When Public Image Limited originally released Metal Box on Virgin in 1979, they had to toss about $50,000 of their advance back at the label to finance its release. As the name implies, the album came in a steel box, a film canister with a fine-matte finish, embossed with the letters PiL in the center. The music was contained on three untitled 12-inch, 45 rpm records; nearly flush with the box's rim, they were incredibly difficult to fish out. A small, hard-to-read sheet of paper listed the tracks, as well as production and publishing credits.
The reason for the austere and, uh, troublesome packaging? "For the laugh," said guitarist Keith Levene, who added that the group also considered putting Metal Box out "on sandpaper, which would fuck up all the records in your collection." Thanks, dudes! Having stuck out their middle finger to nearly everyone paying attention to pop music at the time simply with the design of an album, PiL topped that with what was contained in its grooves. The music was sonically dense largely thanks to the wall-shaking disco-dub riddims provided by bassist Jah Wobble. As throbbing as his low ends were, they were also sickeningly flat, like a prolonged bout of whooping cough. Added menace came from vocalist John Lydon, ex of the Sex Pistols, whose lyrics in PiL brimmed with venom, and also Levene's luminous but creepily gliding guitar lines. Overall, Metal Box was a stunning record in a season of stunners, as that same year saw influential debut LPs from the the Fall, Gang of Four and Joy Division. More than two decades later, these groups are regular touchstones for breathlessly buzzed-about groups like Interpol, Bloc Party and the Rapture. (The latter's new single, "Get Myself Into It," not only draws from PiL, it craftily adds the gleeful disco tickle of classic Chic.)
Of course, for as immediately important as it was, the bad news about Metal Box for U.S. fans was its high cost (nearly $75) and scant availability. Though it was issued in 1980 as Second Edition, the track listing had been altered and the packaging was chintzy. For as pricey and difficult as the original was, it represented perfectly PiL's status as fabulous assholes, making it the only Metal Box that mattered.
Fortunately, boutique reissue imprint Four Men With Beards has remedied that botched release history with a loving repress of Metal Box with Lydon's explicit blessing and on 180-gram vinyl exclusively for domestic distribution. The exterior is almost exact, though the original's rough-hewn exterior is now smoother than your baby's ass, perhaps a sign of maturity and mitigated anger after 27 years. But the songs still take your breath away. The opener, "Albatross," is a bitter two-step rant with a thumping bass line that varies little over nearly 11 minutes, while "Poptones" contains some of Levene's most melodic playing, and this rather infamous Lydon lament: "I can't forget the impression you made/You left a hole in the back of my head." Other songs that still hold strong include "Careering" and "Swan Lake" which had been released previously as the more appropriately titled "Death Disco" as well as the closing suite of "Socialist," "Chant" and "Radio 4" that agitates, elevates and then collapses, bringing Box to a fitting dead end. With "Radio 4" also having been nicked for a moniker by another combo of young New Yorkers, it's even truer today PiL was a bunch of influential assholes.
Walter Wasacz writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].