Sunday, 7 April 2013

Top 102 Albums⁺ No 26 Metal Box

Top 102 Albums⁺ No 26 
Metal Box - P.I.L.
"Johnny’s in the basement
Mixing up the medicine"

Maybe it wasn't quite a basement but John Lydon's post - Pistols albums seem to have been dreamed up in dark rooms. The first P.I.L. single was a monstrous pop moment and remains one of my all time favourite seven inches. The first album also included songs like Religion 1 & 2 where John continued to confront society with an unflattering mirror.
It wasn't society that was confronted in Metal Box but that same fearless stare was turned inwards as Lydon, Levene and Wobble deconstructed rock and rebuilt it in a series of improvisational, droning, hypnotic tracks.

The album opens with Albatross, a ten minute jam, recorded on it's first take, over which Lydon chants disjointed lines, returning always to the line "Getting rid of the Albatross." As a listener, you wonder if you are part of the albatross. JOHNNY ROTTEN! couldn't walk the streets of London without protection, and neither could John Lydon. This music isn't chasing the audience, the audience has to chase the music. Although Lydon's voice wavers like arabic chanting or Irish Sean Nós singing. the emotions are clearly true. This is soul music.

The EMOTION becomes even more harrowing on Swan Lake / Death Disco where we overhear John trying to express his feelings on watching his mother dying. Not easy listening. "Words cannot express."

It is also about SOUND. Keith Levene's metallic, almost tinny guitar sounds and Jah Wobble's deep rumbles of bass seem at times to be having an impromptu conversation rather than performing from a prepared script. The predominant sound on the turntable at the infamous Gunther Grove flat was, by all accounts DUB, and this is evident in the washes of sound that make up this record, snatches of half erased vocals, pulses of subsonic bass, and metal guitar shards.

Probably my favourite track is Poptones. At almost eight minutes it never seems long enough. Dissonant, abstract and featuring a phenomenal vocal performance from Lydon before it slips into a long hypnotic instrumental workout.

It's followed by Careering, by far the best song about 'the Troubles'.  Words like 'trigger machinery / mangle the military" and the repeated question "Is this living?" worm their way into your head. It is disturbing, full of gunshot drums and envisages sectarianism as an infection:

"I've been careering
Across the border
Is this living?
Both sides of the river
There is bacteria"

There is a constant play with the idea that this is not music, and Lydon throws quite a few jabs at himself : "Voice moaning in a speaker" "Everyone loves you / Until they know you" "There must be meaning / Behind the moaning."

They are all phantom jabs however, taunting the audience who don't get this. Johnny knew he was a contender for heavyweight champion. He exudes the proper disdain for his opponents, who are already flat on their backs on their "ordered lawns", noses bleeding caviar.

This album continues to spin its web deep in the DNA of music. It still sounds post everything, even things that haven't happened YET.


  1. Sorry Seamus, I hope that we don't fall out over this but I'm not a fan.
    I pogoed with the punks; got that the Sex Pistols kick started the movement; understood the importance of dismantling the stagnant industry, loved The Clash, Buzzcocks and the post punk musical box; I even saw the Pistols with Sid (Bingley or Blackburn).
    They were shite. Johnny a twisted little knot of spit and spite; I'm sure that there was meaning behind the moaning but I couldn't muster a gob full for their mean spirited muse.
    Social commentary or just self possessed bitter rants?
    Or simply McClaren's puppets?
    And did that particular Prospero really have a plan beyond bigging himself up?
    Genius or jerk?
    Lydon continues to get right up my nose; and there's no caviar there. I know it's his job but I truly believe that my life is better without him.
    I'm tempted to say: put him back in the tin and bury it deep... but, that said Seamus, in deference to you and your prior recommendations of excellent buried treasure, I'll give this a go; quietly I know that I'd rather gargle sand...
    Apologies for the grumble... a hangover and a broken tooth...

  2. Mmm, just reread this Seamus.
    Apologies for being so dismissive of another's enthusiasms; downright rude really...
    Sober tonight; tooth to be fixed tomorrow; normal service will resume.
    I will give this a go; only a fool won't change his mind etc...

    1. No offence was taken, Trevor. In fact I had enjoyed writing the case for the defence but returning now I see that it has disappeared into the ether.
      Basically I was putting the case that the Pistols key singles, GSTQ & Anarchy were pleas for tolerance of diversity, coming particularly from the angle of immigrants and their children. John has often made much of the diversity of the area he grew up in and his own Irishness. "England's Dreaming", in which he saw "No Future" was simply the jackboots of Empire to these new English. Or the jackboots of cultural conservatism to those bent beneath the weight of bowler hats and village greens.
      He pointed out the elephant which had been sitting unnoticed on the sofa eating crumpet and drinking Earl Grey.
      "Ah, so that's why we all keep sliding towards the middle."

  3. I'd love to think that Rotten was so mindful/thoughtful/insightful.
    I wonder if those intentions are attributed in retrospect and he grasps at them to give shape and meaning to the 'anarchy' schtick...
    I suspect that he was just thrashing out at all and sundry.
    Cultural conservatism or merely contentment? I think that post war we'd never had it so good in England; that was bound to lead to a smug/cosy/comfortable middle class keen to protect the status quo. Can you blame them when they feared that the boots might come a stomping on their roses? Also explains the knee jerk of the 'establishment'. That elephant was effectively Caliban seeing his own reflection; Rotten or McClaren as Prospero holding up that mirror? It was a wake up call for sure, colonic irrigation or a slight irritation?
    It certainly produced some exciting music; the soundtrack of my late teens.

    1. I've spent quite a while listening to interviews and suchlike from the time and in them Rotten is a far different person to the media creation, thoughtful and passionate about music in particular. He has quite a lot of reflexive anger around the treatment of the Irish in Britain (and in Ireland) which I think was justified at the time. Not that he (or I) ever supported the IRA, unlike say Kevin Rowland who swung between extremes. At the time comedy shows such as The Comedians would have often consisted of 40 or 50% anti-Irish jokes and it was only a few years since the signs saying No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs disappeared from Boarding House and Public House Windows. I was trying for a while to make a documentary about the contribution of the second generation Irish to British music between God Save the Queen and The Queen is Dead. However I don't think it will ever happen as it kind of lost momentum (or I did).
      I think early punk was quite middle class, arts students and fashionistas, although it grew quickly beyond the initial inner circle.
      Jon Savage's England's Dreaming and Johnny's own No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs give very interesting perspectives on the time.

  4. I never really got the Irish connection with the Pistols; need to rethink.
    My early days were fairly cosseted; I was brought up abroad (Singapore/Cyprus); Dad in the RAF. So a pretty privileged environment amongst officers' messes and closed campuses that demonized anyone outside of that bubble and threatening to burst it.
    So confess that I grew up in Conservative clothes with a Pater who always obliged any uniform. We were taught to unthinkingly distrust the 'bombers of the world'. be they Turkish/Greek/Arabic/Irish. I've spent a lifetime trying to reset my values; not easy to divest yourself of prejudgements unless it is that early teen rejection of all things that your parents represent.
    Bottom line for me is tolerance and kindness.
    It works fine in the playground; unfortunately adults fuck with that simplistic naiveté...
    Might explain my grabbing at the vestiges of the punk movement but never really embracing the politics...

    1. It depends on where you stand as to who you see as the "bombers of the world". From the perspective of my prejudices I would list British/American/Israeli.
      I've always been fascinated with the difficult identity of the second, and even third generation Irish in Britain. It's probably easier now but trying to reconcile two opposed identities must have been difficult. Many, Rowland, Morrissey and Costello have or had at one stage Irish passports. Many have tried living here for a while but it is not often successful. America seems to offer neutral ground.
      Probably my favourite quote on the subject was from Mac who in a concert in Dublin mentioned that his mother was Irish which got great cheers. He followed it with "so I'm only half thick," which got laughs.
      Musicians at the time who were 2nd or 3rd Generation Irish on at least one side
      Mac/Morrissey(& all The Smiths/Rotten/Bush/Boy George/Costello/Rotten/lots of FGTH / Hazel O'Connor/Chas Smash / Shane McGowan/Billy Idol/Peter Murphy (Bauhaus)/ Dan Treacy - You can go back to Lonnie Donegan / Dusty Springfield / John Barry or come closer forward to Oasis / Kate Nash etc etc
      Ian Curtis' grandmother came from Portarlington, where I now live.
      Being inundated with so much British culture, particularly music, you would notice the ones who mentioned Ireland in their lyrics such as Rotten/Rowland and Morrissey or who clearly drew on Irish music like Kate Bush. Harder to see those thinks from the other side.

      I've posted on it here - http://theknockingshop.blogspot.ie/2011/06/irish-blood-english-heart.html

  5. I did read that excellent post, but will revisit.
    My only real upfront view of revolution was the pre partitioning of Cyprus.
    We were there 66-69; during the Markos years.
    Lawrence Durrell's brilliantly dispassionate 'Bitter Lemons' details the disruption of that idyllic island (whilst under British rule).
    The Cypriots (both Greeks and Turks) were happy until the bombers were shipped in from Athens... well worth a read.
    In that microcosm I was brought up with the simplistic idea of 'goodies & baddies'.
    Then back to England and Wilson/Heath, then the Thatcher years...
    Will we dance on her grave and tread the ground down or recognize her tenacious integrity?
    I sense a few re-releases...

    1. I know little or nothing about the partitioning of Cyprus. Bitter Lemons sounds interesting.
      The sharing of Margaret referencing songs has certainly gone viral.

  6. It's a lovely book Seamus. The first part is a writer looking for an idyllic environment in which to gaze at his belly button. Sounds familiar... He takes up residence in Bel Apais on the north side of the island, a village famous for its beautiful abbey and a hybrid of orange and lemon trees. I've been there; the smell was intoxicating even to a 7 year old. The Turks and Greeks live in blissful harmony. Lots of tales of Mediterranean misbehavior; treading grapes, collecting and crushing the olives, blissful bucolic benders etc.
    And then it turns. Athens wants independence for the island. The Greek Cypriots aren't bothered, actually like London but some show interest. The previous harmony between Greeks and Turks is suddenly put into question. People start whispering and looking over their shoulders. Athens sends bombers. Shit hits fan. Eventually upon partitioning the Turk got the north side of the island (including Bel Apais.) Most folk agree that it's the more beautiful side, as is often the case with Med islands...
    I wasn't comparing Cyprus to Palestine or Belfast; but the book is a little microcosm; fascinating to see how things unravel once people are given choices to make. In this case it wasn't a status quo but a spell that was broken... well worth a read Seamus. As with all Durrell the writing is beautiful.
    Maggie? There's a lot of bitterness about still, invariably with a northern accent. She was a great problem solver, grabbing the bull by the horns etc; got to admire her conviction; she wasn't for turning or for an easy vote. That aside she didn't have a creative bone in her body. Once she'd fronted the unions and the 'Argies' and there were no more fights to be had she was a bit lost; eggs broken but the omelet was too plain for the new politics. One thing that she did do was polarize, and in that I think that she helped define New Labour; made The Left see what they weren't and therefore were... or needed to become.

    1. Both stories seem similar - it's easier to break than to re-make. you open the Pandora's Box of nationalism at your peril.

      Thatcher always seemed to represent being against things rather than for. The growth of monetary inequality in the UK and US (and elsewhere) since the reigns of Thatcher & Reagan shows what her policies meant better than any rhetoric. New Labour really seemed the death of the left to me and Blair seems as flawed as Thatcher, killing the patient but with a better bedside manner.

      Maggie had a great-grandmother from Kerry. Not that she made a lot of her Irish roots.

  7. Regarding Maggie's roots; was she a bottle blonde?

    1. Her hair just turned whatever colour it was told to. Wouldn't you have?

  8. I would; you'd have expected a blue rinse though...