Album: Metal Box
“We’re not a band, we’re a company”
In late 1979, Public Image Ltd released their second album, initially called Metal Box after the packaging, and later called Second Edition when it was released in a slightly more, er, accessible format. They also made two amazing appearances on American TV; one somewhat expected, and the other so far beyond the pale that it still defies explanation.
It’s all so much that I don’t even really know where to start. So let’s start with the music, which combined Keith Levene’s bright and shiny guitar tones with Jah Wobble’s dub-influenced bass and weird, discordant dance rhythms from a plethora of drummers — including Levene — over all of which Johnny Lydon chanted tuneless rants.
It was designed to be abrasive and avant-garde, and while I’ve never fully gotten into it as music, I appreciate how hard they must have worked to make it all seem so effortlessly difficult. That said, knowing that I was going to be writing about it, I did dig into it again earlier this year and found that time had been pretty fucking kind to it, especially “Poptones,” which features a cascading, circular Keith Levene guitar riff — that he claims accidentally nicked from future Certain Song “Starship Trooper” by Yes — as well as a Levene drum part that sound like he hadn’t quite learned to play, but fully worked in this context.
I often joke about songs that are continually the verge of falling apart, but “Poptones” is the exact opposite: it’s continually on the verge of coming together.
That is, of course, if you could actually listen to it. After all, one of the great conceptual things about Metal Box was the fuck-you packaging. They’d made a double album’s worth of music, but rather than initially packaging it as a double album, the original Metal Box came in a metal film canister that contained three 12″ 45RPM records separated by thin paper sheets. It was nearly impossible to get the records out, and because they were only about 10 minutes a side, you had to continually switch discs to hear the whole record.
It sounds like I’m slagging the packaging, but it seems kind of amazing, conceptually. Kind of the embodiment of the old Flipper slogan: “Flipper suffered for their music, now it’s your turn.”
In any event, there was much outrage about the packaging, as you can imagine, and a proper double album, called Second Edition, was released in February 1980, just in time for Public Image Ltd’s U.S. tour, during which they made a pair of memorable TV appearances on either side of the country.
I can’t remember if I actually saw the Public Image Ltd interview on the Tomorrow Show With Tom Snyder when it actually happened, or a few years later, when Tony gave Kirk an amazing compilation of music interviews and performances he’d recorded. On Beta, of course. It’s possible I did, though, because Tom Snyder interviewed enough “new wave” artists that they made a DVD compilation of it in the early aughts.
And I do vividly recall seeing Snyder interview U2 (“why do they call you The Edge, great guy?) on their first U.S. TV appearance after they played “I Will Follow,” (the song PIL stole from them), as well as The Clash playing “The Magnificent Seven” and being pissed that they cut off The Jam in the middle of a ferocious version of “Funeral Pyre”
But, of course, none of those guys were John Lydon, who led with “we’re not a band, we’re a company” and grinned manically while smoking cigarettes with Snyder — nicotine being the only thing they had in common — and dissing rock ‘n’ roll, the public, and Snyder himself, over and over. At one point Snyder is so angry says “excuse me for talking while you were interrupting.” It’s one of the greatest pieces of performance art I’ve ever seen. Mostly because he was deadly serious.
And while it made some sense that PiL would end up on Tomorrow, it made — still makes, really — absolutely no sense that they also showed up on American Bandstand, which, as you might or might not remember, always made their artists mime to their songs. I did a little research as to how this happened, and apparently an influential producer on Bandstand really wanted them and Dick Clark, nonplussed as usual, let it happen.
So naturally, they made a mockery of it. While Levene, Wobble and drummer Martyn Atkins at least made a semblance of playing the first song — “Poptones” — Lydon dragged much of the audience onstage while occasionally pretending to sing the song and dancing around the stage, actually having fun.
During the interview segment, Johnny barely acknowledged Dick Clark, but made it clear that he wanted the rest of the audience on stage, and spent the second song — “Careering” — again running around the audience like a maniac, while the rest of the band essentially abandoned their instruments. Obviously, American Bandstand was too big of an institution for this to even be more than a blip, but it remains utterly hilarious.
Public Image Ltd on Tomorrow With Tom Snyder, June 1980
Public Image Ltd on American Bandstand, May 1980
“Poptones” live on the Old Grey Whistle Test, 1980
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