Backbeat Magazine, 1984

Transcribed by M

© 1984 Backbeat

This Is What You Want, This is What You Get
& Commercial Zone

Public Image Ltd: This Is What You Want, This is What You Get
John Lydon & Martin Atkins, producers, Elektra 60365

Public Image Ltd: Commercial Zone
Keith Levene, producer, PIL records XYZ 007

This is Progress

by Tim Sommer

Originally a nucleus of John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten), Keith Levene, and Jah Wobble, Public Image Ltd. simplified and energized a bunch of ideas that had been floating around in underground rock and the avant-garde, alluding to everyone from the Velvets to Can to Big Youth to Hawkwind. Difficult to classify, they remained deviously obvious and as concerned with sound as they were with power. In public, they imitated subversion and constantly mocked the rock industry.

But PIL was made up of individual talents as much as it was made up of a unifying idea, and personal laziness dogged them throughout. After two studio albums, 1978's First Issue and 1980's Metal Box (released in the U.S. as Second Edition) and one live set, Paris Au Printemps, bassist Wobble left. Following 1981's Flowers of Romance the "band" moved to New York City, where they drank a lot, mouthed off, and eventually recorded the hit "This Is Not A Love Song," which was a No. 1 hit in Britain.

Then drummer Martin Atkins and Lydon picked up some studio hacks, toured, put out a duff live album, and went into the studio for a major label to make This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get. Levene—who departed after "Love Song" and still owns half the PIL name—simultaneously released, in a white-sleeve bootleg format, the (mostly finished) album that he, bassist Pete Jones, Lydon, and Atkins were working on when he left the band. His record, of dubious legality, is Commercial Zone.

This Is What You Want is Atkins and Lydon's solid, hard mixture of naiveté and enthusiasm. "Real" musicians wouldn't be caught dead putting most of this stuff on vinyl: completely amateurish (and completely appropriate) bleats and scratches of saxophone, violin, piano, synths, etc. Yet it's a more coherent, better produced, and more inspired effort than PIL's last studio record; for them, it's progress. There's plenty of aggressive repetition here, and what I'd call minimalism by default: dense patterns of sound built with just a few instruments. And vocals, a lot of 'em, used for rhythm, melody, or texture; percussion, along with the vocals, is way up in the mix. The rest of the instrumentation for a tight, gray web droning in the same simple patterns. Atkins and Lydon never imitate funk; they absorb it and make it their own. This is dance music that's forceful, redundant, and rhythmic, the same qualities that have been a constant in all of their work, especially the masterpiece Metal Box. Only the new version of "This Is Not A Love Song" is less than exemplary; the skeletal playing of Levene and Jones on the original has been replaced by slick horn parts and unnecessary overproduction. Unfortunately, this single lapse is a pretty visible one.

As for the feature object itself, the Lydon voice, it remains one of the most distinct, powerful, and creatively used instruments this critic has ever heard. From shrill whine to basso swoon to blubbery conversational rap. It mocks, accuses, begs, seduces.

First Issue and Metal Box are better records, and Paris Au Printemps is probably as good; inspiration, in its pure sudden-light-bulb-over-head form, may be lacking, but this is still a great album.

Commercial Zone is not much more than a curious companion piece. If you believe that Keith Levene's work on the first two PIL albums made him a musician to watch, this is going to be a letdown. His guitar and synthwork is very ordinary, simultaneously too arty and quite common. "Bad Night," the sole Lydon vocal that appears exclusively, is the most normal thing Lydon has done since the Sex Pistols covered "Johnny B. Goode," and at least they trashed that. Only "Lou Reed Pt. 1" - a drony, western-flavored acoustic and electric instrumental with an infectious Wobblesque bass run - and "Lou Reed Pt. 2" (called "Where Are You" on This Is What You Want), does Levene unveil his renowned scratchy, harmonic, heavy style.

If the Elektra record didn't exist, I might speak more highly of Commercial Zone; it would have been an adequate if anticlimactic offering from some very talented people. But as it is, this release supplies substantial evidence of Levene's mediocrity (at least within the context—confines?—of PIL), leading us to the conclusion (unthinkable prior to these two LPs) that PIL is better off without him, at least in the short run.


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