Metal Box. From Punk. But not Punk.
In November 1979, I bought an album that has remained in my top 10 of favourite albums for the 35 years since. Metal Box, the second studio album by Public Image Limited (PiL), was revolutionary. At the core of PiL, the shining light around which numerous members have revolved (and continue revolving) was, of course, John Lydon. As Johnny Rotten, he became the most instantly recognisable face of the so-called punk scene, the chaotic meld of rock n' roll, fashion, politics, art and attitude, that created a brief but seismic whirlpool at the heart of British culture from 1975 onwards.
This sociological phenomenon peaked in 1977, when bands like Rotten's Sex Pistols, along with The Clash, The Jam, The Damned and many others began making modest in-roads in the charts, while influencing a generation of bored teenagers throughout these Isles and beyond. Punk's energy quickly dissipated, but in purely musical terms its greatest legacy was the inspiration and momentum it gave to devotees to experiment with a raft of new possibilities. The music that immediately followed in its wake was quickly termed 'post punk', and Metal Box, released on 23 November 1979, is one of the genre's landmark albums.
I'd already got the 12-inch singles of Death Disco (released that June) and Memories (October), so I was aware of where PiL were going. Jah Wobble's bass-lines were the star component, reminiscent of the diaphragm-pounding dub reggae the band members all championed, while former Clash guitarist Keith Levine had long forsaken power chords for hypnotically catchy guitar arpeggios. Against this backdrop, Lydon's voice was even more caustic and spiky than it had been at the height of his Daily Mail-bating two years previously. Also banished to history was the need to summarise the musical outbursts within three minutes. Instead the tracks on Metal Box paid twisted homage to the prog sensibilities so reviled by punk, its sprawling soundtracks verging on self-indulgence, and deliberately wallowing in repetition, while snatches of melody bored into the listener's subconscious.
My personal favourite has always been the least rock song on the album, the concluding Radio 4, which featured a beautiful synth melody disappearing into discordance. A million light years away from Never Mind the Bollocks, the three 12-inch records that formed Metal Box were completely entrancing.
No Fall. No Fun
Almost a year after I'd been listening to Metal Box, 14 November 1980, another post punk favourite, The Fall, were playing Edinburgh's Night Club. Like many of my contemporaries, I was also playing in a band at the time, 4 Minute Warning. Our singer, Toby, had just turned 18, and we had used the fact he could now get legally drunk to toast his birthday to a point where I was trolleyed. Because The Fall were in town, I staggered off on my own to catch them, heedless of the warnings that the door staff would not take kindly to my condition. En route, I passed saplings planted on the hill by St James Centre, and because there was snow on the ground, I ended up careering down the slope and having to grasp one to stop myself. It snapped in two (and for years afterwards this one stump ruined the botanical display's symmetry).
When I got to the gig the bouncer refused to believe I was 18 (I'd hit the milestone in July). Furious at the injustice, but devoid of proof, I spent an hour pestering other gig-goers to vouch for me. I even made a sojourn round the back of the venue to search for alternative entrances (a mate had sneaked in to see Crass at the same venue some months previously, boasting of slipping in through some mythical stage door). I never did find it, and as none of the punters would agree to vouch for the spiky-haired youth staggering around in his beetle-crushers, I eventually beat a hasty retreat. Back home, I resigned myself to their most recent John Peel session on cassette via headphones, listening to tracks from their imminent album, Grotesque.
4 Minute Warning. The author, right of picture, wearing Killing Joke, CND and Poison Girls badges.