|Public Image Ltd|
Years: 1978–1992; 2009–present
Styles: Alternative rock, Experimental Rock, New Wave, Post Punk, Punk Rock
Keith Levene - Bass Guitar, Cello, Drums, Guitar, Keyboards, Piano, Synthesizer (in band: 1978 - 1983)
John Lydon - Keyboards, Percussion, Piano, Saxophone, Stroh violin, Synthesizer, Violin, Vocals (in band: 1978 - 1992; 2009 - present)
Jim Walker - Drums, Vocals (in band: 1978 - 1979)
Jah Wobble - Bass Guitar, Drums, Piano, Vocals (in band: 1978 - 1980)
Richard Dudanski - Drums (in band: 1979)
David Humphrey - Drums (in band: 1979)
Martin Atkins - Bodhrán, Drums, Guitar, Keyboards, Percussion, Synthesizer (in band: 1979 - 1980; 1982 - 1985)
Ken Lockie - Keyboards (in band: 1982)
Pete Jones - Bass Guitar (in band: 1982 - 1983)
Bill Laswell - Bass Guitar (in band: 1986)
Lu Edmonds - Guitar, Keyboards, Piano, Saz (in band: 1986 - 1988; 2009 - present)
Bruce Smith - Drum Programming, Drums, Percussion (in band: 1986 - 1990; 2009 - present)
John McGeoch - Guitar, Lead guitar, Sequencer (in band: 1986 - 1992)
Allan Dias - Backing vocals, Bass Guitar, Keyboards, Sequencer (in band: 1986 - 1992)
Scott Firth - Bass Guitar, Keyboards, Percussion (in band: 2009 - present)
One of the first and most significant post-punk bands, Public Image Ltd. (PiL) were originally a quartet led by singer John Lydon (formerly Johnny Rotten) and guitarist Keith Levene, who had been a member of the Clash in one of its early lineups. The band was filled out by bassist Jah Wobble (John Wordle) and drummer Jim Walker. It was formed in the wake of the 1978 breakup of Lydon's former group, the Sex Pistols. For the most part, the band's early incarnation devoted itself to droning, slow-tempo, bass-heavy noise rock, overlaid by Lydon's distinctive, vituperative rant. The group's debut single, "Public Image," was more of an uptempo pop/rock song, however, and it hit the U.K. Top Ten upon its release in October 1978.
In preparing their debut album, "Public Image: First Issue", the band spent their recording budget well before the record was completed. As a result, the final album comprised eight tracks of varying sound quality, half of which were written and recorded in a rush after the money had run out. Wobble had also beaten up producer Bill Price's assistant engineer (Price, with John Leckie, had secured the tight sound of the "Public Image" single), inciting Price to ban the group from their preferred Wessex Studios.
PiL managed to avoid boundaries for the first four years of their existence, and "Metal Box" is undoubtedly the apex. It's a hallmark of uncompromising, challenging post-punk, hardly sounding like anything of the past, present, or future. Sure, there were touchstones that got their imaginations running -- the bizarreness of Captain Beefheart, the open and rhythmic spaces of Can, and the dense pulses of Lee Perry's productions fueled their creative fires -- but what they achieved with their second record is a completely unique hour of avant-garde noise.
Originally packaged in a film canister as a trio of 12" records played at 45 rpm, the bass and treble are pegged at 11 throughout, with nary a tinge of midrange to be found. It's all scrapes and throbs (dubscrapes?), supplanted by John Lydon's caterwauling about such subjects as his dying mother, resentment, and murder. Guitarist Keith Levene splatters silvery, violent, percussive shards of metallic scrapes onto the canvas, much like a one-armed Jackson Pollock. Jah Wobble and Richard Dudanski lay down a molasses-thick rhythmic foundation throughout that's just as funky as Can's Czukay/Leibezeit and Chic's Edwards/Rodgers.
It's alien dance music. "Metal Box" might not be recognized as a groundbreaking record with the same reverence as "Never Mind the Bollocks", and you certainly can't trace numerous waves of bands who wouldn't have existed without it like the Sex Pistols record. But like a virus, its tones have sent miasmic reverberations through a much broader scope of artists and genres. ["Metal Box" was issued in the States in 1980 with different artwork and cheaper packaging under the title "Second Edition"; the track sequence differs as well.]
As opposed to the axis of throbbing bass and guitar slashings of "Metal Box", "The Flowers of Romance" is centralized on razor-sharp drums and typically haranguing vocals. No dubwise grooves here -- bassist Jah Wobble was kicked out prior to the recording for ripping off PiL backing tracks for his solo material. And growing more disenchanted with the guitar, Keith Levene's infatuation with synthesizers was reaching a boiling point. His scythe-like guitar is truly brought out for only one song. Stark and minimal are taken to daring lengths, so it's no surprise that Virgin initially balked at issuing the heavily percussive record.
"Four Enclosed Walls" opens with something of a mechanical death rattle and John Lydon's quavering warble, framed by backwards piano and Martin Atkins' spartan, dry-as-a-bone drumming. His rapier-like drums seem to serve a similar purpose to Levene's guitar on "Metal Box". An unsteady drum pattern and fragile, wind chime-like guitar from Levene shape "Track 8," a bleak look at sexual relationships. Lydon adds color with pleasant imagery of Butterball turkeys and elephant graves. "Under the House" and "Francis Massacre" are the most violent tracks due to Atkins' machine gun firing and Levene's chilling atmosperics. Lydon lashes out at zealous fans on the only bottom-heavy tune, "Banging the Door": "The walls are so thin/The neighbors listen in/Keep the noise down." Perhaps the band's most challenging work (in the avant garde sense), it's just as "love it or hate it" as "Metal Box"; it'll either go down a treat or like a five-pound block of liverwurst.
An aborted fourth album recorded in 1982 was later released by Levene as "Commercial Zone", which included contributions from bass player Pete Jones. Lydon and Atkins claim that Levene stole the master tapes. Atkins stayed on through a live album (one of the first digital live albums ever recorded), "Live in Tokyo" (1983) – in which PiL consisted of him, Lydon, and a band of session musicians—and left in 1985, following the release of "This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get" (1984). This album consists of re-recorded versions of five songs from "Commercial Zone" (several of which feature a horn section) and three new tracks (four songs from "Commercial Zone" were not re-recorded for the new album). PiL was moving towards a more commercial pop music and dance music direction, and while many new fans found PiL, little of their original audience (or sound) remained.
After the release of "This Is What You Want", Lydon assembled yet another touring band. Martin Atkins stayed on as drummer, with Jebin Bruni and Mark Schulz joining the band's ranks. While gigging, Bruni and Schulz assisted in writing the material that wound up on "Album". Atkins left to spend more time on his own projects after touring, and Lydon again scrapped his remaining associates prior to recording. Anyone's first 10,000 guesses as to who Lydon would work with next couldn't possibly come close, as the unlisted credits for "Album" read as a motley crew of established musicians who literally have no business being anywhere near Lydon, let alone in a studio with him or with one another. Well, maybe that made perfect sense, given Lydon's ability to baffle. The hardest working man in the avant-garde, Bill Laswell, produced and played bass, which isn't too much of a stretch. But Steve Vai and Ryuichi Sakamoto? Or better yet, Ginger Baker? (Especially odd since PiL played an April Fools' joke on the press by announcing his membership in the early '80s.) Strange bedfellows indeed, but the lineup makes for a surprisingly cohesive (if mediocre) rock record.
"Rise" proves that "This Is Not a Love Song" was no fluke, not Lydon's lone stab at pop accessibility. Successfully marrying rock with Celtic folk (a heavier Dexy's Midnight Runners?), Lydon's chorus is his most hospitable yet. Opener "FFF" and "Home" are other strong points, just as driving and defiant as anything from PiL's previous output. The former is as good as hard rock got in 1985. But "Album" can be found lacking in its reliance on outright professionalism and polish, emphasizing skill over craft. Vai's scorched shredding likely repelled Lydon's fans more than any of PiL's earlier attempts to alienate and frustrate. The 90-second wailing over closer "Ease" is anything but; at most points, Vai's playing just doesn't fit. Unfortunately, Yellow Magic Orchestra member Sakamoto pops up only a couple times. His talent is pretty much wasted here. On the whole, "Album" (or Compact Disc, or Cassette) is just as generic as its title.
PiL released the album "Happy?" in 1987, and during early 1988 performed throughout the United States as part of the INXS Kick tour. Bill Laswell, who produced PiL's previous album, was at one point supposed to produce "Happy?", but this idea fell through allegedly because Laswell wanted to replace the PiL line-up with his own session musicians (as had been the case with "Album"), a request John Lydon would not agree to. "Happy?" was ultimately produced by Gary Langan and PiL. The album produced the single "Seattle" as well as the abortion-themed single "The Body", a sequel of sorts to the similarly titled Sex Pistols song "Bodies". In 1989, PiL toured with New Order and The Sugarcubes as "The Monsters of Alternative Rock", an arrangement of disparate alternative bands that predated the Lollapalooza festival by two years. PiL's seventh studio album, "9" – so called as it was the band's ninth official album release, including the two live albums – appeared in early 1989 and featured the single "Disappointed". The album was produced by PiL, Stephen Hague and Eric "E.T." Thorngren.
In 1990, Public Image Limited's song "The Order of Death" (from "This is What You Want...This is What You Get") was prominently featured in Richard Stanley's movie "Hardware". That same year saw the release of PiL's first compilation album "The Greatest Hits, So Far", which featured one new song, the environmentally themed single "Don't Ask Me". The rest of the album consisted of previously released material (remixes of several songs were used rather than original album versions. Also, the album remake of "This is Not a Love Song" was included rather than the original single version). Lydon claims that he wanted the album to be 28 tracks long; the eventual 14-track listing was a compromise with Virgin Records (who, according to Lydon, originally wanted only 8 tracks). The compilation – which boasted album-sleeve artwork by Reg Mombassa – made No. 20 on the UK album charts.
PiL's last studio album of this period, 1992's "That What Is Not", included a sample from the Sex Pistols' song "God Save the Queen" in the song "Acid Drops" (the younger Lydon's voice is heard chanting the words, "No future, no future..." in the outro). Lydon disbanded the group a year later after Virgin Records refused to pay for the tour supporting the album, and Lydon had to pay for it out of his own pocket. The band's last concert was performed on 18 September 1992 with the line-up of Lydon, McGeoch, Ted Chau (guitar, keyboards), Mike Joyce of The Smiths (drums), and Russell Webb (bass). Allan Dias, PiL's bassist since the spring of 1986, quit the band in the summer of 1992, some months before PiL itself went on hiatus.
In September 2009 it was announced that PiL would reform for five UK shows, their first live appearance in 17 years. Lydon financed the reunion using money he earned doing a UK TV commercial for Country Life butter. On 15 October 2009, Lydon registered the private limited company PIL Twin Limited as his new music publishing company in the UK.
The new line-up (consisting of Lydon, earlier members Bruce Smith and Lu Edmonds, plus multi-instrumentalist Scott Firth) played to generally positive reviews in late 2009. The tour also spawned a live album release, "ALiFE 2009". In April 2010, PiL began an extensive North American tour, including a sub-headlining appearance at the Coachella Festival. The band played several European concerts in July 2010 and at the Summer Sonic Festival in Japan in August 2011.
On 30 November 2011, the band's own label PIL Official Limited was registered as a private limited company in the UK.
PiL released the vinyl-only EP "One Drop" in late April 2012, which was eventually made available for streaming. The new 12-track studio album, "This is PiL", followed in May. This is PiL was the band's first studio album in twenty years. 
PiL's tenth studio album, "What the World Needs Now..", was released in September 2015, with lead single "Double Trouble". On November 17, the group played "Double Trouble" on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.
1. All Music Guide to Rock. The Definitive Guide to Rock, Pop and Soul. 3rd Edition 2002. Edited by Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Published by Backbeat Books, page 898 - William Ruhlmann
2. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_Image_Ltd#Discography
3. All Music Guide to Rock. The Definitive Guide to Rock, Pop and Soul. 3rd Edition 2002. Edited by Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Published by Backbeat Books, page 898-899 - Andy Kellman
© Boar 2011 - 2019