Public Image Limited’s seminal Metal Box was famously originally released in a “metal” film canister, therefore it’s slightly incongruous reviewing an umpteenth version via stream, the stark physicality of the original release in 1979’s mid-Winter a symbol of artistic licence, the message that of “product”, a commodity as a group and also as an artefact. (A first reissue, Second Edition, followed in 1980 which had the group’s distorted images on the sleeve). Buy the product, be an investor.
If ever an album could be said to reflect and refract the social climate then it’s this; arguably nothing since has forensically documented societal fracture and decay (Thatcher’s neo-liberal project and atomisation of “(no such thing as) society” was less than a year in, the UK was monochrome and bleak). These themes are allied to the personal suffering and grief-emission of John Lydon, whose Mother’s protracted death from cancer is the subject of ‘Swan Lake/Death Disco’, a cathartic meltdown that still sounds traumatic almost 40 years on: “See it in your eyes”. Pain and helplessness as sound.
1978’s eponymous album signified the break from Malcom McLaren’s clutches and a reclamation of individual identity and autonomy for Lydon; the troika, augmented by (proto-Clash member) Keith Levene and John “Jah Wobble” Wardle were a cohesive and formidable proposition from the start.
Opener, the 10 minute ‘Albatross’ finds Lydon glibly uttering “getting rid of the albatross”, Lydon relinquishing his “Rotten” past, shedding the millstone round his neck, “running along on the crest of a wave” defiantly and definitely not running “away” from anything, wrestling back the public/mediatised perception of him. Entwined with Wobble’s dubby-dancefloor grooves and Levene’s lacerating, screeching guitar, it’s an unsettling entrée.
The past/passed features heavily in ‘Memories’, its “you make me feel ashamed” tongue-lashing ambiguous as to who the object of ire is, be it former “representations” or representatives’.
Ever hypnotic and terrifying, ‘Poptones’ (based on the remembered testimonies of a kidnapped girl) exhibits Lydon’s idiosyncratic wailing, often imitated: never bettered.
The synth-heavy instrumental ‘Radio 4’ foresees the “hauntology” work of the Ghostbox label, a spooky snark at the radio channel of the “cognoscenti”, Levene performing it all.
This was the last time the trio would record as internecine quarrelling saw Wobble leave in 1980 and Levene in 1983.
Time has not withered the impact of this album, unprecedented, uncomfortable and unique it also (distressingly) articulates the current political/cultural/societal “hypernormalisation”: collective psychic stasis and paralysis, all that’s changed is “names and faces”. The song remains the same.
It also illustrates (once more) the lack of progressive momentum in music in general, that primal desire to “rip it up and start again”, deck-clearing long replaced by chair-arranging: innovation to imitation. Now, that’s depressing.
This reissue-redux-deluxe features radio and television sessions, live renditions (always worth it to hear Lydon’s stage provocations) and rarities (‘Pied Piper’).
Also (re)released in extended-format is 1986’s ‘rockist’ Album (c.f. Cassette and CD), featuring the peerless ‘Rise’ and numbering Ginger Baker and Steve Vai amongst the collective.
Metal Box is out now via Universal.