Sunday, November 23, 2014

metal box

Public Image Ltd got rid of the albatross of musical structure with the barbed beauty of this avante-noise dub catharsis.  Johnny Rotten reverted back to his real name of John Lydon after The Sex Pistols broke up during the tour for their seminal 'Never Mind The Bollocks...Here's The Sex Pistols'.  He formed a new band with former Clash guitarist Keith Levene and bassist Jah Wobble and they released their debut 'Public Image: First Issue'  in 1978.  

For their next album, the band produced the sessions themselves at The Manor Studio in Shipton-on-Cherwell; and in London at Townhouse Studios, Advision Studios, Gooseberry Sound Studios, and Rollerball Rehearsal Studios with John Lydon on vocals and piano;   Keith Levene on guitar, synthesizers, drums, and bass guitar;   and Jah Wobble on bass guitar, drums, and piano;   with David Humphrey, Richard Dudanski, and Martin Atkins playing drums on different tracks. 

Lydon considers:  “The Sex Pistols could be a little emotionless.  A song like Pretty Vacant, it isn’t really an emotion, it’s a stance. PiL was always heart and soul. It’s bare bones. I’m exposed and vulnerable up there...I was howling in bitter pain and agony. It was an incredibly hard time to go through ... I was born with a mind of utter chaos – non-stop thoughts. The only time I’ve really been able to relax my brain was when I was seriously ill. But I like it like this, ideas flowing to and fro all the time ... The subject matters I deal with dictate the music. Not the other way round. Putting some words to a catchy tune? There’s a little bit more to it. And to be true to the emotional content of each song and subject, well it sometimes requires extraordinary lengths. Sometimes you can use a verse/chorus format very appropriately, but not always. Were not limited to any hard or fast set of rules...I don’t know what it is, maybe its psychological, the tone of Uilleann bagpipes in me. I know that words work best with music. I would love to have been a writer but I would always have been disappointed because I would always know that the written word is just not enough. There’s just that extra bit that tones and sounds can add to a thing. If you can find exactly the right tones, you can create a bigger picture. A much more accurate picture. That’s what I do. That’s why I love songwriting...I’m only explaining it that way because I was brought up listening to folk music and pop music. All kinds of music really. It just seems for me the best way to explain how I feel, is by combining that with some kind of literature and the two compliment each other. Poetry in motion! Rather than sterile words on a page." 

Wobble:   "If it weren't for John [Lydon] I wouldn't have started playing bass. I knocked around with him in 1976. One day, he said: "I'm going to be in a band." It was that Emerson, Lake and Palmer period – no one I knew was in a band. It was like someone saying they were going to be a brain surgeon. But I picked up a bass, and it instantly felt right...When John came out of the Sex Pistols he was willing to take a chance and do something radical. Normally a rookie bass player would be told: "This is the chord change," but I could play what I liked. I was bored by most of the musicians around – they were conservative, almost bourgeois. John made a wise choice getting Keith.  He was freeform, very deft.  We were done with listening to punk and reggae. I was 19 and into jazz: [Lonnie] Liston Smith, Miles Davis's Dark Magus, Can's Halleluwah. Dub was a big influence, but we were moving beyond it. When we did Metal Box there was a great intensity – though it was only in the studio that it worked. The whole band was on different drugs; I was an uppers bloke. We were on different planes that only made sense when we played together.  Virgin gave us a load of money, but made sure we gave it back by spending it in their studio! We were put in this superstar gaff in Oxfordshire, and it became a big deal to get John out of the TV room to do the lyrics.   The Suit was about a minder friend of John's. Bad Baby was my nickname for Keith. Poptones is supposed to be about a girl being raped. But I remember one night we were off our heads in a Japanese car in the woods, and the cassette was playing pop music, and there was the smell of rubber on burning tar – exactly the scenario depicted in the lyrics. Coincidence?   Going on Top of the Pops to play Death Disco was a right laugh. I'd always wanted to get my teeth blacked out and look into the camera – mission accomplished! PiL are expressionist, like Jackson Pollock. I always say music follows art 30-odd years later, and I think we were like those New York loft dudes in the 1950s. I only did 20 or so shows with PiL. We're in our 50s now and playing it again for fun – cup of tea, some shows, have a laugh – but fuck, it sounds good."

Levene:   "John had been this chancer walking down the road in an I Hate Pink Floyd T-shirt, and he stepped up and did a good job in the Sex Pistols. I was in the Clash. He asked me to do this thing if the Pistols split up.   We were under pressure on the first album. But by the time we worked on Metal Box we'd established we were PiL, not the Sex Pistols. We could do what we wanted.   Metal Box was created with instruments and notes, but no talking between us. It's telepathy – Wobble and me just have that, even now. We don't compose; we allow the music to happen. None of it was written before we went in the studio, but everybody had loads of ideas. We just said to the engineers, 'Keep the red [recording] button on.' We made up Death Disco on the spot. Wobble had this bassline and I played Swan Lake over it. People thought I was classically trained, which was bollocks. I knew the E chord, and ventured into E minor.   We laid the music out on a plate for Lydon. He was very hip at the time and did really good work – his lyrics are powerful. It has to suck when your mum dies, but he handled it well considering what was going on.   There was a lot of vitriol, but it was a magic time and I wouldn't swap any of it. People said Metal Box was avant garde, but we didn't expect that in 30-odd years' time people would be talking about a seminal record. It cost us £33,000 of our advance to put it out as three 12in singles in a tin shaped like a pill! Now it's a collector's item."

'Metal Box' was released in a metal film canister with three 12-inch records inside.  Lydon says:  “The packaging was awkward in the extreme.  It was impossible to open, and you couldn’t get the records out."

'Metal Box' reached one hundred and seventy-one in the US, twenty-one in New Zealand, and eighteen in the UK.  The album was deleted from their catalogue and re-issued as a double album (with a slightly different song order) entitled 'Second Edition'  without all of the fancy packaging.   'Second Edition'  went to twenty-eight in New Zealand and twenty-six in the UK.

Lydon: "It's straight out of the Daily Mirror, so I can't guarantee its authenticity..This was another newspaper story which fascinated me. A girl bundled blindfolded into the back of a car by a couple of bad men and driven off into a forest, where they eventually dumped her. The men had a cassette machine with an unusual tune on the cassette, which they kept playing over and over. The girl remembered the song, and that, along with her recollection of the car and the men's voices, is how the police identified them. The police eventually stopped the car and found the cassette was still in the machine, with the same distinctive song on the tape."
Levene: "I think 'Poptones' was one of the first things we recorded...That's our second attempt at that ...Basically, for me, the track goes on too fucking long..I was playing 'Starship Trooper' the other day and I thought fuck me, that is exactly what I'm doing in 'Poptones'!...[The guitar part] is totally ripped off from 'Starship Trooper', but I didn't do it on purpose."
Wobble: “I still see that tune as the jewel in the PIL crown...That line is as symmetrical as a snowflake. To give him his due Levene went mental for it. We were at The Manor. We had a drummer [David Humphrey] with us who was pretty good – he played on one of my solo tracks ['Beat the Drum For Me'] – but the bloke just couldn't get the right feel for 'Poptones'...In the end Levene put the drums down on that track, his drums are a bit loose, but that is actually a good thing ...I think the lyrics to 'Poptones', in part at least, refer to a journey we took in Joe the roadie's Japanese car out around the country lanes of Oxfordshire...Joe had one of his dodgy cassettes playing...I don't know if John is aware that the geezer driving the Nissan in question went on to do well in the computer games lark."

"Swan Lake / Death Disco"
 Lydon: "When I had to deal with my mother's death, which upset the fuck out of me, I did it partly through music. I had to watch her die slowly of cancer for a whole year. I wrote 'Death Disco' about that. I played it to her just before she died and she was very happy. That's the Irish in her, nothing drearily sympathetic or weak. Like her you've got to really get to grips with your emotions and attack them, confront them head on. You won't solve things any other way. It works for me, I can't run away from things."
Levene: "We booked a place in Brixton which was just an empty hall just to test this three-bass sound system, that was a turbo rig that I wanted to use at the Rainbow. Because we were in sound system situations, we were making up new tunes – that's when 'Death Disco' was emerging...One tune we definitely had was 'Death Disco', cause we worked that with Jim but we didn't record him...I didn't know what he was singing about at the time...I realised that this tune that I was bastardising by mistake was 'Swan Lake', so I started playing it on purpose but I was doing it from memory. You can hear that I'm not playing it exactly right. It just worked...There's a few versions of that. The one on 'Metal Box' is version two, which is very different from the simpler, original [12-inch] version."

"Radio 4"
Levene played all the instruments himself:   "I called it 'Radio 4' because in England, you got Radio One, Two, Three, Radio One played pop tunes. Before that, the BBC was so boring! It took until about 1985 before we had FM radio...With 'Radio 4', I was just alone in the studio one night, and I was overwhelmed with the sense of space. I just took everything out of the studio, moved the drum kit out and played everything myself, reproducing this sense of cold spaciousness I felt around me. That was me playing the bass, I played what I thought people would identify as a Wobble bassline. But it was my pattern."

'Metal Box'
full album:

1. "Albatross"   10:34
2. "Memories"   5:05
3. "Swan Lake"   4:11
4. "Poptones"   7:46
5. "Careering"   4:32
6. "No Birds"   4:41
7. "Graveyard"   3:07
8. "The Suit"   3:29
9. "Bad Baby"   4:30
10. "Socialist"   3:09
11. "Chant"           5:01
12. "Radio 4"   4:24

'Second Edition'

full album:

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