Public Image Ltd.
n First Listen is a regular column that forces our regular writers to listen to bands that they’ve never heard—but by all rights should have—and charts the reaction.
As a band that I'd heard praised for years without, to my knowledge, ever actually having heard them, Public Image Ltd. seemed like a natural subject for this column. Not that I was being merely dutiful about my selection. Even though I've never been especially obsessed with post-punk—most of my experience with Joy Division, for instance, is embarrassingly recent—I was attracted to the idea of John Lydon dismantling the sneering three-chord immediacy of the Sex Pistols in favor of something artier. Especially something that supposedly featured thick, dub-indebted bass lines from a dude named Jah Wobble. (Even the name sounded promising!) So I decided to dig in. Since most of the critical attention given to PiL usually centers on their second album, Second Edition (1980; originally released a year earlier in the U.K. as Metal Box), I downloaded that record in its entirety. But because the band had such a famously varied career, I supplemented my listening with the thirteen remaining songs on 1990's The Greatest Hits, So Far, spanning twelve years of PiL history.
On the whole, I found Second Edition to be rather disappointing. Actually, the first few times I listened to it, I hated it so much that, while taking notes, I exasperatedly scribbled "what is the point???" I'm now willing to concede that the record has its moments. "Careering" boasts Wobble's most evocative bassline, cold sheet-metal percussion, and an invasion of ominous sci-fi synths. "Memories" rides a spare 2/4 disco beat reminiscent of fellow sloganeers Gang of Four and, in a neat move, twice switches between different mixes of the song: Lydon's voice is suddenly an underwater echo, or Keith Levene's unsettling growth of spidery, discordant guitar vanishes. "Swan Lake" (also known, on earlier recordings, as "Death Disco") probably deserves points for its sheer relentlessness.
But too many songs on Second Edition sound formless, as though Wobble thought up a cool part for himself and then just kept repeating it while waiting for the others to build upon the foundation—and yet they never actually do. In fact, songs like "Poptones" and "Albatross" (with Lydon gone all dolorous like Ian Curtis) remind me, in their excessive length, of recordings I made in college of me jamming on keyboard with a guitar-playing friend; it's not until you listen to the tape afterwards that you realize how tedious it is when nothing new happens for six minutes. (At its worst, the constant anticipation can even induce anxiety.) Even some of the shorter songs fall prey to this sort of creative bankruptcy. "Bad Baby," for example, features a synthesizer that sounds utterly lost, casting about for an appropriate role in the song; after a while, it just gives up and drops out. And the initial spark of pleasure I felt upon hearing "Socialist"—a crisp, rhythmically tight instrumental dotted with squeaking, bubbly synths—evaporated when it dawned on me that it was basically a three-minute loop. Now of course I don't mean to suggest that I have no patience for repetition in music—far from it. Ideally, however, an extended groove, as one might find in Can or Kraftwerk or Fela Kuti, falls into place in such a way that it becomes the song and maybe even rises above it. Nothing on Second Edition, with its sadly meandering vamps, is nearly that transcendent.
The rest of Public Image Ltd's career is admittedly spotty, even by most fans' standards, which makes The Greatest Hits, So Far an equally unsatisfying listen. It is, however, a fascinating document of the band's transition from abrasive minimalism to the slick, expansive mess of their later, more commercially successful, years. To be honest, I'm not really sure what to do with their 1980s work, much of which sounds annoyingly dated. After Wobble and Levene left the band, Lydon turned increasingly toward session musicians and studio-sculpted arrangements; not only do we get the big echoing drums common to the era but also such over-the-top frivolities as soulful backup singers and searing Steve Vai guitar solos. The band's nadir, as far as I'm concerned, is actually a song I’d previously heard but hadn’t realized was PiL—the anthemic "Rise," with its dopey jangle and shout-filled spaces cringingly evoking Tom Petty’s “Don’t Come Around Here No More” as performed by Del Amitri.
But The Greatest Hits, So Far also contains a gem, and fittingly it’s the only song on the record that predates Second Edition. “Public Image,” an energetic statement of arrival from the band’s 1978 debut, works mostly because it marries the solid bass lines and spartan aesthetic of Second Edition to the more conventional song structure of the later material (or, for that matter, of the Sex Pistols). Like few other songs in the band’s catalog, it’s both compact and impassioned. Based on this initial survey, I can’t say I’m eager to explore PiL much further, but if I did, I’d almost certainly start with that first album.
By: John M. Cunningham
Published on: 2005-10-06