How "Metal Box" Engineered a Genre: on Public Image Ltd. and Post-Punk

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by Erin Christie

1977 is largely regarded as the year that classic punk died, and primarily because of Sex Pistols. Following the release of “God Save the Queen”—and its immediate ban by the BBC—the Sex Pistols were essentially declared Public Enemy No. 1. Sex Pistols lead singer Johnny Rotten (aka John Lydon) began to fear for his life after an onslaught of hecklers essentially declared him the devil-incarnate in response to the single; this sparked massive change. Lydon began to distance himself from his Rotten persona in attempts to rehumanize; he became less willing to take risks and less willing to offend people. Needless to say, things began to crumble for the band, too. 

1977’s Never Mind the Bollocks introduced the world to a more commercialized, consumable version of the once unorthodox, risk-taking scoundrels they once knew, and it was not received well. With this record and the later departure of Rotten in January ‘78, it was clear that if a cultural phenomenon like the Sex Pistols was dying, then punk was dying...or rather, it needed a change. 

Parallel to Lydon’s internal crisis as the frontman of one of the most controversial acts of the time, Keith Levene (former Clash guitarist) found himself in a similar boat. Levene existed in a world of his own, and that was part of what kickstarted his estrangement from the rest of the Clash—his harsh, discordant style was consistently at odds with the group’s anthemic rock’n’roll tendencies, and that created a riff. It wasn’t “creative differences” that ultimately caused the end, though; the final nail in Levene’s coffin was his negative attitude, rendering him in need of an act to lend his talents to.

Enter: Public Image Limited.

“PiL was shaped by Levene and Lydon’s disgust with their previous bands’ relapses into American hard-rock tradition,” said Simon Reynolds in his 2005 book, Rip It up and Start Again: Post-Punk 1978-84. Joined by Jah Wobble on bass and Jim Walker on drums, Public Image Ltd. began with a set goal: it was the child of innovation, in the vein of starting something completely unheard of and abandoning the past.

Capitalizing on the monster that society had become, bogusly image-obsessed and constantly after the next public scandal, the group settled on their name—the “Limited” essentially signified Lydon’s desire to disassociate with any of his past Johnny Rotten-isms, to keep his persona under a tighter leash than he had in the past. With this new side of Lydon, there was a distinct vulnerability, and it was obvious he was affected by the way the media and the general public viewed him: “We were fighting off Sex Pistols nonsense, with a lot of people telling that [we’d] sold out and God-knows-what,” Lydon explained (Fortnam, Louder Than Sound). He wanted to make clear that trying to be “popstars” was exactly the opposite of what they were trying to do. If anything, he and the rest of his bandmates were attempting to start over, shedding their punk overcoats for tailored suits. With Levene and Lydon abandoning their punk image, Public Image was a means to an end, and for the most part, that meant taking a complete 180.

Most notably, the band’s 1979 record Metal Box (packaged in an actual “metal box” but later referred to as Second Edition when re-shelved as a double LP) completely changed the standard in terms of just about everything; it challenged the limits of genre in a way unprecedented and introduced the world to a new idea: post-punk.

As Observer writer Tim Sommer details, “Beautiful, strange, spontaneous, frightening, skeletal, spacious, arid and elegiac: Metal Box by Public Image Limited is made up of the bleached white bones of art rock, disco and reggae, reassembled into a gorgeous noise that defies easy description.” Post-punk’s saving grace was its ability to mix-and-match multiple different influences in a way that didn’t make sense, but also made the most sense at the same time. Metal Box is the pinnacle of that.

With Metal Box—their debut record, which featured a lot of scrapped Sex Pistols tracks with a Krautrock or reggae twist, now behind them—this was PiL’s chance to completely spin everything on its head, to separate from the mainstream (note, Lydon’s spooky, clown-ish vocals on “The Suit”). Needless to say, considering its impact over 40 years later and a spot on Rolling Stones “500 Best Albums of All Time,” they achieved just that.

Tracks such as “No Birds” and “Albatross” pan out in a typical post-punk manner, exhibiting speak-singing vocal stylings, spaced-out key playing, and rhythmic bass. This amounts in chaotic, yet minimalistic spills that feel all too necessary. As the record continues, though, they touch on every style under the sun, largely influenced by Lydon’s enlightening trip to Jamaica in the late 70s. The record’s close, “Radio 4,” for example, is strictly instrumental, displaying light, feathery orchestral tones as opposed to the nightmarish, synth-leaning bodies on tracks such as “Socialist.” It’s tracks like these that are key in describing their far-leaning turn away from punk rock, showing that they really had no interest in making music for the masses, but rather, for themselves.

Lyrically, too, Metal Box is impeccable. From his work with the Pistols, it was already a well-known fact that Lydon is a wordsmith at heart, and continuing with his work with PiL, his vision remained clear. 

Track “Poptones” has a distinctly dark undertone from the gate; Lydon wails, even before the lyrical content begins. Spanning a devastating almost 8-minutes, the song describes the murder/rape of an unsuspecting victim, having been taken to the woods, not for a picnic, but to meet their end, all while the “cassette played pop tones.” The song itself has more of a classic rock feel, displaying conventional, mega-simple, melodic bass lines and the perfect amount of reverb.

“Careering” is just as bleak: it begins with a shrill squawk of some kind of bird (mimicking a horrifying yelp), panning out in ominous synths. Your heart begins to pound as it unfolds the story of a military gunman, making his career off of murder: “There must be meaning / Behind the moaning / Spreading tales / Like coffin nails,” Lydon wobbles in his haunting drawl, giving the track an even more eery feel. It’s a nightmarish sequence that brings about this feeling of unease, and that’s exactly the point: the pride of the country has been built on bloodshed. 

Records such as this have an ability to take a hold of your shoulders, shake you around, and empty your pockets of their change and your head of any thoughts that aren’t about said album. 

With their legacy considered, though, Metal Box is only touching the surface. As Reynolds continued, “Indeed, there’s a sense in which musical golden ages engineer their own endings. Records such as Metal Box and [Joy Division’s] Unknown Pleasures, by dint of their very originality, ensure that they’ll be copied by lesser groups whose imaginations have been overpowered” (1021). In the wake of the takeover of bands such as PiL, Joy Division, Gang of Four, and Talking Heads—the primary pioneers—a new underground of similar groups, such as Killing Joke and The Sound, sprung up, putting pressure on the originators to keep forging their initial path. 

Years since their early days and a few records, hundreds of interviews, numerous documentaries, and thousands of live gigs later, Public Image Ltd. still hasn’t fallen to the wayside. From the gate, their impact was apparent, and decades later, bands have continued to crop up, citing Lydon and PiL as major influences.

As Lydon asserted in Public Image’s lead, eponymous single, “Public image belongs to me / It’s my own creation, my grand finale,” and in a few ways, he was right. Though people recognize him most for his punk alter-ego, the PiL-era Lydon really changed the world, giving a voice to a whole new genre.

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