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.