Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung

© Lester Bangs, 1980

Notes on PiL's Metal Box, 1980

This excerpt about 'Metal Box' was published in Lester Bangs. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic, collected writings, edited by Greil Marcus. Anchor Press, 1988.

by Lester Bangs

Buried deep in the Sex Pistols' The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle, one of the greatest albums ever made, is Johnny Rotten singing to San Francisco: "Belsen was a gas I heard the other day / In the open graves where the Jews all lay / Life is fun and I wish you were here / They wrote on postcards to those held dear." At the end of the song he begins to shriek: "We don't mind! Belsen was a gas! Kill someone! Kill yourself! We don't mind! Please someone! Kill someone! Kill yourself! We don't mind! Please someone! Kill someone! Kill yourself!" Then there is a moment of silence and the crowd screams. It's one of the most frightening things I've ever heard. You wonder exactly what you might be affirming by listening to this over and over again. On one level Johnny Rotten / Lydon is an insect buzzing atop the massed ruins of a civilization leveled by itself, which I suppose justifies him right there, on another level he's just another trafficker in cheap nihilism with all that it includes—cheap racism, sexism, etc. I'm still not comfortable with "Bodies." But then I never was, which may be the point. But then I wonder if he is. After which I cease to wonder at anything beyond the power of this music.

In life things never do what they should. In rock 'n' roll things always do what they should. That's why it's fascist.

I am surrounded by psychotics. Often I suspect I am one. Then certain records come out and I know I am not alone.

Man on radio: "I'm not here to teach you to think."

Neither am I. What I am here for is to con you into buying anything by PiL.

I would not presume to say the audience in San Francisco wanted to die, but dying takes no courage now. That may be why John Lydon / Rotten quit the Sex Pistols immediately after that night. There are only so many times you can tell somebody something in plain English till you realize they don't get the irony even in that; they don't hear the words. All they see is a reflection of a spurious notion of the self and a spurious passion too, so you stop attempting to communicate. If people want to think Belsen was a cheap joke, that's their problem. So Rotten / Lydon retreated to England, where he formed Public Image Ltd., which people on both sides of the pond have not been shy in telling me they think is also a joke.

But then most people don't listen to music, as the Sex Pistols proved conclusively.

I don't give a fuck about John Lydon. I suspect him to be a pompous little putz. Let him blab in NME. Still, I think he knows what he's doing, and PiL is the proof. Because The Metal Box is one of the strongest records I've heard in years. PiL's first was just a big fuck you to all the people who bought the Pistols on sight and never heard a word and this album continues that tradition from its film-can packaging to its music—but even the first album contained "Theme," one of the best arguments for not committing suicide I know.

The first words in this new album are "Slow motion." Like Jean Malaquais: "Please do not understand me too quickly." I think that could be Lydon's motto. This group never tours—the result is that they spend all their time working in the studio on this stuff, shown by the fact that there are three different versions of "Death Disco," their second single, and two radically different versions of "Memories," their third. One, the twelve-inch, is a fairly straightforward indictment, no, rant against nostalgia culture. I read in NME that is was directed at the "Mod Revival" in England but then I don't believe anything I read in NME anymore. Whether or not it applies to "Happy Days," Grease, all the proliferating falsifications of what I and everyone I know experienced once in what it is now so convenient to call "the fifties" or "the sixties," as if life was really measured or lived in arbitrary decades, when the history books are sold like comix I for one will still be listening to Lydon: "You make me feel ashamed / Enacting attitudes / Remember ridicule? / It should be clear by now / Your words are useless, full of excuses, false confidence / Someone has used you well / Used you well."

Then, on the album version, the whole sound shifts, into a new and hotter realm. It's something I have never in my life heard anyone do in the middle of a track, and as the grooves begin to burn themselves away he resumes: "I could be wrong / It could be hate / As far as I can see clinging desperately / No personality dragging on and on and on and on / I think you're slightly late / Slightly late..."

There aren't many pieces of music that (his next lines: "This person's had enough of useless memories") express completely how I feel as a human citizen of this—whatever you want to call it. I don't mean to glorify such a feeling, it's just that it's lonely and there are I suppose only a few people who's alienation matches anyone else's. Maybe someone else finds it somewhere else. For me, I'll stake ten years of writing about this shit on Blank Generation and The Metal Box. And On the Corner and Get Up with It by Miles Davis, which got kudos from jazz critics who never listened to them again and were rejected by the fans. The reason is the same: this is negative music, in all cases this is bleak music, this is the music from the other side of something I feel but I don't want to cross, but if you feel the same then perhaps at least you can affirm this music, which knows that there is nothing that can be affirmed till almost (and that's my word, not theirs) everything has been denied. Or you can laugh hysterically at it, like a friend of mine who has actually attempted suicide a couple of times. When I played him "Theme" and said "Can you relate to that" he laughed harder. "Sure," he said, "Who couldn't?"


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