Metal Box:
Stories from John Lydon's Public Image Limited

Phil Strongman

Helter Skelter Publishing, August 2007

224 pages

review by Scott M, September 2007 (see below for additional review)
© 2007

Metal Box: Stories from John Lydon's Public Image LimitedThey say never judge a book by the cover, but it's hard when books look like this… I actually sniggered out loud when I finally saw it in the flesh. It looks like a childrens Ladybird book. The contradictory, and frankly misleading, title didn't help either. But I was willing to be open-minded. At least till I read it.

On having a quick flick, initial impressions were not good. The first thing I noticed is that it's dedicated to Joe Strummer. A PiL book dedicated to Joe Strummer? Fuck right off. As I continued to flick, things got worse, I couldn't help but notice it was littered with arseholes who had nothing to do with PiL; and that some of the content seemed strangely familiar. I kept spotting silly, and not so-silly, mistakes. Getting through this book was going to be self-harm. Indeed, initial impressions were not good.

To cut a long story short. It's better than I thought. But that's not saying much. It tells the basic story of PiL and contains some great information. Some of which I have to admit I didn't know. However, it's superficial, not particularly well written in places and has an underlying resent towards John Lydon.

Lydon is no angel. And some of the criticism here is probably justified. But the constant digs and attempts to undermine him (and Keith Levene to a lesser extent) get tiresome after a few chapters. Unfortunately, there isn't two sides to every story – and despite using his name as a selling point in the title – Lydon hasn't been interviewed to defend himself. Instead it relies on carefully selected, and often uncredited, music press articles to represent him. It also seems strange that although the author(s) did speak to Keith Levene he is so sparsely used. Drummer Jim Walker, who was probably only in the band little more than 8 months, gets far more page space; and certainly has an axe to grind.

Jah Wobble, Dennis Morris, Don Letts, and Martin Atkins are also among those interviewed. While, for some strange reason, Tony Wilson writes the foreword. Can't say I've heard him talk about PiL much in the past, and I don't see the relevance of using him; despite the Manchester gig. A small selection of Dennis Morris' PiL photographs are included. Most of which are largely unseen. It perhaps sums up the book that they've used the weakest shot on the cover; and what's with the crudely juxtaposed generic 'Album' style lettering? Oh dear.

While I'm not naive enough to think that everyone who writes a book needs to be a fan. I do think with a band like PiL you need an understanding. Strongman (et al) clearly doesn't have it. When you musically compare 'Public Image' to The Buzzcocks 'Boredom' or describe parts of 'Metal Box' as Euro Trash Disco; then it's quite obvious you're missing something.

Strongman also seems obsessed in trying to make Gunter Grove (Lydon's then house and PiL HQ) into some sort of macabre den of inequity. It's often been reported that there was sometimes a dark - last days of Berlin - vibe to the PiL HQ; and you wouldn't have wanted to eat there. However, some of the unsubstantiated nastiness mentioned here leaves a particular bad taste in the mouth. And I'll repeat that. I notice the particular nastiness in question is unsubstantiated by anyone other than the author… If you want an insight into Gunter Grove listen to 'Banging the Door'.

The truth is, Strongman hasn't been attached to this book for quite some time. Although he did write the first draft, and conduct many of the interviews, it has since been re-written at least once. Re-writes and re-edits were put out for tender several times to my knowledge. Self-appointed 'PiL expert' Clinton Heylin is now also in the mix. Whether Strongman even got the chance to approve the final draft is unclear. Good editing and research seem to have rescued much of the book, but not enough of it. The first few chapters do appear stronger than the rest.

Although from the (preposterous) title you could be mistaken for thinking it was a book solely about 'Metal Box' it does cover PiL 78-92; and also brings things up to date with current activities. However, I could have done without the potted Pistols biography at the beginning – it's only around page 40 the PiL story really begins – and predictably, only the first 3 PiL albums are covered to any great extent.

Ultimately the book is disappointing, but it does have its plus points. A lot of information that was previously unknown comes to light; and not all of it is pleasant reading. In particular, I think Dennis Morris' and Jah Wobble's departure from the 'company' are covered informatively. Morris' account of Jamaica 78 is also entertaining. And I did enjoy Wobble's input; especially regarding 'Metal Box'. HOWEVER, the book as a whole tends to focus on the negative. It also relies too heavily on music press reports and reviews, there isn't enough individual perspective. And at £14 for just over 220 pages – nearly 50 of which are padded out with discographies and listings – it's lightweight and hardly value for money.

Perhaps, like some PiL ideas, the book is a good idea done badly. But unlike PiL it didn't start off with good intentions. Right from the very beginning this has been the work of a clique of opportunist's, and unfortunately it shows. It concerns me – that like its predecessor 'Rise/Fall' – the general public will buy this book and it will lead them into a certain point of view. Misconceptions, mistakes and all. There's only so much can do.

People are saying this is the book I should have written. I wouldn't have written this book.


Additional Review…

Metal Box: Stories from John Lydon's Public Image Limited

review by Stephen Rosin, September 2007
© 2007 / Stephen Rosin

I just finished reading the 'Metal Box' book by Phil Strongman and felt inspired to knock up a quick review for the Fodderstompf website, if you're interested. Here ya go!

I've waited for a long time to find a book dealing solely with PiL. This is the first one I've come across, but there may be others. As it is, this was my first hope for some in-depth insight into one of the most adventurous and controversial bands of all time. I've seen references to numerous books about Lydon, punk, the Pistols, etc. Most of them have been identified as pretty sketchy hack jobs that have little more than mud slinging as their objective. From the outside, I had hope for more from this.

The title sounds ridiculous, but the cover picture at least looks intriguing. Based on a description in the book by PiL photographer Dennis Morris, this picture would appear to be a rejected cover shot for the standard vinyl re-issue of 'Metal Box' as 'Second Edition' (likely the reason for the main title). It's difficult to be assured of this as the book has some major flaws in terms of accuracy.

This inaccuracy (which I can only characterize as pure sloppiness) is one of my chief criticisms. For example, the author repeatedly refers to the title of the first LP as "First Edition". Did he not bother to look at the cover? There's a shot of it in the book! And his description of the 'Death Disco' 7" cover is obviously a description of the cover for 'Paris Au Printemps'! Had he looked at the record lately? Things like this bring in doubts about the accuracy of any "facts" included. I'm surprised he didn't call the band Public Image Inc.

Questions of accuracy aside, the book reads like it's been cobbled together from various prior interviews and press clippings. The author claims to have interviewed members of the band & associates for the book, but one never gets a real sense of anyone actually talking to him. The depth of the content is very much in the shallow end of the pool as well. The book skips like a stone across the PiL story, only occasionally offering a splash of new info here and there. Timelines jump back and forth in places with little appearing to tie the flow together (like a hint of analysis, reflection or genuine thought regarding the subject matter). There's also needless repetition as, for example, the author recycles large bits of Tony Wilson's forward later on in the book. Why bother with the forward? And why bother with a prologue covering the infamous "Ritz riot" show when it's covered all over again later on? This all gets book ended by a confusing, seemingly pointless "postscript" chapter that ads nothing more than a page or so of ramblings about a Wobble concert.

It's a quick read, but not a smooth one. It does have an extensive discography and list of personnel in the appendices, but I strongly suspect these were yanked right out of the Fodderstompf website (along with a lot of other goodies, me thinks).

Is it worth the bother? If you've got some coin going spare and a bit of time to kill, you might find a thing or two you didn't know, but don't treat anything as "gospel" from this source. There are a few color plates of previously unpublished Dennis Morris photos that are nice. I wish Dennis would put together a photo book of these some day. What's here is only a frustrating teaser of what, I'm sure, is a buried treasure.

From me, this gets, "Glad I didn't have anything better to do with my time & money." Well, maybe I did.

Stephen Ugo Rosin


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