There may be no second acts in American life, but there are plenty in British punk rock.
There may be no second acts in American life, but there are plenty in British punk rock. John Lydon’s has been among the most impressive, and in 1986 he pulled back the curtain on what some would consider a third act. The series of confrontational recordings he issued with Public Image Limited at the butt end of the ‘70s remained strong, but the direction of the project was becoming more difficult to steer come 1984’s This is What You Want … This is What You Get. It was an effort that may have overstayed its welcome on the cooker. For a guy whose first band was over and done in the space it takes Def Leppard to change guitar strings, he was finding real stability.
That may have been one of the reasons for a shakeup. Out went the touring band and in came producer Bill Laswell. How these two unlikely collaborators hardly matters. That they did remains a wonder of their incredibly eclectic minds and careers. Laswell walked comfortably down the well-lit streets of pop as well as the jagged and treacherous alleyways of the avant garde. He could cut sides with a gathering of free jazz fellows, Fab Five Freddy and Herbie Hancock, then find time to do this and that with Mick Jagger and Peter Gabriel. He even coaxed one of Motörhead’s finest efforts (Orgasmatron) into the world. (Though Lemmy would complain about the mix.)
Laswell’s genius for putting together a band shines as much as the material on this 1986 effort from Lydon. Ginger Baker (snarlier, nastier than Rotten), Tony Williams and Steve Vai lent their formidable powers as did Bernie Worrell and Ryuychi Sakamoto. Press from the twilight hours of 1985 revealed the record would be titled Album, Cassette and Compact Disc according to format.
The distance between art project and band got shorter when Album arrived: Dark and light blue lines on the cover against a white background, and a single title. Was Lydon just a commodity?
The music suggested otherwise. The single “Rise,” probably the album’s best known track, was surprisingly tuneful, and though the trademark Lydon growl remained intact one couldn’t help but sing along as it worked its considerable charms on the ears. But it was something darker than it let on. Issued as concerns about apartheid in South Africa were reaching new heights, Lydon drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela’s struggles to bring about change in his homeland. There were references to torture techniques and the “Anger is an energy” mantra that would become inseparable from Lydon himself. Although “Rise” would never become a hit single in the United States, it found favor on college radio, and for many, it’s the song most closely associated with PiL, no matter that the album offers numerous treasures.
“Bags” tends toward the confrontational sounds heard on previous Public Image records and hints at the hip-hop Laswell had clearly grown fond of. “Ease” was eight minutes of always arty, sometimes jagged and frequently memorable twists and turns that never sounded as disparate as the players involved.
In truth, Album’s abilities to draw from disparate corners and maintain a uniform sound suggests that the record still probably hasn’t gotten its due. It sounds like the ‘80s, yet unlike it, free of MTV-ready hooks. Despite Vai, there’s no sign of the heavy metal hysteria that would take over the land by the end of the decade. Rather than a product of its time, like many of Laswell’s best jobs, it became something of the future, the kind of record that no one would dare try to duplicate just then because they couldn’t.
Album features some of Lydon’s best vocal work, as he found a voice that allowed venom to flow without getting in the way of words or the music. There is no other record quite like it in the PiL discography, and though one can only imagine the pleasure a one-off live show or short tour featuring the surviving members would bring, perhaps the effort remains best untouched, a work of art that reflects possibility and commitment, that thwarts pretension and dodges sentimentality.