Public Image Ltd.: Metal Box / Album

Photo: Paul Heartfield

This pair of massive reissues offers all of the Public Image Ltd. you could ever want and more.

Public Image Ltd.
Albums: Metal Box / Album
Label: UMC
UK Release Date: 2016-12-09
US Release Date: 2016-12-16

How strange it must have seemed to those enamored of the Sex Pistols snotty punk anarchy to find themselves faced with the arty, post-punk of the former Johnny Rotten’s post-Pistols gig, Public Image Ltd. Reverting to his given name and abandoning his sneering, gobbing façade, John Lydon proved with the group’s first several releases to be a far more interesting, open-minded musician than his previous band’s reputation would have let on. Instead of rudimentary, three-chord stompers, the group embraced everything from krautrock to dub to the avant-garde, all shot through with the detached air of post-punk.

Originally released in a metal canister (hence the name), Metal Box is an all-time classic post-punk album, one that incorporated and embraced rhythm and space as much as jagged noise and sheets of sound. It’s an undeniably artier outing than one would expect from Lydon, yet that’s what makes it all the more fascinating and impressive a document not only of the era but the artist himself. By the time they released Album, the band could be considered downright commercial, having scored an unlikely hit with “Rise". Reissued in tandem, these two polar opposite albums represent the sonic extremes of the band’s evolution, capturing nearly everything laid to tape during the time surrounding the release of each.

Expanded to the point of bursting at the seams, this pair of reissues not only provide the original albums in their entirety but a host of alternate takes, mixes, demos and live performances making them the definitive portrait of these two distinct periods in the band’s tumultuous existence. Always raging at the center of the storm is the former Johnny Rotten himself, wailing and sneering his way through music that ranges from the extreme avant-garde to surprisingly commercial. It’s an odd stylistic amalgamation, yet speaks to Lydon’s multi-dimensional persona. Here he proved he was capable of far more than gobbing and advocating for anarchy.

Indeed, to hear him struggle to put that persona behind him, particularly in the Brixton Academy performance, is nearly as thrilling as the music itself as the real Lydon time and again comes out from behind the band’s art rock posturing, taking the audience to task. His cessation of “Public Image” mid-song during the 1986 live performance at Brixton Academy is one of the few times on the collection that the Johnny Rotten persona sneers through the equally prickly veneer of John Lydon. It’s clear from his reaction that the majority in attendance are expecting more of a Sex Pistols/gobbing/anarchic performance than the art rock posturing they are faced with. This is where Lydon and PiL were at the time, having just released Album with a cast of characters that included Ryuichi Sakamoto, Steve Vai, and Ginger Baker, among others. “That was a real pleasant experience,” he snarls before dropping the microphone.

These are the moments that make sitting through multiple takes, edits, mixes and moments of Album wholly worthwhile. There’s still that element of danger inherent in the performance, a confrontational, volatile performer taking on an equally unpredictable audience. So while it’s nice to have the original albums properly contextualized, the impact of a stand-alone live release would have been just that much more impactful. As it stands, these mammoth four-disc sets offer just about all the PiL you could ever hope for from two very different eras and incarnations of the band. From the early, art-school posturing of tracks like the nearly 11-minute “Albatross” that opens Metal Box to the aforementioned “Rise", a track that nearly broke into the Top 10 in the UK at the height of Day-Glo, MTV-ready foppishness, these reissues show the bands intriguing evolution from its underground beginnings to the pop charts of the mid-‘80s. Come for the legend, stay for the music.

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