JUNE 7, 2017
ARTIST: PUBLIC IMAGE, LTD.
RELEASED 1981 ON 7” AND 12” 45
Public Image, Ltd. never aimed low. They chased goals that others didn’t see, vying for total musical freedom and as much career control they could muster on a major record label.
After leaving the Sex Pistols in 1978, John “Rotten” Lydon hooked up with guitarist Keith Levene, formerly of the Clash, and a succession of other players, notably bassist Jah Wobble and drummer Jim Walker. While making three contentious, scabby, but interesting albums, PiL shed and gained members. Wobble departed for solo work, Jeannette Lee joined as an imagist/videographer, Walker left to be replaced by Martin Atkins, Atkins gradually fell out with Levene, Levene gradually fell out with Lydon.
By the time of the collective’s fourth LP, the Flowers of Romance, it was down to Lydon, Levene (most of the time), Atkins (some of the time), and engineer Nick Launay banging on strange instruments and using loops, echo, and other effects. I consider it groundbreaking, a brilliant and fascinating work with no precedent and no antecedent.
Some songs were lyrically representational. “Francis Massacre” concerned Lydon’s three-month imprisonment in Ireland, awaiting trial on trumped-up charges that were immediately dismissed. The parade of people wanting to meet Lydon inspired “Banging the Door,” while the searing “Go Back” mocked the right-wing fascism gripping Britain in the early 80s.
Without a real band to work with, PiL allowed itself freedom to turn weird impulses loose. Drums were either dominating (if by Atkins) or tentative (if by Levene). There was metal without guitars, punk without bass, medieval strings and tolling bells, muezzin yelping, ticking watches, ominous synthesizers, spoken asides, grinding percussion, goofy solos…and Lydon matched the moods of the songs with appropriate deliveries of strange, disaffected lyrics.
The album’s single was “The Flowers of Romance,” which was as good a choice of any—at least it had a beat. But flip it over and you get a great song released only as a b-side.
“Home Is Where the Heart Is” reaches seven minutes with its enveloping psychedelic dub. Even now, it is not clear who plays on this recording; Levene claims to have made loops of Wobble and Atkins’ playing and created the track himself. A demo of the song from 1980, however, points to Wobble and Atkins actually playing on the record, despite the songwriting credits listing PiL’s first drummer, Jim Walker.
When I first heard it in 1981 it was like being sucked into a sonic vacuum cleaner, Levene’s aggressive guitar picking and chording swelling in and out of the mix, the hypnotic drum and bass, and Lydon’s simple melody and lyrics which seem to be contrasting banal everyday life with a deep emotional emergency.
I got the oven repaired; this was security and luxury.
Home is where the heart is; the daily paper and the carpet.
My body burns.
By geography, I’m not a stranger
My fingers burn my body burns
I’m practicing I’m separating.