The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

What do I have to say about the Clash? For now, merely two things. Firstly, Laura loved them. Secondly, the Clash was co-founded by Mick Jones and Keith Levene. Levene says that he was instrumental in recruiting Strummer, but was "voted" out of the band following conflicts with Jones, who wanted the group to adhere to rock and roll rebellion in the tradition, and Levene, who wanted them to go out and justify those Pollock-esque splashes musically. And without Lydon/Rotten, the Pistols were Queen. By 1978, both Lydon and Levene were severely pissed off with "punk rock" and what they perceived to be a smelly, beer-stained dead end. Already conformist; already assimilated into the tapestry. Time for a blast of what 1976 should have been like - Public Image Ltd.

Well, eventually, but there was a debut album to get out of the way first - 1978's First Issue was more a calling card, an advertisement, rather than an album per se. "Public Image" the single was an immediate top ten hit, and the nearest that this configuration of PiL ever got to "tradition;" the clear, anthemic, ringing guitar line, the I'm-now-gonna-do-it-my-way manifesto of a lyric; this is the superficial veneer of PiL which the witless likes of U2 licked up straight away.

The album itself? It was largely received as a self-aware con, though the excoriating nine minutes of the opening "Theme" sounded anything but; Levene's guitar and Jim Walker's drums thrash against each other slowly like beached whales, Jah Wobble's bass mixed right to the foreground to carry the riff/melody, Lydon screaming "I wish I could DIE" over and over; "On and on and ON" on and on - but at the song's death he appears to shrug his shoulder and grunts "terminal boredom." The album as a whole seems like a dry run for Metal Box; "Low Life" and "Attack" bring the dub/Can influences forward, "Annalisa" has an elasticity to its rock attack which the lumpen rhythm of the Pistols could never manage, "Fodderstompf" is ostensibly extended mucking about to fill the remainder of the album, but again there are clear elements of what was to come in 1979.

1979 was, for many of us who were around at the time, our real 1976, the year when the radicalism of the music began to match the radicalism of the manifestos. True, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Alternative TV, the Slits and the Banshees were already in existence, not to mention the Buzzcocks and Magazine, or Warsaw on the point of mutating into Joy Division, or indeed early stirrings from the Pop Group, Human League and Gang of Four. But 1979 was the miracle of a year in which nearly all these groups determinedly took off into outer space, burned their "roots" and actually started to make "new" music; things, approaches which you had never heard before. And the one record of 1979 which even more miraculously managed to pull all these strands together (dub, polemics, No Wave noise, dance, ennui) was Metal Box, the second album by PiL, released almost at the close of the year, as if to sum everything up.

It was originally released, at a cost of some £66,000, as three 12" 45 rpm singles encased within a matt grey film can. No gatefolds; not even any sleevenotes or pictures; just one curt sheet in red type containing the minimum necessary information, and no more. This was about dissecting and dissembling the way in which the listener or consumer approached music, and specifically "records." JA dub and disco were both quoted as templates; the 12" format was necessary for sound enhancement - particularly to highlight and emphasise the absolute key role of Wobble's bass. However you did it, this music was meant, at least in part, to be danced to. The JA influence was aesthetic as well; records to act as utilitarian containers rather than be Statements or Documents - all those 7" dubplates in the '70s, many of which were unlabelled; the point being you danced to them, got what you could out of them and then disposed of them. It was against the whole concept of an "archive," the antithesis of a "living" music. You can see that again now with the plethora of 12" garage/gabba garage white labels; this music is not meant to be compiled but consumed as you would, say, food. Use it up and wear it out. It's the same with mp3 downloads; why spend £4.99 on a single when you can simply download it, enjoy it for a few weeks and then delete?

The downside was that, in practice, the 12" singles were so tightly packed into the film can that it was nigh impossible to take them out without warping or scratching them, or at least turning the whole package upside down and letting the record fall out. But again this was deliberate; you want to hear this music, you're going to have to work at it. And it remains, for all these reasons, the ideal format in which to hear Metal Box.

The near 11-minute opener "Albatross" was certainly no easy point of entry. The opening words we hear are "slow motion" and indeed the vocal track was Lydon slowed down to 25 rpm, although many people assumed that it was Wobble on vocals. The song was apparently "composed" on the spot, but its theme is clearly renunciation of their history, of McLaren, of "punk." Later in the song we hear "death to the spirit of '68" and, even less ambiguously, "fuck the Pistols." It is significant that in Levene's interview in last month's Wire he mentions James "Blood" Ulmer as a key influence in constructing the music for this album. Although musically Levene's contributions are bitonal rather than harmolodic (and in "Albatross" there's more than a passing reference to Beefheart's reconstructed guitar lines on pieces like "Dali's Car"), the Ulmer/Ornette influence is more philosophical than musical - the concept that, if you make any mistakes, you keep them and incorporate them to advance and develop on what you are playing (an idea which also owes much to Christian Wolff). And indeed, if you listen to Ornette Coleman's 1977 Dancing In Your Head album - one of the half-dozen or so most important records of the last 40 years - in tandem with Ulmer's own Tales Of Captain Black (Artists House, 1979) - you can hear clearly how this process works with "harmonic" instruments (i.e. the guitars). Harmolodics is a difficult concept to explain at the best of the time, but Don Cherry once summed it up neatly when he explained to me that essentially you improvise on the melody rather than the chordal structure, and that you solo pretty well all of the time but keep out of everyone else's way. "I ran away" intones Wobble. "Sowing the seeds of discontent." On this album, Walker is replaced on drums by the far more sympathetic Richard Dudanski; he and Wobble as a rhythm section are a strong counterpart to Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson in Chic, and Dudanski has no trouble in taking the beat into more adventurous waters. And hear how Wobble's bass bends like a reluctant hedgehog as the lyric's emotions rise and fall back again. Lydon's voice, at normal speed, now veers into view right at its close, shrieking "Only the lonely!"

"Memories" is an extraordinary construction of a song. Lester Bangs, in his review at the time, assumed that what was being attacked here was the whitewashed nostalgia of Grease, Happy Days etc., but its sentiments are still painfully applicable in today's empty "I Love Ten Minutes Ago" culture. "You make me feel ashamed/By acting attitudes/Remember ridicule?" howls Lydon. "Someone has used you well." And then the song suddenly shifts into close-up view, as though a separate band has started to play the same tune - obviously two different takes were spliced together, but the effect, though simple, is still astonishing. It symbolises Lydon's own doubt about the diagnosis. "I could be wrong/It could be hate/As far as I can see/Clinging desperately/Imagining, pretending/No personality/Dragging on and on and on and on...." (that "on and on" leitmotif again, clearly the enemy of "life"). "I think you're slightly late" (late as in "dead"). "It's not the movies...and you're old." This is followed by "Swanlake" a.k.a. "Death Disco," perhaps the most unlikely single ever to make the UK Top 20 - and it's the Stones' "Miss You" introduced to the ghosts of Woolf's "To The Lighthouse." Do I really have to underline to you what this song is about?

"Seen it in your eyes/Never no more, hope away/Final in a fade/Watch her slowly die/Saw it in her eyes/Choking on a bed/Flowers rotting DEAD.../Ending in a day/Silence was a way." Levene's Prophet 5 synthesiser wanders in and out of the track like consciousness. Finally Lydon sends the track into a loop: "Words cannot explain" as the synthesiser repeatly shrieks, coming back at you again and again. Don't talk to me about Achtung Baby.

Next it's "Poptones." For all the avant-garde talk about Levene's guitar playing, it's actually very accessible throughout. Much of what he plays here could, in a lesser and dumber context, be stadium rock - indeed he quotes Steve Howe's soloing on Yes' "Starship Troopers" as a key influence on "Poptones." There is a terrible certainty about the complete confidence of PiL's playing as a group on this track; nothing settles but everything fits in, and its waves engulf you. Lyrically it appears to be about someone being taken out into the countryside to be shot and executed. "Standing naked in the back of these woods...You left a hole in the back of my head/I don't like hiding in this foliage and peat...The cassette playing poptones." Music to drown out the pain, to hide the truth, the stench. Another sardonic payoff line: "Praise picnicking in the British countryside." The IRA comes to mind, as they do on "Careering." Here Wobble and Dudanski play a strong backbeat which could almost be a Northern Soul backing track, but it is delineated by the quasi-atonal blades of Levene's Prophet 5, queasily destabilising the rhythm and underlining Lydon's narration - lyrically this would not be out of place on Scott Walker's Tilt (terrorism - "across the border/Trigger machinery/Mangle the military"). It is coldly compelling and the assuredness of its alienation is overwhelming.

Two instrumentals (or backing tracks for which Lydon never got around to providing lyrics/vocals?) follow: "Socialist" which sets up a typical New Wave jerky rhythm that is punctumised by Levene's cautious percussive guitar/synth(?) stabs. It's rather like Miles Davis' percussive organ essays (On The Corner) jamming with the Knack. "Graveyard" has some determined guitar playing on it but really needed Lydon on top of it. "The Suit" is carried on a drunken stumble of a jazzy rhythm upon which Lydon again disseminates the pretentiousness and pointlessness of social climbing ("Society boy/on Social Security/It is your nature/Tennis on Tuesday/Sipping champagne...Girl from Totteridge Park/Said you were nice/So was my suit"). "Bad Baby" vaguely revisits the terrain of the first album's "Religion" though really it's about humanity's indifference to other humanity: "Someone left a baby in the car park/Never any reason...Someone is calling/Don't you listen" - a muted anti-lullaby.

Finally we come to the astonishing 13-minute closing sequence which surely represents PiL at their peak. "No Birds," in Levene's opinion PiL's finest moment, elevates the already high dynamics even further. The rhythm here is unbelievable; Dudanski sounds as though he's playing the drums inside your head. Lydon declaims his assassination of Daily Mail middle England in a stentorian baritone - "Bland planned idle luxury/A caviar of silent dignity/Life in lovely allotted slots...Lawful order, standard views/This could be heaven" sounding as though he has been condemned to hell, though one cannot clearly tell whether he is cackling quietly. Lydon's piano strikes its own discordant Dies Irae as the track fades.

Then it's "Chant" (the chant being "mob, war, kill, hate"). Yet again we realise that nearly every element on this album could easily be profitably and commercially appropriated, in isolation, by Radiohead or Coldplay or whoever, with misplaced solipsism, sentimentality and bluster failing to mask their utter lack of understanding of PiL's message or dynamics. Here Lydon realises that all Metal Box might really amount to is a "voice moaning in a speaker...Don't know why I bother/There's nothing in it for me...The likes of you and me are an embarrassment/It's not important/It's not worth a mention in the Guardian." The music, though, belies the apparent indifference; Wobble and Dudanski appear ready to blast off past boiling point into another galaxy; Levene never letting up in his ceaseless guitar commentary, repeating and mutating riffs with a strange ecstasy. Eventually, just as the whole thing is about to explode, Levene's synthesiser nudges cautiously back in and the track suddenly segues into the closing instrumental "Radio 4." An ironic goodbye a la Throbbing Gristle? A farewell to life? An idealistic utopian string synth waltz is played, against which Wobble graciously plays what could in another context pass for a Motown bassline. At the end of the album two potential paths appear; on one side, what sound like sleigh bells (the album did come out just in time for Christmas) and on the other, a sudden and disturbing discordancy in the synth line. It is up to you, the listener, to decide which path to take from here onwards. Not many subsequent musicians, least of all the later, lesser, Wobble-less, then Levene-less, then just sourly corporate, manifestations of PiL, followed either path.

So where does Metal Box stand, even in relation to what else we have inherited from 1979? That it stands up musically is beyond question. Joy Division were perhaps the nearest that anyone else got to what PiL achieved, but Ian Curtis' obsessions were more manifestly personal, and Martin Hannett chose to have the band float sonically in the middle ground. Nothing is mixed upfront; the music comes at you as a subtly, rather than explicitly, differentiated entity. Throbbing Gristle were arguably already taking some of these implications further, but they remained at a decided distance from "pop." It might, for the present, be correct to point out that there is as much "anthemic" guitar here as there was on London Calling, released just a couple of weeks before Metal Box; but the former was a double album with Elvis Presley lettering and Pete Townshend-derived imagery on the cover. This is not to disparage London Calling or the Clash, merely to point out the divergent paths down which the streams of punk had flowed - though there is much reason to disparage all the ambulance chasers who over the holiday season decided to use poor old Strummer as a stick with which to beat today's pop kids over the head. "No more passion they're all manufactured he was soul he was rock and roll punk make a difference the last great rock and roll star..."

What did Lydon have to say nearly quarter of a century ago?

"Whatever past/Could never last/All in your mind/Where it all began/You're doing wrong/It's not the movies/And you're old."

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