Sorise for Sore Ears: Public Image Limited

Few recordings, regardless of originality or musical candor, are able to define a genre. Public Image Limited’s 1979 release Metal Box (and its domestic counterpart Second Edition) did just that — stamping out an introverted, complex and broadened idea of punk rock to be crowned post-punk.

Following the break-up of the Sex Pistols, frontman John Lydon, an avid fan of reggae and dub, joined Virgin Records head Richard Branson on a three-week trip to Jamaica to scout for new reggae artists. Upon returning to the UK, Lydon approached John Wardle, rumored to have received his stage name, Jah Wobble, from a drunken, mumbled version of Wardel’s name by former Pistol Sid Vicious. Nevertheless, Wobble, a bassist, and Lydon seemed a natural pairing.

Lydon then sought out Clash guitarist Keith Levene. The two had met before, on tour with their respective outfits, yet both considered themselves outsiders within their own bands. Levene quickly left the Clash and PiL was formed (drummers would come and go).

PiL debuted with1978’s single “Public Image,” a sound not far from the Pistols. It was well received, reaching No. 9 on the UK charts and doing surprisingly well in the United States, where the mainstream rock culture at the time was strongly resistant to innovation. The band’s first full length, First Issue, was groundbreaking: a dirge-like masterpiece submerged in heavy dub beats. Wobble’s bass tone was called “impossibly deep,” Levene’s uniquely sharp guitar quality and style would become widely imitated, Lydon’s vocals were less brash and more improvisational than in the Pistols, more akin to Yoko Ono.

1979’s Metal Box appeared on the surface to be focused and triumphant. Originally released as three untitled 45 rpm 12-inch records packaged in a metal film canister (reissued in 1980 as a double LP and renamed Second Edition), it boasted the band’s signature sound: dub-induced hypnotic bass lines under disjointed guitar licks (as witnessed on “No Birds”) and stream of consciousness vocals that induced paranoia. It was everything that punk wanted to be, but didn’t have the balls to do.

Second Edition again fused punk with dub, also mixing in elongating elements of Kraut rock to forge a sound that was unmatched. The recording is uncompromising, severe and wide; Metal Box is highly regarded as a lesson in tonality. Released to both critical acclaim and fan approval, it spurned a rousing performance of mimed hubris on “American Bandstand,” several canceled U.S. tour dates, chaos and more chaos.

Oft described as “the laziest band in the world,” PiL hid behind an elusive mystique, never rehearsing and rarely gigging; the original lineup only played five UK shows. Eventually drugs, egos and surges of violence led to the break-up of the original trio. Wobble initiated the break, citing lack of ambition; then Levene left. Lydon began operating more like an art collective than a band, using rotating musicians, occasionally playing and without rehearsal. Whatever the band’s later state, the recording of Metal Box (Second Edition) made a statement, solidified a sound, and shaped a style that has been replicated and attempted ever since. Metal Box is a true testament in sound. Highly recommended.

Kim Sorise writes monthly on great listens for LEO. She spins all the best of what’s good at The North End Café, Maker’s Mark Lounge and the Pour Haus. Write to her at [email protected]