The story of the Sex Pistols is a well documented one, but the story of Public Image Limited is less so. In a nutshell after leaving the Pistols, Johnny Rotten reverted back to his Lydon moniker and along with bassist Jah Wobble and guitarist Keith Levene formed the "multi media group" PiL. The idea being they would give performances as opposed to gigs, release soundtracks as opposed to regular albums, and be actively involved in films and business ventures. With such lofty aspirations it was never going to get off the ground, and despite angrily objecting to opinion they became simply a band.
But what a band. While the debut release First Issue was a fiery album, it was merely a starting point. What followed was inspired and unprecedented, it made them peerless in a post punk environment.
Metal Box was just that; twelve tracks spanning three twelve inch singles and packaged in a canister designed for film reels, the PiL logo embossed on the lid. Indeed the project was so costly that there was no room in the budget for a lyric sheet, instead Lydon's warblings were printed as a full page advertisement in an issue of NME. Who said punk was dead?
The music is as revelatory as the design. Dub, krautrock, punk, and prog rock are swallowed up and spat back out into throbbing abrasive chunks. From the bottom up the drums support Wobbles pulsating bass, which resonates so that you feel it rather than hear it. Levene just scrawls guitar lines all over the top, like a child with a crayon drawing over newly papered walls. Then of course you have Lydon's, ahem, singing on top of everything.
The artistic license is all Levenes and Lydons. With the rhythm section expertly holding everything down these two essentially get free reign, and mostly its improvised. Opener Albatross feels like it was made up on the spot and chucked on the "done" pile, but by no means is that a bad thing. Lyrics are sometimes lackadaisical but occasionally brilliant, the opening line "getting rid of the albatross, sowing the seeds of discontent" an example of the latter. Its questionable as to whether Lydon understood at the point in time what a great writer he was.
The same can't be said of Levene, who was very cocksure of himself, and rightfully so. Confidently weaving skittery notes over basslines like those found on Poptones and Careering, this was a man who knew not only what he was doing but how PiL should sound. This was the future that the Sex Pistols proclaimed wasn't going to happen.
Instrumental tracks showcase the more versatile sound of the unit, with Lydon demonstrating his comfort in stepping away from the spotlight and letting the musicians have a go, The Socialist being a highlight of the album. Joe Meek himself couldn't have done a better job of the spacey effects and tight percussion.
Even if you managed to get your head around the first ten tracks the final two will still leave you scratching your head. Chant bears miserable lyrics about bad government and bad attitudes, its ending akin to a mantra, only with an edgy narcotic blur to it. Radio 4 is almost charming in comparison, a lilting instrumental seemingly designed to give brief respite before you gather yourself up and go back to Albatross.
Oft considered the greatest of PiLs releases it's certainly the album which stays truest to their original vision. Wobble would leave shortly after due to the bands refusal to embark on a conventional tour, and with Levene also quitting after two further albums Pil eventually became John Lydon and hired help.
Still fresh, still vital, this collection proves that PiL were far more than just Johnny Rottens other band, and this albums proves that Nevermind the Bollocks was merely a rung on the mans unique ladder.
Whilst in his Johnny Rotten persona with the Sex Pistols, John Lydon, with the obvious assistance of Sid Vicious, Paul Cook and Steve Jones, gave the music scene a much deserved slap round the face. It was getting very bland and extremely dire. You only have to look back to the music of the early 70s to see that. However if you look around the time the Sex Pistols were in existence you can quite clearly see how the music scene changed, for the better.
Aside from the tragic death of Sid Vicious punk as a music phenomenon was in decline. John Lydon became somewhat disenchanted with it all because seemingly on the back of the success of the Sex Pistols there were a lot of punk wannabe bands sprouting up everywhere which rather diluted the punk ideal. Then of course there was the start of the long running legal battle between Lydon and Malcolm McLaren.
John Lydon decided it was time for something different.
Public Image Ltd was very different, very different indeed.
After the relative success of their first album First Issue John Lydon continued to drag music into another direction and in Metal Box, PiLs second album, he did just that, brilliantly.
To enjoy PiLs music though you have to forget John Lydon was Johnny Rotten. PiL has to be separated completely from that era and looked on and listened to on its own merits. However in saying that whilst many of the songs on Metal Box are social, political and class commentaries there are a few which refer to his days in the Sex Pistols and more specifically how they were exploited and the way they were all expected to perform not just on stage but off it too like some kind of circus act.
John Lydon wasnt having any of that with PiL.
I suppose some of that can be found in the first track  Albatross, which, for me, does allude to Lydons former days in the Sex Pistols.
Now, what really makes this album really appeal to me is its uniqueness. Not just because of the music style but in 3 other ways; John Lydons distinct and unique voice, Keith Levines metallic sound on guitar and finally Jah Wobble (real-life name John Wordle) on bass guitar. In fact most of the album is driven by Jah Wobbles bass guitar work and for me Jah Wobble, as a bass guitar player, comes a close second to JJ Burnel of The Stranglers.
This uniqueness becomes unified somewhat, if you can understand that, in  Memories,  Swanlake (also known as Death Disco), which was written by Lydon for his dying mother, and  Poptones.
The next track  Careering is more bass guitar and drum driven (not to be confused with Drum & Bass) with an accompaniment of some rather alien sounds from the keyboard that wouldnt be that out of place on a science fiction movie. Mind you I suppose it does compliment Lydons singing style too, which some could argue also sounds rather alien at times, and is evident in Lydons vision of the future in  No Birds.
We get a rest from Lydons singing in  Graveyard, an atmospheric instrumental track totally driven by Jah Wobbles bass, Keith Levenes metallic guitar sounds and simple drumbeat. Talking of the drums, I have tried on many occasions to find out who the drummer was for this album as the original PiL drummer, Jim Walker, had left the band after the first album. So its a mystery who actually drummed on Metal Box.
The next 2 tracks are probably my favourites on the album. First up is  The Suit, a song again mainly driven by bass guitar and simple drumbeat but with Lydon nearly singing in an almost monotone voice but what gives this song character is the way Lydon delivers it; dark and menacing.
Then theres  Bad Baby. Still mainly on the bass guitar and drum theme theres also the return of those science fiction sounds from the keyboards. For me, this track brings it all together. Referring back to what I was saying about the bands uniqueness, on this track everything is in harmony and synchronised, even Lydons singing!.
The next track,  Socialist, is another instrumental but its more up-tempo and a near dance track, which is in complete contrast to the near disjointed sounding  Chant which sees Lydon almost slipping back into his Johnny Rotten persona, ranting on to the accompanying and repetitive line love, war, kill, hate, but then this song blends into the final track  Radio 4. Again a complete opposite and during the transition between  Chant and  Radio 4 you would be forgiven for thinking it sounded like a classical orchestra tuning-up for a recital. Its hard to describe  Radio 4, it just has to be heard to be believed. If you can, try to imagine classical music but PiL style! I think its a good track and ends the album brilliantly.
Whilst writing this review Ive been trying to see if I could classify the music style of PiL, and in particular this album, but I cant. It doesnt really fit into any kind of genre although it has been likened to somewhere between dub-reggae and Krautrock, but Im still dubious about that too. If I were to put my own take on it then Id say Metal Box could be pre-dance (techno) with more than a hint of anti-disco, a point Id like to elaborate on.
You see originally Metal Box was purposely packaged in a, limited edition of 60,000, metal, circular canister and contained 3 x 12 45rpm vinyl records. The album was later re-released in conformist vinyl album version and called Second Edition. To explain further at about the time of the release of Metal Box also saw the rise in 12 dance mix of chart songs and this is where I draw my comparison from.
Then to support my view that PiLs music doesnt fit into particular genre consider this - imagine you have an extensive collection of vinyl albums and you may have them sorted either in alphabetical or genre order, where the hell are you going to put a metal canister? It wont fit, it wont sit right amongst the row(s) of your already assembled vinyl collection. Therefore, just like PiLs music style, Metal Box cant be pigeon-holed.
I consider myself one of the lucky ones to have one of these 60,000 metal canisters, and in my vinyl collection it sits, proudly, at the front.
Just to reinforce the uniqueness of Metal Box when it was first re-issued on CD in 1990, guess what? It was packaged in a CD-sized metal canister! Yes, I have this version too. Again though, like its metal canistered vinyl ancestor, the CD-sized canister doesnt fit into the common everyday CD rack.
Finally, by not being able to classify properly this album into any particular genre its hard to make a comparison that would help you, the reader, to search this album out unless you are already familiar with PiL. I suppose if you enjoyed Lydons collaboration with Leftfield then youll have some idea of what to expect in Metal Box.
An album I definitely recommend and still readily available, in CD version. Amazon currently have it on offer for just under £6, Tesco have it for just under £7 which is considerably cheaper than HMV who have it priced at £12.99! However if you are curious then if you go to HMV.co.uk and then the Metal Box album page you can listen to samples of every song on the album.
Metal Box *has* to be played loud (with or without headphones) because then youll get the full effect of Jah Wobbles phenomenal bass playing; itll make the floor and walls shake and if youre wearing headphones itll just reverberate around your body and through your bones. Definitely an experience not to be missed!
PiL's second album (also available under the re-release title 'Second Edition', minus the metal case), the aptly titled 'Metal Box', for it comes encased in a film canister style metal box with a small inlay card and CD cushions, is often referred to as the band's finest hour in terms of creativity, inspiration and general history. The two (well, 3) tracks that feature on PiL's greatest hits album made me very curious to listen to this album, and I'm glad I got it! After the one-hit wonder of the punk-ending 'Public Image' single, 'Metal Box' as an album takes a fast curved turn into the avant-garde. Reggae bass grooves, sparse drums, synthesiser squeals, itchy riffed guitars and listless vocals fidget and repeat throughout the 12 tracks of this album. Though this album could easily be dismissed as near tuneless, only un-lazy ears will find that this lovingly crafed record is pure listening pleasure. The sounds, textures and themes transport you around your unconsciousness, alternating and then often melding between colours and black and white. 'Metal Box' would be an ideal OST for a psychological horror flick with attempts at comedy. 'Metal Box' was initially an expensive limited edition version of the album, hence the cheaper re-release under a different name, but Virgin Records in 1990 neatly picked up on the fact that PiL fans may like to have this version which is only a little more expensive than the different sequenced 'Second Edition', and a bit more obscure to store on your CD shelves. This 1979 album is self-produced and features John Lydon (formerly of The Sex Pistols) on vox, Keith Levene (formerly of The Clash) on guitars and synth, Jah Wobble (who once drove tube trains) on truly great bass, with Dave Crowe on drums. The inlay also credits a Jeanette Lee; maybe she provides the intro girlish scream on 'Careering'?. 10-minute opener 'Albatr
oss' rolls in with a menacing drum 'n' bass groove, over which guitar stabs enter that sound like a robot is getting stabbed in the chest. The music repeats and ever so slightly mutates here and there while a far-off vocal pokes in now and again stating amongst other things: "getting rid of the albatross". 'Memories' kicks off with another repeating rhythmic groove with itchy and quivery guitars that seem to want to give way at any minute, while Lydon tries to shake off a crippling lethargy. "This person's had enough of useless memories" Hi-hats on helium rise during the choruses. 'Swan Lake' (which also features on PiL's 'The Greatest Hits, So Far' as 'Death Disco' - though not the same recording, infact 'Swan Lake' sounds slightly better) creeps in with dark guitar harmonics and yet another memorable bass lead groove. Lydon's haunted wails are observations of the passing of his mother: "final in a fade", "seeing in your eyes", "choking on a bed, flowers rotting dead" and "words cannot express". The melding of an upbeat groove with vocal wails and skewed textures make this a charged piece of artistic expression. 'Poptones' (a name nicked by ex-Creation Records boss Alan McGee for his new label?) slots in after with jangly guitars and a groove led by the drums with gallons of cymbal swishes. Lydon narrates to us the story of a man getting murdered with a cassette playing pop tones in the background. Or is it a man getting murdered by pop tones? The vocals cease after a while and much of what follows is subtle engrossing variations in repetition. 'Careering' lands with a descending synth tone that morphs into grating squeals, a girlish scream and metallic hits along to an archetype reggae groove. Stream of consciousness type vocals run over the track of their own accord talking of such things l
ike "a face is raining across the border". This track is beautifully nerving and ends with the sound of mechanical teeth chomping. 'No Birds' shows some subtle change in direction with tom-heavy drumming, a slow punk bass riff. The constants being the fidgety guitar and Lydon's lethargic wail. After a little bubbly synth squeal, 'Graveyard' opens with another simple but groovy rhythm foundation toyed with by an abused grating guitar. This track is entirely instrumental. 'The Suit' creeps in with far-off drums and a shivery bassline. Lydon delivers a queasy nasal narration of 'the suit' character, while here and there little decorative noises pepper the rhythm and raise the tension of the dense atmosphere before creeping out like a limp mouse. 'Bad Baby' features a slightly, intentionally, stuttered drum 'n' bass line lasered by the odd lost synth note with more Lydon energy-searching. It fizzes out like a powering down car with it's cascading bass and beat. 'Socialist' is another instrumental with Beta Band/Cuban beat sounding drums, another punk groove and bubble language synthesiser textures. If you listen carefully you can hear the sound of things shifting and closing in, eventually falling off as a whole. 'Chant' features a marching rhythm, dishevelled guitar rhythm pokes and turns, and the voice of an English army sargeant chanting with Lydon's voice slightly lower in volume under it; by the end he's chanting "chant" over and over again. Ending instrumental 'Radio 4' breaks away from the flow of the rest of the album with almost calm swathes of synth and strings alongside some playful bass. 'Metal Box' is one of those albums that you'll either understand or you won't, and in both cases you may or may not like it. But what cannot be questioned is the originality of this
album and the emotion put into it, and that can be derived from it. It maybe a 23yr old album but it sounds as fresh and relevant today as it probably did back then. If you're willing to let go of tunes, singing and proper strong structure for some passionate open-minded listening, this album is for you. I highly recommend it, you won't be dissapointed! Grab the 'Metal Box' special edition to get this album in the reverential packaging it deserves, and place it alongside the rest of your finest music. Also, fans of Radiohead's 'Kid A/Amnesiac' period may enjoy this album too, probably more so.
Halcyon days they were, the time in the late 1970s when the screaming, mewling, puking brat variously known as punk rock/new wave came gobbing its amphetamine driven way to prominence, as the next big thing, with the Sex Pistols at the head of the vanguard. They were the first, the last, the (nearly) everything, with their pretty orthodox speed rock punctuated by some pretty individualistic lyrics and the astonishing performances and charisma of a startling front man, Johnny Rotten (nee Lydon). When things started to fall apart and the Sid and Nancy death pact was fast approaching over the horizon, the Pistols imploded while they were on tour in the States at the end of 1978, and Rotten, now reverting to his real name, was the first to slip away from the grubby mitts of Malcolm McLaren, renouncing the worst excesses of punk and opting to move on, driven by his love of reggae and the need for constant change. Lydon's master of sarcasm and the quick witted put down, coupled with a hypnotic ability to seduce an audience had already marked him out as a New Messiah, one to watch and follow with some anticipation, but now, freed from the new orthodoxy of McLaren and the Pistols, he was relishing his freedom and about to unleash a powerful new musical force. Lydon created a new band called Public Image Ltd (PiL), assembled with former Clash guitarist Keith Levine, Canadian drummer Jim Walker and the unknown bass player, Jah Wobble. They debuted with the extraordinary sonic rush of the Public Image single, bemusing critics and supporters alike with their renegotiation of Lydon's muse. They also rushed out the First Issue album, which took the Public Image sound and splurged it across two sides of vinyl with some wonderful variations on a theme, although in truth it was quite a patchy collection. The services of Walker were soon dispensed with and the new, streamlined three piece re-emerged in the early part of 1979 with the int
oxicating Death Disco single, with Levine parodying the melody from Swan Lake over a skipping, insistent, booming bass line and some economical drumming, courtesy of Levine and Wobble. They then issued the Metal Box album, consisting of three twelve inch singles packaged in a metal film can sporting the PiL logo on its cover and nothing else. It was an anonymous but stylish presentation, screaming out limited edition with all its heart. The album was later repackaged as the more conventional Second Edition, a standard double album in a gatefold sleeve. Ignore the packaging and gimmicks, however, because underneath the surface sheen and toying with images, Metal Box is quite simply one of the finest rock albums of all time, and easily the best thing which John Lydon has ever been responsible for, outstripping even the formidable assault of Never Mind The Bollocks and the clutch of original Pistols singles. The album is a truly astonishing, unique soundscape, all empty spaces, booming, echo laden bass, skipping disco drums, chopped up, insistent guitar, and soaring through everything, insinuating its evil way into your very soul, THAT VOICE, quite simply one of the most distinctive voices in the history of rock music. PiL strove to create a whole new vocabulary of sound, pulling off all sorts of tricks on the way. Wobble's extraordinary rumbling, subterranean bass sound was created by turning his speaker to the wall, turning the volume up full and recording the resonant results through another mike rather than dry lining it into the mixer. It was a touch of genius because the resulting big boom was one of the most distinctive features of the record, injecting an impressive and telling atmosphere. Truly wonderful, it was... >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> ALBATROSS >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Ten minutes of wonderful, throbbing dance music with jagged, metallic lead guitar sparsely cutting through the booming bass and smooth d
rums, this is just bliss, a quite remarkable achievement, with Lydon presumably nailing the final nails in the coffin of his relationship with McLaren, "Getting rid of the albatross, sowing the seeds of discontent, I know you very well, you are unbearable." The vocals are restrained, distant, aloof, as different from the Rotten days as you could imagine, picking away at the scabs, towering over, and still they go on, drums and bass, hissing and throbbing, while Levine's spacey guitar chips the veneer. This is one wonderful track. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> MEMORIES >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> More distinctive guitar, still jangling and distant, but this time flanged and distorted, while more insistent bass and drums interplay set the pace and the framework. It's addictive, seductive stuff which you'd have to be dead from the neck up to resist. Heady stuff indeed, an intoxicating blend of disco rhythms and almost Gang of Four guitar, as individual as anything around at the time. They shared the love of space and dynamics which characterised the first amazing Joy Division album and carved a splendid niche for themselves. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> SWAN LAKE (DEATH DISCO) >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Albatross and Memories were quite clearly just the aperitif for the main course that was the massiv hit single, reshaped and rewritten for the album. The same, compelling rhythms soldier on, grabbing at your hips and never letting go while Levine goes wandering all over the place with that sardonic, grimly catchy guitar, dancing in and out of the bass riff and endless, endless hi hat swishes, while somewhere out there in the far off distance a distracted, hysterical Lydon celebrates death and destruction: "Never no more hope away, final in a fade, watch her slowly die, saw it in her eyes, choking on a bed, flowers rotting dead." Simplly chilling... >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> POPTONES >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> The se
gue from the slippery disco of Swan Lake into the wandering majesty of Poptones was one of the most memorable moments of 1979, as Lydon and Co finally skipped away from the relentless disco rhythms to create another seductive piece of classic rock. This time it's rooted more in rock, but the same, jumpy bass lines of Wobble give the song its heart and soul, as Levine flies and dances all over the place, as seven minutes 45 seconds races past, leaving you drained and seduced. It's an oddly gripping piece, with Lydon's phrasing and nasal whine retreating into the memory of Rotten, although the melodic, rolling music could hardly be more distant a cousin. I adore this track and always feel deeply affected by its metallic, rambling grace. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> CAREERING >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Another insidious, addictive rifferama with that uniquely gorgeous bass dominating everything, leaving the way open for off the wall, drilling synths and amateurish percussion to pick out the harsh landscape: "There must be meaning behind the moaning, spreading tales like coffin nails, is this living?" By now the classic PiL sound is sharply drawn out, focused and defined, pinning you back in your seat, overwhelmed by its driving beat and oddly telling vocals. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> SOCIALIST >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> A raging, rampant surge of rhythm - no words to give a clue, just breakneck driving sound underpinning twiddly synths and slashing hi hat snicks, gripping but not really a cigar. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> GRAVEYARD >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Another insidious, sinewy instrumental work out with few clues given or sussed. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> SUIT >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> An understated, nagging bass riff underpins everything, while Lydon speak/sings his dissection of living with uniforms. I remember loving this song with an unhealthy passion the first few times I checked it out and the a
ttraction hasn't dulled over the years. You need to dig really sinister, muted riffs to appreciate the telling mgic of the repetitive, thumping riff, but then I do. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> BAD BABY >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> This song is all huge echoey space while Lydon is somewhere off in the far off distance, moaning on about leaving a baby in the car park. It could be Bodies from Bollocks, except for the restraint and lack of passion. This song is pretty uneventful judged against the rest of the album, but has its good moments, including the twitching, jerky mood. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> NO BIRDS >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> It's back into the realm of Death Disco and Memories as the band wander off into a mish mash of sloppy riffing and meandering lines. They all but fall apart at times, but that's probably the intention, as they certainly don't mean to be combining as a tight little three piece. It's a dreadful mess, but somehow discordantly attractive, with bumbling, incoherent drums, and almost ghostly distorted guitar ranging freely across the landscape. Lydon paints a bizarre picture of some distant, Lewis Carroll world, much like that loathed by Patrick McGoohan in the cult classic The Prisoner, and making about as much sense. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> CHANT >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Deadpan chanted vocals, strident drum battering, scritch scratch guitar all combine to create another frankly disturbing slice of post punk heavy metal. It's very unpleasant listening but quite affecting. >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> RADIO 4 >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>> Bland European disco manufactured on lush carpets of seductive synths, smothering you claustrophobically. I don't know if they're taking the mick or not, but this is sheerest electro melodies of the highest order, and in stark contrast to much of the other white noise here. Love the bass lines. Metal Box, I say again, is
a startling, impressive, deep, resonant record of a band at the peak of their powers, with Lydon once and for all escaping from the straitjacket of the Pistols. Aided and abetted by Levine and Wobble's studied lack of orthodoxy and anarchic approach to sound, he created a new signature and a new mood. Delicious and delightful and endlessly engaging, I worship this record. Much of the humour, warmth and emotion of other Lydon material is completely absent, but he was right to take things seriously at least for the moment. STRONGLY RECOMMENDED
Disc #1 Tracklisting
3 Swan Lake
6 No Birds
9 Bad Baby
12 Radio 4