NME, 24th November, 1979

© 1979 NME

The Metal Box


Open the Box
Take the Money

by Angus MacKinnon

PEOPLE say that Public Image Ltd. should play live more -often. People say that PiL aren't interested in their (or any) audience, that they're selfish and irresponsible, that they abuse their privileges, that they only want to' alienate. People say too much and think too little.

So PiL prefer to spend their time in studios rather than on stages, so the PiL creative process and ensuing recorded noise have no cozy accommodating antecedents, so PiL are not what they were expected to be - s0 what? Did you really expect a repeat performance? Do you really want John Lydon's head on a plate? I didn't and I don't. But even as we drift towards the bitter end of 1979 and the 1970s, pundit persons are compiling retrospectives of the dying decade like there was no today, let alone no Friday week. Maybe Doomsday is ahead of schedule, but they're welcome to their insights, hindsights and overviews, the huffing old windbags.

Past is passed, and I feel moved to say about matters punk and post-punk is that I'm glad John Lydon is no longer Johnny Rotten, that he's somehow managed to crawl from the pathetic wreckage of the Pistols with his dignity if not his self-respect intact, and that I admire the man for displaying a sight more sheer bloody minded integrity during the whole pitiful parade than almost any of his peers or partners in iconoclastic crime.

Just what is the problem with PiL though? I can't see it myself. Lydon never promised anyone an easy ring around the rose garden. You can take PiL or leave them - just don't say they haven't given fair warning. If you haven't enjoyed the story so far, then you won't even want to glance at these chapter headings. . Mind you, I always found the Pistols unbearable except in tiny doses, but then there's no accounting for my taste. The PiL noise is certainly 'different', but hardly 'difficult'. Such flags are subjective and relative, of course, but try and keep the mounting preconceptions arms' length, OK? It might help.

The PiL noise is John Lydon (vocals), Keith Levene (guitar, drums) and Wobble (bass, drums), everybody trebling on electronics, effects and synthesizers.

The PiL noise is a three-way street, a most democratic a co-operative animal that uses the studio as it sees fit, as an additional instrument mostly, that assesses where the limits of the recording technology lie and tends to break beyond them."
PiL produce the most aggressively – and sometimes oppressively – physical sound on record since Can made 'Monster Movie' or 'Tago Mago'. Drawing rigid, restrictive parallels between the two bands is probably pointless, but it's interesting to compare their respective attitudes to music-making.

Part of the point about early Can sound was that it was enthusiastically, guilelessly manufactured by five men whose collective experience of rock was at best minimal. The object of the exercise was simply to proceed with open ears, to somehow un-learn and then learn afresh. Can were playing at being primitivists, scratching the skin off every bone, and they got away with it, only letting their various, very formal musical pasts (Stockhausen, etc.) intrude at odd; unexpected angles.

The resuIts - those two albums in the main - were extraordinary. And yet it all seemed so natural, so uncontrived, so naked, so absolute - PiL seem equally reluctant to make correct, polite gestures, to make music that does all the right things in all the right places. Beginnings and endings seem pretty arbitrary throughout 'The Metal Box'; shapes and sizes seem pretty optional.

The gist of the PiL drift is, I suspect, extremely Cannish. The band are forgetting things, mislaying things, stumbling with things, stumbling on things and then, abruptly, it all clicks, clicks, holds. Don't matter a tawny owl's hoot whether any of this album is accidental or intentional; such distinctions are much too 'nice' to survive in these territories.' Flotsam and jetsam of past endeavours and enthusiasms (Wobble's fondness for the work of producers Lee Perry and Dennis Bovell, for instance) surface from time to time, but they're small fry; sub-atomic particles in a huge, accelerating whole. And yet it all seems so natural, so instinctive, so honest, so absolute.

But time is tight and 'The Metal Box' is the second PiL 'album'. It comes in a plain silver can with the PiL logo stamped in relief on its lid. It's a tracklist and 60 minutes 34 seconds of sound pressed with enviable clarity onto three 12-inch 45s slipped. between four white paper discs (PiL wanted more protective inner packaging, but Virgin said no. It retails at £7.45, a sum that's not nearly as extortionate as it first seems.

And 'The Metal Box' goes like this…

'Albatross': Wobble's mega bass rumbles massively in the mix. Levene's guitar stutters into earshot, a crabbed neural scratch. Rhythm and drums are relentless. Lydon drawls lugubriously about "Slow motion / Slow motion / Getting rid of the albatross / Sowing the seeds of discontent." (for complete lyrics of 'Box', refer pronto to page 39; they're all there*). The syllables are dragged out; Rotten slurs, seems to move through the songlike a deep-sea diver. The final, manic shriek of "Only the lonely" is chilling. A doom dance about responsibility, accounting and atoning (but to or for what or whom?).

'Memories': an electric glide in grey, remixed, bass frequencies diminished and then suddenly pushed right into the red. Levene's guitar is a gliding scale, at times a doppelganger for Michael Karoli of Can's. Another public or private address from, Lydon: "It could be worse / You're losing all the time / I let you stay too long / I could be wrong / It could be worse". It Could? And just who is "you"? The question begs on empty.

'Swanlake': 'Death Disco' remixed. A maelstrom, Levene's Tchaikovsky chords more prominent, more perverse than before. Lydon is almost hysterical: "Watch her slowly die / Saw it in her eyes / Choking on a bed / Flowers rotting dead". I hope this is an exorcism, but can't help but find it unnervingly guilt-ridden. "Words cannot express the vocal trails away, helplessly. The jump on the fade is deliberate.

'Poptones': PiL in King Crimson's clothing, looser and slacker than Crimson's 'Red' album, Lyrics? Check 'em out in your own time. They seem to run very scared; Lydon's vocal, especially the "I don't like hiding in this foliage and peat... " verse,is droll to say the least. Lydon as haunted, hunted fool? Other memories for a man with too much on his mind.'

'Careering': extreme; Discotic, washed with malevolent synthesizing and shattered by electronic gunfire. Lydon's voice constantly mixes sense, sound and metaphor: A face is raining / Across the border / The pride of history / The same as murder..." The references to "the border", "both' sides of the river" and the "military" all suggests " Northern lreland as the song's locale. Later, Lydon identifies with the central character, whose role escapes, me utterly: a gunman, a soldier, a civilian or what? I wouldn't know. Despairing depths, these, mirrored remorselessly by their soundtrack. X-traordinary.

'No Birds': another alternative mix or take.

Guitars are everywhere, scrawling mayhem, vicious graffiti, as Lydon squirms through a tunnel of sound: a full-frontal assault on surburban standards.

'Graveyard': a spooky, scratchy instrumental. Mercifully brief. Levene's chords clamber up a metal ladder to the moon. '

'The Suit': Wobble's bass hum-drums over a spartan rhythm track. Lydon's put-down of a "society boy on social security" is bitter as myrrh. Sheer spleen. Blackest bile. Hope he never hears it.

'Bad Baby': the PiL engine idling nervously. New drummer Martin Atkins hits a hi-hat, does well for himself. Lydon, almost cracking into falsetto, tells a tale of the times: "Someone left a baby / In the car park / Never any reason... Ignore it and it will go away". Inner city anxieties. Anti-social comment.

'Socialist': Telex and / or Kraftwerk spin-dried. Stuttering drums gibbering mini-moogs. The title's significance (if any) eludes me.

'Chant': roughshod and raucous. I think the chant ,goes like this "mob... war… feel... hate". Lydon affects a petulant whine - "It's not important / It's not worth a mention in The Guardian"- but again he's playing hard to get, attitude-dancing as coyly as ever. An ironic idiots' anthem, yes?

'Radio 4': a soft, deep-piled rug of neo-classical synth orchestration. A groaning parody of BBC boredom. Levene's idea apparently, and funny as in ha, ha. Very.

Conclusions: 'The Metal Box' is more complete, more convincing than the first album. As indicated above, Lydon is still the crustacean, all pink and squiggling flesh beneath the outer shell. But for one obvious reason and another, that's his prerogative – for the time being at least. Nerves and tendons and frayed and twisted more often too; Lydon, Levene and Wobble all seem more ... concerned, confident. In terms of impact and effect, 'The Metal Box' is pulverising; incredibly exactly. All this forward flow in twelve months - it's almost frightening. PiL are miles out and miles ahead. Follow with care.

(*) An advert featuring the lyrics was printed on p39.
Since the album lacked a lyric sheet (which would have further raised the price) an advertisement was published in the music press which consisted of the lyrics (untitled) to the album with just "Public Image Limited" at the top of the page and "The Metal Box" at the bottom.


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