Q Magazine, March 1999

© 1999 Q

Public Image Ltd:
Plastic Box (4CD box)


Occasionally Rotten

by Andrew Collins

After the Sex Pistols shot themselves, their leader really became awkward. In 1979, just two feet-finding years into what would pan into an eight-album career for Public Image Ltd, Richard Branson asked John Lydon to join The Professionals, Steve Jones and Paul Cook's new project. Lydon impolitely declined. It was an improper suggestion: and roughly 17 years premature. Between the Sex Pistols' messy demise and their eventual slick exhumation, the former Johnny Rotten made some periodically brilliant rock music as PiL, named after a Muriel Spark novel, The Public Image. As this chronological 4CD, five-hour, 1978-'92 retrospective reminds us, he certainly didn't sit on his arse.

Although the first fruits of his alliance with ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene, bassist Jah Wobble and drummer Jim Walker, the 1978 debut, Public Image Ltd, largely echoed the Pistols' sound (the title track, Religion and Low Life were all written during the band's implosive American tour), the democracy of the new arrangement stoked Lydon's creativity, and by Metal Box (1979) - famously packaged as three 12-inchers in a tin - a whole new sonic palette had been established to support his trademark squawk.

Despite Lydon's looming presence, the power of other individual members in the ever-changing PiL carousel shouldn't be underestimated: Wobble's reggae-influenced thumbwork characterises the first two albums; keyboardist Jeannette Lee's 1979-'82 tenure brings gothic drama to the arthouse; drums are the defining sound on Flowers Of Romance (1981), thanks in part to yo-yoing member Martin Atkins; and the parade of sessioneers and guests stars recruited after Lydon emigrated to New York helped shape the more commercial but still spiky sound of This Is What You Want . . . This Is What You Get (1984) and Album (1986).

Plastic Box respectfully speeds up when the story reaches the alterna-pop of Happy? (1987), 9 (1989) and That What Is Not (1992), all three pruned and squeezed onto the final disc, rarely to be played except by perverse Simple Minds fans. PiL's first four albums - the important ones - appear almost in their entirety, forming a bizarre, mind-expanding adventure in sound. Pity Lydon's terrific collaborations with Afrika Bambaata and Leftfield aren't here to improve the ending.


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