the point.

It’s a callous, uncaring mess. And it’s simply marvellous.

*There’s another version on YouTube which sounds cleaner than this one, but I thought the poor recording added to the debacle somehow..

‘Poptones’ and ‘Careering’ – Old Grey Whistle Test – 1980 

Now, OGWT is the kind of place where you’d expect to find PiL.

‘Poptones’, in my opinion, is the best song PiL ever made. Even at over seven-and-a-half-minutes on the album, it never outstays its welcome and is always such a brilliant listen. This version may just trump it, however.

The drums are slightly muted, a bit damp sounding, Levene’s guitar sounds even more ethereal and even more beautiful. As a song, the layering, the texture, it’s unarguably genius. Lydon’s vocals are slow, drawn-out and longing, offering the wonderful flavour of discord that epitomised PiL’s sound.

Looking at the musicians, I’d argue that there was a clear respect for this song which was a level above the others – it’s played with admiration for the composition, an understanding that this song demands more delicacy and appreciation than others. It’s absolutely beautiful. All of the band stand still for practically the whole performance, letting the elegance slowly ooze out onto the set, and embrace the living rooms of the viewers at home.

Every effort, whether it be on percussion, strings or voice, is executed so exquisitely, with such attention to every detail. Lydon looks genuinely effected by this song in some way, even his facial expression seems to match his mourning vocals, and make the experience that extra bit more emotional.

The three minute mark sees the start of the finest moment of the performance. The guitar and rhythm section grasp a higher level of volume, matched by Lydon, and reach a more urgent, almost desperate level of sorrow.

The song ends – Lydon poises, takes off his jacket, and throws it on the floor. Atkins slams the snare drum, and incomes a huge whining drone from the keyboard, matched by a classic Wobble bassline. ‘Careering’ kicks into life intently. Like ‘Death Disco’, it’s ugly, it’s grim, but it’s oh-so good.

Levene is blatantly loving his stint on the keyboard combined with the muted cuts of the guitar. The beat is fantastic, and Lydon is adopting his usual offering of croons and barks. He seems almost possessed by a potent rage that had been restrained during ‘Poptones’, shaking as he grabs the mic stand, letting out a manic scream after the line ‘is this living?’.

Everything about this shouldn’t work. Nothing should go together. There’s no tuneful agreement between the keyboard and bass, the drums are a more punky groove than usual, and Lydon is basically letting out a stream-of-consciousness revolving around the word ‘living’. And yet. Everything is so, so right. In it’s correct place, where it should all belong. Credit to OGWT this time – the visual effects do the song a huge favour too.

On the album, the song is much more of a challenge, and, again, the OGWT version is a class above the studio version. You have to put it down to raw, live energy, and the actual personification of the atmosphere both songs create. You can truly witness the unfolding of this strange, unexplainable rage that Lydon holds within and Levene’s utter disregard for aural-comfort with the sharp hits of keyboard.

And after a few more jumps on the pitch of the keyboard, the song slows, there’s a final restrained cough of guitar, before Lydon does this ape-like movement, growls ‘That’ll Do’ and gives off one final yell.

The camera returns to Annie Nightingale in the studio. She looks as if she’s witnessed a horrific crime, her eyes fixed on the camera. She announces urgently, yet softly, ‘That is the most powerful performance I’ve seen on Whistle Test’. I’m afraid I’d have to agree with her on that too.

Both performances sum up why they were such a force in their first few years. There was a proud separation from absolutely everything that characterised their sound and persona, from the PiL logo to the Metal Box album. It was always dark, always other-worldly and always like nothing you’d ever heard or seen before.

For The Record #2 – It’s Obvious / Love Like Blood / The Flowers of Romance LP

As I look into my records that I’ve brought to university, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that after the next couple of articles I will be forced to detach myself from writing about punk and post-punk era releases, especially when writing about albums.

Admittedly, this is in a way somewhat liberating – I love punk, and always will, but I feel there’s so much more to explore, and I do find myself describing punk songs in a similar way repeatedly because of the songs’ similarity to one another.

I’ve got a couple of rap albums, a few American grunge albums and even Stone Roses’ debut album to contend with. There’s a more diverse mix still sitting at home, from Billy Bragg to The Orb, strangely enough, which I look forward to writing about at some point.

Anyway, I’m babbling. I went for three releases that offer something a bit different but still very much remain in the punk sphere. Quite independent in the sense that I could only name a couple of artists who parallel their sound, but records that I hold closely and still listen to today.

It’s Obvious B/W Diet – Au Pairs

I’ve always preferred female singing voices to male singing voices, my favourite voice of all-time being Cat Power’s, who I strongly recommend to anyone reading. In the punk-sphere, I first listened to and adored The Slits, and I later stumbled across Au Pairs on the Punk Britannia documentaries I’ve mentioned in previous articles – they played Set-Up, a wonderfully danceable tune fronted with beautifully calm vocals and a scintillating bassline.

For me, It’s Obvious, though a good song, isn’t on par with most of their debut album Playing With A Different Sex. It’s a decent single, good for the consumer, but it’s nothing special, in my opinion anyway. The bassline is still stunning, a classic for the era, while the development of the song into a guitar-driven whirring frenzy is strong, but it’s still not as good as it could be.

The B-side Diet is a different story. It seems to have an extra edge, a greater serving of angst, an additional anger. The post-verse chord sequence seems to grow more and more powerful as the song progresses, and the harsh cuts of the strings into the second half of the song are so tough but so gratifying. As ever with Au Pairs, this is all caringly looked after by an equally forceful and funky bassline.

I revisit Diet every now and then and give it a run out on my Spotify playlists, it’s one of those songs that I can’t ever forget – the first time I listened to it was actually on the 7” single I bought (I believe at Spitalfields Market in 2017) and it always remained a favourite – I think it’s the general Au Pairs sound that appeals to me.

A flaw I’ve only just encountered of this series of articles is that for some singles I don’t actually have the original sleeve, rather a paper substitute. So, I won’t be commenting on the sleeve!

A strong single for the sake of being a single, but there’s much more on offer outside of the headline act, I feel.

A-Side: 3/5   B-Side: 4/5

Love Like Blood B/W Blue Feather – Killing Joke

This is an interesting one for me. When I was 16 I think I easily spent about 6 months with Killing Joke’s album Night Time on repeat. I’m an absolute sucker for bass-driven post punk, and they ticked all the boxes for me, plus their gothic edge has always kept me listening.

However, there were two Killing Joke songs that I played the hell out of – Turn To Red, from their debut EP, and then, inevitably, their biggest hit Love Like Blood.

For what it is, I think Love Like Blood is a perfect blend of punk, goth and pop. I don’t think Coleman’s vocal tone can ever be considered ‘pop’ in any way, but the music that accommodates it certainly has a commercial twang to it. I used to play this song every single day, every walk to school, every walk home from school, every time I arrived home from school – you get the gist.

Though, I listen now and there’s always something that just isn’t quite there for me. It’s a severe case of overplaying a song and having it lose any meaningful effect on you. I can’t ever listen to it in full anymore. I can’t really explain it. I also would’ve easily named KJ in my top five favourite artists at the time, but now I can’t ever seem to be able to revisit them at all at the moment.

Contrarily, writing this article was actually the first time I’d listened to the B-side Blue Feather, and thankfully it’s a really nice song. It follows the usual KJ protocol, but is still a very pleasant listen. There’s a certain melancholy to it that compliments the sound of Love Like Blood fittingly, and the guitar line during the verse is also noteworthy. A suitable and effective B-side.

I find the sleeve quite throwaway. I don’t really have anything to say about it, to be honest. It’s just a necessity more than anything.

A single that I can fully appreciate, but can never listen to in the same way that I have in the past, though the B-side perhaps offers a new gateway to get back into KJ at last.

A-Side: 4/5   B-Side: 4/5   Sleeve: 2/5

The Flowers of Romance – Public Image Ltd

PiL will always be a favourite band of mine. Sex Pistols have never grabbed me in the way they should have – they have some brilliant songs, but I wouldn’t choose to listen to them. PiL, meanwhile, have always offered something a bit different, a bit more edgy and artistic.

The Flowers of Romance (TFOR) is no different. It came after the wonderous Metal Box/Second Edition LP, which for me holds PiL’s best three songs – Memories, Death Disco (aka Swan Lake) and the superbly ethereal Poptones. It was a radical departure from their debut LP, and Flowers of Romance is a further departure from their original sound.

It’s apparent the idea of melodic pleasure was a disgusting vision for Lydon at this stage. Any sort of catchy song was to be frowned upon and thrown away. TFOR came in a musical environment of growing industrial rock, a jarring and sometimes difficult listen that really does demand a lot from the listener.

And what better way to sum up this atmosphere by kicking off the album with a solitary drum line, occasionally backed by this crazed, psychopathic cry from Lydon? There’s nothing at all you can nod your head to. You have to sit and listen. There’s not really any other option, unless you’re able to time some sort of disturbingly jaunty dance to it, which in itself is not a particularly desirable image.

Track 8 (ironically placed as the second track, har-har) in itself is actually out of time. It’s a more layered than its predecessor but if you try to tap your foot to it you’ll end up losing your place. Now, I love this song. Completely. It’s so different to anything else I’ll ever hear. Lydon languishes with sneering vocals, ending with the line ‘right, I’m finished’ – I don’t think there’s a more shamelessly pessimistic way to end your contribution to a song.

Phenagen is another joy that follows. It’s so gloomy, so miserable. The transitions between parts are somewhat awkward and seem a bit improvised sometimes, but it’s still brilliant in its growth as it progresses.

I’ll say now that side one is much better and lot more memorable than side two. Banging The Door is by far the best track on the second side and probably the only real standout track.

As a whole though, it’s an engrossing listen – uncompromising but extremely rewarding once conquered. I can’t really think of anything quite like it, it’s an assembly of ominous anger that never quite erupts into a meaningful fury, but still reeks of incandescent rage that’s reluctantly restrained throughout. The sleeve is one of my favourites of all time. I believe the it’s a picture of the band’s photographer, and it looks like total gothic mayhem.

It’s an accomplished album with Lydon at his volatile best, while its minimalism and artistry is virtually incomparable.

Side One: 4.5/5   Side Two: 3/5   Sleeve: 5/5

 

Next: For The Record #3 – Buzzcocks Edition