ALBUM (1979)

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 December, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 December, 2009, 12:00am

Metal Box
Public Image Limited

Public Image Limited were the band its leader, Sex Pistols icon John Lydon, had always wanted the punk pioneers to be had they not been hijacked by careerist record companies.

When he finally got the chance to live his musical dream, he not only took punk in an entirely new direction, he also made some of the most influential music of the post-punk era.

Burned and angered by the corporate manipulation of the Pistols that led to their demise in 1978, Lydon (right) set about creating a band that would control their own destiny, setting their own artistic agenda, deciding when and where to tour - if ever - and to take other fledgling groups on its journey of independence. And he wanted to do all of this within the scope of a corporation, replete with corporate logo and corporate sound, in a bid to give a two-fingered salute to those that had scuppered the prospects of his first band.

With the release of debut PiL it was obvious his plans had fallen at the first hurdle: the record was released through Virgin, the brash but mainstream label that had taken on and rankled the Pistols in the band's final months. With second album Metal Box, however, Lydon managed to achieve some of his mutinous objectives.

First, the album of 12 tracks was recorded over three LPs and sold in tin film canisters - hence the title and a move that led Virgin to threaten legal action. Second, the album created something of a shockwave, with its elongated tracks that were presented more as pieces than songs. While PiL's debut was, for all intents and purposes, a regular rock album in format - with defined songs, most of which conformed to the three-minute pop song blueprint - Metal Box did away with all that.

Swirling opener Albatross took up one whole side of an LP record and lasted more than 10 minutes, unheard of outside the pompous confines of prog-rock. It was a gesture that saw Lydon begin the process of deconstructing his public image of a brash, snarling punk, and creating a whole new aesthetic built on the German Motorik bands he adored in his youth.

If the Pistols had been anti-art, PiL was most definitely intent on forging a new art. With dub-reggae rhythms courtesy of Jah Wobble - known to his mum as John Wardle and one of the infamous 'Four Johns' that formed the core of Lydon's nascent punk gang (John Beverley, aka Sid Vicious, was another) - and former Clash guitarist Keith Levine providing the scratchy, eerie and non-rock guitar melodies behind Lydon's atonal yells, PiL's sonic motif was an often unsettling collision of sounds.

Taking the discordance further, the band included a stunning version of Swan Lake (a retake on earlier hit Death Disco) and the ranting Socialist that poured scorn on the insincerity of trendy lefties that dominated the underground music scene at the time.

In presenting such a tour de force of noise it has been suggested the album title is also a reference to Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, the unlistenable montage of mechanical noises the former Velvet Underground singer created - in similar ways to Lydon - in a career suicide attempt he hoped would also bring down a music establishment that had rarely taken him seriously. Unlike Reed's album, however, PiL's sophomore release has grown in stature since, with bands from the Pixies to White Lies hailing it as a major influence.

Sadly, PiL went on to become a regular 80s pop-rock band and it was no surprise that when Lydon resurrected PiL this year, he did so by touring Metal Box in its entirety.