Public Image Ltd. (PiL) is an English musical group that was formed in 1978 by vocalist John Lydon, guitarist Keith Levene, and bassist Jah Wobble.
Rising from the ashes of the Sex Pistols, PiL’s early work is often regarded as some of the most challenging and innovative music of the post-punk era: the NME described PiL as ‘arguably the first post-rock group’. Their later music would be somewhat more conventional, and PiL has been inactive since 1992.
PiL’s debut album, First Issue, comprised eight tracks of varying sound quality, half of which were written and recorded in a rush. The album was considered groundbreaking on its release in December 1978. Tracks are: THEME / RELIGION I / RELIGION II / ANNALISA / PUBLIC IMAGE / LOW LIFE / ATTACK / FODDERSTOMPF. Grounded in heavy dub reggae, Wobble’s bass tone was called ‘impossibly deep’ by contemporary reviews. Levene’s sharp guitar sound, played on an aluminium Veleno guitar, was widely imitated, most notably by The Edge of U2. Despite being widely criticised in the UK press for being ‘self indulgent’ and ‘not rock n’ roll’, First Issue sold well in the UK and Europe, reaching number 22 on the UK charts, mainly due to the inclusion of the popular single ‘Public Image’.
The closing track ‘Fodderstompf’, heavily influenced by dub, comprises nearly eight minutes of a circular bass riff, played over a Lydon/Levene double act lampooning public outrage, love songs and teenage apathy.
The next album Metal Box (1979) was a more focused effort. Tracks are: ALBATROSS / MEMORIES / SWAN LAKE (Death Disco) / POPTONES / CAREERING / SOCIALIST/ GRAVEYARD / THE SUIT / BAD BABY /NO BIRDS/ CHANT / RADIO 4. ‘Death Disco’ (‘Swan Lake’) was released as a single in 1979 and reached #20 in the charts.
Metal Box was originally released as three high-quality untitled 45 rpm 12-inch (30 cm) records packaged in a metal film canister (it was later reissued as Second Edition), and features the band’s trademark hypnotic dub reggae bass lines, glassy, arpeggiated guitar, and bleak, paranoid, stream of consciousness vocals. Metal Box is starker than First Issue, more spread out and uncompromising, and scattered with bits of ambient synthesizer.
Paris Au Printemps was recorded live at The Palace, Paris, France on 17 & 18th of January 1980. The tracks are: Theme / Chant / Careering / Bad Baby / Low Life / Attack / Poptones.
Flowers of Romance is an album considered much stranger and more difficult than the already strange Metal Box. Wobble had left the band; Levene had largely abandoned guitar in favour of synthesizer. New boy Martin Atkins’ propulsive marching band-style drumming, the lack of bass and guitar, and Lydon’s increasing lyrical abstraction make this album a difficult listen for rock fans, and contemporary reviews expressed great confusion.
The record consists mostly of drums, vocals, musique concrète, and tape loops, with only gestures toward bass (played by Levene) and keyboards. Its drum sound was widely copied, notably by Phil Collins. Tracks are: FOUR ENCLOSED WALLS / TRACK 8 / PHENAGEN / FLOWERS OF ROMANCE / UNDER THE HOUSE / HYMIES HIM / BANGING THE DOOR / GO BACK / FRANCIS MASSACRE plus bonus tracks: FLOWERS OF ROMANCE (INSTRUMENTAL) / HOME IS WHERE THE HEART IS / ANOTHER.
Live in Tokyo is a 1983 live album released by Public Image Ltd. It was released by EMI records and reached #28 on the British charts.
Tracks are: Annalisa/ Religion/ Low Life/ Solitaire/ Flowers of Romance/ This Is Not a) Love Song/ Death Disco/ Bad Life/ Banging the Door/ Under the House.
On This Is What You Want… This Is What You Get, the band (now without Levene) was clearly moving towards a more commercial pop music and dance music direction, and while many new fans found PiL, little of their original audience (or sound) remained. Tracks are: BAD LIFE / THIS IS NOT A LOVE SONG (re-recorded version) / SOLITAIRE / TIE ME TO THE LENGTH OF THAT / THE PARDON / WHERE ARE YOU / 1981 / THE ORDER OF DEATH. The band released the single ‘This Is Not A Love Song’ in 1983, the song’s lyric lampooning the ire of some fans and the music press over the band’s movement towards a more commercial style.
Ironically, This Is Not a Love Song gave the band their biggest international hit single, reaching No.5 in the UK singles charts and No.12 in the Netherlands.
PiL’s 1986 release was simply entitled Album, Compact Disc, or Cassette, depending on the format. The cover’s blue typeface and spartan design parodied generic brands. Produced by Bill Laswell, Album featured guitar solos by Steve Vai, considered by Vai himself to be some of his best work. Legendary Cream drummer Ginger Baker also played on the album. Tracks are: FFF / RISE / FISHING / ROUND / BAGS / HOME / EASE. Rise was a catchy, popular hit single.
Neil Perry gave Album a positive review in the NME: ‘This is a wonderful, stunning and equally confusing record, and working on the theory that you’d never expect to hear the Lydon sneer backed by prime metal riffing, that’s exactly what you get. Not everywhere, of course, as proved by the haunting ‘Rise’. And ‘Ease’, by the way, with its shock-horror two minutes plus guitar solo, is quite beautiful… In short, Lydon and PiL are still breaking barriers. The man has extracted the false phallus from rock’s trouser front and is smashing it over our heads.’
PiL released Happy? in 1987, and during the spring of 1988 toured throughout the United States promoting the album. Tracks are: SEATTLE / RULES AND REGULATIONS / THE BODY / SAVE ME / HARD TIMES / OPEN AND REVOLVING / ANGRY / FAT CHANCE HOTEL / SAVE ME (instrumental). Happy? was less well received by critics than its immediate predecessor, but still produced the classic single ‘Seattle’.
In 1989, PiL’s ninth album, 9, appeared. Tracks are: Happy / Disappointed / Warrior / U.S.L.S. 1 / Sand Castles in the Snow / Worry / Brave New World / Like That / Same Old Story / Armada.
On the release of The Greatest Hits… So Far, the album entered the charts at 20 and promptly sold-out. PiL found themselves with a surprise success, but no new album to sell.
Tracks are; Public Image / Death Disco (7″ Mix) / Memories / Careering / Flowers of Romance / This is Not a Love Song (LP Version) / Rise (Bob Clearmountain Remix) / Home / Seattle / The Body (UK 12″ Remix) / Rules and Regulations / Disappointed (12″ Mix) / Warrior (Dave Dorrell Remix) / Don’t Ask Me.
The band’s last album to date is 1992′s That What Is Not. It includes a sample from the Sex Pistols’ song ’God Save the Queen’ in which the young Lydon’s voice is heard chanting the words, ‘No future, no future…’ Tracks are: ACID DROPS / LUCKS UP / CRUEL / GOD / COVERED / LOVE HOPE / UNFAIRGROUND / THINK TANK / EMPEROR / GOOD THINGS.
Lydon disbanded the group a year later. The band’s last concert was performed on September 18, 1992 with the lineup of John Lydon, John McGeoch, Ted Chau (guitar, keyboards), Mike Joyce of The Smiths (drums), and Russell Webb (bass).
Plastic Box is a limited edition 4 CD box set compilation. It contains a 36 page booklet featuring pictures; plus sleeve notes by John Lydon and is housed in an old style double CD case; enclosed in a PVC slip case. Tracks are: Disc 1: Public Image / The Cowboy Song / Theme / Religion I / Religion II / Annalisa / Low Life / Attack / Poptones, Careering & Chant (Radio 1, John Peel Session 17.12.79) / Death Disco (12” Remix) / Half Mix – Meggamix / No Birds Do Sing / Memories. Disc 2: Another / Albatross / Socialist / The Suit / Bad Baby / Radio 4 / Pied Piper / Flowers of Romance (12″) / Four Enclosed Walls / Phenagen / Track 8 / Hymies Him / Under The House / Banging The Door / Go Back / Francis Massacre / Home is Where the Heart is. Disc 3: This is Not a Love Song (Unreleased LP Remix) / Blue Water / Bad Life (7″ edit) / Question Mark / Solitaire / Tie Me to the Length of That / Where Are You? / The Pardon / 1981 / The Order of Death / FFF / Rise / Fishing / Round / Home / Ease. Disc 4: Seattle / Angry / The Body (US 12” Mix) / Selfish Rubbish / Disappointed / Happy / Warrior (UK 12” Remix) / USLS 1 / Don’t Ask Me / Criminal / Lucks Up / God / Cruel, Acid Drops, Love Hope & Think Tank (Radio 1, Mark Goodier Live Session 25.2.92).
The album that got away, of course, is Commercial Zone.
Tracks are Mad Max/Love Song/Bad Night/Solitaire/The Slab/Lou Reed Part 1/Lou Reed Part 2/Blue Water/Miller Hi-Life.
Here’s one track from that hard-to-get-hold-of disc:
Public Image Ltd (which reformed for some end of 2009 shows) is one of the most innovative and interesting bands ever.
Here’s a video of them performing in December – it’s powerful stuff:
PiL’s music is strange, ethereal, disconcerting, complex, challenging, multi-layered, melodic and harshly beautiful. Now that’s what I call music…