Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Public Image Limited—
Public Image


Released 1978 on Virgin
The Seth Man, August 2000ce
This is a pre-conceived notion (and nerve) shattering album if there ever was one. John Lydon, the man whose intelligent, piercing eyes gaze from his menacingly and slightly tilted portrait from the glossy-magazine sleeve design, was now emancipated from the McLaren Glitterbest Circus. And this album was a venom-spitting, malevolent and uproariously all-embracing statement. One of the simplest notion in all of rock’n’roll – repetition -- is what carries this highly combustive LP, fused together brightly with only the extremest elements of Krautrock, dub, and punk all in a “Space Ritual” type racket.

I often felt I was not playing this album FOR my friends, but AT them.

Recorded in September and issued December, 1978, the album was so repetitious and even more in your face than the Sex Pistols, journalists wrote this and subsequent P.I.L. albums off as “anti-art”, in a futile and utterly misread attempt to explain a sound so downright abrasive and previously unheard (read as: unremembered.) It wasn’t punk. Was it some kind of prank, they wondered?
It was in no way, shape or form a prank. But for 1978, it was totally alien in its extremity, fuelled by the precise anger of Lydon’s voice that manage to push the whole album at Mach whatever speed through innumerable red lights -- about as much as the rhythm section, graced by the never-ending poise of Jah Wobble’s bottomless dub bass and drummer Jim Walker’s drum hits that resound like repeated gunshots in the dub-contained, airtight studio. And their grooves are enduring and exhilarating exercises in repetition that carry only the very highest and heaviest energy.

The album begins with a slight cry for help and when the disco-dumping bass line enters as a low rumble, the noise rock centrepiece that is “Theme” cracks out of the speakers as gunshot drums hit out the steadiest and heaviest dirge. Ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene’s jaggedly guitar lines are like the coastline of Norway in flames, his guitar is plugged through all manner of distortion, chorus, phlange and delay devices as he constantly shifts between rhythm and solo and ultimately creates a noisy, ganged up behemoth of slashing discord that roams in and out of time and although tightly compacted, it continually grinds up against the sludged out and solid rhythm foundation. This all detains Lydon’s agonised screams, laughter and vocal emissions within a crossfire neon noise perimeter. It ends with feedback squeaks and bass pops as Lydon flatly denounces the previous suicidal Sisyphus-like stagger with a deadpan “terminal boredom”. His voice returns for the solo-intoned “Religion I,” reprised immediately with full instrumental backing as “Religion II”. It’s no mere song -- it’s a one man indictment. And lines like “Fat pig priest/Sanctimonious smile/He takes the money/You take the lies” boldly criticises corruption in a way no punk bands ever did. Never was conviction this sharp or uncompromising and “Religion II” sees Lydon’s voice rise to full banshee wail mode, with the last word of the above line, “LIIIIIIIIIIIIIEEEEES”, spread out like a thick smear of shit across the oldest lie in the world.

“Annalisa” is a fast paced, go for broke thrash-out, Lydon’s larynx keeping pace and ever racing beyond the rhythm, curving into quick hairpin vocal turns that careen only to unleash into screaming. By the end, he’s sung the name “Annalisa” about 200 times, and it all verges on aural claustrophobia as Wobble’s Wall of Bass slowly begins to close in from both sides, increasing in volume. As does everything, and the whole track starts tipping off into a sea of red VU meter that laps out and over the sides of the studio.
Side two opens with the now distinct rumble bass of Jah Wobble and Lydon calling out “Hello?...Hello?...Hello?...Hello?!..ahahahahah hah hah hah hah...!” which immediately ushers in the first ceaseless barrage of razor sharp riffing from Keith Levene throughout this track (“Public Image”) and the following two (“Lowlife” and “Attack”.) These three songs operate as an aural wall of fire and there is no single moment of respite. They’re all-onslaught and high energy, sheer attack as they are graceful in their ability to pummel even the hardest sensibilities. “Fodderstompf” ends the album in an electronic dub out as Wobble’s bass permeates from within, and it is magically everywhere at once. Levene has now forsaken his metallic guitar shards for the moment, adding twiddly synthesizer gains and ebbs in the background, behind the hugely synthetic rhythm track. Lydon’s voice is delayed-echoed beyond all his imaginings, and he proceeds to unsympathetic mimic all the English tut-tut-ing matrons and repressed citizenry in all their humdrum concerns, gaining as a shrill, psychotic rant of “We only wanted to be loved!!!”

By the end, Lydon’s even baiting the engineers behind the studio glass and reaching for a fire extinguisher, spraying it directly into the dub-echoed microphone to prove his point. Which he did with this album. Perfectly.