Public Image Ltd. – Metal Box

Can Ege Bamyasi United Artists

When discussing the basis for the whole Terminal Vibration vision, in laying out its roots at the axis of rhythm and atmosphere, there are any number of notable precursors that immediately spring to mind. If you root around in the shadowy pre-history of the 1970s, you come across obvious rhythmic precursors like the motorik grooves of Neu!, Can's kosmische funk, the atmospheric avant pop of Roxy Music/Brian Eno, and their timely fusion in Bowie's Station To Station and all the Berlin records to come in its wake (see also Iggy Pop).

Miles Davis Dark Magus Columbia

There's also no getting around the blazing atmospheric tension of Miles Davis' monolithic jazz fission side-long monster jams and Don Cherry's proto-fourth world excursions throughout the decade, not to mention the sun-glazed, dusted grooves of War's The World Is A Ghetto and The Isley Brothers' wild, multi-jointed rhythms. Then there's the ghostly studio magic of King Tubby and his skipping, aquatic dubs, or Lee "Scratch" Perry's voodoo-tinged freakouts, both similarly forward-reaching in scope, predicting as they do the dislocated riddimology of post punk, trip hop and beyond.

Public Image Ltd. Metal Box

Virgin 1979

However, if there's one record that (symbolically at least) stands at the portal to the world of Terminal Vibration like the Colossus at Rhodes, setting the tone and the template for everything to follow, it is without a doubt Public Image Ltd.'s mighty Metal Box. This album delivered the most thorough collision of funk, dub and punk up to that point in time, a rough and rugged blueprint for all manner of rude mechanical sound to spring up in the decades to come. Poised at a sort of street-level anti-glamour, it paralleled most of the new forms that would arise from the margins to storm the mainstream in its wake.

Public Image Ltd. pose on a rooftop
Public Image Ltd.

Jah Wobble, Keith Levene, Jim Walker and John Lydon

PIL were formed by John Lydon in the fallout of his untimely exit from The Sex Pistols, with splintered guitar prodigy Keith Levene (once of The Clash) and soon-to-be bassist extraordinaire Jah Wobble (who at the point of the band's formation, he hadn't yet played a note!). Notably, the position of drummer was never a permanent one, although Jim Walker seemed to have the largest impact during the band's key early years. Despite Lydon's punk fame as Johnny Rotten, he was determined to reinvent himself as a member among equals (even going so far as to describe PIL as a multimedia corporation): with punk's star frontman, the as-yet unsung guitar prodigy and the brilliant non-musician all on equal footing within the group.

Public Image Ltd. Public Image Virgin

The idea was to match the social rebellion of The Sex Pistols with an equally extreme sonic attack, this time tearing up rock's rulebook in the process. Their first, eponymous record washed away the ragged sound of punk with one great wave of sleek and minimalist futurism, its cascades of ringing guitar serving up one of new wave's great warning shots (The Edge was certainly paying attention) even as it was informed by a dubby bottom end (post punk's m.o. in chrysalis). And despite its place as one of punk's definitive voices, Lydon's wail possibly sounded even more at home in this cold new environment.

Public Image Ltd. First Issue Virgin

The landmark Public Image culminated in the band's debut album First Issue, which found them done up like fashion models in a tongue-in-cheek manner, with all but Walker decked out in suits in a curious parallel to Kraftwerk's tailored, machine-like perfection. The sounds within more than lived up to the image, with the sleek post punk attack of Public Image and Low Life offset by the doom-laden stomp of Theme and the icy dubbed-out, discomix tundras of the closing Fodderstompf. The latter two tracks in particular offered up twin portraits of the sound that would become post punk, pointing the way forward for the group's landmark second album.

Inset from PIL's debut, First Issue, featuring a glammed-up Jah Wobble on the cover of PIME magazine!
That Jah Wobble's a handsome chap...

Inspired by their twin obsessions with krautrock and Jamaican dub, the band descended further into the shadowy realm of the studio with the stated goal of working up a sound unlike anything else around. Needless to say, magic was wrought from the whole affair, and the resulting tapes from these sessions more than lived up to such a lofty target. Such unique music demanded a singular presentation, and the album was slated (in its original form) to be released as a trio of 12" singles housed in a metal film canister emblazoned with the PIL logo. This concept served as both the source of its title as well as a thorough deconstruction of the album-as-statement, encouraging the listener to play the sides in whichever order they chose.

Public Image Ltd. Second Edition Virgin

After its initial run, the album was reissued as Second Edition in the standard double-LP format, which is actually how I (and I suspect many of us in the States) first heard it. Its sleeve featured a black-and-white photo of the band's faces warped and melting into one another, nearly as appropriate a visual representation of the sounds contained within as the original metal slab had been. It prefigures the look of whole swathes of records to come out of the industrial scene (for instance) in the decade to come. Indeed, in 1989 it would have fit right in. But in 1980, the whole thing just looks like trouble...

An albatross looms in the sky
Getting rid of the albatross...

In the Second Edition version of the record, Albatross opens the album (after all, Metal Box opens wherever it wants to), its ten-ton bassline coming on like a dark sequel to Fodderstompf in 3D. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner might be the first thing that springs to mind, and indeed the tune matches the pervasive sense of dread running through Coleridge's epic poem, but writers have interpreted the track as an echo of Lydon's wish to distance himself from punk and The Pistols. With lyrics like getting rid of the albatross and sowing the seeds of discontent, it's pretty hard to argue. His warped muezzin wail makes perfect sense in this context, with Levene raining shards of splintered guitar noise across the top of Wobble's immortal bassline and the drums stomping beneath in doomed slow-motion for a solid ten-minutes.

Basic Channel Quadrant Dub Basic Channel

Careering burns at a similarly glacial pace, the subterranean strains of its slow-motion groove and haunting bassline adding a spectral caste to the proceedings. Rising and falling in pitch like dread-laden steam in some cold-blooded thriller, the unspooling synths create an incredible compression of atmosphere around this nightmare discomix showcase. It's as close to the idea of a flesh-and-blood band attempting to predict the sound of Basic Channel's dubbed-out, skeletal techno (well over a decade before the fact) as one could get (and of course BC had a metal box of their own. The nagging vocal refrain from Lydon (is this really living?) is just the icing on the cake. All things considered, it's probably my favorite tune on the record.

Jah Wobble

It's tempting to have Metal Box down as a Wobble showcase, with his massive bass sound triumphantly anchoring the whole record as it does. Sure enough, he's a household icon around these parts), and obviously the band were never the same after he left. Still, that does nothing to diminish the crucial role that the rest of the band play. Subtract Lydon and it just wouldn't be the same at all — his piercing wail imbues everything with a haunting, ear-shredding immediacy — while Levene's great sheets of sound (in both guitar and synth form) provide the all-pervasive sense of dread atmosphere that defines the record. When the trio's inimitable contributions all interlock over the rugged drumming (which is rarely mentioned in discussions of this record, but is crucial), the results truly do sound unlike anything else around.

The Gun Club Miami Animal

Announcing itself with a fragment of kosmische synth sound, Graveyard pulls into focus on a rolling baleful groove, appropriately enough registering the album at its most strikingly spectral. With Levene's jagged guitar shapes obliquely recalling Link Wray, this instrumental is a down-tuned Desperado mirage. Squint and you can just barely hear the faintest hint of The Gun Club's haunted, atmospheric rockabilly circa Miami. It's an almost undisclosed secret for such a notoriously anti-rock record, but there it is, hiding in the spaces between the spaces, and further pointing toward the album's inscrutably contrarian nature.

Public Image Ltd. The Flowers Of Romance Virgin

A similarly rock moment turns up in Poptones, which clocks in at nearly eight minutes (aside from Albatross, it's the longest track here). Levene's speaker-shredding guitar showers down over a start-stop beat driven by Wobble's dub-tastic basslines wandering up and down the fretboard. More than anything else here it points the way forward to the hollowed-out sonic pile-ups on PIL's third album, The Flowers Of Romance. You hear a song like Poptones and Kurt Cobain's love of the band makes perfect sense (in fact, The Flowers Of Romance cropped up in a list of his favorite albums). Indeed, when viewed through a lens of abstraction, its not hard to sense to roots of alternative and grunge in there somewhere.

The Sex Pistols Submission Virgin

Chant, in contrast, calls back to punk rock in a rather abstract way, featuring Lydon railing over the top of a scrawling blast of atonal noise just as he might have during the Sex Pistols days. But then there's the maddening repetition of someone chanting love war fear hate in the background throughout, raising the spectre of process music and post punk's lingering abstraction. It's just another measure of this record's striking variance, which in its own way seems to cover as much ground as The White Album, even if most of its forms hadn't even existed back when The Beatles were doing their thing.

Funkadelic The Electric Spanking Of War Babies Warner Bros.

As much as Metal Box is a deconstruction of the album-as-statement, certain corners of this record seem to deconstruct the band's very sound. The Suit is one such track, with Lydon intoning in relative monotone over a simple time-keeping backbeat and another one of Wobble's great throbbing chunks of bottom-end. It's this aspect of the record that often makes me think of it in the same breath as Funkadelic's The Electric Spanking Of War Babies. Where the War Babies found Funkadelic stripping their band's sound down to its constituent parts and rebuilding it like a composite street racer, Metal Box finds PIL melting their sound down to its base molten form and throwing magnetic shapes around the room.

Suburban Knight The Art Of Stalking Transmat

Bad Baby is another such track, with its bass/drum locked groove rolling away as Levene opts to contribute desolate synth lines rather than his usual sheets of guitar noise, leaving Wobble's bottom end to carry the melody. Lydon's offhand vocals — which split the difference between carefree and dejected — are some of the record's most memorable. The instrumental Socialist plays like a dub version of a punk tune, guitars shunted to the side and Wobble's bass taking up the lead. Its striking compression captures a sense of pure claustrophobia and dread, as Levene unfurls squelching synths like strangled mechanical voices over the subdued madness. In both cases, my mind flashes immediately to the angular menace of Suburban Knight's The Art Of Stalking.

U2 War Island

At first, No Birds takes a similar tack, with Lydon's offhand vocals and another adamant bassline from Wobble rolling out beneath. However, it quickly becomes the closest thing here to First Issue, with Levene's guitars sound like the blueprint for The Edge's sound circa U2's Boy/October/War trilogy. I'm especially reminded of tunes like I Threw A Brick Through A Window and The Refugee, both of which happened to take a particularly minimalist, rhythmic angle on the band's usually widescreen sound. This all in keeping with the PIL influence, which brought such stark, uncompromising rhythms to the post punk party in the first place.

Public Image Ltd. Death Disco Virgin

Nowhere is this more evident than Swan Lake, which in its original version was released as the Death Disco. Death Disco was the founder of the feast, so to speak, laying the groundwork for the mutant disco rhythms of Metal Box even as it wired it all up to a spluttering, punky spirit. Levene's spidery guitar lines quote liberally from Tchaikovsky's ballet of the same name (hence the track's retitling to Swan Lake here), while Lydon wails into the cold, bleak night (see it in your eyes) and Wobble's throbbing dub basslines stalk beneath, occasionally rolling up into a mini-disco bridge. As such, Swan Lake/Death Disco is the record's most realized fusion of disco, dub and punk, and remains its undeniable centerpiece.

Public Image Ltd. Memories Virgin

However, for my money the preceding Memories rivals it. With an even faster attack (this time approaching techno velocity), it features Levene running through another one of his Desperado-esque guitar figure over a ramshackle disco pulse. The spectre of Link Wray hangs over the proceedings once again, as does James Pennington. The use of compression here just line any number of Suburban Knight 12"s, especially at 1.5 minutes in when the center of gravity shifts to a bass-heavy throb and Lydon wails over the top like a madman. This punk-tinged mutant disco vision just might have had PIL's most far-reaching impact on the music to come in its wake.

Jah Wobble Invaders Of The Heart Lago

The figure who chased down this aspect of the group's sound most thoroughly was without a doubt Wobble, who unfurled similar death disco-tinged rhythmic madness over the course of records like Betrayal, Full Circle, Snake Charmer and Invaders Of The Heart. These records may not have had the same sense of profound danger as Metal Box, but they maintained the overwhelming sense of atmosphere and even added a distinctly fourth world flair to the proceedings.

Jah Wobble The Legend Lives On... Jah Wobble In "Betrayal" Virgin

However, it was Wobble's debut album he Legend Lives On... Jah Wobble In "Betrayal" that wound up getting him kicked out of the band (the rest of the band objected to his use of some PIL backing tracks on the record). And yet it was Lydon and Levene who had positioned the band as a multimedia corporation that would put out everything from records to soundtracks, films and even musical equipment. One certainly imagines that spooling out killer tangent records from session cutouts would fit the bill, with the promise of side-projects echoing those of George Clinton's P-Funk organization and Lee "Scratch" Perry's Black Ark empire in the 1970s. Ironically, in the end it was Wobble (who was always the most skeptical of the band pitching itself as a corporation in the first place) who offered the most follow-through on the initial premise!

The Clash Sandinista! CBS

It's a shame that Lydon and Levene kicked him out for using those backing tapes, especially considering their case of writer's block that would come just months later (the sessions for The Flowers Of Romance were fraught with complications). All of this in stark contrast to Wobble's restless flurry of creativity, working with everyone from Can's Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit to The Edge (of U2) and disco master-producer François Kevorkian. One could imagine the group powering through the 1980s with Wobble still in tow, generating loads of source material and spooling it all out into worlds in their own right just Can had the 1970s. At any rate, one wonders what a PIL Sandinista! might have been like...

The Prodigy The Prodigy Experience XL

Radio 4 ends the whole trip on a gentle breeze of Satie-esque ambience, shades of some celestial carousel and Lynch's lady in the radiator. The synth melody is just dislocated enough, in the surreal sense of disorientation one feels in a dream, that the melodic wandering of Wobble's bassline beneath it all carries an entire counterpoint melody and takes center stage. There's an interesting glimpse here (in spirit, at least) of Wobble's later collaboration with Brian Eno (Spinner), and I'm often reminded of the sickly-sweet synths in The Prodigy's Weather Experience.

Post punk icons

It's the perfect signing off moment for an album that fuses kosmische funk with dub and punk in such a way that sounds utterly unlike any of its inspirations. Metal Box represents the sound of a whole new music, dreamt up alongside similarly trailblazing figures like The Pop Group, The Slits and Gang Of Four. Still, nobody did it with PIL's sense of gravity and ambience. In retrospect, they were the beating heart at the center of it all.

This heavy atmospheric music (more often than not wired-up for the dancefloor) is true out come the freaks music, and as such it's close to the Parallax heart. In turn, it's also the cornerstone to everything discussed in the Terminal Vibration trip, not only as a prime influence but also something of a decoder ring to the whole affair. Get Second Edition and absorb it... really get it, and you'll be ready for anything the Terminal Vibration 100 will throw at you 40-some days from now.

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