Graded on a Curve:
Public Image Ltd.,
Second Edition

Okay, so in everybody’s life there comes a day so bleak that not even Joy Division can do it justice. And on that day there’s only one recourse: to crank up Public Image Ltd’s Second Edition. John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols band’s sophomore release, also known as Metal Box because it initially saw light as a metal 16mm film canister containing three 12” 45rpm records in 1979, was re-issued in 1980 as a double LP. But regardless of format it was designed to brutalize the listener with music that was as remorselessly and relentlessly down-in-the-mouth as it was utterly hypnotizing, thanks to Lydon’s deranged vocal stylings, Jah Wobble’s loping and rhythmic dub-inspired bass, and Keith Levene’s splintered and utterly unique guitar riffs. Me, I find it soothing when I’ve reached the end of my tether; it lets me know I’m not alone.

Lydon was wise to abandon punk rock; he’d said everything that needed saying in that genre and knew damn well it was a dead end. And it’s a credit to his musical knowledge—which was far more wide-ranging than anyone would have given him credit for—that he went the avant-garde dub route. Sure, the Sex Pistols posed an existential threat to everything that had come before them; but Second Edition is downright SCARY at times, and sounds every bit as demented as the Sex Pistols did menacing. Plus you could dance to it, as the band’s legendary (and hilarious) performance on American Bandstand proved.

The “death disco” (the alternative title of the song “Swan Lake”) of Second Edition marked a radical move away from the (relatively speaking) more conventional punk of 1978’s First Issue, and proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that Lydon was not interested in making music for the masses. The band may have released two singles from the LP, but neither made any commercial concessions, and were completely representative of what critic Steve Chick described as the “cold dank, unforgiving, subterranean” nature of Second Edition in general. With the exception of “Radio 4,” a symphonic piece that is lovely really, and “Socialist,” a throbbing and fast paced instrumental that won’t give you the shivers, Second Edition never gives you a break… it wants you to suck you down into a tarpit of sound, and sink, and sink, you do.

Public Image Ltd opens Second Edition with the monumental “Albatross,” a declaration of independence, if there ever was one, from the short and fast aesthetic of punk. The Ramones this ain’t. On and on it goes, throbbing like a bad tooth you can’t help but touch, while Levene’s guitar shreds shards of sharp-edged metal and Lydon sings, “You are unbearable/I’ve seen you too far up close” in a voice that is unrecognizable. On “Swan Lake” Levene’s guitar percolates while Wobble’s bass lopes along in big circles, while “Poptones,” the highlight of the LP in my opinion, features Wobble at his greatest and Levene playing a repetitive riff that’ll get under your skin while Lydon warbles sinisterly about someone taken to the countryside to be undressed and killed while, and Lydon can hardly keep the glee out of his voice, “the cassette played… poptones!” It’s one creepy but addictive number, and is followed by the equally great “Careering,” on which Lydon asks “Is this living?” while Levene plays a great swooping synthesizer, Wobble wobbles, and David Humphrey (one of four drummers on the LP, if you count Levene, who plays drums on two tracks) plays some of the coolest crash and bang I’ve ever heard.

The instrumental “Graveyard” gives Levene the opportunity to show off his off-kilter guitar props, which are not pretty, while “The Suit” pushes Wobble to the forefront, and features Lydon engaged in a prolonged act of character assassination, attacking his victim with such friendly lines as “Everyone loves you until they know you.” It has its charms, I suppose, like Dylan at his most poisonous, but musically interesting it is not, and I always put it with “Chant”—which is as close as you’ll ever get to being hit over the head with a hammer and is fucking annoying thanks to Lydon’s lock-step vocals—in that select group of songs I skip when I listen to Second Edition.

Both “No Birds” and “Memories” give Lydon the chance to dazzle you with his unique approach to singing, and boast great performances by all involved. “Memories” in particular anticipates the later PiL of “Rise,” while on “No Birds” Wobble and Levene play hand in glove as Lydon wails, ululates, and stretches out his words in an eerie high-pitched voice that tells you there is something rotten in the state of Mr. Rotten. As for “Bad Baby,” it boasts a cool synth riff and Wobble at his white dub best, and features a rambling Lydon backing himself on vocals to sinister effect.

And there you have it, one of the greatest and most influential LPs to emerge from the shadow of punk. Lydon himself never came close to matching it, in part because Wobble was too soon jump ship, with Levene quick to follow. Lydon, who personified nihilism both with the Sex Pistols and with this bummer of a masterpiece, soon learned the hard way that if you fail to self-destruct or destroy you are doomed to one day wake up to find you’re no longer a nihilist, but a careerist. Which is perhaps why he put “Careering” after “Poptones” on Second Edition in the first place. Not that I begrudge him his selling out. Nobody, not Iggy, not even Jerry Lee Lewis for Christ’s sake, can piss all over their bread and butter forever. Do it long enough, and all you’re left with is soggy toast.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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