John Lydon & Keith Levene:
Zigzag, December, 1979

© 1979 Zigzag Magazine / Kris Needs


interview: Kris Needs
photos: Tony McGee

Zig Zag - Metal Box pix © Tony McGeeFriday evening in Chelsea and I'm looking for a house: panning the street on the odd numbers side.

Nearly there and a door opens. Down the steps bowls a familiar figure in a furry red coat. "Hello, coming down the offo? I'm going to get my supplies", are John Lydon's first words, turning out to be the first of many as my visit sprawls in to an I8-hour session.

"I like talking, it gives me something to do," he, says, as we settle on a mattress to watch TV. With the dismal selection on that night the conversation flows with the lager.

When the little white dot has gone we lurch down a floor to hear 'The Metal Box', PiL's latest collection of material. Already occupying the long couch in the large living room are guitarist Keith Levene and publicity-backroom operator Jeanette Lee, who, along with soundman Dave Crowe, is considered an equal member of Public Image Ltd.

The mighty sound system is soon booming with the strains of 'Metal Box'. It stands alone from anything I've heard all year. PiL deal in sound. This record is the result of a year spent on-and-off in studios learning new and greater ways of sculpting formidable dance attacks.

Takes were mainly live and often several mixes were done. PiL see mixing as almost another instrument, a few knob twiddles and the face of a track can be changed. That's why new mixes of 'Memories' and 'Death Disco' (back to its working title of 'Swan Lake') are here. Not to pad out the record with hits.

On 'Memories' they've taken two mixes and spliced them up to devastating effect. So you'll be kicking along happily when Mix Two Snaps in at twice the volume. Hold a feather duster so you'll have something to do when you're swinging on the lampshade. Innovative fun.

'Swan Lake' is the heaviest of the three-out-fun of four 'DD' mixes now out. The extra-deep booming funk gains a dense' blanket of flickering guitars.

This is the new sound. Numan is Yes and Safe and aU those posey Blilzers have as much enjoyment value and depth as the Speaking Clock. PiL are forging compulsive, danceable, provoking sound with uncompromising care.

There weren't gonna be any track titles but Virgin insisted. There isn't a running order either - you can play any of the I2-inches first, but the scrap of paper in the metal box container which lists the tracks (Virgin wouldn't rise to a lyric sheet, according to PiL) has 'Albatross' for openers. It's a IO-minute wallop, built on a characteristically house-shaking bass from Wobble and relentless drums. A suitable live base for John's mournful wail (though he does launch into 'Only the lonely at the end) and Keith Levene's jangling, shattered-nerve guitar.

I jiggle about the order from now on. 'Pop Tones' was me immediate favourite. The drummer problems which have plagued PiL mean Keith handled drums on this one and others, and he comes up here with a brand new beat: a swirling cliff-hanger where you have to step to the lunging snare before you get it. The guitars are a spiraling wall, a magical motif, and it's topped with a vicious vocal from John.

Zig Zag - Metal Box pix © Tony McGee Keith uses string-synthesiser on some tracks. F'rinstance, on the menacing 'Careering' he uses it to supply an eerie roar above the basic throb to great effect. Or discordant noise at the end of the manic stomper 'Chant'. The most surprising track, the perfect touch, is ALL Keith's string-synth, apart from some bubbling bass from Wobble: 'Radio 4' appears on the last side as such and was considered as a kind of PiL theme. Saturday-night-on-Blackpool-pier organ going wonky on a two-chord riff. I know that sounds terrible but I can't describe this one. I just know it's totally great - funny and sinister at the same time.

What else? 'The Suit' - a sardonic stab at slumming posis (see words) with John on low intone over muffled piano-drums-bass. 'Bad Baby', 'S.D.S.' and a revamped 'And no birds do sing' (maybe the most descriptive wads on the album). 'Graveyard' is guitar led and atmospheric.

This is PiL further out than ever from what those shackled to the past want cos they missed out first time. I can't compare it to anything 'cept it shares the same healthy, open-ended attitude to experimenting but never losing touch of the monster-beat, as 'Halelulah' - period Can. But this music is totally non-derivative. John adopts the voice that fits, whether it be the tortured, cloud-bursting wail on 'Swan Lake' or the convoluted but soft intensity of 'And no birds'.

The three records come in an embossed silver metal container. Now this brave attempt at spicing up the predictable routine of record packaging has already come under fire as an expensive gimmick. Once again PiL find themselves on the defensive for trying to break away from the normal and the predictable.

As it happens the boxes cost 75p each to make by the famous Metal Box Company. Not much more than a gatefold sleeve and ten times the fun - use it as a tea-tray, spliff-board, weapon, a drum instead of your leg (though you should be dancing).

PiL wanted all copies in the tin but Virgin would only print 50,000 (plus an extra surprise 10,000 for export). So no ltd. ed. intended, right. When they've gone it will take the form of a 33 rpm album and a 12-inch single in a gatefold sleeve, something PiL ain't too happy about.

£7.45 it costs in a tin. Surely that's fair when you think what a normal 36 minute (if that) album costs. Here you get over an hour for just another two quid, plus much better sound and a fun container. Who complained when Fleetwood Mac shoved out the same amount of music for around eight quid?

I really rate PiL, always have, as purveyors or startling, exciting music and a genuine force to bi-pass the bigotry, bullshite, seriousness and dull routine of the Rock Biz. Their potential is enormous on both these fronts. The music speaks for itself, but the other side - the fact they manage, produce and act as agency and publicists for themselves - is just as important cos it sets a precedent for others to follow and also tackles the rot corroding the 'Biz' at its roots - the influence of clueless hangers-on and unadventurous, company-fawning bands. They question the whole structure and it is working for them. So why don't others follow suit? You tell me.

Anyway, I hope the following interview throws some light on PiL's motivation and ideals, and also gives ya a laugh and a thought or two:

Zig Zag - Metal Box pix © Tony McGee ZZ: Why did you decide to put out three I2-inch singles?

KEITH LEVENE: That's really important, because it's not really an album, it's a load of singles.

JOHN LYDON: It's simple. 12-inches have a better sound quality. You can go mad, and get it all on plastic without distortion and racket. It's just sense. You put it out in the way you think it will sound best.

KL: Not only that, we thought it was a good idea, not a gimmick, just a good idea. Instead of putting out albums you're just putting out loads of material.

ZZ: Predictably you got aIl the accusations of "rip-off merchants" and "exploitation" as soon as it was announced.

JL: Yeah, when they knew nothing about it, not bothering to find out. It's not an album anyway. It's a tin of material. If we're gonna be extra-technical, a la Virgin, it could be counted as a double album. It's definitely the length of a double album.

ZZ: Did Virgin ever try to pressure you into doing a Normal Album at 33 rpm in a sleeve.

JL: (laughing his head off) That's something you don't need to ask! You know they did! That and worse.

ZZ: How did the idea for a metal container come about?

KL: It was a mixture of not wanting coloured vinyl and metal being involved. Metal was involved a lot, metal guitars ...

JL: It was being bored with the way albums are just continually thrown out. The same fucking shape and format forever and a day. You go back 25 years. They're still the same, nothing's changed and it has to.

KL: I bet it was good for the record company in a way. I bet they had to think about what they were doing for once, instead of going through the same dismal routine.

ZZ: But it was a struggle all the way?

KL: They weren't gonna release it. We had to put 35 grand of our own advance in all this, else they weren't gonna do it in the end.

ZZ: I know you pay your own wages ...

KL: And more. Not only do we pay for everything ourselves we pay for the record company now. We had to agree to, do it, Kris, or else they wouldn't have put it out.

ZZ: But what are they there for but to put out records?

KL: It's not so much that. Virgin are an up-and-coming company. Show em something new and they shit themselves.

JL: Branson of the boat people ...

ZZ: What's causing the fuss, the tin?

JL: Well look, we're not making fuss over it. We're not throwing it in your face and going, 'oh look, what a glorious product!' Fuck all that shit. Look at your average music journalist, right. 99% of them are pissheads, spoilt brats. They get free gifts almost continuously... 'We know it all, we've seen it all', they get very cynical. Ultimately they've dictated to by their editors, who're ultimately dictated to by their publisher or whatever. If they don't do whatever record companies want them to then they won't have their adverts, and adverts dictate, do they not? We're putting an ad in your lot to keep it fucking alive.

ZZ: The papers had to buy their review copies, didn't they? ('cept us, hee hee).

JL: You fuckin' bet. You gotta fight those bastards. Us in the band see no one else doing the same. No one's standing up for their rights. They're all wankers trying to be pop stars or whatever. It ain't on is it?

ZZ: It's odd that no other bands have really followed your lead.

JL: I'm glad they don't follow. That's what happened before and I've had enough of that.

ZZ: No, I mean taken the initiative.

JL: Yeah, take the fucking initiative. Do your own stuff but don't back down. They all do. They're all so scared to say something against someone in case they might need them in the future.

ZZ: It seems nowadays that bunch of cynics ready to shoot down anything you do.

Zig Zag - Metal Box pix © Tony McGee JL: Fine. Any way you look at it I'm entertaining them then. Look if we're so godamn fuckin' awful and have no place in society as we know it today, etcetera, why can't these bastards not keep mentioning us? There always has to be a dig. The last one which made me fucking roar was a review of the Boomtown Rats' new album. We got a slagging in that! Now how the two were put together I don't know. It's in that bum's brain, the silly sod that reviewed it.

ZZ: How much did it cost to make each tin?

JL: It was £1.20 but we got it down to 75p. If 100,000 had been made the cost would have been brought down a lot more.

ZZ: So it wasn't your decision to only make 50,000.

JL: No, we wanted as many as fucking possible, and more...
ZZ: It's been called a limited edition gimmick.

JL: If you can call 50,000 a limited edition. Yeah, really. The attitude is one of resentment for anything that's away from the normal.

KL: People are just scared of what they don't understand because it doesn't fit in. Because it's a challenge they just wanna block it off and say its crap.

ZZ: You're talking about Virgin?

JL: Yeah, but every band gets fucked over by a record company but nobody's prepared to do anything about it or even mention it.

KL: By putting all these restrictions in the way they're just teaching us more things, so it's just gonna widen our output and knowledge. They're not fucking us up at all, just putting us through it. It might take longer, but it's still worthwhile.

ZZ: How long, did the record take to do?

JL: We started immediately after the last album, and recorded it on and off. Lots has been thrown out. We don't just go into the studio to record a track. We go there to learn stuff to fucking progress, know what's happening, generally mess about with sound and anything else.

KL: The thing is we didn't expect to learn as much as we have about the studios and how you run businesses, learning the ropes and more than that seeing what's wrong with them.

JL: We now know everyone's allegiance. Well nearly everyone's and why they're there, and why they're not, etcetera.

KL: And even if you tell them to their face, which we do - all the people you have to deal with when you manage your own affairs, which we do - all these people are hanging on. They're all like producers, engineers… they only work if they can tell a group what to do. The producer tells a group how they should sound, right, but a producer is just a glorified engineer. What they're affecting is the way you're communicating, what you're saying. Just because they want to add their little thing. All these people who cling on. We don't need them. I see them as clingy little arseholes.

ZZ: If what you're saying did catch on there'd be about 50,000 people who've been used to it cushy out of jobs.

JL: Well, those 50,000 would have to stop ligging and work for a change. What would happen is the record company would not dictate any more. They're almost like a middle man. A whole lot of it's gotta change. Maybe we're a bit far-fetched but if only half of what we want begins to happen then that's fine. That's fucking fine. That's more than we expect.

KL: We're more involved with sound and the overall effect of sound on people. We concentrate on that, progressing at those skills. I think we're one of the most advanced groups around now. There's a lot there. We spend hours working. The record company don't realise, we're really into. what we're. doing. Obviously we want the album to sell as much as they do. We're so into it but they just make us pay for every second of recording time.

ZZ: Isn't that stifling?

JL: Put it this way, if we weren't given a release date on 'Metal Box' we'd still be making it. It'd come out eventually like an encyclopedia! Would have been a laugh but that is going too far. Now the bit that the general public want to hear, right, (adopts American Music Biz accent) - 'Well we wanted this album to cost £23.50. Virgin have stumped us because they've thought of things like the kids, maan, and we're not into that!'

KL: Plus they cut an hour of it.

Zig Zag - Metal Box pix © Tony McGee ZZ: Uh?

KL: How many tracks didn't they release, seven?

JL: Twenty-four wasn't it? No, seven were actual tracks, the rest were one-second things, remember?

KL: We had lots of short tracks, one and two seconds, right?

JL: We wanted them to cut them off because we don't like to give value for money, it's against our principles; and they keep trying to make us do gigs. Cor, it's so out of order, innit? Fact: Why didn't our record company fuckin' help us at the Rainbow at Christmas? Why did we have to finance that ourselves yet how come they paid lock, stock and barrel for Jimmy Pursey's binge the night after? Tell me, I'd like to know. I never could get a straight answer on that one.

KL: We had a lot of trouble with 'Memories'. It didn't get to deejays. We had a radio ad and nobody heard it. They out of their way to stop that record being a hit. They don't like us, they're underhand like that.

ZZ: What about your own label?

JL: Well, you still have to go through big companies. You're merely prolonging the torture.

KL: It's either boring directors who'll kick you off the label like EMI, or Virgin, who at least you can talk to and a few people even like you.

JL: But look, by continuing our approach, sooner or later someone has got to pick up on that. Someone has got to understand in the right positions.

KL: It's a bigger thing than a band. It's total.

JL: See it's not like the Pistols or any of that because we're just going above the media. It's a way away from how things have been done for God knows how many years. We're not looking for slavish isolation.

ZZ: Quite the opposite of what you got before in the Pistols now, ennit?

JL: Did I not tell the world right from the start that I didn't wanna be a star? Have I not followed my beliefs? Where have I changed?

ZZ: PiL is so different musically from the Pistols. Did you even try and get them to do this sort of thing?

JL: Look I was banned from talking to Wobble and Keith and Sid. They didn't want me to talk to my mates at all. They were the only decent human beings. They were a constant threat to Malcolm and his silly little bullshit. You show me anything in those songs that was like anything else then show me the guitar. Don't tell me that was outrageously different. Steve just slavishly followed format. That pissed me off a lot. Fuck rock 'n' roll. It's dead.

ZZ: Who's the drummer now?

KL: We've got a new one, called Martin.

ZZ: I thought it was the bloke from The Fall.

KL: No. Wobble got rid of him.

ZZ: What happened to Richard Dudanski?

JL: He showed his true colours.

KL: We slung him out after we used him for the Leeds gig. That was painful. He was an ex-university graduate. He used to write to the papers under different names, a regular intellectual.

ZZ: He issued a statement to the Press. . .

JL: A plea for credibility. What a wanker.

ZZ: What about gigs?

JL: We do 'em when we want. Now we got a drummer we can.

ZZ: Would you have done more if you'd had a permanent drummer...

JL: Yeah, if things were right but they never were, not for a year. This country's a joke. No one wants to do anything any more, except play lead guitar like Chuck , Berry, and there's billions of those bums.

KL: We're pissed off about how people think we're lazy - we just sit around on John's name and sell records. It's not like that at all. Because we decided not to have managers and producers it turned out that we had to manage and produce ourselves, so we've been learning loads of things. There's hundreds of things to do.

JL: We're all the band, all of us. No one else.

KL: We don't do tours because we don't want to fit into that format, not because we're lazy. Groups make their album, do their tour to promote it. They've just become part, of the machine.

ZZ: Howdja feel that Virgin are planning three more Pistols-related albums? (Live, Hits and Sid Sings). The past still seems to colour what you do now.

JL: Yeah the past they weren't involved in. I'm afraid I don't live in history books. We're trying to write the next chapter not look back pages. That's the way the whole business has been manoeuvred. You have to have an image: ready packaged. You have to have your promotion ready, your gigs, your interviews, etcetera. Now why can't a band just say 'bollocks, fuck all that, we'll do something else for once, not what it has been, not follow the format.' That's why they have to live in the past. It's easier that way.

ZZ: You've been called self-indulgent.

Zig Zag - Metal Box pix © Tony McGee JL: More like self-respect. Look, the fact that you walk on a stage is self-indulgence because you must feel yourself to be important to be there. And what's wrong with that anyway? What's wrong with being proud about yourself? Is it not worse to have your pictures plastered all over the place in nice poses? Is that not a worse scheme of things?

ZZ: If what you did was old bollocks there'd be some cause for complaint.

KL: And it'd be number one.

ZZ: You were once the centre of what was going on, now you're subverting on the edges. What do you think of the 'scene' now?

JL: There is no scene. It's all a load of charades and bluffs. There shouldn't be a scene anyway, there should be a load of alternatives. There's nothing in this town worth talking about. You'd have more fun in Barnsley on a Sunday night. At least in those places there's no pretensions of faroutness. Here there's pissall.

ZZ: Mods.

KL: That's ridiculous, ennit? People take to it like fucking lemmings to cliffs.

ZZ: You've been lumped with serious New Musick types by those who should know better. . .

JL: It's always been that toe rags like us could never do what we're doing. It's always been for the university boys. You know what I mean. They don't like the yobbos to take over. They don't like . that at all.

ZZ: Can you give your side of what happened on that TV show up North?

JL: We were asked to go to Newcastle to play, two numbers in the studio, so we agreed to do it and got there. No monitors, so we couldn't hear what we were doing. No monitors in the entire building, a TV studio. You tell me that's a normal state of affairs. So we deliberately made a load of noise. The interview: they wouldn't talk to the rest of the band, just me. After half an hour of pure bullshit they agreed to let the rest of the band sit around and I had to do the talking. Fine, let's talk about PiL. First question: What do you think of Malcolm McLaren? What did you think of Sid dying? Why are PiL not as good as the Pistols? That and then suddenly, 'we met four punks in the street and asked them what they thought of PiL.' On walk the Angelic upstarts on this video: the four punks, just by chance. (Adopts Geordie accent) 'We fucking hate PiL'. Bollocks. It was just a setup. Pure crap.

ZZ: What about 'Juke Box Jury'?

JL: I set out to end that programme and I thought I succeeded. Every programme after I had to get a mention. Brill. I wrecked it. They didn't like me at all. I was meant to look a fool. They cut the bit where I was talking to the audience. Didn't like that.

By now it was about 6 a.m. For another eight hours beer was drunk (and things like that), a great 'Tiswas' watched and then I went home.

Kris Needs

Zig Zag - Metal Box Lyric Sheet

"Why not rip this out and stick it in your Metal Box?"

Also see Kris Needs' Metal Box retrospective for Fact magazine in 2004


Picture Credits: (Top to Bottom)
© Tony McGee
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