When most people are compiling lists of groundbreaking post-punk albums, Public Image Ltdthe second flagship record of , metal box, clocks invariably near the top. It also more than earned its reputation: dark and forbidding, it still eschews genre classification, and its radical packaging (the first 50,000 copies were housed in an actual box-like metal box to store film reels) still looks futuristic today.
To listen metal box on Apple Music and Spotify.
Yet, while metal box is now considered a true classic, its gestation was extended, and it polarized opinion among John Lydon’s established fan base – many of whom still hoped PiL would become sex guns‘ sonic successor.
The group’s first album
Lydon and his new band had other ideas, however. Although it was presaged by the catchy Top 10 single “Public Image”, their feature debut, 1978 First numberwas a schizophrenic affair, with most critics praising the catchier three-minute tracks (“Public Image”, “Low-Life”, “Attack”) but expressing a dislike for longer experimental releases such as “Religion (Parts I + II)” and the impending nine-minute “Theme”.
Despite critical criticism, PiL was unrepentant. In fact, the bricklayers only reinforced their collective belief that they were heading in the right direction.
“[The press] slagging [First Issue] because it was self-indulgent, not simplistic and not rock ‘n’ roll,” guitarist Keith Levene said in Clinton Heylin’s book PiL, Rise/fall. “But those are all good points. This is the kind of music we intend to make.
The Metal Box recording
Creating music of such intensity has taken its toll. PiL was a volatile outfit from the start, and simmering internal tensions led to the departure of the band’s original drummer, Jim Walker, in early 1979. Walker’s powerful presence behind the kit was a hallmark of First number, and PiL struggled to replace it. They ended up recording metal box with input from several drummers, including Richard Dudanski (of pre-punk pub rock band The 101’ers) and Martin Atkins, whose audition was the actual recording of the album‘s bizarre climax “Bad Baby “.
The sessions for metal box straddling the spring and summer of 1979, with PiL cowering at various resorts, including The Manor in rural Oxfordshire and the Townhouse in Shepherd’s Bush in London. The group routinely worked overnight, though the process was rarely smooth, as revealed by John Lydon in a 2016 interview with record collector.
“There was a rush to work and record everything, but also this fear and frustration with the recording process, which was prolonged,” he said. “Some nights we were in the zone, but other nights we couldn’t work together at all, which created incredible tension between us.”
The fractosity, however, resulted in amazing music. Jah Wobble’s basslines strategically anchored all tracks, with his dub-heavy four-string rumble sounding positively underground on tracks such as “Memories” and the irresistible ten-minute “Albatross.” Keith Levene, on the other hand, forged increasingly abstract forms with his hard, metallic guitar – or else he abandoned the instrument altogether and switched to the Prophet synthesizer on tracks such as ‘Careering’, ‘Socialist’ and the symphonic atmosphere “Radio 4.”
Lyrically, Lydon drew inspiration from unlikely sources. His anti-suburban rant, “No Birds Do Sing,” took its title from poet John Keats, while the nightmarish “Death Disco” (aka “Swan Lake”) was actually a heartfelt tribute to his ailing mother. Elsewhere, an article in the tabloid press that piqued the singer’s interest provided the starting point for the hypnotic “Poptones”.
“It was a story that I read about a very brave girl who was blindfolded and who was put into a car by some very mean men,” Lydon said. “They drove her to a forest where they finally dumped her.
“But she had the presence of mind to remember that unusual tune on a tape that these men kept playing,” he continued. “Because she remembered the song and the voices of the men, the police eventually identified and apprehended them. They always had the same tape in the car.
The reaction to Metal Box
Although timing at a difficult 60 minutes, metal box proved a huge hit with critics, many of whom were mesmerized by the mix of dub, avant-garde and what would later be called “Krautrock” music in this forward-looking statement. .
Noting this last element in their review, the British weekly NME said that “PiL produces the most aggressive – and sometimes oppressive – physical sound recorded since Can created monster movie Where Tag Mago.” Rival publication Soundsmeanwhile, suggested metal box was “a vital end to ’70s pop culture and an important nod to a true rock ‘n’ roll future”.
Proving that Lydon and company were right to stick to their guns, the wave of critical acclaim quickly translated into commercial success. Originally released on November 23, 1979, metal box steadily climbed the UK Top 40, where it peaked at No. 18, by which time its initial pressing of 50,000 – packaged as three 45 rpm discs in a 16mm film cartridge with the band’s logo embossed on top – was exhausted.
The legacy of Metal Box
metal box was later reissued as a regular double disc set (renamed Second edition) in a gatefold sleeve, and it’s been racking up applause ever since. Artists such as Massive attack and Nine inch nails cited the album as an influence, while, 40 years later, John Lydon remains eminently proud of the way PiL dramatically tore up the rulebook to create their magnum opus.
“Experimentation was at the heart of metal box,” he said Stronger in 2016. “You can be like everyone else if that’s what you need, or you can strive to be better than that. I’m not interested in rankings, but what’s important is whether you’re proud of what you’ve just done. With metal boxthe answer is always “Yes!”
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