Rolling Stone, February 1988
© 1988 Rolling Stone
Public Image Limited
by Michael Azeriad
Ten Years ago he was burying Led Zepplin; now he's praising it. Such are the artistic swings from Johnny Rotten (ne Lydon), professional iconoclast. No that everyone and his brother is making records that recall the Sex Pistols' raw sound, Rottens last two albums have been impeccable efforts that draw heavily on metal and disco.
Rotten probably realises that he isn't so shocking anymore, so he goes for some good old-fashioned artistry. The result is a loud, provocative and meticulously crafted record -- avant-garde in designers suits. Happy? is not slick, but it's damn close -- "Rules and Regulations" even has female backup singers on the chorus. The album's hypnotic bass and drum grooves are overlaid with crunching guitars, and you can dance right through it. The careening neo-Van Halen squeals and other exotic guitar effects are provided by New Wave veterans Lu Edmonds (The Damned, Shriekback) and John McGeoch (Visage, Siouxise and the Banshees), two new PiL members.
Rotten is always railing against something, as in the harrowing "Save Me," "Hard Times" and "The Body" -- harangues from the depth's of hell that offer such warnings as "The slogan will take you like lemmings to the cliff." "Seattle" is Rotten's "Once in a Lifetime," a two-chord wonder with a playful hip-hop beat, big blocky chords and singsong lyrics about twentieth-century identity crises. On "Open and Revolting," Uncle Johnny admonishes the kids to stay open-minded: "There are no easy answers/To elongated questions/So try to keep an eye out/And be open to suggestions."
The sound is densely layered; if you doubt it, slap on the headphones and listen to the album's magnum opus, "Fat Chance Hotel," which seems to be about Rotten's getting sun sickness on vacation somewhere in the Southwest. With sampled Mexican trumpets, subliminal mandolin and catchy guitar refrain straight out of Neil Young, the song almost makes you see the mirages shimmering off endless highways.
On albums like Metal Box and Flowers, PIL delved into disco and third world sounds before they became fashionable; while the band isn't breaking much new ground here, Happy? is a refined, evocative piece of work. Johnny Rotten may still be Prince Charmless, but he's also a visionary who's best work may well be before him.
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