9 isn’t quite a hack job, but it’s not quite art.
After the success of Album, John Lydon was hoping for lightning to strike again with producer Bill Laswell, but when they sat down to talk the pair soon came to loggerheads. Lydon lobbied for control of the band he’d led for something like a decade as Laswell reportedly sought to populate the tracks with hired guns. With Stephen Hague (Pet Shop Boys, Erasure) and Eric “ET” Thorngren (J. Geils Band) recruited instead, it was if nothing else the story of survival: Here was Johnny Rotten, a man who’d begun two musical revolutions, alive and presumably well at the end of another decade with plenty on his mind. So what?
Well, Lydon has arguably never seemed quite so optimistic before or since, and 9 opens with the upbeat, sun-bathed and perhaps unironically titled “Happy?” It sounded less like the legacy of Johnny Rotten and more like something from Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. The rhythms suggest the music rising up from New York City at the time, such as Living Colour, who married funk with the avant-garde in a way that would have made Laswell proud.
Our antihero seems lost in the mix, a man who wondered how he’d gotten there and where he had left to go. It doesn’t help that both producers seem ill-suited to the task: They don’t pull much from the musicians or from the vocalist. The music fails to rise to the occasion, a pretty good facsimile of Public Image Limited but not imbued with the passion of the real thing.
It’s too bad, as Lydon stood largely alone among his punk peers. Joe Strummer was only just arriving as a solo artist and the California sun had had a calming effect on his soul for the under-appreciated and under-heard Earthquake Weather. Mick Jones was wrapped up in Big Audio Dynamite while others from the Class of ’76 were stuck in punk rock aspic, at least on American shores. Though some loud, dissonant bands had begun to emerge, much music from the popular front was becoming less artful and often less beautiful.
Bowie reacted with Tin Machine, an abrasive but brilliant group that played itself out across two albums and an EP. Short though its life was, it liberated the Thin White Duke from his legacy and propelled him to an exciting and often controversial decade of music-making. Yes, the band that made music that Lydon and his peers rallied against would have one of the most successful albums of the ‘80s with 90125, a lean, focused record produced by Trevor Horn, one man who might have pushed PiL in ways the band and its audience had not expected.
One supposes that a man can only snarl and growl so long before folks begin to wonder why he’s still angry. Look at your uncle Phil, still angry about that lousy season the Steelers had way back when; witness those who still agonize over Showgirls as though it was anything less than a hack job.
9 isn’t quite a hack job, but it’s not quite art. Instead, it’s the sound of a band reaching for one thing while gripping too tightly to another. The album could never have been as exhilarating as Metal Box, but it could have come closer. Instead, it’s just another effort that one could flip by in the record bins, hold it up to a friend who would say, “Oh? They’re still around?”
The only thing left to do was to release a greatest hits package (in 1990) and the inevitable thud of 1992’s That What Is Not, a record more notable for its cover than for anything in its grooves. At least it had sleeve art. 9, one could argue, doesn’t even have a very good title.