Friday, May 9, 2014

Public Image Ltd.: Second Edition

At the end of the Sex Pistols’ final American performance, The Artist Then Known As Johnny Rotten looked out to the audience and said, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” While a seemingly taunting remark, it was actually an acknowledgment of his position as a pawn in somebody else’s joke. With the band effectively over, he resolved to do everything his way from then on, and not be used by anyone.
Step one for John Lydon was reclaiming his name; step two was forming a new band. Public Image got their name from their first single; this was soon amended to reflect his desire to “limit” said image in favor of their music. Hence, Public Image Ltd. (or PiL, per their logo). Very British, don’t you know.
Their first album wasn’t released in the States, and their second album had an even stranger route. Metal Box consisted of three 12-inch 45s crammed into a film canister, with only a slip of paper listing the song titles. Cheaply made and susceptible to damage, it was eventually rejigged as a two-record set at standard LP speed and retitled Second Edition.
Just as the Pistols showed a generation of amateurs that anyone could be in a band, PiL followed on the post-punk example of Joy Division and the like, creating songs from the barest of frameworks and instrumental direction. Keith Levene, who’d been kicked out of an early lineup of the Clash, contributed anarchic guitar parts, as well as synthesizer. Jah Wobble was a self-taught bass player fond of reggae and dub. Both filled in on drums on Second Edition whenever the band was in between full-time sticksmen; this would explain why many of the tracks seem to go out of sync from time to time. The singer’s whiny yell has evolved into a low croon, with occasional bleating to remind us who he was, eschewing the verse/chorus format for stream-of-consciousness patter and murky imagery.
The album is an assault, beginning with the ten-minute “Albatross” (as in “getting rid of the”) and the edgy “Memories” (as in “this person’s had enough of useless”). “Swan Lake” gets its title from the Tchaikovsky quote badly played by Keith Levene throughout; as a single, this was called “Death Disco”. “Poptones” and “Careering” form a fascinating pair, lengthy anti-songs chosen to be mimed on American Bandstand, of all things.
The second half of the non-metal version of the album kicks off with instrumentals: the Krautrock-influenced “The Socialist” and an alternate mix of a B-side, here called “Graveyard” mixed in favor of the guitar. From there the album gets increasingly challenging: “The Suit” skewering society; the seemingly spontaneous “Bad Baby”; the utter random construction of “No Birds”. “Chant” piles everything on, with a maddening drum attack, Lydon repeating “love war fear hate” for five minutes on one track while the main vocal gets even more paranoid. And with the effect of a radio changing stations, “Radio 4” provides a perverse Enoesque synth coda.
Second Edition is not easy listening, and some will say it’s not music; those who can endure it will find it mesmerizing. And for that, Public Image Ltd. accomplished exactly what it set out to do.

Public Image Ltd. Second Edition (1980)—3

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