Monday, September 14, 2009

Best Band Ever?: Public Image Limited

After the Sex Pistols, there was Public Image Limited. And perhaps I commit Punk heresy here, but while the Sex Pistols were incredible, PIL was even better. Possibly not as influential, but better. Though in true "it's better to burn out than fade away" fashion, PIL did survive long enough to become less urgent and relevant in later years. Never bad, mind you, merely not as amazing a band as they once had been.

PIL was founded by John Lydon (Rotten), ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene, and bassist Jah Wobble (that lineup is shown above). Within two years PIL started undergoing lineup changes that would continue throughout its existence -- with Lydon being the only constant over the years. While that makes PIL Lydon's band, the sound formed during those first two years laid the groundwork for the original PIL sound that held sway from 1978 to 1986 (when "Album" was released). The first two albums, "First Issue" and "Metal Box" (later rerelased on CD as Second Edition) are uncontested postpunk classics, whose sound (along with Joy Division, another band that will show up in this series) became the metric by which all other postpunk would be measured.

The often reviled "This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get" is for me, however, quite possibly my favorite PIL album. It is the first one I heard in its entirety (I'd heard "Public Image" and "Low Life" at friends' parties, and sought out a recording by the band, which I'd been informed was called PIL), when I was 11 years old, and it made a lasting impression on me with its minimalist, rhythm-driven sound. I played my first cassette copy of this album so much that the tape broke. This album, along with the nearly as excellent "Flowers of Romance", featured Martin Atkins (later of Killing Joke, Ministry, and Pigface) on drums.

"Album" is another favorite of mine, and I played it as constantly as "This Is What You Want..." when it was released. A near total change in sound, "Album" is a sonically dense, anthemic rock album layered atop the traditional PIL foundation of strong rhythms. This Bill Laswell produced album features several luminary players: Steve Vai on guitar, Tony Williams and Ginger Baker on drums, and Ryuichi Sakamoto on keyboards. But despite the sonic density and "noodly" guitar work by Vai, this is clearly still a PIL album, with the last vestiges of the original postpunk sound still poking through here and there (particularly on "Ease"). That all-star lineup lasted one album.

PIL's first five albums are utterly essential (even if Allmusic does give both "This Is What You Want..." and "Album" 2 stars -- B.S. I say, those are both five star albums). Later albums, during the Lu Edmunds (Damned) and John McGeoch (Siouxsie, Magazine) era, "Happy?", "9", and "That What Is Not", are not so essential. These albums are all good, to be sure, but by this time PIL had become so pop / R&B / new wave influenced that not much of the original postpunk sound remained. They lost essentially all of their original fans, and an increasing number of their recent converts, and the hitmaking trailed off. The sense of urgency and relevance faded, and so did PIL. Never officially breaking up, PIL has announced that they will reform in 2009 to play a series of winter shows. Hopefully this will lead to a reunion in the studio, because even at their worst PIL was always among the most interesting bands around.


Chris said...

"This is what you want..." was my gateway album.