John Lydon's Public Image Ltd. still great and annoying | Bleader

John Lydon's Public Image Ltd. still great and annoying



I first heard Public Image (aka First Issue) by Public Image Ltd. about three decades ago, some five years after it was initially released. I had already fully ingested the music of the Sex Pistols and accepted it as punk rock defined, so when I first encountered John "Rotten" Lydon's second band, I was primed to experience the shock and anger I'm sure he set out to foment. Compared with the conventional sound of the Pistols (it's been a long time since anyone could really hear it and think of it much more than really good, loud, snotty rock 'n' roll), PiL was a deliberate descent into obtuse art rock, engineered to annoy.

Until I got a copy of the Light in the Attic reissue of Public Image about two months ago, I don't think I'd heard the entirety of it since the mid-80s, so I was surprised how indelibly I remembered its music, particularly the relentlessly throbbing "Annalisa," and the catchy caterwauling of "Public Image." The guitar playing of Keith Levene still inflames, unleashing a nasty serrated edge, especially because the muscular, imperturbable bass lines of Jah Wobble supported it; Jim Walker simply beats the shit out of his drums, like a brain-dead John Bonham. What I had forgotten (or more likely never realized because I was a stupid high school student) was how simplistic and dopey some of Lydon's antireligion, antisocial screeds were. I'm no fan of organized religion, but it's hard not to cringe at how reductive and ham-fisted his indictment of religion sounds on "Religion I," while the album's endless closing track, "Fodderstompf," embraced English punk's de rigueur dub experimentation (without bothering to write an actual song) to rant in an especially grating voice (his primary tool after the Sex Pistols) about how boring must pop musicians were, with their endless need for adoration—although it's hard not to appreciate the accuracy of his lines "We only wanted to finish the album / With a minimum of effort / Which we are doing very successfully."

The following year PIL reached maturity with the classic Metal Box (later issued as Second Edition), sharpening its attack, refining its convictions, and jettisoning the childish irritation tactics. Though uneven, the debut contains enough genius to warrant owning a copy. The new CD reissue is packaged in a great thick cardboard gatefold with a second disc containing the group's debut single, "Cowboy Song," and a tedious, previously unissued 55-minute interview with Lydon by the BBC; its charm wears out long before the disc ends. Below you can check out (or reacquaint yourself with) "Annalisa."

Today's playlist:

Gonjasufi, MU.ZZ.LE (Warp)
Leif Ove Andsnes & Mahler Chamber Orchestra, The Beethoven Journey (Sony Classical)
Chano Dominguez, Flamenco Sketches (Blue Note)
Os 3 Morais, Os 3 Morais (EMI, Brazil)
François Houle 5 + 1, Genera (Songlines)