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Public Image Limited - Metal Box

  by Jon Rogers

published: 17 / 5 / 2004

Public Image Limited - Metal Box
Label: Select Label
Format: N/A


Notoriously difficult, Public Image Ltd's second album, 'Metal Box', was one of the most seminal records of the late 70's. Jon Rogers looks at its impact twenty five years on

Released in late November 1979 Public Image Ltd’s second album was a landmark record that was the zenith of the post punk movement. The excitement of Pil was their wholehearted rejection of traditional rock forms – not just musically but also in its approach of being far less macho and boorish as well as rejecting any aspect of celebrity. In place of the Sex Pistols' fundamental rock orientation (despite the band’s protestations to the contrary), John Lydon brought in dub, Krautrock, disco and psychedelia to create something that was, musically at least, far more interesting than 'Never Mind the Bollocks'. It was a wild mutation of punk aesthetics and alienation fused with a dub sensibility. The 12 tracks also managed to include synthesiser squeals, vocal fidgets and pounding rhythms. 'Metal Box' mixed together Lydon’s toneless, numb snarl, Jah Wobble’s looping dub bass and Keith Levene’s choppy guitar and coalesced them into bleak, desolate and terrifying soundscapes that saw Lydon at the end of his tether. Songs like 'Albatross', 'Poptones' and 'Swan Lake' (aka 'Death Disco'), whilst startling and captivating, didn’t make for easy listening. 'Swan Lake' was particularly uncomfortable as Lydon expressed his grief over the death of his mother: “Final in a fade Watch her slowly die Saw it in her eyes Choking on a bed Flowers rotting dead” It was the sort of song that could clear a crowded room almost instantly and yet still leave a lasting impression. For good measure, Levene threw in the refrain from Tchaikovsky's 'Swan Lake' but altered the key to give it an eerie quality. And the 10-minute opener 'Albatross' wasn’t much better: “Sowing seeds of discontent/I know you very well/You are unbearable”. Wobble's sedate and lumbering dub groove dominated upon which Levene hung spidery riffs. It mixed in influences from Krautrockers Neu! and Can with funk, dub and punk. 'No Birds' painted a bleak and horrifying vision of the modern world while the nightmarish 'Chant', with Lydon's drone-like repetition of the title over and over again as well as the phrase "mob, war, kill, hate", hypnotised the listener into a brutal submission. '"Poptones' saw Lydon narrate a tale of a man getting murdered whilst out in "the English countryside". A cassette meanwhile played pop tones in the background. The packaging was also significant, becoming something of a design classic. The initial pressing of 60,000 came cased in a metal tin with the PiL logo embossed on the front. Inside were three 12" records that played at 45rpm (to bolster the bass sound). They were difficult to remove and were simply separated by plain white paper with no information whatsoever. One idea for packaging the record was to make the sleeve out of rough sandpaper. This was, according to Levene, so it "would fuck up all your other records when you put it in your collection." Another suggestion was to seal the discs in a sardine tin-like can that could only be opened with a key - except the purchaser wouldn't be provided with one. In the liner notes to the four CD Pil retrospective 'Plastic Box', Lydon wrote: "The idea came from film canisters. We all thought video and film was the future. Besides, I've always collected vinyl and this was a really good way of stopping it getting damaged." 'Metal Box' is unsettling, uncomfortable and certainly hard going but is highly addictive. It is one of those records that is so dense and complex that it demands repeated listens and remains the key post-punk artefact. It's now been almost 25 years since it was originally released and it's just as fresh and vital now as it was then.

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Public Image Limited - Metal Box

Public Image Limited - Metal Box

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