Public Image Ltd’s debut album First Issue turns 40

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John Lydon

John Lydon

With Public Image’s debut album celebrating its 40th birthday, Getintothis’ Banjo looks back at strange story that led to its release.

By January 1978, the Sex Pistols had imploded when Johnny Rotten quit the band and punk’s leading lights were extinguished. The post-Pistols landscape was a strange place to be; punk was everywhere, the British newspapers had followed the Pistols to America for their tour and their every move was reported on. Punk was BIG NEWS and then, suddenly, its originators had gone.

The Pistols end was drawn out and messy, with long drawn out legal arguments and feuds in its future. To keep him on side, Virgin records flew Lydon out to Jamaica, ostensibly to act as A & R for their new reggae label, Front Line, but in reality it was to keep him sweet and to remove him from the media frenzy that had engulfed the band.

The rest of the band retreated to cartoon nonsense and cover versions, while Rotten retreated out of the spotlight to lick his wounds. On his return, he reverted back to his surname of Lydon, as Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren had stated in legal papers that he owned the name ‘Johnny Rotten’. He also started to put a new band together.

Lydon hooked up with ex-Clash member Keith Levene and got his old friend Jah Wobble on bass. There have long been reports that Wobble was Lydon’s first idea to replace Glen Matlock in the Pistols, but that the rest of the band were terrified of his reputation as a bit of a hard nut.

Levene was an excellent guitarist, but was also capable of an unconventional style that defied traditional rock/punk stylings. He also had an attitude and a chip on his shoulder. Wobble was new to the bass guitar, but had an instinctive approach and favoured deep dub basslines that would soon be such a part of the new band’s sound. Auditions led to drummer Jim ‘Animal’ Walker joining the band, as his drumming style reminded Lydon of Can’s Jaki Liebezeit.

With the new lineup in place, the band came up with a name – Public Image Ltd. The ‘Ltd’ part of their name referred to the approach that they were not merely a band, but a company, or a creative corporation whose involvement in the creative arts would extend to film, design and anything else that they wanted to move in to. Clearly this was not to be a standard rock band.

The pressure and expectation that was placed on Lydon and PiL was huge. The Sex Pistols had single handedly created a new youth movement in Britain and changed the face of music and culture irrevocably, how could anybody be expected to follow that up? That question was answered when PiL released their debut single, Public Image, in October 1978, just nine months after he had split from Sex Pistols and five months after their first rehearsal. Things moved quickly in those days.

Public Image was an astounding debut single, a step forward from punk but still with Lydon’s forward motion of attack. How he managed to create a record that took such giant steps forward and again moved music on in the pressure cooker environment that he was in is nothing short of remarkable. Its opening ‘Hello’ was immediately followed by Levene’s dissonant guitar

The lyrics railed at those around Lydon who he felt had left him feeling isolated in his own band. Cries of ‘You never listened to a word that I said’ and ‘I will not be treated as property’ showed that Lydon was far from a spent force and still had plenty to say. As far as opening statements go, Public Image was extraordinary.

John Lydon Interview: The Public Image is Rotten

A few short weeks later, PiL’s debut album was released. The album’s production was a long way from the Sex Pistols’ trademark wall of sound, with a more angular, awkward, experimental feel to it. The album’s cover is a parody of the ‘celebrity’ magazines of the time, featuring all four members of the band on various sleeves, all looking sleek and polished.

Opening track Theme starts with a high pitched cry from Lydon, followed by Wobble’s deep, deep bassline. Levene’s guitar then comes in and all thoughts of PiL being Sex Pistols mk II are immediately banished, as are thoughts of a whole album of songs as relatively conventional as their debut single.

The guitar work on this opening track is superb, discordant and jarring, sounding like nothing my young ears had heard before.  Rather than a tight structure, there is a feel of improvisation about the song, not in a noodling/jamming sense, but more a feeling that anything could happen and that the magic recorded in this song could not happen the same way twice. On a personal note, I can clearly remember playing this record in a college common room and every single person getting up to leave before its nine minutes had run their course. Even the Sex Pistols fans in that room hated it, the sound of Lydon screaming ‘I wish I could die’ over some of the most out there guitar of its era proving too much for them. Theme is the track that gave the biggest indication of where PiL would head next.

The next song, Religion, contained lyrics that were written for future Sex Pistols songs, but were rejected by the band for being too controversial. The song comes in two parts, one where the lyrics were spoken by Lydon and a second with the accompaniment of the rest of the band. Listening back, the spoken word section is very effective, stark and forceful, but at the time there was a feeling that it had been added to pad out the record

There may well have been some truth to this, for two reasons. Firstly, the band had only been together for a few months and, as such, didn’t really have enough material for an album. Secondly, PiL had blown the budget for their debut album early in proceedings and had to cheaply record enough material to reach something approaching an album’s running time.

Annalisa is a four-to-the-floor stormer that details a young girl’s exorcism and is perhaps the album’s least experimental song apart from Public Image. Annalisa contains some of Lydon’s most snarling vocals and, together with Levene and Wobble’s sonic attack creates a truly visceral growl of a song.

Low Life sounds like another possible Pistols’ reject given PiL’s inharmonious workover.

Around the time this album was released, Public Image Ltd played a gig at Manchester’s Belle Vue and myself and a group of friends managed to get tickets. During the gig I had a sudden attack of ‘flu and was almost passing out on the dance floor, limbs aching and head spinning. To this day, listening to Low Life brings that horrible feeling right back to me. Lyrically, Low Life attacks Lydon’s old collaborators McLaren and one Sid Vicious, with cries of ‘Bourgeois anarchist’ and ‘Ego-maniac traitor’.

Next track, Attack, lives up to its name, with a full on abstract thrash forming the backing to Lydon again railing at his persecutors. ‘you who buried me alive, I will survive’ he howls, the acidic assault of his vocals sounding like a cathartic form of therapy, a primal scream and a declaration of survival. Stunning stuff.

Closing track Fodderstompf has attracted its fair share of both fans and detractors. Clocking in at slightly under 8 minutes, Fodderstompf is viewed as either a blatant way of completing an album without going to the bother of writing another couple of numbers or as a Dadaist deconstruction of song. Featuring a looped bassline and minimal percussion, Fodderstompf was improvised in the studio and has Lydon, Levene and Wobble singing, talking and generally messing around. Silly voices, band members going off for a fag and a fire extinguisher being set off are all part of the collage that makes up this song.

Personally I would lean more towards the former option, the band themselves confessing on the track that ‘We only wanted to finish the album with the minimum amount of effort which we are now doing very successfully.’ Either way, Fodderstompf tells the world that Lydon still believed that rules were there to be broken and convention was there to be disregarded and, as such, is an important song on the album.

Lydon and Public Image Ltd had effectively set up their manifesto and served notice on the increasing straight jacket of punk. Beyond here, there were again no rules. First Issue created yet another new genre of music and the term Post Punk started to be bandied about. It its own way, First Issue was every bit as influential and incendiary as the Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bollocks. It pointed another way forward. The future was unwritten.

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