Dub without bliss.
Recently, though, I found myself searching once again for the heart of darkness I'd originally sought in dub reggae. I got out my King Tubby CDs due to the influence of Lester Bangs's lengthy article on his late 70s stay in Jamaica (reprinted in "Mainlines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader", which I was reading for the third time), and was once again left slightly cold. Don't get me wrong, dub reggae is good stuff. It's just never exactly what I'm looking for when I reach for it.
This could have ended up being just another time where I went looking for a sound that I didn't quite find, and nothing more, but for the fact that another article in the Lester Bangs book extensively discussed Public Image Ltd's second album, "Metal Box." I don't own the original British edition, which was, as you might expect from the name, released in a circular metal canister containing three 45 rpm 12 inches. However, I do own its American counterpart, "Second Edition", a more conventional double album, and it had been a while since I listened to it. So after playing the dub CDs I own for an hour or so, I put on "Second Edition."
That's when I had an epiphany. I've owned this album for at least half a dozen years, purchasing it used for $5 on a shopping trip to Washington DC with an old girlfriend. However, I've never listened to it all that often, and I guess that's why it wasn't until a few days ago that I realized just how fundamentally linked the entire sound of "Second Edition" and almost all of the early PiL material really is to dub reggae.
When a lot of people think of Public Image Ltd, I'm sure that they think, "Oh, Johnny Rotten's band after The Sex Pistols. From what I've heard, it's bullshit new wave dance music." This dismissal is understandable if all people have heard is their post-1985 material, beginning with "Album" (aka "Cassette", aka "Compact Disc"). However, the original lineup of PiL also included guitarist Keith Levene and bassist Jah Wobble, and they were every bit as important to the band as John Lydon ever was. A good illustration of this fact: "Greatest Hits So Far," their singles compilation released in 1990. It's in chronological order, and the first four songs are excellent. After those songs, Wobble left the band. The next two songs are decent if not great. After those songs, Levene left the band. The remaining eight songs on the album suck. In this article, I will only be concerning myself with the work of PiL's original lineup.
The linkage with dub reggae that I detected in "Second Edition", though not as pronounced, is easy to perceive even as early on as their debut album, "Public Image", aka "First Issue." This entire album is ahead of its time. Released in late 1978, only months after "Never Mind The Bollocks" (and before Sid Vicious's death put an end to Malcolm McLaren's ridiculous charade of a post-Rotten Pistols), Public Image Ltd's debut introduced them as a band who were obviously punk in behavior but, when judged solely by their sound, seemed like something else entirely. Jah Wobble was the heart of their sound in the early years; having been recruited by John Lydon from a childhood circle of friends, Wobble had never played bass before joining PiL. Unlike Sid Vicious, who never really bothered to learn, Wobble quickly created a distinct style that mostly involved playing the same complex figures over and over, weaving a sinuous rhythm through nearly invisible spaces in the airtight, rock-solid drumming.
At first, this was nothing more than a backdrop for Lydon's venomous ranting and Keith Levene's jagged, droning chord structures (see "Religion" and the audio endurance test of 9 minute album opener "Theme"), and much of the material on "Public Image" sounds more like The Birthday Party than anything else (though it prefigures that band by at least two years). However, the second half of the album, which begins with early PiL's one pop moment, "Public Image", and continues into "Low Life" and "Attack", gives indications of what was to come. "Low Life" and "Attack" were both recorded on the cheap, when the album's release date was fast approaching and the hastily formed PiL were low on usable material. Having been written later than the rest of the album, Wobble's basslines indicate progress towards their final form as they'd appear on "Metal Box."
"Public Image" ends with a 13-minute track called "Fodderstompf", which is both the album's most and least punk rock moment. In a move that frustrated their label, this song was tacked onto the end of the album just to make it long enough for release. It's really just a disco-ish rhythm track with Jah Wobble screaming "We only wanted to be loved!" and other such nonsense overtop in a ridiculous, high-pitched Cockney voice (which, in fairness to him, may be how he actually talks). The label gritted their teeth and released it anyway, only to have the song become a surprise hit on the dance floor of Studio 54, where the cokeheads and drag queens delighted in screaming along with Wobble. Certainly, no one had expected that.
"Metal Box" showed a great deal of evolution on the part of the entire band. The place where this was most obvious was on "Swan Lake," which opens side two of "Second Edition". This song had already been released as a single the year before, under the name "Death Disco". Now it reappeared in a longer, more intense version. As Lydon sang lyrics he'd written for his mother, who was at the time dying of cancer ("Watch her slowly die/Saw it in her eyes/Choking on a bed/Flowers rotting dead"), and Wobble and drummer Richard Dudanski lay down an impenetrable groove that is both heavy and funky, Keith Levene layers tracks of ambient synth lines and choppy, staccato guitars that overlap each other and fade into and out of the mix. After a while, the vocals start mutating as well, with tracks of echo appearing at points where there's nothing for them to be echoing from, speeding up and slowing down and harmonizing with keyboard tracks that also seem manipulated somehow. By the end of the song, even the instrument levels begin haphazardly changing, in a way that is nothing like the dropout effects used in dub but calls them to mind nonetheless. Underneath it all, Wobble and Dudanski continue churning along at full steam, until finally the whole song stops as if the tape were cut with scissors.
The next thing you hear, only a second later, is the squelching sound of a pause button being released, as "Poptones" begins in mid-measure. On this song, Lydon does more of his proto-Birthday Party droning and howling, with Levene using creepy-sounding minor chords and arpeggios that call to mind Joy Division. It's scary and hypnotic, and gives Wobble's reliable walking funk bassline a scary edge that ratchets up the tension until you want to scream. Lydon never does, though. At points, he twists his voice upwards until he almost sounds like a little girl doing her best witch impersonation while playing in the backyard some Saturday afternoon, but that's the closest it gets. The song doesn't so much end as trail off, all of the musicians faltering to a stop as if someone has gestured to them through a studio window to cut it off. You get the feeling that they could have played the song all day if asked.
A lot of the songs on this album are so hypnotic and flowing that it seems like PiL could have played them for 20 minutes, Indeed, maybe they did exactly that. With all the fade-ins and fade-outs that show up on "Second Edition", who's to know? When "Careering" begins, a moment after "Poptones"'s anti-climactic finish, in mid-measure, it only feeds this impression further. It opens on a wash of ambient synths that make it sound like a spaceship lowering itself to earth, then quickly transforming itself into a fast car silently gliding down a highway far after midnight. The synths continue with their ambient wash throughout the song, mixing with the furious-as-usual rhythm section to create a solid whole. There is no guitar to speak of on the song, so the entire foreground of the mix is given over to strange sound effects, with Lydon's voice hovering somewhere overtop of it all.
And this is where I find what I was always looking for with dub reggae. Babies screaming and what sound like pistol shots mix with synth-generated spaceship noises and an incredibly solid, hypnotic groove. But this is no reggae blissout: Public Image Ltd are not far removed from the snarling origins of British punk rock, and have the same bitter, reactionary anger that fueled that movement's initial burst of creativity running through their veins. On "Metal Box" aka "Second Edition", they found a way to combine funk grooves with the burning heart of darkness that could never have taken root in reggae, to get people dancing without sacrificing the ability to exorcise dark torrents of emotion. It's a shame that this classic PiL lineup lasted for such a short time, but they created one true masterpiece and that's more than most bands ever get.