Saturday, April 7, 2007

Rock's Great Fall Outs (One)


When John Lydon walked into a studio and erased Keith Levene's guitar parts on THIS IS WHAT YOU WANT, THIS IS WHAT YOU GET he did much more than just break up an important partnership. That button erased not only Levene but Lydon himself who would quickly decline into a sad and at times embarrassing self parody; a man seemingly hell bent on destroying his own obvious importance. There would be moments of greatness after for Lydon, such as the majestically angry RISE, but one of rock's most underrated visionaries never fully recovered from a decision he perhaps had to make.
In the early 90's I met one time PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED drummer Martin Atkins at a Pigface gig. He told me an interesting short story about Lydon in which he partially blamed Lydon's dissolve on a move in the early 80's from New York to Los Angeles. He told me that in New York Lydon had become self sufficient and walked everywhere but soon after arriving in the sprawling L.A. he hired a driver. I always remembered this seemingly unimportant little tid-bit the intense Atkins told me.
The partnership of of John Lydon and Keith Levene created three of the most remarkable albums in rock history. Three albums that would, among just a handful of other artist's work, push the medium as far as it has ever gone. I would in fact say that FIRST ISSUE, METAL BOX (SECOND EDITION) and FLOWERS OF ROMANCE are better than even the fabled Sex Pistols album. Along with the sporadic help of powerful bass player Jah Wobble, filmmaker and muse Jeanette Lee and of course the savage Atkins PiL were one of the great bands in history.
It all fell apart in 1982 though with the dual release of Levene's COMMERCIAL ZONE and PiL's THIS IS WHAT YOU WANT. Two sides of the same coin with Levene's coming out on top in every way but both paling in comparison to their previous output.
Lydon and Atkins would continue on their own for awhile with the disheartening LIVE IN TOKYO album before they would have their own fall out and Lydon would form an even more unrecognizable PiL. Levene would become one of rock's great unseen visionaries and the eighties and nineties would be built by guitar players who copied his style but couldn't hold a candle to him.
I am bitter when it comes to John Lydon because when I listen to the first three Public Image Ltd. albums (and the live collection from Paris) I am never less than amazed. Lyrically, vocally and musically they own their own planet which few have ever been able to travel to and Lydon's dissolve is still a hard pill for me to swallow.
Lydon broke my heart the way few other artists ever have when he re-formed the Sex Pistols in the mid 90s, it seemed to be the final, ultimate self betrayal and I have all but given up on him ever returning to his former glorious self. He seems frozen now as Johnny Rotten but for a brief few years he was just John Lydon and he was bloody beautiful.

The first three Public Image Limited albums are all still available on cd as well as the live essential and startling PARIS IN THE SPRING album. A box set, PLASTIC BOX, is harder to find but contains some indispensable live METAL BOX material (as well as a later PiL disc that makes great use as a coaster). Levene has never really disappeared and an internet search on him brings up some wonderful shadows and recordings.
COMMERCIAL ZONE is still officially unavailable but with a simple google search one can turn up some of its strange and at times remarkable sounds.

The first step for anyone new to PiL is the remarkable www.fodderstompf.com/

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

excellant PiL article. Each approaches their oeuvre differently, to me 'This Is What You Want' is where I stopped regarding PiL as a proper band and really John Lydon solo. I personally find 'Album' and 'Happy?' to be great albums and i'm not bogged down in their authenticity like that Clinton Heylin PiL biography. To my mind, 'Live In Tokyo' and that 'Filthy Lucre' tour were the Great Rock and Roll Swindle 2 & 3 and like most sequels they're dire.

Michael

luckyash@optusnet.com.au

The Platypus Chef said...

Hey, thanks for the article. I purchased Flowers of Romance when it first came out (1980)when I was living in Belgium. It was such an incredible feeling to finally hear something artistically unique and tasteful, I loved the sound, the vocals, the attitude, the fearless collage of textures. I was very young back then and broke and couldn't afford to buy many records, by listening to pirate radio, I won some contest offered by record stores and was able to win once in a while, that's how I got a copy of this record and still have it. I just ordered the Metal Box CD, wish I did have one of the original.
I alway wondered what happened to Keith Levene, he's the quite type and I know had a lot to do with this amazing sound. I must agree with you that the first three records are the best, but I found with many groups of the era that it's mostly the case, for me once they become "commercial" or too comfortable, I lose interest, I love the raw stuff it's real.
I'm so nostalgic for those early punk rock years, the excitement in the air..., I can't see anything coming close to that these days, everything seems to be a repeat.

What is Keith Levene up to these days, is he still alive?

You don't need to read this, I'm just going through a phase....

The Platypus Chef said...

Hey, thanks for the article. I purchased Flowers of Romance when it first came out (1980)when I was living in Belgium. It was such an incredible feeling to finally hear something artistically unique and tasteful, I loved the sound, the vocals, the attitude, the fearless collage of textures. I was very young back then and broke and couldn't afford to buy many records, by listening to pirate radio, I won some contest offered by record stores and was able to win once in a while, that's how I got a copy of this record and still have it. I just ordered the Metal Box CD, wish I did have one of the original.
I alway wondered what happened to Keith Levene, he's the quite type and I know had a lot to do with this amazing sound. I must agree with you that the first three records are the best, but I found with many groups of the era that it's mostly the case, for me once they become "commercial" or too comfortable, I lose interest, I love the raw stuff it's real.
I'm so nostalgic for those early punk rock years, the excitement in the air..., I can't see anything coming close to that these days, everything seems to be a repeat.

What is Keith Levene up to these days, is he still alive?

You don't need to read this, I'm just going through a phase....

The Platypus Chef said...

Hey, thanks for the article. I purchased Flowers of Romance when it first came out (1980)when I was living in Belgium. It was such an incredible feeling to finally hear something artistically unique and tasteful, I loved the sound, the vocals, the attitude, the fearless collage of textures. I was very young back then and broke and couldn't afford to buy many records, by listening to pirate radio, I won some contest offered by record stores and was able to win once in a while, that's how I got a copy of this record and still have it. I just ordered the Metal Box CD, wish I did have one of the original.
I alway wondered what happened to Keith Levene, he's the quite type and I know had a lot to do with this amazing sound. I must agree with you that the first three records are the best, but I found with many groups of the era that it's mostly the case, for me once they become "commercial" or too comfortable, I lose interest, I love the raw stuff it's real.
I'm so nostalgic for those early punk rock years, the excitement in the air..., I can't see anything coming close to that these days, everything seems to be a repeat.

What is Keith Levene up to these days, is he still alive?

You don't need to read this, I'm just going through a phase....

Ned Merrill said...

Jeremy,

Nice post. I've never had such an emotional response to Lydon/Rotten or PiL as you, but I certainly agree that PiL's output, especially the early stuff, is superior and more significant than the Sex Pistols'. But, then, I'm also partial to post-punk over 1st wave punk. The influence of PiL is more prevalent, these days, than McLaren's band, as evidenced by the many post-punk-inspired bands of the new millennium--Rapture, Radio 4 (named after the PiL song), !!!, Franz Ferdinand, TV on the Radio, Interpol, LCD Soundsystem, Glass Candy, Erase Errata, etc., not to mention the reformation of legends Gang of Four and Mission of Burma.

You've probably already read it, but Simon Reynolds' exhaustive RIP IT UP AND START AGAIN is the definitive look at the post-punk/New Wave era. Just as Jon Savage anchors ENGLAND'S DREAMING with the saga of the Sex Pistols, Reynolds begins his tome with the formation of PiL.