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Music Review: Public Image Ltd – This Is PiL

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In the mid-1970s, the bloated and moribund music industry was given a much needed enema by The Sex Pistols. Anarchic and swearing, they spit upon Britain’s cultural icons and reminded people that rock and roll wasn’t only the province of self-indulgent millionaires. In the 1950s, Elvis scared middle class parents with his blatant sexuality while his blending of country and blues music threatened the South’s segregationist attitudes. In the 1960s music came to epitomize all that was wrong with society, according to the protectors of moral decency as it promoted sex, drug use, and worst of all questioning authority.

Yet when rock stars became celebrities and started earning a few bucks, it’s amazing how quickly they became part of the establishment. English rock and rollers complaining about having to pay taxes when they had grown up in council flats, or were raised on the National Health system funded by tax dollars, were a fine examples of how they became those they claimed to despise (but in reality had probably only envied). While John Lennon may have given his MBE (Member of the British Empire) back, it’s hard to imagine John Lydon even making it onto the New Year’s honour list.

The Sex Pistols only ever put out one studio album, Never Mind The Bollocks, and self-imploded after a couple of years. Shedding the punk surname Rotten he’d worn as lead singer of the Pistols, Lydon, founded Public Image Limited (PiL) in 1978. For the next fourteen years, with a lineup best described as fluid, the band released a series of albums that challenged and defied listener’s and critic’s expectations. Anyone who had been expecting Sex Pistols revisited was in for a shock. Lydon and PiL refused to be buttonholed or defined by an industry that liked everything in neat categories and just to rub salt in the wounds, managed to succeed playing it by their own rules. By the time they shut it down in 1992, they had scored five top 20 singles and five top 20 albums on the UK charts.

Twenty years later, PiL is still playing it by their own rules. They reformed in 2009 and began touring with much the same line as in ’92. Lydon and PiL bandmates since 1986, Lu Edmonds (guitar) and Bruce Smith (drums/percussion), were joined by newcomer Scott Firth (bass). Any thoughts the more cynical might have had about this being an “old farts looking to regain lost glory” tour will be dispelled once you listen to their new release, This Is PiL. As befitting the guy who wrote the scathing “EMI”, Lydon and company raised the cash for the disc themselves and have released it on their own Official PiL label (distributed in the US by Redeye Distribution).

The twelve tracks on this CD live up to anybody’s expectations of what PiL had come to represent in their first incarnation. I’ve seen other critics refer to it as “art rock” and other such bullshit, but the reality is Lydon and company long ago went beyond pop music and into the realm of new music composition. Sure they field the same sort of line up as pop bands but what they do with the instruments at their disposal goes beyond what anybody else has ever attempted. Perhaps the closest analogy would be some of the music being produced by the avant-garde jazz movement in Chicago. However, unlike those bands whose forte is improvisation and experimentation with aural soundscapes, PiL’s pieces are written in advance and more a music of ideas than intuitive responses.

Thematically Lydon is still attacking the status quo. “One Drop” is a celebration of his adolescence and he defies the notion that it’s everyone’s responsibility to grow up and become a useful member of society. “The laws of nature/Be lawless and free/We come from chaos/You can not change us/You can not explain us/And that’s what makes us/We are the ageless/We are teenagers/We are the focus of the hopeless/We are the last chance/We are the last dance”. Yet he’s not waxing nostalgic for his lost youth, he’s talking about himself in the present tense. After all, what is being an artist if not the ultimate rejection of adulthood?

Be honest, doesn’t some part of you wonder about a group of fifty-year-old men making music most people would associate with teenage rebellion and youthful excess? They’re not even playing nice safe corporate rock for baby boomers, for God’s sake. Instead of mellowing with age and becoming respectable members of the aging rock musicians community, Lydon sounds just as ready to sneer at icons as he ever did. However, at the same time he’s not just leading some blind attack or reckless anarchy. He looks around at present day society and sees that nothing much has changed in nearly forty years, so what is there to be fucking optimistic about? Anger is a healthy response and to pretend otherwise is to hide your head in the sand.

“The Room I’m In” is a surreal piece mixing spoken word and singing, accompanied by an eerily floating electronic sound collage overtop an arrhythmic percussion track suggesting the sounds of the world heard off in the distance. We call them “projects” in North America, in Great Britain they’re know as council flats, but they serve the same purpose. It’s where the poor and the hopeless are stuffed into boxes in towers of concrete surrounded by expanses of asphalt and wasteland. With no chance of physically escaping these soul destroying and dream crushing prisons, lives are wasted on drugs and meaningless violence. In just under four minutes, PiL has managed to create a piece of music which brings to life the reality of those sentenced to serve life sentences in these hells for the crime of being poor. Suddenly a needle seems like a reasonable alternative.

When asked to describe the songs on this release Lydon’s response was, “Well 12 songs, where do I begin? Everything and anything that attracts my attention.” Each song is a reflection of what he has seen while glaring through his microscope, of something that moves him strongly enough to comment on. But these aren’t the obvious political songs of other people; stirring anthems with catchy choruses to rouse arena crowds aren’t what PiL’s about. I really doubt you’ll find people singing along to their favourite tunes at the next PiL gig you go to. Instead what you’re hit with are a series of images which, viewed as a whole, create a type of Cubist picture of the current state of the world.

Picasso tried to capture all sides of an image within the confines of a two dimensional canvas. PiL’s canvas stretches over the length of their CD and they use every means at their disposal to create their portrait. While all the familiar sounds of popular rock music are employed in their songs–searing guitars, synthesized sound waves, and almost everything else you can think of–contextually they never fit into the neat patterns we expect from pop music.There’s nothing comfortable or safe about PiL. They won’t make you feel better about yourself, nor is this a disc you’re going to want to play to fall asleep to. Yet for some reason, just the thought that PiL are out there pushing boundaries, kicking conventions, and doing their best to make sure people are awake gives me more hope than I’ve had in a fuck of a long time. Genius is never easy, art is not always pleasant, but that somebody still cares enough to be using popular music to create both is reason for celebration. Hopefully we won’t have to wait another twenty years for their next creation.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.