Being the teenage punk fanatic I was in the late 70s, and having absolutely loved the debut single from John Lydon’s new Public Image Limited project, I bought the debut PiL album – Public Image or First Issue depending on which takes your fancy – as soon as it was released in late 1978. I remember being delighted as I cycled home with the glossy sleeve which pictured a clean-cut Lydon with a somewhat sinister looking chap pictured on the rear cover. The photos of the other band members – none of whom I knew – were also puzzling. A blonde guy in a glittery jacket and some fresh-faced bloke not wearing a shirt. I was 14 and didn’t really ‘get’ the stylised imagery the band was trying to portray. I was firmly into punk and these individuals – Lydon included – didn’t really match my spiky expectations. Prior to this I had seen a photo of the group looking quite punky and scruffy so these new images were a little confusing, but I was confident – after all, the 7” they’d released was amazing so what could go wrong?
The moment when I lowered the needle onto the vinyl and waited expectantly for something along the lines of the single to appear was memorable. The opening sounds of Lydon’s death-like scream, followed by outrageous bass, a brief drum roll and then that guitar sound erupted from the speakers. What. Was. THIS? The completely unhinged sound of ‘Theme’ was practically unlistenable – it wailed, screeched and sounded like the devil running his fingernails down a blackboard. Lydon’s repeated howls and screams of ‘I wish I could DIE….’ combined with the intense psychedelic nature of the music terrified me. Of course I had heard the b-side of the debut single (‘The Cowboy Song’) with its excruciating short wave radio electronic squeals, a piece of music that used to freak out my mum and dad’s dogs such was the pitch of the distortion, but I dismissed this is a b-side joke of some sort. A mistake it seems. I didn’t really know what psychedelic music was – I certainly hadn’t heard any – and certainly whatever this monstrous sound was it wasn’t either what I expected or what I wanted. But of course I’d spent my treasured pocket money on this record so no way was it going to beat me so on I went, into ‘Religion I’ and ‘II’. The cold, almost spat out delivery of the spoken word ‘Religion I’ was very amusing to my ears back then, and I liked the ‘part 2’ version with its big chords and cool guitars. I also really enjoyed ‘Annalisa’, the last track on the first side, and that song became a favourite for months. ‘Public Image’ itself opens side 2 – and what a timeless cracker it is – with 2 much more punky songs, ‘Low Life’ and ‘Attack’, following. This was much more like it – harsh guitars and something I could jump about to in my bedroom. The closing track ‘Fodderstompf’ was even more confusing than ‘Theme – in fact I wonder of anyone really gets it to this day, but I found the chatter of the band members that accompanied the huge dub rhythm rather entertaining as I played the album over Christmas and New Year 1978/9. ‘Theme’, however, continued to be sinister and downright scary so most of the time I had to start the album either on side 2 or by skipping straight to the Religion tracks. Indeed my vinyl copy contains a noticeable amount of surface noise just after ‘Theme’ as that’s where I used to let the needle drop.
One abiding memory I have took place during a humanities class at school which was taught by a reverend who quite fancied himself as one of the kids and went for a trendier stance than many religious teachers I can remember. We were split into pairs and instructed to make up a church service complete with sermon and music arrangements. For some inexplicable reason – even more inexplicable now I look back – I thought it was a good idea to include ‘Religion I’ as the sermon and duly made up a cassette with my colleague, and recorded the PiL track in the middle of the service. I remember playing the tape to the assembled class and grinning as Lydon’s ‘stained glass windows keep the cold outside’ introduction began. What on earth had I done? The track – not that long at under 90 seconds – rolled on its anti-Christian glory. The reverend sat still, expression fixed, as the tape kept playing, while all that stuff about sucking your host, fat pig priests, bibles full of libel and the final insult regarding ‘a sod in heaven’ played merrily to the astonished classroom. As it finished he said in a thin voice that sounded only just under control but which contained a noticeable shake ‘what is this please?’ I told him and he just nodded slowly, not looking happy. This was not long after the time when the Sex Pistols were THE band that scared most mums and dads and were regarded by many as an offence to society in general. I can’t remember what mark I received for this project, but I know it wasn’t good, yet somehow I stayed out of trouble although my form teacher did have words with me later.
As I got older my interest in punk evolved into a far wider spectrum of music so I discovered sounds from the 60s, krautrock, I got into psychedelic music big time and I also realised how glorious roots reggae was. Of course many of these ingredients were crucial in PiL although I hadn’t realised that in the late 70s. I hadn’t played the debut album for years as my musical tastes had moved on from a lot of the punk I’d loved as a teenager. It was in about 1995 when I came across a CD of the album and stuck it on, kind of forgetting how I felt about its opening track. My reaction on this second discovery of First Issue was totally different and one I will always remember. ‘Theme’ sounded absolutely incredible. Keith Levene is completely mind-blowing and produces one of the most psychedelic guitar sounds I can think of and I really was amazed. I had a moment of clarity as I realised just how advanced PiL’s debut album is and I dived right back into it for many days. No wonder I didn’t get it when I was 14 – this was music that really needed to be thought about. Intellectual and complex, atmospheric and spacious. My appreciation of reggae led me to admire Jah Wobble’s extraordinary bass which was pushed so far to the front it seemed to envelope everything. Lydon sits in the middle running the whole operation while the music manoeuvres itself around him. The band took control of production which is deliberately basic so the guitars clash like sheets of metal and more than a hint of echo is attached to pretty much everything.
Coming out of the Sex Pistols this was a highly ambitious record and the risk it carried was considerable, particularly after the vibrant pop nature of the Public Image single. It’s now in its 35th year and actually sounds very much at home in today’s climate. Many bands have taken the Levene guitar sound and others have used the super-deep bass employed here so First Issue is also a highly influential album, and although ‘post punk’ was taking hold PiL never really attached themselves to any scene at all with subsequent albums going in all sorts of unexpected directions.
Despite listing 8 tracks First Issue is really only 6 proper songs – ‘Religion I’ is spoken word and ‘Fodderstompf’ is… well, ‘Fodderstompf’. ‘Public Image’ itself continues to be regarded as one of the finest singles ever released – it’s almost timeless with a freshness that makes it sound up to date even today. Lydon’s passionate vocals are fantastic but again it’s the remarkable qualities Levene brings to the table that make the song what it is. Powerful and glorious chords are thrown around and bring a melody that effortlessly worms its way into your head and is hard to shake off. This was the era when ‘track 1 side 2’ actually meant something rather than a list of songs on a CD, and Public Image is a wonderful way to kick off the second part of First Issue – it sits far better on side 2 than as an album opener as there’s no way ‘Theme’ could have found a more suitable home than at the start. Its monstrous presence swirls around the listener and Levene’s fondness of scraping down the neck of his guitar before he wrestles another gigantic chord from his instrument is just superb. The closing section, with fingers-in-the-ear glints of feedback, is closed with Lydon’s spoken monotone final line of ‘terminal boredom’. Quite.
The three pace-driven tracks – ‘Annalisa’, ‘Low Life’ and ‘Attack’ manage to find newer territory than simple punk chords, and on each the a battle for space is obvious and Lydon has to howl to be heard. ‘Annalisa’ is a pumping, snarling exercise with Jim Walker’s drums increasing in intensity until the final climax which sees him battering his kit like the Muppets drummer Animal, with Levene and Wobble doing what they can to push him aside, and he positively takes things over by the end with a battery of incredible energy and power. ‘Low Life’ is similar to some extent – Levene growls away, and Wobble’s bass occupies every bit of spare space available. ‘Attack’ is claustrophobic with a more flattened sound and Lydon’s shrill vocals given layers of echo. Levene’s guitar delivers far punkier chords than elsewhere on the album, something the Pistols fans would receive with gratitude.
The last song here (song?!) is the thoroughly bonkers ‘Fodderstompf’, a spaced out wander amidst a gigantic rhythm sound. Lydon and Wobble’s ‘we only wanted to be loved’ mantra is screamed and wailed with occasional mindless and often inaudible chatter mixed in. The 2 band members muck about and twitter away about cigarettes and punk rockers among other things. At one point they seem to be taking the piss out of the engineers behind the glass studio window, and towards the end Wobble spots a fire extinguisher which he lets off at the microphone. Despite its obvious filler nature (“We only wanted to finish the album with the minimum amount of effort, which we are now doing very suc-cess-fully” monotones Wobble) ‘Fodderstompf’ is curiously enjoyable. That bassline is just brilliant – a massive fuzz-coated throb set against a basic drum loop. In fact the band had largely run out of money and found themselves in Gooseberry Sound Studios, a place Lydon had previously recorded some Pistols demos in, where they were trying to complete their album without it costing them too much. For some bizarre reason ‘Fodderstompf’ became a cult hit on the New York hipster scene, particularly at Studio 54 where it became a DJ favourite. Not bad for a disposable filler track.
With a glossy deluxe reissue due from American Light In The Attic label First Issue deserves a thorough revisit, something I’ve been doing for a few days. It has a certain quality that is hard to shake off, from its cold attitude to its engaging rhythms and wonderful guitar sound, and its best moments sound surprisingly modern. The initial Pistols audience may have been confused by the album, as I confess I was, but this was down to the simple fact that I just didn’t understand the record. Now I do it’s become a regular soundtrack, and this remastered edition will prove more than interesting, as will the Lydon interview that accompanies it.
As a post script it’s worth noting that most PiL takes some time to absorb. Metal Box is even more confusing than First Issue yet I also bought that on release, with its decidedly cool looking circular metal cover. I didn’t get it at all and it was consigned to the shelf although I loved the box it came in! About 25 years later a chance DVD viewing of the band performing ‘Careering’ from Metal Box on Whistle Test in 1980 had me racing back for the album in full. Again I was truly astounded by what I was watching in this BBC footage – the level of psychedelia had been cranked right up with Levene playing indiscriminate keyboard notes that were left to shriek while he hopped about before hitting another random key, all the time adding little guitar chips. Wobble steps and stoops about in an over-sized blue jacket with his customary massive bassline rumbling throughout. The visual aspect is treated so the images trail in proper psychedelic fashion and the whole effect is remarkable. It’s an extraordinary performance that clearly moves presenter Annie Nightingale and is essential viewing if it has evaded you.
Mark, May 2013