Surprisingly coherent contempt

Public Image Limited was the band that John Lydon actually wanted to be in. I have no idea whether he would have ended up being involved in music professionally, if Malcolm McLaren hadn’t thought he looked right for The Sex Pistols, but as soon as he was in a band he clearly had his own ideas about it. Given that McLaren and the other band members didn’t bother to find out whether he could sing before recruiting him, and didn’t really notice what his lyrics were, he treated the whole circus with a healthy dose of contempt from the start, and when he started his own band it was, in many ways, the opposite of the Pistols.

First Issue, which I’ve been revisiting over the past few months, is something of an anti-rock album, inasmuch as it uses the standard rock line-up, but avoids the atavistic thrashing of punk in general, and the tabloid-baiting hard-rock clichés purveyed by The Sex Pistols in particular. Its sound was hugely important in the development of what would come to be known as the post-punk landscape, and it’s characterised, despite the album’s inconsistent production values, by a kind of clarity, both sonic and creative. PiL went pretty avant-garde after this, but then returned to a much more accessible sound, notably on Album, and despite the comparatively rough-and-ready musicianship, this record presages the group’s later work.

The sound is solid, tight and textural, with Lydon’s mordant sarcasm washing across the top of it like a stream of piss. Jah Wobble’s bass playing is extraordinary, both for its groove and its creativity, especially given that this was his first attempt at playing the instrument seriously. In fact, given the circumstances and general creative ethic of its construction, the entire album is a surprisingly coherent achievement, with Jim Walker’s insistent drums and Keith Levene’s inventive sheets of guitar sound contributing to an integrated, innovative soundworld, in which Lydon’s mockery and contempt sound like the most natural and entertaining top line imaginable.

It’s hard to hear this with the ears of its first listeners, who it’s fairly safe to say hadn’t heard anything like it. It’s a true fusion, bashing together elements of dub reggae, New Wave, spoken word poetry, comedy, and even prog. Those who were listening purely because Lydon was a Pistols alumnus were probably disappointed, if that kind of neanderthal pub-rock was really their thing, but there were plenty of people in the broader punk scene who were just desperate to hear anything that wasn’t hide-bound to the conventions of commercial pop music, and I guess that this was the record they’d been waiting for. Despite its relatively limited impact on the headlines of the red-tops, this is actually a far more subversive, far more shocking, and far more insulting record than Never Mind The Bollocks, which was a made-to-order confection, complicit in the outrage it produced, designed to sell papers.

I’ll admit that, listening to it cyclically over a lot of weeks, I’ve skipped forwards a few times. Sarcastic contempt isn’t necessarily something that stands repeated exposure, and the delivery is deliberately obnoxious, but there’s actually enough interesting detail in these songs that, for the most part, I’ve enjoyed letting them sink in properly. The idea that something like this could once have been described, however laughably, as pop-music, is a reassuring reminder that not everyone in the world of commercial culture has always been irredeemably corrupt.

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