Tackling the 10 best Public Image Ltd. songs is a daunting task. First question is, who exactly is PiL? Yes, there is a recent album called This Is PiL that some might think answers the question, but on PiL’s first record, First Issue, released in 1978, PiL was John Lydon, Keith Levene, Jah Wobble, and Jim Walker. They said they were a communications company not a band. They were interested in making movies, soundtracks, and breaking down the barriers between audience and performers at their live gigs. They wanted to communicate with as many different modes as possible, something that never really came to light (the band spoke a lot about it but never released anything beyond music).
In fact the band included non-musical personnel like videographer/PR person Jeannette Lee (in 1987 she became a manager at Rough Trade Records and also managed Pulp and the Cranberries), who was photographed for the cover of Flowers Of Romance. Photographer Dennis Morris (best known for his photos of the Sex Pistols and Bob Marley, who was also the art director at Island Records and a member of the group Basement 5) was also a member of PiL. He did all of the band’s photography until 1980, including the photos on First Issue and Metal Box; he also designed the PiL logo, and came up with the concept of the Metal Box film canister. It was supposedly an equal creative divide between all group members (although when it came down to money, Lydon took something like 50% while the others split the rest). On the band’s second record, Metal Box (aka Second Edition), it was Lydon, Levene, Wobble, and a rotating cast of drummers which eventually led to Martin Atkins becoming PiL’s permanent drummer (he played on one song on Metal Box, “Bad Baby”). On the third album, Flowers Of Romance, founding member Wobble was out of the band, and Levene and Lydon provided most of the percussion, with Atkins contributing to only three songs, and Levene taking on the bass for the two songs that actually had bass on them. The next official record, This Is What You Want … This Is What You Get, saw the parting of Levene, and Atkins (who is the longest standing member of PiL besides Lydon, serving from 1979-1985 with a break between 1980-1982) getting more involved in writing, and drumming on more than a track or three. The new PiL sound was a huge departure from its avant-garde beginnings — much more commercial-sounding, with session musicians and some harsh ’80s production that plagued most of the material from then on.
In 2009 John Lydon put a version of PiL back together with money he earned from doing a Country Life Butter commercial. This time he had his own record label, PiL Official, and answered to no one. Much to the disappointment of fans, neither Keith Levene nor Jah Wobble were invited to the party — something that seemed appropriate as it was the 30th anniversary of their classic album Metal Box. Instead he appointed ex-Damned guitarist Lu Edmunds (who also played in PiL from 1986-1988), drummer Bruce Smith (ex-Pop Group/Slits) who was in PiL from 1986-1990, and Scott Firth, who has played with Elvis Costello and, ahem, the Spice Girls. The album, This Is PiL, came out last year and was a welcome surprise with a few good songs that seemed to bring the early days of PiL to mind (to an extent). But there are of course a few clunkers to even it out.
Levene and Wobble decided to get together for a small tour dubbed “Metal Box In Dub.” They recruited drummer Marc Layton-Bennett and singer Nathan Maverick (of the Sex Pistols Experience) to perform all of Metal Box and even threw in songs like “Public Image” and “Theme” for good measure. In recent weeks Levene has taken to Twitter to promote a new album of solo material, Search4AbsoluteZero, available from his website. He’s also posted a brief excerpt from an autobiography he’s penned called This is Not An Autobiography: The Diary Of A Non-Punk Rocker, with promises of more excerpts to come, and a book in the near future.
A reissue of PiL’s first single, “Public Image,” is going to be available on Record Store Day, this Saturday, April 20. Also a reissue of First Issue, the band’s first record, will be reissued on June 18, and will be the first time it’s officially released in the US.
Before the departure of every original member of PiL, aside from John Lydon, they were a band that wrote music together and created a concept that alienated everyone, from Sex Pistols fans to rock music fans in general — the idea that rock and roll was dead. They recorded most songs in one take, written through improvisation, which embraced dissonance, spontaneity, dub, and all-around weirdness. They were the antithesis of arena rock, maintaining their punk rock aesthetic but with the exclusion of power chords, and the omission of the verse-chorus-verse structure. They spent a lot of their studio time drugged up, watching TV, and playing Space Invaders, but when it came time to finish an album, they’d get in the studio and bang out the tracks. They were drunk, high, and discontented, but the music was genius. In the words of Robert Christgau (from notes he took on an early show they did at NY’s Roseland Ballroom), “The band showed up.” In the case of First Issue, Metal Box, and The Flowers Of Romance, that seemed to be all they needed to do. Something was lost after that — namely the band.
After Levene left they started including “Anarchy In The UK” in their live shows (considering Lydon’s statements about rock and roll being dead and useless, history being worthless and the idea of leaving the past in the past and moving forward with PiL, this came as quite a surprise). For the next six albums the line-up went through constant changes and included studio musicians and guest spots from the likes of Steve Vai and Ginger Baker.
In an effort to be fair I’ve chosen to select songs from their entire catalogue. PiL’s been around a long time, and I know some will think this list could be completely different. That’s fine, totally understandable, and probably right.
10. “Don’t Ask Me” (from The Greatest Hits, So Far, 1990)
In 1990 PiL put out the compilation The Greatest Hits, So Far and included one new song called “Don’t Ask Me.” The infectious dance-rock tune tackles environmental issues that are largely ignored and has Lydon lecturing about what the future might hold. I love this song in the same way I love Fred Schneider and the B-52’s — it’s catchy and hilarious. The lyrics and production are amazingly bad and it includes the hilarious line: “Swimming in the slurry/ Burning in the heat/ Wind blown is the weather/ I eat what you secrete.” I eat what you secrete. Thanks, John.
9. “Rise” (from Album, 1986)
Released 5 days after Lydon won a long, hard-fought court case against ex-Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren, and featured on Album, “Rise” hit No. 11 on the UK charts and was one of PiL’s biggest hits. The song stems from a pamphlet Lydon had read about South African apartheid police interrogation techniques, and a lot of the lyrics are quotes from many of the actual victims. Full of catchy hooks, featuring the memorable refrain “anger is an energy” and some clichéd ’80s production, the song has a surprisingly positive feel to it while the subject matter is absolutely harrowing.
8. “Flowers Of Romance” (from The Flowers Of Romance, 1981)
This single, off the album of the same name, is a good representation of the album’s sound — strange, sparse, and beyond experimental. At this point Levene pretty much abandoned guitar for synth and tape loops, and Jah Wobble was out of the band. They bowed a bass like a cello and used heavy percussion for the backing tracks while Lydon riffed about dismissing romantic notions about the past and moving forward. “Flowers Of Romance” was also the name of the short-lived band started by Keith Levene and Sid Vicious before Vicious joined the Sex Pistols.
7. “The Order Of Death” (from This Is What You Want … This Is What You Get, 1984)
Originally intended to be on the soundtrack for the movie you never saw of the same name, starring John Lydon alongside Harvey Keitel (the movie was called The Order Of Death in the UK, Cop Killer in the rest of Europe, and Corrupt in the US), it was never used. It was first put out on the Keith Levene-released Commercial Zone where it was called “The Slab.” After Levene left PiL he took the original unfinished tapes for the album they were working on, mixed them, and released them on a label he called PiL Records Inc., without the rest of the band’s consent. He was sent a cease-and-desist notice, and production of the record stopped after the initial 30,000 copies were pressed. It was rerecorded for the official PiL album This Is What You Want … This Is What You Get and given the new name “The Order Of Death.” It’s eerie with a memorable repetitive guitar line and features the phrase “This is what you want/ This is what you get,” over and over as the only vocal, aside from some echoing screams in the background. As it was intended for a soundtrack it was eventually used in the movies The Blair Witch Project and Hardware, in addition to an episode of Miami Vice titled “Little Miss Dangerous.” It sounds mildly Twin Peaks-ish.
6. “One Drop” (from This Is PiL, 2012)
A nice surprise from This Is PiL, “One Drop” returns to the dub sounds of early PiL with a guitar sound based on Levene’s unique style from the old days. Lydon sings about his teenage years in Finsbury Park yearningly, while pronouncing, “We are the ageless/ We are teenagers.” The only thing missing here is Wobble and Levene.
5. “Careering” (From Metal Box, 1979)
This is the song from which the Rapture stole the vocal melody for their own less impressive track “Echoes.” Anyway, “Careering,” off of Metal Box, featured Jah Wobble on both bass and drums, giving them a consistent almost drum-machine like sound, while Keith Levene generated layers and layers of sound from a Prophet-5 synthesizer. There’s no distinct verse or chorus part and Lydon produces some of his best lyrical content to date: “A face is raining/ Across the border/ The pride of history/ The same as murder/ Is this living?/ He’s been careering.” It’s haunting and creepy and the synths sometimes sound like a swarm of locusts while the percussion emulates a nightmarish marching sound getting closer and closer throughout.
4. “Bad Baby” (from Metal Box, 1979)
The song served as Martin Atkin’s audition for the band and ended up on Metal Box (the recording being the actual audition). Wobble played a repetitive bass line while Levene’s synths pop in and out like random sirens on top of a disco beat. Lydon’s vocals are ghostly and the melody is a personal favorite of mine. Keith Levene would insist that the song was about him, explaining that “Bad Baby” was one of his many nicknames. “Ignore it and it’ll go away,” is the only doubled vocal on the track, maybe about Levene’s heroin addiction? Levene himself?
3. “This Is Not A Love Song” (From This Is What You Want … This Is What You Get, 1983)
The song that put the final nail in the Lydon/Levene collaborative coffin was also the highest-charting PiL single ever, reaching No. 5 and remaining in the charts for 10 weeks. The 7″ and 12″ releases would be the last to feature Levene on a PiL track, while Lydon would re-record it for This Is What You Want … This Is What You Get. The two had a huge argument about the direction of the mix and that was the end. Levene left. At the time Levene’s heroin use was really heavy, and Lydon’s ego apparently inflated. The band was heading in a direction far from what Levene had envisioned, and he had to leave, “If things get too far from how I want them to be then fuck it, I’ll just walk away from it,” he said of leaving the band in Phil Strongman’s book Metal Box: Stories From John Lydon’s Public Image Limited. He said the band couldn’t go on the way it was, “…in PiL’s situation, it couldn’t have carried on because we had come to hate each others guts.” Lydon has said in interviews he would never work with Levene again. The song was written in response to a request from Virgin to make a hit; a love song was suggested. Lydon responded with a song about greed and money and a possible laugh at his own band’s newer, more commercial sound (which was a conscious decision). The video for the song is as good as the song itself.
2. “Public Image” (From Public Image: First Issue, 1978)
PiL’s first single, and our introduction to the post-Sex Pistols John Lydon, starts with a few “hellos” and ends with a big “goodbye.” Lydon rips into everyone from the tabloid media to his Sex Pistols crowd of hanger-ons: “You only see me for the clothes that I wear.” His new band would wash away any idea that they were a Sex Pistols sequel right from the start. Wobble’s rumbling bass kicks it off and Levene’s double-tracked guitar kicks in with his fingers in constant motion, and not a power chord or blues lick to be found. Lydon sings through a space echo and the mix is very rough. It’s rumored that Levene wanted Ted Nugent to produce PiL’s first record, and Virgin were on board, but that never happened. “Public Image” appeared on their very raw-sounding debut, First Issue, and was only released in the UK — it was apparently too rough-sounding to be released in the US. Don Letts would direct the promo video and the story of PiL would begin.
1. “Death Disco” aka “Swan Lake” (from Metal Box, 1979)
One of PiL’s darkest moments, “Death Disco” (also called “Swan Lake” on Metal Box) was a song Lydon wrote about his mother who was dying of cancer at the time. He apparently played her the track before she died and she loved it. The name “Death Disco” stems from the obvious subject and the drumbeat played by David Humphrey (who would only play on this and “Albatross”). The name “Swan Lake” came from the guitar melody Levene based his guitar part on, from the Tchaikovsky score of the same name (there were rumors that Levene was a classically trained musician, but he’s never addressed that). The sleeve for the single was a painting by John Lydon and the video was a dark and creepy sequel to the “Public Image” promo. The single earned them a spot on Top Of The Pops, where Lydon would perform the song with his back to the audience and Wobble would play sitting down flaunting a huge grin with one of his teeth blacked out.