#461: Public Image Ltd, "Metal Box" (1979)

“The recent past always presents itself as if destroyed by catastrophes.”

            —Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life

Amid the Internet’s endlessly accessible, archived, overlapping present tense, our DVR’d, rewindable, pausable now, I miss most the sense of the inaccessible but very recent past and its foreclosed possibilities. My own childhood felt full of the just-missed-out-on, the overlooked-until-it-was-too-late, the taken-for-granted. I’m speaking of music and other consumable forms of pop culture, sure, but also friendships, experiences, places: the overgrown lot a few streets away, where my mother and I picked wildflowers and where teenagers broke beer bottles in circles of sooty stones, all bulldozed for a brick condominium by the time I turned ten. None of this is in any way catastrophic—especially as Adorno’s use of that word inevitably implies the Holocaust—though perhaps it gets at Adorno’s sense of the past as irredeemable, discontinuous, unnarratable. Still, we might read  “as if destroyed” as a warning against a romantic, nostalgic view of the ruined, fragmented past. At thirteen, fourteen, I watched bands pose and prance on MTV and wondered what the world wasn’t offering me so easily as I unwillingly committed to memory, say, a Howard Jones keyboard solo or a Mr. Mister melody: the cultural present, as I experienced it, was awful. A year later, I loved rummaging the import bins at Al Bum’s, loved studying cryptic post-punk LP covers. It seemed easy to confuse one band and another, because all of them felt equally mysterious—because the world felt mysterious. Still, the most interesting narratives have always been the ones I can’t quite piece together, don’t quite understand. The past—my parents’ past—bored me. But the recent past intrigued me because it seemed destroyed, irretrievable except through these records, which lingered in those bins for months until one day they’d vanished. Eventually I realized I’d stop mourning their absences only if I brought them home myself.

This unattainable past occupied my frequent what-if? alternate history fantasies about my life. All fantasy is intrinsically selfish, and my own historical contemplations never essayed much beyond the limits of my own vaguest memories. If the present moment disappointed me—and, when I was a teenager, it invariably did—how easy to ignore it by pondering other selves I might have been but wasn’t, by projecting myself into other places, houses, families, friendships, talents, bodies. I wanted less a better past than to possess a better present via the past.

This superior present I imagined was pathetic, as if a shade of difference in my social or economic status or my physical appearance or my cultural knowledge would have transformed me in any way. Jah Wobble, PiL’s bassist on First Issue and Metal Box, referring to his younger self, his younger friends, puts it more succinctly: “I think we were all emotional cripples back then.” Wobble’s friends included one who, in January, 1978, rejected his own recent past by exchanging safety pins and torn clothes for tailored suits, the name Johnny Rotten for John Lydon, and a role as frontman of the U.K.’s most infamous punk band for an ostensibly more democratic position in Public Image Ltd. As the reinvented Lydon told Tom Snyder in a disastrous 1980 television interview, PiL “ain’t no band. We’re a company. Simple. Nothing to do with rock and roll. Doo-dah.”

“It seems to be an old-fashioned format,” guitarist Keith Levene elaborated haltingly a few minutes later, as Lydon and Snyder smoked cigarettes, “to go on stage with guitars and play loud music.… John said something in an interview: everyone’s really preoccupied with going backwards, and I think the reason it’s a good idea not to be a rock and roll band, and to concentrate or direct our energies as a company is because—” at which point Lydon and Snyder simultaneously interrupted him and Tomorrow with Tom Snyder went to a commercial break.


Illustration by S.H. Lohmann

Illustration by S.H. Lohmann

“I’ve never aspired to be more than a dreamer.… I’ve always belonged to what isn’t where I am and to what I could never be. Whatever isn’t mine, no matter how base, has always had poetry for me.… Ah, no nostalgia hurts as much as nostalgia for things that never existed!”

            —Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

I’ve never listened to Public Image Ltd’s classic 1979 three record set Metal Box. Public Image Ltd’s Second Edition, on the other hand, I’ve spun endless times. By the time I came to PiL c. 1987 or so, those metal film canisters had vanished into that recent past I couldn’t touch or acquire, and I didn’t see one until 1990, hanging on the wall at Nuggets Records in Kenmore Square and, despite some rust spots, priced way above my meager means. Lydon, Levene, and Wobble, PiL’s three mainstays when Metal Box came out, never intended it to be an easy release: the deep-bass, wide-groove 45 RPM 12˝s meant that four of the six sides held only two songs each, and that Metal Box began with a side-long, ten-minute dirge. “It effectively deconstructed the idea of ‘the album,’” Simon Reynolds claims, “encouraging people to listen to the tracks in any order.” Beyond that, Levene noted, “We were turned on by the idea that it would be difficult to open the can and get the records out.”

Virgin changed the track sequence, omitted a lock groove, and compressed Wobble’s basslines into a cheaper-to-manufacture double LP packaged in a more standard gatefold sleeve: Second Edition appeared three months after its original iteration, early in 1980. When I was sixteen, copies remained easy to find in record stores. Even this diminished artifact felt important: it sounded strange in a way almost no other record I owned sounded strange: circuitous, trebly guitar riffs; stumbling basslines that all seemed to be played on the E and A strings; vocals punctuated by all kinds of groans, moans, shrieks, hiccups, howls, trills, and whines. The entire effect felt harrowing, and listening to this album, for me, both summoned and relieved the distress it articulated. Speaking of his guitar sound, Levene said, “It could be really thin glass penetrating you, but you don’t know until you start bleeding internally.” Or, as Adorno wrote in Minima Moralia: “The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying-glass.”

“[L]isten to Metal Box by PiL, Johnny Rotten’s post-Sex Pistols band, read Minima Moralia as you listen, and see if you can tell where one leaves off and the other begins.”

            —Greil Marcus, Lipstick Traces

A friend and I recently admitted to each other that we laugh out loud while rereading Minima Moralia. He loves the passage “where Adorno turns his blinding interrogation light on banality—how casual conversations with strangers on a train make us complicit with murder and atrocity, how throwaway expressions like ‘Oh, how lovely!’ testify to just how unlovely existence is, how going to see a movie (no matter how vigilant we are while watching it) leaves us stupider and more corrupt, etc.” (In this fragment, “How Nice of You, Doctor,” Adorno observes “Sociability itself connives at injustice by pretending that in this chill world we can still talk to each other.”) I laugh at “Articles May Not Be Exchanged”: “Even private giving of presents has degenerated to a social function exercised with rational bad grace, careful adherence to the prescribed budget, sceptical appraisal of the other and the least possible effort.… The decay of giving is mirrored in the distressing invention of gift-articles, based on the assumption that one does not know what to give because one really does not want to.”

When I discovered PiL, I would have been unable to make much of Adorno’s sometimes dense rhetoric—just as PiL’s dismantling of traditional rock song structures made their work initially incomprehensible to me—but Adorno’s relentless critique throughout Minima Moralia would have spoken to me then at least as much as it does now: like Lydon, I’ve always been a cynical bastard. In 1978, Lydon told an interviewer his new music involved “misery, depression, self-indulgence, all those trite little obsessions.” Years later, on MTV, he confessed, with a shrug and a laugh, “I’m just permanently agitated by everything and anyone. I cannot help it. It’s the way I am!”

I wasn’t, at sixteen, laughing at Lydon’s lyrics throughout Second Edition: I was hoping someone would recognize my rueful agreement at what then seemed his percipience, a posture Adorno would have loved to mock: “Ready-made enlightenment turns not only spontaneous reflection but also analytical insights—whose power equals the energy and suffering that it cost to gain them—into mass-produced articles.” Lydon’s physical beatings at the hands of patriotic mobs throughout the Silver Jubilee summer of 1977, his pain over the deaths of his mother and his friend Sid Vicious, his paranoia and isolation in the Chelsea house he shared with bandmates, friends, and hangers-on in 1978 and 1979: all distilled into the moans he musters throughout the dozen tracks of Metal Box, then pressed into vinyl records in an edition of sixty thousand.

A decade later, I finally saw Public Image Ltd live, at an outdoor venue with the Sugarcubes and New Order. Lydon sauntered onstage wearing baggy Day-Glo clothes and scarlet hair extensions, and shouted into the microphone: “Here’s your Uncle Johhhhnnnny!” The crowd cheered wildly; I cringed. His band, anonymous session musicians since Wobble’s and Levene’s departures years earlier, played the hits. I remember little of this show beyond the water-squirting flower headband Bjork wore, but I’m pretty sure PiL played “Public Image” as well as the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy in the U.K.,” or exactly the sort of tired rock-star stuff Lydon had once sneered about. Whether his foray into punk nostalgia was rejection or celebration of his recent past, it only confirmed that I’d once again arrived a few years too late for something vital and forever lost.

—Joshua Harmon