December 6, 2015

45 RPMs 8: PIL (Public Image Ltd.) ~ Metal Box

photos by Styrous® 

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I've started the Vinyl series because I have a collection of over 20,000 vinyl record albums I am selling; each blog entry is about an album from my collection. Inquire for information here.   

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There were two Decembers in particular that were good to me in regards to Punk/New Wave music, 1979 and 1983.    

Sometime in December of 1979, I came across one of the many exciting and innovative albums produced in the late Punk era. It had just been released the month before but a copy of it was marked down because the cover was slightly "abused." Although I was familiar with the lead singer, I had never heard of the group. I bought it simply because I was intrigued by the packaging (always been a sucker for unique packaging).   

The album consists of three untitled 45-rpm 12-inch (30-cm) records . . .  


. . . all packaged in a metal box resembling a film canister with an embossed PIL logo on the lid.


From Wikipedia . . .

'Public Image Ltd (also known as PiL) is an English post-punk band formed by ex-Sex Pistols singer John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten), guitarist Keith Levene, bassist Jah Wobble, and drummer Jim Walker. Personnel has changed frequently over the ensuing years. Lydon is the sole constant member of the band.

Lydon emerged after the break-up of the Sex Pistols with PiL's Public Image: First Issue (1978). The new band had a more experimental sound: a "droning, slow-tempo, bass-heavy noise rock, overlaid by Lydon's distinctive, vituperative rant". Their early work is often regarded as some of the most challenging and innovative music of the post-punk era. Their 1979 album Metal Box was ranked number 469 on Rolling Stone magazine's 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The NME described PiL as "arguably the first post-rock group".'  

Public Image Ltd. ~ Metal Box w/liner notes

Metal Box was the second album by PIL. It was originally released in the metal box in an edition of 50,000 copies (plus an extra 10,000 for export). The design for Metal Box was the brainchild of Dennis Morris, photographer and designer. It was later reissued in more conventional packaging as a double LP set, Second Edition.   

Big Black produced an EP, Bulldozer, released in December of 1983, with the first two hundred copies packaged in a galvanized sheet metal sleeve in homage to Metal Box by Public Image Ltd. (see link below).  

Packaged in a 12" film can-style metal box. Sides are labelled Metal 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5, 1.6 on the info sheet and Metal 1-A, Metal 1-B, Metal 1-C, Metal 1-D, Metal 1-E and Metal 1-F on the record labels. Includes an A5 size sheet with tracklist and line-up.


Side B ends with a locked groove which repeats the last few seconds of "Swan Lake" endlessly until the needle is lifted from the record. The Runout for 1.B has three lines for the letters "B", the middle of which is superimposed over an "A". 

PIL (Public Image Ltd.) - circa 1978
 left to right:
photographer unknown

When I got it home I was completely blown away by what I heard. Metal Box features the band's dub reggae bass lines, glassy, arpeggio guitar work, and bleak, paranoid, stream of consciousness vocals. But Metal Box is starker than their first album, Public Image: First Issue, and it is scattered with bits of Eno-like ambient synthesiser.      

The songs
(Click on title to hear song)

Record 1, side A - Albatross - 10:32

Albatross is early Michael Jackson, Billie Jean (I've wondered if Michael had heard Albatross), with a hard but subtle steel-sounding guitar/synth? It sounds like it's recorded in a silent, echoey machine shop. It has an edge that bites, nicely but it does bite. The John Lydon vocal is sparse, distant and echoey. The guitar does some great stuff during some of the breaks.

Record 1, side B
B1 - Memories - 5:05
B2 - Swan Lake - 4:19

Memories starts with a fast bass guitar and bass drum beat that doesn't waste time in gettin' on with it. The tinny, echoey, guitar-sounding synthesizer does some great work in this piece. The vocal by Lydon is typically wacky, off-key and a lot of fun (imagine a mosh pit on steroids).

Swan Lake, the following cut, is a way cool interpretation of the Tchaikovsky work, Swan Lake. The bass guitar hesitantly peeps from around the curtain then leads the gang on to a determined march. Some fantastic instrumentals supporting the incomprehensible vocal of Lydon stroll around and eventually but sporadically bring in the motif. It is very nicely done. 

Record 2, side C
C1 - Poptones - 7:45
C2 - Careering - 4:32

Poptones is a kind of aimless song but not my favorite in the set. There is some great bass guitar work in it though.  

Record 2, side D
D1 - No Birds (Do Sing) - 4:43
D2 - Graveyard - 3:07 

No Birds (Do Sing) has a dissonant, disjointed and eerie edge to it that is disturbing, which is what punk was all about.     

Graveyard is slow, determined and methodical. It is dark and mysterious. It is a brilliant instrumental; a taste of New Wave at its finest.  

Record 3, side E
E1 - The Suit -3:29
E2 - Bad Baby - 4:30

The Suit is a weird, more spoken than sung song with Lydon doing some bizarre things but that also is the job of punk.        

Bad Baby has a strange double beat with a strange synth in the background and a very strange vocal by Lydon. I guess it's just a strange song.    

Record 3, side F - Socialist/Chant/Radio 4   - 12:31

Socialist is FAST! No foolin' around with this one. At 3:10 I couldn't wait for it to be over. Not good.

Chant is another determined guy. It moves on with a jerky insistent pace that makes me want to march right on out and do something; what, I don't know.  5:01.

Radio 4 starts almost reverently with an organ/synth joined by the bass guitar. It has a subtle waltz tempo and it also is an instrumental. It logs in at 4:24.  

Palladium Geneve, Switzerland. 26.10.1986

There is an interview with drummer David Humphrey that was first published on Fodderstompf, in April of 2004 (see link below).  

The album was recorded by Virgin Records, Ltd., a British record label founded by English entrepreneur Richard Branson, Simon Draper, Nik Powell and Tom Newman in 1972. The company grew to be a worldwide music phenomenon, with platinum performers such as Roy Orbison, Devo, Genesis, Keith Richards, Janet Jackson, the Human League, Culture Club, Simple Minds, Lenny Kravitz, dc Talk, the Smashing Pumpkins, Mike Oldfield, Spice Girls and many other artists. It was later sold to Thorn EMI in 1992.      

Wholly owned by Universal Music Group after its purchase of EMI in 2012, UMG absorbed its British operations to create Virgin EMI Records in March 2013, which absorbed Mercury Records UK.

Track listing:
Record 1
Side 1:
          A     Albatross - 10:32
Side 2:  
          B1     Memories - 5:05
          B2     Swan Lake - 4:19

Record 2
Side 1:  
          C1     Poptones - 7:45
          C2     Careering - 4:32
Side 2: 
          D1     No Birds - 4:43
          D2     Graveyard - 3:07

Record 3
Side 1:
          E1     The Suit -3:29
          E2     Bad Baby - 4:30
Side 2:
          F     Socialist/Chant/Radio 4    - 12:31                   


Note: Levene played all instruments on "Radio 4".
  • Nick Cook, Hugh Padgham, George Chambers - engineers
  • PiL, Dennis Morris - sleeve design and concept
  • The Metal Box Company - packaging 
Producer: Public Image, Ltd.  

Recorded March to October, 1979
Released November 23, 1979

 Length: 60:29

Label: Virgin

Net links:
Big Black ~ Bulldozer           
David Humphrey ~ Fodderstompf interview  

PIL (Public Image Ltd.) ~ Metal Box on YouTube:
Swan Lake          
No Birds         
The Suit            
Bad Baby           
Radio 4       

There was even more innovative work to follow!

Styrous® ~ Sunday, December 6, 2015

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