Thursday, October 15, 2009

469. Metal Box- Making the sex pistols look good.

Album: Metal Box.
Artist: Public Image Limited.
Year: 1979
Genre: Anti Rock.
1. Albatross
2. Memories
3. Swan Lake
4. Poptones
5. Careering
6. No Birds
7. Graveyard
8. The Suit
9. Bad Baby
10. Socialist
11. Chant
12. Radio 4

I’ve heard people call Ringo Starr the luckiest guy in rock and roll, implying that the drumming Beatle managed to become a multi-millionaire by riding on the back of his more talented bandmates. The “is Ringo a great drummer” debate is still raging but one thing is for certain- once they sacked Pete Best, the Fab Three could have chosen any drummer in Liverpool and they decided to pick Ringo so he must have had something other than looks that weren’t going to rival the three lads up front. My personal pick for the Luckiest Guy in Rock is Johnny “Rotten” Lydon, who managed to amass a lot of money without possessing any actual talent. He was selected as lead singer of the Sex Pistols based entirely on his ability to rub people up the wrong way. Malcolm Mclaren, the Pistol’s manager, wanted the band to get on people’s nerves and he managed to find the most irritating person on the planet to lead them.
After he left the Pistols, Rotten gathered together a group of musicians and formed a band called Public Image Limited with a view to recording what he called Anti-Rock and the rest of us call "bollocks". Anti Rock is a concept that I’ve never understood: “Here’s something great, let’s try and find the polar opposite of it. Why not apply the same logic to food? Why has nobody ever tried to invent Anti-muffins? “Let’s find everything that’s great about muffins and then find the polar opposite.” The reason nobody has done this is because it would be crap…just like Anti Rock.
Metal Box is much more of a challenge to enjoy than it was to make. The musicians make the Sex Pistols look like Cream and you’re hard pressed to find anything amongst its running length that you can attribute to actual talent. Pretty much every track features a simple repetitive drum line, an equally bland and cyclic bass-line that combine to form a dull plod, which tragically forms the best part of each track. Over the top of this insipid tedium guitarist Levene does whatever he feels like using a consistently grating guitar tone not lightened by any sense of melody. And wandering in and out like whenever the mood takes him is Johnny Rotten, who provides nonsensical vocals in a voice that’s as unmistakable as it is unlovable. Rotten is the only vocalist I’ve ever heard who manages to sound deranged and smug at the same time. It’s a neat trick but that doesn’t make it fun to listen to. And if he’s not using his manic voice he affects a bored monotone that somehow manages to be out of tune. I wouldn’t have thought it was possible to be out of tune when there is no tune to be out of but somehow Rotten manages it.
My grandmother would always label any music recorded after 1945 with the summation “It’s not music it’s just noise” which sounded pretty silly when applied to I Want to Hold Your Hand but listening to Metal Box I’m tempted to believe the old girl had a point. When does noise created with instruments become actual music and not just noise? If you have no chorus/verse structure, no melody to speak of, no key to stay within the confines off and only the bass player and drummer appear to be aware of anyone else’s existence- is it still music? And if it is just noise then how do you compare it to other noise in order to make a list of the 500 best noises? How do you judge if it’s successful or not? Dance music is a success if you dance to it. Sad songs are successful if they make you weepy. Heavy metal is successful if your parents hate it. What about Anti Rock? What were Lydon and co trying to achieve? And how do we determine if they succeeded or not?
While this wouldn’t get in my top albums list if we expanded the count to the top 5 million it obviously affected enough people to make it to 469. How was that possible, I hear you cry in outraged tones? Presumably because the editors of Rolling Stone magazine gave Yoko Ono a vote. When the magazine chose musical luminaries to cast their opinions on the rock world they picked Yoko to be on their panel. What was going through their minds? I can see her bopping her weird, little head to this stuff and putting it at number one on her countdown. Yoko’s opinions, like her music, should never be listened to.

EDIT: I haven't mentioned the packaging but check out the comment by Anon User below which makes a really interesting connection between the metal case this Album came in and the music contained within. Well worth a read.

Highlight: The look on people’s face when I play it and say “you know there are only 468 albums better than this one”
Lowlight: Albatross. And it’s all downhill from there.
Influenced by: A desire to be different to musicians who might have been pretentious but were definitely talented.
Influenced: god alone knows.
Favourite Amazon Customer review quote: Only squares and mediocre fools could think this is sloppy. That is the only way I could fathom why they would think so.
-Who calls anyone a square anymore?

So Should Lydon's image be more public or more limited? Let me know below.


  1. I can't believe you haven't commented on the metal box itself! :O

  2. The digital copy I got my hands on didn't have the metal box. But I would imagine a circular metal container that didn't fit into any CD rack or shelve would be almost as annoying as the music.

  3. I have the 2009 3-CD replica of the original Metal Box (which is remastered). It is about as out of print as anything, but I got it new, just recently for - I am not joking - $50. You see, I am actually so enamoured by the concept of the metal box, that I still do not regret shelling out that kind of (hard-earned) cash for it (and I even told a little white lie to my parents and told them it was $30, NOT $50, because the last thing I wanted my parents to say was "why the hell would you spend $50 on a tin can??") To be honest, it's more than just a $50 tin can; it really is something special, something different, and something to treasure.

    I must admit, it is a bit impractical to use, especially when you consider that it was supposed to NOT be listened to in order, but rather one track at a time, flying your way across the three discs to make up a sort of track order of your own (bassist Jah Wobble was measurably adamant about that). So yes, it is (and was) notoriously impractical to use and consequentially rather user-unfriendly.

    But that is the thing: these songs are in fact big, heavy, morbid, monotonously repetitive, with jarring and uneasy vocals, and with jarring and uneasy lyrics provided by the mad megalomaniac that is John Lydon. It naturally is meant to be taken one track at a time, not listened to in succession. It is really a special, one-of-a-kind of album (that is nonetheless difficult), with the most interesting, groundbreaking packaging you can find (that is still user-unfriendly).

    The most fascinating thing about this album is how many connections you can make between the music and the metal box that it is contained within. They are both edgy, avant-garde, idiosyncratic treasures that have distinct metallic textures. They are also both inaccessible, cold, and user-unfriendly, with relatively unassuming exteriors hiding the darker interiors. At this point I am almost starting to think of whether this is on the list for the packaging, and no doubt, it deserves a place in your collection, because it is special, it is idiosyncratic, and even though it may not fit on your shelf (well, actually, if you do have an open shelf like I do, it actually fits nicely on its side.) If not, well, it makes it even more idiosyncratic, now doesn't it? :D

    1. That's really interesting. I'd never made any connection between the packaging and the content before. That's a fascinating observation.

      I'm going to put a quick edit on this post to draw the reader's attention to your comment. I love the possibility that an album might sneak it's way into the list because of the container (and there may well be something in the idea).