Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Public Image Limited—
Public Image/The Cowboy Song


Released 1978 on Virgin
The Seth Man, December 2001ce
As unforgivably chaotic as it was when it was first released (get this) twenty three (23) years ago...

Not so much Public Image Limited’s first single but a blistering wiping of the slate. John Lydon was ‘Johnny Rotten’ no longer and with the Ex-Pistols content to continue flogging a headless horse under Malcolm McLaren’s steam and plot-losing (mis)direction, Lydon took his musical vision...elsewhere.

‘Elsewhere’ is right: this construction of sharp malediction in sound ranted and ranted onwards into the distance of the future it already saw: a noisy and unrestrained roar of leaden and super-amphetamine guitar buzzsawing pumped full on with complete contempt for any and all restrictions (music, fashion, etc., etc.) beyond anything remotely ‘punk’: beyond all the clichés McLaren had set into motion, beyond naughty t-shirts and safety pins, beyond lobotomised ‘shock horror’ tabloid fodder, beyond all that which ‘punk’ (once championed as a freeing agent to a stagnant music scene) had by 1978 already sank so shallowly into: that of a routine and pre-packaged conformity.

But instead of being a just a reaction against reaction (and thus being forever linked) Public Image Limited was a blast of fresh air that raged wildly for their four-year tenure on Virgin Records. Few bands were as confident as straddling the immediate past of punk with the tools to re-ignite into a territory of unmapped wilderness. And fewer still could weather the challenges as confidently innovative as Public Image Limited. For example, the A-side “Public Image”: a huge, fat bass riff repeats a cluster of tones beyond the infinity of repetition, the crashing drums that ram into it explode at a signal level far too high for its time. Lydon asks “Hello?” repeatedly until the dam busts and Keith Levene’s sharpened, gleaming guitar blows a hole in the whole thing with a circular buzz saw grinding set at the highest speed. And the indictments run fast and furious from Lydon’s mouth, the first being the most pointedly clear: “You never listened to a word that I said!!!/You only seen me for the clothes that I wear!!!” It’s stingingly perfect in its collected and re-directed fury; completely ahead of its time as it welded straight-ahead guitar thrash to dub bass and a bludgeoning drum pattern over Lydon’s incisive vocals in a something that, for all it’s diverse influences was no one specific genre. It was a singularity.

“The Cowboy Song” is a throwaway single that sounds like it was ALREADY tossed into the bin: the screech of a needle being ripped and torn back and forth across the surface of a record cuts in as the single begins. Then you hear Lydon in the studio tell the producer it’s so loud, they can’t hear the backing track. Ha; like they fucking even needed to, as they are preparing to scream and toss tambourines in the studio over a towering bass drive and general overall mayhem. The ludicrous “Thick As A Brick”-styled newspaper parody this single originally came wrapped in details the ‘lyrics’ (16 lines of “clipy ty clop/clipy ty clop/clipy ty clop”) but they do not appear on the single. Or if they do, they are drowned out by a deafening racket of multi-tracked screaming, talking and general pandemonium. The only distinct sound is that of the bass guitar of John Wardle (aka Jah Wobble) although it’s oddly un-dub and pre-set to ultra-strum. The lyrics should’ve been “Make it stop/make it stop/Make it stop” so that everybody who bought this single in 1978 could sing along. There’s also further stylus-scratching effects just to drive the rest of us up the wall. When the noise finally subsists, only Lydon’s coughing and sputtering of amphetamine-loosened phlegm can be heard -- right before the record picks up after being trapped in the locked-groove for a revolution and a half.