HAVING just bought the 4 Men With Beards reissue of Metal Box from Piccadilly for an eye-watering 36 quid, I’m struck by a fortuitous piece of weird symmetry when I get home from town after the usual interminable endurance test that is the number 86 bus.
I’ve got the volume on the telly turned down and got as far into the album as Careering – which, pressed on thick 180-gram vinyl, still sounds enormous and magnificent and out there – when John Lydon’s Country Life butter ad comes on (part of a deal for which he reputedly earned a cool five million). Sound and vision somehow match up perfectly.
“It’s all about great butter,” boasts the strapline at the end of the ad.
I wonder if Lydon can even remember when it was all about great music?
Surely we all know Lydon’s story by now? If not, allow the insightful and incisive Mark Prindle to explain:
“When Johnny Rotten left the Clash way back in ’78, he immediately moved on to a new project that he wanted to be entirely different from his former band, the Ramones ..”
PIL had made an impressive enough entrance with their debut releases, the single Public Image and the First Issue album, but their second long player, recorded as the band began to buckle under the weight of largely drug-induced paranoia and jealousy, was the one which guaranteed their place in the musical history books and ensured they would be a permanent fixture in the higher reaches of a thousand ill-considered influential album polls.
I think I first came across the album through Paul and Doug. Playing bass and guitar respectively, they even had a bedroom band called the Innocent Bystanders, with Paul’s kid brother Andy drumming on a settee cushion – with the top of the Metal Box container acting as a snare. They’d probably be recording for Warp if they were doing that stuff today.
Incidentally, I was supposed to be the singer for their next project but in the end all I did was make quite a nice cardboard stencil of spikey punk rock lettering spelling out our name, Toxic Shock.
And as it happens, Doug and Paul are supposed to be making sweet music together once again, under the rather excellent name of the Dirty French. I will WAV you up ASAP.
I think I bought the seven-inch of Public Image some time after it came out and unfortunately, by the time I bought my copy of Metal Box, secondhand, from some desperate smackhead in Scunthorpe a couple of years later, the surface of the fat tin canister it came in had already started to oxidise. It wasn’t an album that aged well, visually at least.
But I got into it in a big way. And as a recent but enthusiastic convert to the delights of ganja, smoking a ton of low-quality rocky and listening to Metal Box with the volume very loud indeed opened up an entirely new world to me.
Boom! I blame Jah Wobble for everything that’s happened to me since then, the mad, visionary, inspiring, beautiful bastard, him and his fucking outrageous, unstoppable, indescribable b-lines. What chance did a naïve impressionable young lad have? Warped and twisted, forever. It’s a life sentence. You only get – what? – five years for manslaughter?
As it happened, PiL – Lydon, Wobble, guitarist Keith Levene and whatever drummer they had with them at the time – knew exactly what they were doing, despite the low-level chaos surrounding almost every move they made. As Lydon told Danny Baker in an NME interview in the summer of 1979:
“We care very much what we do. We’re all very serious people in this, but of course we wouldn’t be doing this unless there was fun involved. You can’t. But let me say again, PiL is a four piece band of which I am part. It’s gonna take time. The Pistols were a wanky bunch of turds who took the piss out of rock music, gloriously. Now it’s finished.
“I think disco is the closest to what I’m into at the moment, and when you listen to it, you can break reggae, the rockers, down to boom boom boom, which is what disco is.”
Not everyone got it, of course. As Wobble told Dave McCullough in a Sounds interview in May, 1980:
“PiL seems to really raise hatred in people .. it’s just, like, a natural music. I saw a great thing in Billboard magazine the other day. It said ‘PiL are what jazz used to be like’ – that’s what we are, there’s no big deal about it, we’re not making fucking symphonies, we’re doing really quite honest music and that’s it.
“Everybody these days thinks ‘This must be rational’. You’ll find music that’s not really on a rational level will worry people and produce extreme reactions ..”
It seems the recording of Metal Box was anything but rational. For example, according to Wobble’s candid and entertaining autobiography, Memoirs Of A Geezer, “Levene was pretty much a spent force as a guitarist. His mind was scattered ..”
Around this time, the band made a big deal about PiL being “an umbrella organisation rather than a band”, prompting Wobble to comment at the time:
“‘Yeah, what we mean is we’re all going to sell brollies down the market when all this goes tits up’. That didn’t go down too well with the others ..” he remembers in his book.
Most of Metal Box’s 12 tracks were built from the bassline up by the self-taught Wobble, with Lydon adding his uniquely cynical, world-weary vocals after Wobble, Levene and the drummer had done their thing.
The album’s ten-minute opener Albatross, which I always presumed was about Lydon’s punk rock legacy, does the first-time listener absolutely no favours whatsoever. No concessions, no compromise, no surrender.
All you get is the steady throbbing pulse of Wobble’s b-line, Levene’s signature scratchy, thin guitar line, constantly descending and ascending like some ker-azy musical Moebius strip, Dave Humphrey’s loose, sparse drumming and Lydon’s mournful vocal. It takes up an entire side of one of the album’s three 12-inch discs.
The uptempo Memories reveals another resentful and accusatory lyric from Lydon (“It’s not the movies and you’re old ..”), while Swan Lake, which was renamed Death Disco when it was released as a single, finds Levene wonderfully mimicking Tchaicovsky’s celebrated leitmotif. But don’t look for romance here: “Choking on a bed, Flowers rotting dead ..” yelps an indignant Lydon. He is reputed to have written the song following his mother’s death.
Poptones, dominated by Wobble’s relentless, repetitive, hypnotic groove (“it’s really fucking modal”, he explains) with both half-time lazily imprecise drums and the simplest of guitar lines provided by Levene, is bleak and magnificent, eerily compelling and spooky.
Lydon seems to refer to abduction and violence in the “foliage and peat”, while “picnicking in the British countryside”, with the sound of this unnamed horror masked by the tinny banality of cassette-player “Poptones”.
Careering, arguably the best song on an album bursting at the seams with extraordinary and innovative music, is once again based around Wobble’s urgent, militant b-line and the fluctuating electronic tones of Levene’s new toy, a new-fangled Prophet synth. The bassist even takes a turn behind the drumkit:
“If you listen to the drum rhythm it is very similar to the sort of rhythm a drum-and-fife band would create, especially the Turkish military version of that – such a thing exists ..” he remembers in his book.
Lydon, the child of London Irish parents, wailing and caterwauling about “the pride of history .. the steady hand” that “triggers machinery” and “mangles the military .. spreading tales like coffin nails” seems to address the bloody conflict in Northern Ireland, which was at its height when the album was recorded at the arse-end of the Seventies.
It’s difficult to say for sure.
Similarly to Careering, No Birds is firmly aimed at the dancefloor, but it ups the tempo considerably, with the ex-101ers and future Basement 5 drummer Richard Dudanski’s precise tribal style combining with an absolutely thumping bassline while Lydon does his typically individual and almost completely incomprehensible version of a croon (“I like the illusion .. Silent dignity”). And it’s the most animated Levene gets on the whole album.
But say what you like about Keith Levene – and by all accounts, he was something of a manipulative, junkie nightmare at the time – he knew when to hold back.
PiL’s music was all about big wide open spaces. It was sparse and dense all at the same time, and as heavy as fuck. Proper heavy. Whether it was from a finely-tuned artistic sensibility, or just gouching out and nodding off from all that brown, Levene was a master of the less is more approach pioneered by artists as diverse as Can and King Tubby. And obviously, the rest of the band, stand-in drummers included, were no slouches either.
They weren’t messing about here.
More dancefloor action, albeit of a mellower variety, comes from the loose-limbed instrumental jam Graveyard with Martin Atkin’s disco-influenced closed high-hats adding a nigh-on irresistible rhythmic edge.
Strangely enough, while sound engineer Dave Crowe and violinist/filmmaker Jeanette Lee (who went onto to play a big part in the Rough Trade organisation and these days manages artists like Duffy and Jarvis Cocker) were given a namecheck on the album insert, none of the superb drummers who grace Metal Box were.
Odd yet compelling, The Suit was adapted from a Wobble solo track, with an analogue drum loop, a simple but slightly unsteady ‘sampled’ bassline and Levene’s rather ineffectual meanderings relegated right to the back of the mix.
Lydon, for once sounding a little wearily resigned, still manages to be bluntly scathing about posh kids slumming it; “Everyone loves you until they know you .. standing around all the right people”.
With Wobble once again paired with Martin Atkins, the throbbing, heavyweight dub funk of Bad Baby slams out of the speakers like a physical, three-dimensional force of nature. Meanwhile Levene, swapping his guitar for a synth, gets on a pleasingly trippy vibe.
“Someone left a baby in the car park .. don’t you listen to one more sob story,” wails the singer. “Stop, stop, start again .. Someone is crawling through the window, falling through mirrors .. Ignore it and it’ll go away. Someone is calling – don’t you listen ..”
Unfortunately, Bad Baby’s seemingly unstoppable drum and bass groove stops all too soon.
After the fast and furious instrumental Socialist, more relentless, absorbing repetition comes in the form of Chant, where Lydon seems to express his distaste for the organised mass political demonstrations prevalent at the time with a “side of London that tourists never see .. voice moaning in a speaker .. pointed fingers .. It’s not important, It’s not worth a mention in the Guardian .. Chant, chant. Anglo ambience ..”
And before you even realise it, the album concludes with Keith Levene’s almost pastoral – but, given what’s gone before, still oddly unsettling – synth interlude, Radio Four.
The album was pressed up as three 45rpm 12-inches, with the combination of a wider groove space and an increased RPM giving a better bass response than on a regular album.
Looking to package the album in a way which emphasised its uniqueness, Lydon came up with the title and PiL art director Dennis Morris (already working on his Basement 5 project), who had grown up near a Metal Box factory in Clapton, remembered the metal film canisters manufactured by the company and brokered a deal.
The result is solid, substantial and stylish artefact, smooth and cold to the touch, a little bit art noueveau and a little bit sleazy, a time-displaced relic of some kind of druggy, robotic futurism. A truly beautiful object.
Even this, however, wasn’t enough to sugar this particular PiL – for some of us, anyway. I don’t recall ever meeting a woman who had any time whatsoever for Metal Box. Why is it such a bloke album? Any ideas?
Neatly illustrating my point, while I’m writing this, Paul happens to send me a picture of him and his new “bezzie mate” Glen Matlock. I tell him I’ve just mentioned him in this piece.
“Ace!” he texts me back. “My missus just said, ‘oh is he going to say how you’re one of the only people who can stand to listen to it?’ Pearls before swine.”
Listen, I can’t even remember where I originally bought Metal Box, so do you really think I’m going to have any idea when or where I eventually parted company with it? Not a fucking clue.
Perhaps inevitably, Lydon, who hasn’t made a decent record in years, has decided to follow up various tedious Sex Pistols reunions with a short PiL tour next month, playing their most influential work in its entirety from beginning to end in the currently modish manner [apparently, although the tour coincides with the 30th anniversary of the release of Metal Box, the band will be playing stuff from entire PiL repertoire, not just Metal Box].
Initially quite excited by the prospect of finally seeing PiL live (a load of mates went to see them at Leeds Uni around the time This Is Not a Love Song came out but I disapproved even then and didn’t go), I quickly lost interest when it became clear that Wobble was not involved.
No Wobble – no point. It’s very simple.
I had to ring Wobble about something else around that time – I know, get me – so once that stuff was out of the way, I asked him what had gone off between him and Lydon about the tour.
“They did give me a call but nothing was right from the word go,” he tells me. “For me to do it, we’d have to do new things. And I wouldn’t choose a band like that, personally. I had a word with John, he phoned me, and he said at the time, it’s just three shows. I said, look, I dunno. We’d have to do new things and he sorta said, yeah, whatever. And I wasn’t sure, y’know.”
“So I got my people to talk to his people and very early on it was like, no, no, no, no. This is not good. Bad business. Not set up properly. Too rushed , for whatever reason. Not right, yeah?”
That’s such a shame, I tell him, unable to hide my disappointment.
“Yeah, but not my doing,” says Wobble. “If you’re gonna do it, it’s worth doing well. There was a lot of support out there for it to be done properly. I know John. John is John. And I haven’t seen any indicator over the years that things would be done any differently to how they were back then. And back then was a fucking mess.
“I’d rather step back from it. The business was shockingly bad. Shockingly bad. Shockingly fucking bad. In every way. You just think, nah.”
“For your own pride’s sake, you have to go out there and do the thing well, as far as I’m concerned, very well. You’d have to do it with a swagger. And you would have to do some kind of new stuff as well. So it didn’t make it.
“In a way, PiL is great because it always disappoints,” he laughs. “We didn’t even get past the first hurdle. We clattered into the first hurdle. I think this kills it now, for me, to be honest. It cheapens the thing. It becomes a remake – and I don’t like remakes. It’s like a pick-up band. I mean John did it for years, he did it all the way through the Eighties, and he ended up playing second fiddle to people on bills he shouldn’t have been playing second fiddle to, y’know?
“But that’s John, that’s his way.”
Wobble pauses, thinks for a moment and then says: “I think for me, it was a relief, very early on, that it wasn’t going to happen. If it wasn’t going to be done right, with the right kind of musicians – as far as I’m concerned – then it’s better it doesn’t happen at all. So that was that. Yeah, whatever, y’know?
“It’s not PiL is it? Everyone knows it’s not PiL. PiL was actually a group. But the fact of the matter is, it was fantastic for the first couple of years of its existence but pretty quickly it kinda went downhill. And it stopped being PiL, for whatever reason.
“I think you’ve got a lot of people in their 20s and 30s who wouldn’t know the legacy ..”
And it’d just be Johnny Rotten and his band?
“Yeah, the bloke from the butter ad. Whatever. It doesn’t make a huge difference to me, because I became very clear in my mind what was important with music a long fucking time ago and going backwards, repeating yourself, doing things for the wrong motives .. I’ve made a lot of fuck ups in life but I’ve managed to keep that part of things pretty clean, y’know? I don’t intend to fuck that up now.
“PiL just became this kind of lumpen rock band throughout the Eighties,” he continues. “It was mad really. To me it was crazy that we only did about 20 shows in those two years. Then of course when the money, when lots of big advances come in, they have to go out on the road with pick up bands and hammer it. It was always completely the wrong way of doing everything.
“And that hasn’t changed. It was going to be completely the wrong way of doing it, as far as I was concerned. It was a bit rushed and it smacked, a little bit, of grab some money quick.
“You just think, this is completely not what PiL was supposed to be about. In the early days of PiL there was a lot of humour and it was a very bold, brave band. Personally, I don’t have a problem being bold and brave. At all. It’s possible that you could make it fly very well. But John has got another mindset. God bless him. It’s his decision and it will be what it will be.
“It was actually a relief. It would be much harder if it looked alright, you went to do it, and then found out in rehearsals that this isn’t actually going to be any good. That would have been very difficult.
“So it’s much cleaner and better to know way upfront. I think it’s being done very poorly, that’s the vibe I got back from my people that talked to John’s people.”
Should be an interesting tour then, eh?
“Well, that’s the point,” replies Wobble. “It probably won’t be. That’s the thing. I think it actually becomes quite a conservative rock band, y’know, keeping the brand going. That’s not celebrating PiL. Really, that’s deeply uninteresting. Later line-ups of PiL you’d hear stuff and just think, bloody hell, that’s really tame.
“If you’re going to go out and do Metal Box well, in my eyes you should do that well but then use that as a springboard into new, innovative material. Like, okay, that was Metal Box and now, here you are, here’s some stuff that’s even fucking better.
“There’s so much he could have torn into now, lyrically, you could have a lot of fun now. In some ways, the times we’re living in are a lot more interesting than the Seventies.
“At least Metal Box is a good record,” he concludes. “Life goes on. There’s always new stuff to get into and play.
“So anyway, you asked me the question, you got the answer.”
I certainly did.
See also: Jah Wobble interview
[Invaluable help with this piece, and also the image at the top of it, came from the excellent and informative Fodderstompf. Thanks]