What’s left to say about Metal Box? It’s one of those albums with baggage in tow, like Sgt Pepper’s, Kind of Blue, Low or The Man Machine (the list goes on and on and can even include Oasis these days).
You’re told it’s another one of these sacred slabs of vinyl that influenced every single band since, so even if you haven’t heard it (or worse, just don’t get it), you’ll get round to it at some point. And now, 31 years later, it’s got the inevitable reissue to coincide with Public Image Ltd’s live comeback.
As John Lydon’s first landing pad after the Sex Pistols’ squalid demise, PiL (formed with partners in crime Keith Levene and Jah Wobble) was simply ‘post-punk’ by definition. Their 1978 debut First Edition tried to stamp out three-chord punk’s legacy with Wobble’s dub bass and Levene’s abstract guitar assault, but the sound was still tethered to the Pistols’ foundations, notably on Public Image, Low Life and Attack.
Meanwhile, on Religion, Lydon was even more Rotten than his panto punk persona: “They hide and pray to the God of a bitch spelled backwards is dog/ This is bibles full of libel/ The apostles were eleven/ Now there’s a sod in heaven.”
A year later they pissed all over the embers of punk on Metal Box – an hour-long sprawling manifesto of skewed atonal guitar stabs, primitive synths and swirling reggae basslines from Jah Wobble, who’d just learned how to play. As the studio alchemist and musical director of sorts, Levene shared with Lydon a deep resentment of rock conventions and a longing for new forms, borrowing from Can, Neu!, Captain Beefheart and avant-garde electronic composers.
Lydon gets rid of the Albatross of his own punk rock caricature on the album’s 10-minute opener, all the while “sowing the seeds of discontent”. Lydon still says PiL was always his most honest artistic statement, and this is brutally laid out with his wailing on Swan Lake aka Death Disco, a lament for his cancer-stricken mother on her death bed. The Pistols’ No Future t-shirt slogans dissolve with lyrics about death and rape on Poptones, and the Troubles in the North are invoked on Careering, a nightmarish vision beyond the escapism of Stiff Little Fingers and the Undertones.
Metal Box was never supposed to be an easy ride. The original came on three 12-inches in a film canister with no real running order, and the speed it should be played at wasn’t immediately obvious. There are plenty of anecdotes about the can being just about impossible to open.
The reissue is a ‘vinyl replica edition’ with 12 tracks on three CDs which is a real missed opportunity – the fetishism of the hulking original can’t be transferred to the little silver discs. The 1990 single CD version is still knocking around so this reissue could have been beefed up by adding two extra discs of B-sides, live tracks, or even TV footage. Still, never mind the packaging gripes, there’s no arguing with the music – from the dystopian march of Chant, the rusty motorik rhythms of Socialist to the synthetic elegance of Radio 4.
It’s easy to sneer at Lydon bathing in the filthy lucre of his Pistols comebacks, the I’m a Celebrity mortification and the churning out of butter commercials – but no one can take this album away from him.
First published in state.ie, 2010