Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Public Image Limited - First Edition

First Edition (1978) **1/2

PiL's debut is strikingly innovative, enormously influential, and not very listenable.  The core trio of ex-Pistol John Lydon (scabrous vocals and sneering lyrics, what did you expect?), Jah Wobble (spacey, dub-reggae influenced bass lines), and Keith Levene (mind-blowing jagged, icy guitar peels that along with Gang of Four's Andy Gill set the basic template for post-punk guitar), hadn't quite worked out their sound yet.  Hastily recorded to quickly re-establish Lydon as a public figure after the Sex Pistols' inevitable disintegration, releasing their debut album after only a few months into its existence found PiL seriously short of material.  The 7:40 closing track, "Fodderstompf," is a disco-punk vamp that consists of Wobble's multi-tracked vocals chanting in an annoyingly childlike nyeah-nyeah falsetto, "We only want to be loved," sarcastically, while he offers running commentary in talky asides, at one point admitting that they were short on material to fill up the minimum half-hour running time and so this track was deliberately produced as jokey filler to pad out the remaining time.  As a conceptual coup, it's supremely successful, Lydon's "Ever getting the feeling you've been cheated?" ethos put brilliantly into practice.  But as a track that you might actually want to listen to more than twice?  Even on the first listen it's excruciating, and repeated listens don't make it any more listenable.  In its defense, its punk-disco hybrid leanings foreshadow PiL's brilliant sophomore longplayer, Second Edition, but it's only a non-successful test run in raw form here.

The remaining seven tracks range all over the place in an incoherently messy stream that suggests that the band didn't have any good idea where they were going.  The single, "Public Image," is far and away the clear highlight; released several months before the album, it's the one track where the band sound firmly in control and with a clear-headed musical direction.  Opening with a catchy Wobble bass line, it swiftly swirls on the tide of Levene's ringingly chorused, minimalist shreds of circular guitar chords, a stunningly post-modern guitar sound that scads of post-punk bands would soon imitate, notably U2's the Edge, who seemed to have built half his early U2 guitar sound ripping that one PiL song off (play "I Will Follow," back to back with it).  "Religion I" once again shows how strapped the band was for material and was ready to employ any device to stretch out the running time on the LP, as it merely consists of Lydon chanting the lyrics a capella, before leading into "Religion II," a frothingly anti-Catholic tirade originally written for the Sex Pistols but allegedly rejected because Steve Jones said that it sucked.  Musically it's not very interesting, sub-standard plodding punk, despite the ferocious lyrical energy in Lydon's enrapturously venomous vocals.  "Low Life," and "Attack," similarly sound like Sex Pistols outtakes, but are much better, but since they were written and recorded late in the sessions, are produced very poorly and seem hastily underwritten; they do show the potential to have been powerful numbers if they'd been given a little more time to develop.  The excruciatingly plodding, nine-minute "Theme," that opens the album, allows Levene room for some more arresting guitar pyrotechnics as Lydon gut-wrenchingly howls, "I wanna die!"  Like the nearly six-minute "Annalisa," sonically it recalls grand-epic level Led Zeppelin more than punk, and while both guitar epics have their moments, both go on far too long bereft of sustainable grooves or ideas.  The overall impression of this, one of the opening salvos of abrasive, arty post-punk that would inspire many an alt.rock guitar band in the coming decade, is of confused directionlessness.     

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