1978 opened with the end of Johnny Rotten fronting the Sex Pistols after their tour concluded in an infamous San Francisco gig. Closing that year, the original release of First Issue by his band, Public Image Ltd., documents astonishing growth. Punk endures on “Low Life” and “Attack” but these tracks diminish next to bolder standouts on PiL’s prickly, messy ten-song debut.
“I wish I could die” hisses John Lydon, resurrected under his rightful name, determined to shake off the Pistols’ “terminal boredom” as the appropriately titled “Theme”‘s last spoken words betray. The song shakes and sways over Jah Wobble’s trademark bass, into a mix so heavy that Warner Brothers refused a domestic release for the album. (PiL gave in and re-recorded tracks after the label ordered them to, but most of that U.S. version never was released.) Keith Levene’s guitar grinds and squeals. Unfortunately, his contribution to post-punk tends to be relegated to a footnote alongside his membership in early incarnations of The Clash and (a pre-Sid Vicious) The Flowers of Romance.
Levene and Wobble invent an anti-rock fusion akin to reggae rhythm section Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare: supporting a wild-haired wailer: with massive confidence and utter freedom, the pair scratches, thumps, and thuds. Shifting the support from drums to guitar but advancing the bass, this crusty, metallic foundation collides off Jim Walker’s slow, bashing, basic percussion. Certainly, dub warped into punk for many of the 1970s rebels against the system, and post-punk as here pioneered plunges the listener into a maelstrom.
Over this squall, which skews rock (Lydon denies it but what category contains this?) into noise, elongated dance, and chant, Lydon lets rip. “Religion” repeats, first as a confession of disgust with clerical hypocrisy in a time when such a naked entry may have surprised listeners expecting rants. Nowadays, contempt for ecclesiastical malfeasance has turned common chat, but even for a singer as controversial as Lydon from a scene known for iconoclasm, this turned a few ears red around me.
I heard this LP as soon as it was imported (given Warner’s dissent stateside), as my classmates played it in the music room of our Catholic high school. I admit back then the novelty of the declaimed disdain wore off rapidly, although the musically enhanced reprise as track three stirs its curdled lyrics into a dense, dismal concoction. The song lumbers on, daring the hearer to skip it, but the fingered piano stands out as one offbeat, typically grating moment in a straightforward, mid-tempo, not-quite-rock song. “Religion II” proves less distinctive than what would follow, but its phased guitar anticipates the blistering songs that make about half of this record so distinctive.
It’s easy to reconstruct what Warner Brothers feared as “Annalisa” begins. Wobble’s bass totters as Walker’s drums crash under Levene’s hesitantly plucked notes or attenuated chords. I bet this would have been grimly exciting to hear in concert. Lydon recites a tale of a young German woman’s demonic possession. After repeated exorcisms, her parents let her perish from starvation. The efficient tom-tom fills and the dryly mastered, claustrophobic ambiance of this in the studio, via this handsome re-release by Light In the Attic, improves on the original CD German import I had long kept safe. It conveys some of the analog starkness sustained on my original vinyl version. Techniques premiered here were perfected on the following year’s LP experimental Music Box (again import only, as Americans had to be content with the inferior, re-sequenced Second Edition 1980 version).
Side Two clatters into “Public Image”: a mission statement and a potent, terse, defiant cry: “I’m not the same as when I began / I will not be treated as property.” Suffice to say this swaggering song pummels as it soars. Levene’s trebly string-scraping shivers; Wobble’s thick thumps resound over Walker’s clanging. Lydon demands and commands respect. He clears his throat as this anthem ends.
“Low Life” lurches in. It and the rest of the album, recorded more cheaply as the band ran out of money, suffers somewhat. Promoted as a self-producing and self-governing collective, PiL struggled. Fittingly or ironically settling into a cheaper reggae studio, the original album’s final three tracks prove more ramshackle. You can hear the shallower rumbles and the muddier production on the rest of the original album. However, if played loud enough, this and “Attack” recover some of their force.
I played that song relentlessly on my LP, cassette, and import CD; whichever format I chose, I tried to grasp Lydon’s echoed vocals buried within the whirling Levene-Wobble-Walker assault. Lydon’s angry at someone: fill in whom you wish among a few possibilities. “Low Life” blends the dub and hard rock sides of the band respectably, although its whirlpool ingredients merit a less cloudy mix. The song as with its predecessor does not move forward much, but its energy sustains a brisk pace.
This will never be said for the closing track. In time-tested form, with an album to finish and nearly eight minutes running time, Lydon’s warbles wrap around Wobble’s “we only wanted to be loved” sarcastic shrillness. “Fodderstompf” full of chatter betrays the need to fill out the album and forces the listener to submit. The temptation to end this album battles against what might happen next on this track, or not. It’s brash amplification, Wobble credited for fire extinguisher, the remnants of a label’s advance, drugged attitude, and young men resigned to further alienate whomever expected them to deliver another ten tracks of punk. As anti-punk and proto-dance, it works.
Yet, a more patient consideration of this grating mock-disco may reveal “be bland, be dull, be boring” as the new decade’s post-punk creed. Someone in the 1980s concocting hip-hop must have sampled the tinkly, dusted synthesizer trills. “White Lines” always reminded me of that ethereal snippet.
Bonus track “The Cowboy Song” may recall the Rotten-less Pistols in an outtake from the “Ronald Biggs lot” as Lydon dismisses his former bandmates. A tambourine hints at shuffling and the melody at galloping, but this blurs into layers of shouts as a hurried rush over yelps and squelches. Trivia buffs may recall Levene’s 1979 project if more by name association than musical harmony as he played with another footnote, the synth-pop outfit Cowboys International. Lydon confirms this B-side’s meaning as “nothing political” and merely a put-down of Virgin Records as “a bunch of cowboys” with “six people yelling at once” for a “laugh”.
This explication comes via a lively 28 October 1978 BBC Radio 1 interview. For nearly an hour, Lydon’s discussion takes up most of the second disc in this reissue. He juggles and often lets drop the usual press-kit questions as the admirably dogged and suitably wry journalist(s?) gamely attempt to keep the informal exchange from descending “into farce” as Lydon explains the dangers of conformity, of Malcolm McLaren’s baleful influence, and of the duped public’s image of PiL. “I hate rock and roll. I can’t stand it. Any type of digression.” He claims never to have liked rock, not being old enough for it. “I don’t know what I’m talking about because I’m drunk”, he avers. “We’re not rock. We’re noise. Danceable noise.” He demeans all his chart-topping rivals, and then decries “ego”.
“Do you listen to Irish music?” This Lydon (a son of immigrants) evades. “There must be something positive”, his interviewer (I cannot find out whom as I rely for this review on a downloaded file; the CD like its LP counterpart comes reissued with stickers in a lavish package) begs. She learns that he listens to classical music as a respite against “appalling” rock. Determined to escape the music industry’s rut, he puts his hopes in PiL. Despite silence, hesitation, and Lydon’s concerted gambits, he’s steered gently but firmly back to his display of self-deprecating if disdainful, cutting wit. “Who else is there to criticize”, he muses, but “in ten years time, I’ll be a hero. I can live with my stardom.”
Lydon defends his desire for money and success, and toys with his “paranoid” reputation. He accepts it if it helps him avoid the “shabbiness” of a rockist lifestyle. He enjoys control over his songs, and he insists upon his authorship of “Anarchy in the U.K.” But, a jaded veteran almost twenty-three, he tires of repeating the Pistols’ spiel. “I didn’t go for big publicity scandals”, he boasts if in retrospect.
“It was jolly hard getting a band together with no money in the bank.” Lydon celebrates his endurance. He also expands on “Religion” as opposition to any institution, “any kind of organized crime”; this rambling chat displays his youthful struggle to avoid the machinations of the music industry. Comparing the interview with the album, recorded part in a studio able to capture the band’s talent, and part from sub-standard songs which strain to convey similar sonic textures, PiL’s struggle to counter the expectations which had doomed the Pistols and punk stands on First Issue as half-fulfilled, ready for 1979’s avant-garde second issue to fulfill the potential of Levene, Lydon, Wobble, and two new drummers. As John Lydon lets hang in the interview: “How many more enemies have I left?”