Public Image Ltd. First Issue 1978, Virgin Records
Well, what a difference a year makes, the Sex Pistols had imploded at the beginning of 1978 and by the end of the year Johnny Rotten, now going by his real name John Lydon since he was no longer legally entitled to use his stage name was fronting Public Image Ltd, later commonly referred to as PiL. First Issue was released in December 1978.
PiL were formed following a trip to Jamaica after the breakup of the Sex Pistols, while there, John Lydon was offered the opportunity to front another band. When this didn’t work out, he recruited guitarist Keith Levene, bassist John “Jah Wobble” Wardle, and drummer Jim Walker to form his own group. Disillusioned with rock, punk and the music industry in general, Lydon deliberately tried to make music that his fans wouldn’t like and First Issue is the result. It was never released in the USA because it was considered unmarketable to an American audience. The sound, a bass-heavy mix of dub, progressive rock, punk, disco and well, just noise really, was innovative and a departure from the punk scene. The band were self managed and the album was self produced.
Theme definitely falls into the “just noise” category to start with and then goes into a whiny vocal with crashing drums and guitars and “I wish I could die” being shouted a lot. I’ll politely call the lyrics minimalist. With slow, heavy bass and grinding guitars I think this song is just there to put the punk kids off listening to the rest, and it probably did its job. Religion I is spoken word rather than a song, it’s a diatribe against Catholicism. Religion II which is an actual song, is the same words set to music and elaborated. It’s a decent track, very much a punk continuation in terms of its anger but the vocal is still mostly just talking, the best part of it is hearing a xylophone being used outside of a primary school. Annalisa is the best song so far and the most standard rock song but it’s lyrically horrific, about an exorcism gone wrong. I’m glad that this is the point of the album where the anti-Catholic theme ends because I think Lydon’s made his point pretty emphatically. Single Public Image is interestingly the most Sex Pistols-esque song on the album, it has the strongest tune too and the most well crafted song. It’s a shot at Malcolm McLaren for everything that happened with the Sex Pistols. Low Life is another song written about Lydon’s previous band, but it could be about McLaren or Sid Vicious, depending on Lydon’s mood. It’s another solid, well crafted tune though and a proper punk song. Attack has a cool wooshy start, and is the last of the three punk-ish songs, you won’t be surprised to learn that these are my favourites on the album, I’m clearly not high-brow enough to be PiL’s target audience. Closer Fodderstompf is basically just a joke track, the band ranting and messing about for nearly 8 minutes over a dub beat and with a random fire extinguisher at the end because Lydon had actually set something on fire in the studio.
It’s a hit and miss kind of an album for me, it’s obviously trying to push boundaries and move away from what had already become the punk archetype, but unfortunately it’s only the most archetypal songs that are genuinely enjoyable. I can appreciate the band’s desire to make something truly different rather than chasing commercial success, I just don’t really want to listen to it. PiL, despite all their line-up changes have gone on to create some truly great music in the past 40 years and their first album despite the patchy quality of its content can be seen as the starting point for this. Follow up Metal Box is a much more coherent album and was much more well received critically.
It’s was definitely important to the post-punk scene since if the king of punk could move on and create a new sound, so could the rest of them, and breaking free of the punk mould and forming PiL has allowed John Lydon to have a varied career and to continue to cause controversy and go against the establishment (well, at least until those butter adverts that he used to finance the PiL 2010 tour) and honestly, it’s nice to know that someone came out of the chaos of the punk scene and thrived.