When most people compile lists of groundbreaking post-punk albums, Public Image Ltd’s seminal second record, Metal Box, invariably clocks in near the top. It’s more than earned its reputation, too: dark and forbidding, it still shuns genre pigeonholing, and its radical packaging (the first 50,000 copies came housed in an actual metal box resembling a can for storing film reels) still seems futuristic today.
Yet, while Metal Box is now considered a bona fide classic, its gestation was protracted and it polarized opinion among John Lydon’s established fanbase – many of whom were still hoping PiL would become Sex Pistols’ sonic successor.
The group’s first album
Lydon and his new group, however, had other ideas. Though it was presaged by the rousing Top 10 single “Public Image,” their full-length debut, 1978’s First Issue, was a schizophrenic affair, with most critics praising the catchier, three-minute tracks (“Public Image,” “Low-Life,” “Attack”) but expressing a dislike of the longer, experimental outings such as “Religion (Parts I + II)” and the looming, nine-minute “Theme.”
Despite copping critical flak, PiL were unrepentant. In fact, the brickbats only reinforced their collective belief they were heading in the right direction.
“[The press] slagged [First Issue] because it was self-indulgent, non-simplistic and non-rock’n’roll,” guitarist Keith Levene said in Clinton Heylin’s PiL book, Rise/Fall. “But those are all good points. That’s the kind of music we intend to make.”
The recording of Metal Box
Creating music of such intensity took its toll. PiL were a volatile outfit from the get-go, and simmering internal tensions led to the band’s original drummer, Jim Walker, departing early in 1979. Walker’s powerful presence behind the kit was a feature of First Issue, and PiL struggled to replace him. They ended up recording Metal Box with input from several drummers, including Richard Dudanski (of pre-punk pub rock outfit The 101’ers) and Martin Atkins, whose audition was the actual recording of the eerie album highlight “Bad Baby.”
The sessions for Metal Box straddled the spring and summer of 1979, with PiL hunkering down in various complexes, including The Manor in rural Oxfordshire and at the Townhouse in London’s Shepherd’s Bush. The band regularly worked during the night, though the process was rarely harmonious, as John Lydon revealed in a 2016 interview with Record Collector.
“There was an eagerness to work and get everything down, but also this fear and frustration at the process of the recording, which was protracted,” he said. “Some nights we were right in the zone, but other nights we couldn’t work together at all, so that created this incredible tension between us.”
The fractiousness did, however, result in some astounding music. Jah Wobble’s basslines strategically anchored all the tracks, with his dub-heavy four-string rumble sounding positively subterranean on tracks such as “Memories” and the compelling, ten-minute “Albatross.” Keith Levene, meanwhile, forged increasingly abstract shapes with his harsh, metallic guitar – or else he ditched the instrument altogether and switched to the Prophet synthesizer on tracks such as “Careering,” “Socialist,” and the ambient, symphony-like “Radio 4.”
Lyrically, Lydon drew inspiration from unlikely sources. His anti-suburbia rant, “No Birds Do Sing,” copped its title from poet John Keats, while the nightmarish “Death Disco” (aka “Swan Lake”) was actually a heartfelt tribute to his ailing mother. Elsewhere, an article in the tabloid press that piqued the vocalist’s interest provided the starting point for the hypnotic “Poptones.”
“It was a story I read about a very brave girl who was blindfolded and bundled into a car by some very bad men,” Lydon said. “They drove her to a forest where they eventually dumped her.
“But she had the presence of mind to remember this unusual tune on a cassette these men kept playing,” he continued. “Because she remembered the song and the men’s voices, the police eventually identified and apprehended them. They still had the same tape in the car.”
The reaction to Metal Box
Though clocking in at a challenging 60 minutes, Metal Box proved a huge hit with the critics, many of whom were fascinated by this forward-looking statement’s melding of dub, avant-garde, and what would later be termed “Krautrock” music.
Noting the latter element in their review, the UK’s weekly NME said that “PiL make the most aggressively – and sometimes oppressively – physical sound on record since Can made Monster Movie or Tago Mago.” Rival publication Sounds, meanwhile, suggested Metal Box was “a vital ending to 70s pop culture and a sizeable nod in the direction of a real rock’n’roll future.”
Proving Lydon and company were right to stick to their guns, the groundswell of critical praise quickly translated into commercial success. Initially released on November 23, 1979, Metal Box steadily climbed the UK Top 40, where it peaked at No.18, by which time its initial 50,000 pressing – packaged as three 45rpm discs in a 16mm film canister with the band’s logo embossed on the top – had sold out.
The legacy of Metal Box
Metal Box was then reissued as a regular double-disc set (rechristened Second Edition) in a gatefold sleeve, and it’s been accumulating plaudits ever since. Artists such as Massive Attack and Nine Inch Nails have cited the album as an influence, while, 40 years later, John Lydon remains eminently proud of how PiL dramatically ripped up the rule book to create their magnum opus.
“Experimentation was at the heart of Metal Box,” he told Louder in 2016. “You can sound like everybody else if that’s what you require, or else you can strive to do better than that. I’m not interested in chart positions, but what’s important is whether you’re proud of what you’ve just done. With Metal Box, the answer is still ‘Yes!’”