2 weeks ago
Saturday, November 22, 2008
FOOTNOTES # 15
CHAPTER 14: CAREERING
Public Image Ltd and Postpunk’s peak and fall
(chapter 13 in the American edition)
>buy a home/Gunter Grove
Even at 1977 prices the house was a bargain at twelve thousand pounds, and Lydon also shrewdly refused McLaren’s suggestion that the house be put in the latter’s name. Rotten
Lydon didn’t own the entire house, though, but the upstairs maisonette, i.e. the whole of the building apart from the lower ground floor a/k/a basement--inhabited by some poor long suffering people, who amazingly never complained (doubtless too scared!).
>the scuzzy end of Chelsea
i.e. where Chelsea starts turning into Fulham.
“I love visitors… amusement”--Lydon. Quoted in Patrick Zerbib’s “Situation Vacant” (see bibliography). P. 591.
>raids by the local drug squad
Lydon believed the drug squad actually used his domicile as a place to practice.
Chris Bohn, writing in Melody Maker at the end of 1979, described the 12 inch version as “the most awesome and complete musical experience since Can’s Tago Mago”
>Death Disco on Top of the Pops
the very performance http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p8oQ--qeEFQ
albeit minus the presenter at the start looking pale as he utters the words “death disco”
also the video for the single
Me on “Death Disco” in Largehearted Boy
Public Image Ltd, “Death Disco” (single, 1979)
A protest against death: John Lydon singing (although that word seems inaccurate and inadequate for the harrowing noise unleashed here) about watching the light go out in his mother eyes. As much as the sound of the single, which made the Top 20 in Britain, what was life-changing for many, me included, was the matter/anti-matter collision of “death” and “disco” in the title. Disco, subverted by content too heavy and dark for the brightly lit celebration of the dancefloor; “death” (rock’s seriousness, its grappling with “the human condition”) subverted by disco’s hedonism and levity. Ian Dury & The Blockheads--another of my favorites back then--did something similar, albeit in a more accessible and conventionally musical way: “My Old Man” (on New Boots and Panties) was a poignant reminiscence of Dury’s own dead dad over taut funk, while “Dance of the Screamers” (from Do It Yourself) turned disco into primal scream therapy for the interpersonally challenged.
Me On “Death Disco” and PiL in Seattle Weekly (Jukebox Jury interview by Andy Battalgia) http://www.seattleweekly.com/music/0608/jukebox.php
“Public Image Ltd.: "Death Disco" (aka "Swan Lake") (1979) from Metal Box (aka Second Edition) (Virgin)
SW: This track crops up a lot in your book, in which PiL serves as a post-punk bellwether. When did you first hear this?
Reynolds: It must have been on the radio a few times, but I really remember when they went on the TV show Top of the Pops. It was usually a fun show, people dancing and balloons in the studio, and the announcer's face went pale as he talked about "Death Disco." It seemed to me then that this pop reality was quaking a bit, and that gave me the idea that pop music could be subversive. It's a track that scarred me for life, in a good way.
At the time I didn't know anything about microtonality or harmonics, but I think that was what I was responding to: this stuff that seems to be going on between pitches, smeared and sprayed sounds. They were doing a kind of modal thing with the melodies, and there's a kind of Celtic/Arabic thing in [John] Lydon's singing. It was also my first exposure to the whole bass aesthetic, bass being the center of the melody. And a lot of it just carried over from the enormity of the Sex Pistols and Johnny Rotten doing something next that nobody expected. It's one of the great switches in rock, being in the most important band in the world and then going on this total art trip.”
>Disco just about the only contemporary music he liked
In one interview Lydon said that he liked disco “and the Raincoats”.
“very useful, practical music”
--Wobble. ZigZag June 1980.
>Martin Atkins…. Summons to the studio
Atkins had been trying to get into PiL for some time
>“finding out… production”
--Levene. Zigzag April 1981.
>“Circular, jangly,” “If you look… don't blink"
--Levene. Musician, Player and Listener, February 1985.
In one interview, Lydon said the song was about “male rape” but didn’t make it clear whether the victim is murdered or not; I think the ambiguity is deliberate.
>”No Birds Do Sing”
The lyric might just be Lydon’s finest:
This could be heaven
Shallow spreads of ordered lawns
I like the illusion
Illusion of privacy
The careful trees blending so perfectly
Bland planned idle luxury
A caviar of silent dignity
Life in lovely allotted slots
A token nice
A nice constitution
A layered mass of subtle props
This could be heaven
Mild mannered mews
Well intentioned rules
To dignify a daily code
Lawful order standard views
This could be heaven
Possibly named after a blues (roots reggae dance party) that Lydon, Levene and Wobble used to go to, called Graveyard.
>Dennis Morris/Metal Box
Dennis Morris, quoted in Punk: The Definitive Record of a Revolution by Stephen Colegrave and Chris Sullivan.
“By the time it came to the Metal Box record launch there was a lot of fighting going on between Keith Levene and the rest of the band. Keith thought he was the leader. He was infuriated when he found out that Wobble, who was quite a clever guy, had managed to do a solo deal. Keith just thought of him as a bass layer who couldn’t even play properly. By then I had moved to Island Records, but Chris Blackwell agreed I could still work with PiL. John spent most of his time as my office at Island rather than at Virgin, which was quite strange. It was there that I had the idea for the metal box package. Across the road from the secondary school I went to in Dalston, there was a factory called Metal Box. When John came up with the idea to call the album Metal Box, I said we had to package it in a real metal box. When I tried to sell this idea to Virgin, they said ‘you must be joking. It will cost too much’. Not prepared to give up, I went to the factory. They had loads of boxes that were a standard size for film, which were just right. In the end getting 10,000 of these from the Metal Box factory worked out cheaper than producing a mainstream sleeve. All we had to do was emboss it and it was a perfect size for the vinyl. It worked out really well.”
This contradicts the story Virgin told the band that it was incredibly expensive to do it in a metal canister and they’d need a big chunk of PiL’s advance back to pay for it.
“The idea is… at that"
--Wobble. NME 2/9/80.
Futurama’s line-up included (on the Saturday 8th September 1979) Spizzenergi, Cabaret Voltaire, A Certain Ratio, Orchestral Manoevures in the Dark, Joy Divison, Punishment of Luxury, Public Image Ltd, amongs others, and on the second night (Sunday 9th September) Scritti Politti, The Fall, Hawkwind, the Monochrome Set, and The Only Ones, amongst others.
Promoter John Keenan’s idea was to celebrate the convergence of postpunk music and science fiction. Keenan: “It was the world’s first science fiction music festival. And I ordered a whole load of films to play like Barbarella, but I had to get a film license and all of that. And in the end they refused to send the prints out to me. But I had science fiction stalls. See, I wanted to take it away from punk rock. A lot of bands were playing spacy sounds on synths, so the idea was to tie in the two things, the music and science fiction.”
In addition to Futurama, there was also London promoter Final Solution’s four-night day series of shows in August 1979 at the YMCA, or more precisely, the Prince of Wales Conference Centre, located below the YMCA Building in Gt. Russell Street in central London. This was another showcase for the impressive unity-in-diversity of the UK postpunk spectrum, the line-up including Essential Logic, Joy Division, Teardrop Explodes, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Tiller Boys, pragVEC, Ludus, Clock DVa, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and Rema Rema.
One of countless groups shaped by Metal Box--they combined funk and dub rhythms with harsh Levene-like noise and Jaz Coleman’s barked, guttural vocals seething with tension and dread--- Killing Joke, wrote Paul Morley in a review of the group’s debut album, were "baffled by the possibilities of experiment". Their "conventionally barren music-scape" and wallowing in "horror pools of corruption and degeneration" offered depressing proof of the emergence of a new underground, he argued. The review paired KJ’s album with the debut from Cockney Rejects, and thus pinpointed two “failed” paths from punk: the sub-experimental postpunk doom’n’gloom, and the "punk's not dead" fundamentalism of Oi!. This review was around the same time that Morley memorably rejected The Pop Group’s guilt-tripping For How Much Longer Do We Tolerate Mass Murder? The New Pop vision was beginning to stir.
Other voices piped up to reject what postpunk was turning into. Slagging Bauhaus for being their "Gothick-Romantic pseudo-decadence", NME's Andy Gill identified what he dubbed the "punk/moderne monochrome crossover" as being the new heavy metal: tribal, depressive, oppressive. Futurama, in the years ahead, would indeed be a prime gathering ground for the emerging Goth tribe.
>Addicted to TV
Talking to NME in 1979, Lydon had confessed he was “absolutely addicted” to television and was a totally indiscriminate viewer.
“If I could get… isn’t it?”
--Lydon. Sounds 5/24/80.
While in America, Lydon also appeared on chatshow host Tom Snyder’s The Tomorrow Show for a frictional interview. The transcript is available at John Lydon’s own site http://www.johnlydon.com/tom80.html
and the original show was recently made available as part of a DVD
“The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder: Punk & New Wave”, a DVD set from Shout! Factory, where it is just one of eight episodes between 1977 and 1981 featuring everyone from Patti Smith and Joan Jett to Paul Weller and Elvis Costello.
While touring America in the early summer of 1980, PiL also performed on American Bandstand, a fabulously incongruous occurrence with the group introduced by Dick Clark, then playing “Poptones” and “Careering”, the whole event shifting from menacing to bizarrely jolly when Lydon encourages the audience to come on stage and dance around the band. Check the video documentation secreted at WFMU’s blog,
“I’d rather send… tour”
--Levene. The Face December 1980.
“This whole… the kids”
--Lydon. NME 3/14/81.
Here Wobble laid things down like the bassline to “The Suit”, a groove he later re-used for his whimsical cover of Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” on the solo album. He would also go here for sessions with his heroes Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit resulting in EPs like How Much Are They.
“I think sometimes… with reality”--Wobble. Sounds 5/3/80.
>ruined by drugs and lethargy
Martin Atkins, in a radio show in San Rafael during the 1980 American tour, also expressed this opinion:
“We are the emperor’s new clothes…. we don’t manage ourselves, we mismanage ourselves…. We cock eveyrthing there is to cock-up. We constantly underachieve.”
“four emotional cripples… drugs”
--Wobble. The Guardian Weekend 9/7/96.
Another Wobble quote from that interview on his last days with PiL: “The atmosphere was thick with drug-induced paranoia. Everyone was against them, and they were being watched at all times. In hotels, they'd go on the balcony to talk in subdued voices because they thought the phones were bugged.”
“I was dabbling…” “ something creative … in my system.” “used to run… junk.” “I used… lot of pressure”
--Levene. NME 11/12/83.
The Levene quote continues: I always felt bad for it; I always felt better when I hadn’t done anything… But… when you do heroin, it’s a maintenance thing, you have to have it to get normal.”
>under a lot of pressure
In a sense, Levene had inherited this obsessive worrying tendency from his Jewish father, a self-made rag-trade entrepreneur who ran a coat factory. In this respect, PiL’s we’re-a-communications-company-not-a-rock-band concept backfired--it turned out running your own business wasn’t much fun at all, it was hard work, with a lot of stress and anxiety.
>One side effect of heroin is constipation
Journalist Ian Penman spend a fair bit of time hanging out with PiL at Gunter Grove and describes the atmosphere as real “Last Days of Berlin stuff... shadowy unnamed geezers wrapping up parcels of speed the size of DeLillo's Underworld ...Levene popping out for a minute and coming back 4 hours later...". Drawing on his own intimate experience of the opiated existence, he describes Metal Box as a classic ‘good heroin’ album--“that warm, sharp glittery otherworld of his guitar and synth on Metal Box-everything just so and every little bit in place and effortlessly two steps ahead.” But by Flowers of Romance, any creative flow was disrupted by Levene’s worsening heroin problem. “You spend half your time running around getting drugs, waiting for drugs, or feeling sick because of no drugs… When you have your drug, you talk yourself to distraction… Flowers is classic in that sense, sounding like a series of post-it notes, rather than completed work... Something always put off till tomorrow... when we can get the (drug) mix right this time...”
“very acoustic… heavy”
--Levene. ZigZag April 81.
“John’s total… advantage”-
-Levene. Perfect Sound Forever. http://www.perfectsoundforever.com/v/2004041/features/90
“severe birth pangs” “broken another sound-barrier” “a new kind of rhythm”--Goldman. NME 11/15/80. PiL album review
Goldman was so tight with PiL at this point that she was the recipient of their artistic patronage, when the group let her record a solo single using down-time during the Flowers of Romance sessions.
Lydon is credited as “co-producer” of the single, titled Dirty Washing, although the tracks themselves were “Launderette” b/w “Private Armies” (released on Goldman’s own label Window in 1981, then picked up by 99 Records in New York). The tracks are delightful slices of Ladbroke Grove dub, with a postpunk all-star cast that included Keith Levene on guitar and bass, Raincoats violinist Vicky Aspinall, Steve Beresford (on toy piano), and Adrian Sherwood manning the mixing desk.
>broken another sound-barrier…
Around this time PiL gave a short interview to NME (Nov 29 1980) in which Lydon (unintentionally) painted a far less enticing and impressive picture: "Nothing was written beforehand…. no tune is played, there is no melody going through any song. We just piled a load of instruments in the corner of the studio and thought what can we do with this?"
>"Flowers of Romance"
Well I'm not sure why it never struck me before but it's blindingly obvious that this song is a public confession that all is not well in the House of Lydon, that the whole PiL-collective project has gone seriously awry owing to paranoia, drug malaise, and the bullshit-to-actual-achievement ratio going totally out of wack. "Behind the dialogue/We're in a mess", "I can't depend on these so-called friends", "I'll take the furniture and start all over again"--the last line hinting that Lydon is already thinking of extricating himself from the dysfunctional quasi-familly of PiL and relaunching as a solo star. The name of the song itself--"Flowers of Romance"--nods to the band that Sid Vicious and Keith Levene were both in (along with Palmolive and Viv Albertine) prior to respectively joining Lydon in Sex Pistols and Lydon in PiL. There's a buried but clear equation of these two junkie soul-mates of Lydon, perhaps a self-reproach (why do i keep ending up with such fuck-ups? what does it say about me? some have argued Lydon liked having junkies around him because of their weakness).... At any rate like the "flowers" in "Death Disco", the creative synergy/symbiosis of PiL, once flourishing, is now "rotting, dead". Time to break up the family and move on. As it happens PiL just transplanted their unhappy home to New York and limped on for two or three more years before Lydon finally broke off relations with Levene.
Full lyrics to the song:
FLOWERS OF ROMANCE
Now in the summer
I could be happy or in distress
Depending on the company
On the veranda
Talk of the future or reminisce
Behind the dialogue
We're in a mess
Whatever I intended
I sent you flowers
You wanted chocolates instead
The flowers of romance
The flowers of romance
I've got binoculars
On top of boxhill
I could be Nero
Fly the eagle and start all over again
I can't depend on these so called friends
It's a pity you need to defend
I'll take the furniture and start all over again
I.e. just enough to pass muster according to the terms of PiL’s contract (c.f. the debut album with the long drawn-out discofunk of “Fodderstompf” pushing the album just past the thirty minute mark)
>“All it amounts… the moment”
--Levene. Rolling Stone 3/5/81.
“sexless little beast” “definitely over-rated… spotty blotches”
--Lydon. Sounds, 5/24/80
Other Lydon misanthropic remarks: “I’m a misery to be with. I can make life utterly unbearable.” and “I’m bored with human beings, quite frankly.”
>”what I call a passive audience”
Lydon also sneered: “It’s obvious you’re all into peace and love”.
>days in bed watching TV
Lydon to NME, 1983: “I tell you what I did in New York for a year… sat and watched American TV. And I loved it.”
Later in Los Angeles, his lifestyle was similarly sedentary: rising at 4-30 in the afternoon, back in bed at midnight and watching films all night on the fifty cable channel. He quipped: “I absorb culture through my backside”
>get out of my fucking studio
According to Martin Atkins, another critical bone of contention was an upcoming, potentially lucrative PiL tour of Japan. In the wake of Paul McCartney’s marijuana bust, Japanese promoters were inserting clauses in their contract making bands liable for the loss of revenue from tours cancelled because of drug use by group members. “We had a meeting in the loft, and Keith brought an attorney with him,” says Atkins. “Things got very heated between John and Keith. John threw a chair and it got embedded in the plaster wall and we left it there for months. That the end of that phase.”
Incredibly thorough and detailed Public Image Ltd fansite Fodderstompf, http://www.fodderstompf.com/fodhome.html
John Lydon’s site
Producer Nick Launay’s reminiscences of working on Flowers of Romance
Here’s a profile of Jah Wobble piece I wrote for the Wire (in 1991 or 1992, some kind of special issue themed around punk if I recall) at a time when he was reappearing from a long period of musical exile: kicking off his solo career with a major label deal, being embraced as an illustrious collaborator/forefather figure by all sorts of younger musicians, and so forth. Needless to say it was a real buzz to meet this old hero of mine.
by SIMON REYNOLDS
"It was a very angry, neurotic scene, and it was perfect for
me!", says Jah Wobble, recalling punk. "I was engulfed in rage.
There were a lot of fellow malcontents. I've got very happy
memories of it, because I don't know what I would have done
without that chance to express myself. I dread to think what
would have happened.
"I can't talk about punk sociologically, only subjectively -
I just wanted to live. Recently, I popped into a local boozer,
and it felt like pre-punk again - a living death, everybody
getting tanked up, and then it's back to work in the morning.
There's got to be more to life than that. I was very against
authority, against formularised structures, and I still am. I'm
still very adolescent, without being boringly so. Seeing people
in their thirties who haven't matured can be a sad sight. You
can't just be against things, you have to offer something as
Wobble first emerged as one of the legendary "four Johns" who
used to hang out in McLaren and Westwood's boutique: there was
John Lydon, John Ritchie (Sid Vicious), the mysterious John Grey,
and John Wardle (soon slurred to Wobble). Wobble had something of
a thuggish reputation. "I think we were all emotional cripples,
back then," he says. But he seems to have rapidly snapped out of
that persona, and by the time of "Metal Box", the music papers
presented him as "the nice one" in PiL: the self-educated,
Orwell-admiring East Ender, whose dub-quake basslines were the
human heartbeat in PiL's dread disco. Like a rollercoaster
carriage, they were simultaneously what kept you safe and what
dragged you through the PiL terror ride.
PiL were what Lydon had always wanted the Sex Pistols to
sound like: an anti-rockist non-band influenced by dub, Can,
Beefheart, Peter Hammill. PiL were a repudiation of punk rock's
traditionalism and rhythmic naivete. "I actually thought the
Pistols were a fucking good band," says Wobble. "But the Pistols
were the only real rock band that I loved. Afterwards, John
wanted to play in a band where the bass was loud. We used to fuck
about with graphic equalizers and customised bass bins, and
experiment with putting rock records through the system to see
how far you could take the low end. I loved reggae, the bass line
moving around the drum beat, which you didn't get much in rock
music. Rhythm was always more important to me than melody or
harmony. So I picked up the bass and immediately felt very bonded
to it. It was very therapeutic, although I didn't understand that
at the time."
A self-taught, minimalist-by-necessity, Wobble's aspirations
collided midway with those of groups like Can, virtuosos who
aspired "downwards" to minimilalism, who consciously trimmed
their playing of excess flash. "The interesting thing about Can
is that they got into rock in their thirties, after being trained
in jazz or avant-garde backgrounds. And they discovered the
importance of rhythm. They discovered that if you reduce your
playing, the amount of instrumentation, then the music grooves
better. Less can be more." After his acrimonious, post-"Metal
Box" split from PiL, Wobble got to play with his hero Holger
Czukay, Can's bassist, resulting in the 1983 "Snake Charmer"
collaboration. Then there was Wobble's new band The Human
Condition, a jazzy, dubby, freeform propostion that took the PiL
approach a little further. "It was about keeping things logical -
not cold and intellectual, but geared to what truly functions,
and gives, and makes you feel spiritually satisfied".
The mid-Eighties were wilderness years for Wobble. "I
I was in some ways a very sick young man, in others a very
positive and brave young man. I used to go out of my way to upset
people, I was very self-destructive. I lost patience, I didn't
communicate, I was just a drunken bastard. But then I started to
envision this beauty, this new way a band from the West could
play. In my head, I could hear these eternal rhythms, but in a
context that was very up-to-date and contemporary." Wobble was
listening to North African, Arabic and Romany music, sensing the
connections between these sounds and the others things (dub, Can)
that moved him. But "the shadow side" persisted, and for a
couple of dark years Wobble was working on the London
Underground, only occasionally doing a show in Europe, "for a
In 1987, he met guitarist Justin Adams, another musican who
was drifting for lack of the right musical context. "I'd
followed a similar trajectory out of punk," recalls Justin. "PiL
opened my horizons to black music, John Coltrane, Ornette
Coleman, dub. At the same time, having spent much of early life
in Arab countries, I understood what Wobble was trying to do. In
fact, just before we met, I'd actually been thinking, I'd really
like to play with Wobble. I'd read these sleevenotes he'd
written about about healing music." The pair immediately bonded
musically, and Invaders Of The Heart was born.
The group were still way out on a limb, and there seemed
little prospect of making much happen for their music. They
played shows, and recorded an album in Holland. It was the acid
house revolution - with its trance-dance vibe, DIY approach to
technology, and "anything goes" attitude to sampling - that
created the kind of climate in which Wobble could re-emerge.
"Acid house did open people's ears towards long, instrumental
tracks, weird sounds; it brought back the idea that the music was
supposed to alter your consciousness," says Justin.
Last year The Invaders' "Bomba" single (released on hep dance
label Boys Own and remixed by hep producer Andy Weatherall) was a
dancefloor hit. At the same time, Charlie Gillett became
interested in signing the group to his Oval label, which goes
through Warners. Suddenly, Wobble was no longer languishing on
the margins. The climax came with Wobble's guest appearance this
summer on Primal Scream's "Higher Than The Sun". An astonishing
record, "Higher" was a resolution of all the myriad changes of
the last fifteen years, a re-convergence of the post-punk
diaspora. In it you could heard shades of Primal Scream's rock
classicist phase (Brian Wilson, Love's "Forever Changes"); the
"cosmonauts of inner space" vibe of acid house, Sun Ra, Can and
Tim Buckley's "Starsailor"; and a lyric as solipsistic as
"Anarchy In the UK" (all about being your own god) except that
this time the drug vector was Ecstasy not amphetamine. And
underneath it all, most thunderously on Andy Weatherall's "Dub
Symphony" mix, was the seismic undertow of Wobble - a beautiful
irony, since the earliest incarnation of Primal Scream was a PiL
And now there's the Invaders Of The Heart's enchanting
"Rising Above Bedlam" album. With its seamless melange of
pan-global influences, and singing (by Natacha Atlas and, on a
couple of tracks, Sinead O'Connor) in French, Spanish,
and Arabic, ""Rising" belongs in Jon Hassell's "Fourth World": a
post-modern neo-geography where modern technology and ancient
ethnic music mingle to form the polyglot pop of the 21st Century.
"Jon Hassell's one of my favourite players," says Wobble. "I much
prefer the Fourth World approach to world music's attitude of
treating ethnic musics as museum pieces. We all have an ancient
soul, there are these eternal rhythms, but what I do is pick up
on those rhythms and bring them up to date. That's the way
forward for the world. We've lost so much in the West. There's
a great feeling of godlessness. We've lost that communal
spirituality. We can learn about that from the Third World. But
at the same time, the Third World can learn from us."
Wobble talks a lot about the spirit. Like a lot of his
generation, he's made a shift from nihilism towards affirmation,
an odyssey from post-punk demystification towards something close
to mysticism. "Rising Above Bedlam" comprehends both aspects of
Wobble's history in its title -angst and elation, the
here-and-now and the transcendent, social realism and
"That's what we go for, a lovely balance between neurosis
(which I still love), and the spiritual solution to those
feelings of alienation," says Wobble. One of his heroes is the
late Miles Davis, particularly early Seventies albums like "Dark
Magus" and "On The Corner". Miles was a supreme case of an
artist who fused nihilism and spirituality; patently a driven,
fucked up person, his music reflected those voodoo energies, yet
always grasped out for transcendence. Justin concurs: "What I
like about that sort of music is there's this feeling of dread,
you feel "oh no, please don't take me there", but when you
release yourself to it, it's beautiful."
Getting more mystic by the minute, Wobble talks about how
"everybody has their own musical DNA code", about "redemptive,
healing chants", and how you should "allow yourself to give to
the world and allow yourself to receive." It sounds incongruous
in his down-to-earth Stepney accent, but those piercing blue eyes
burn with sincerity.
"It's all about energy flows. Opening up to your female side,
allowing spirit to come into matter. The spirit of love, the
spirit of God. You can allow yourself to be transformed, and
that's where redemption comes in. Allowing yourself to let the
ego go, and be born again."
Punk was all about ego; its drug of choice was speed, a
ego-reinforcer. It seems like you've gone from that punk mindset
(obessed with being an individual, paranoid because of all the
threats to your autonomy) towards a music that's about oceanic
feelings, the urge to merge, to blur the borders of the ego.
"Punk was like saying 'fuck off!'. It was about rejection,
'cos a lot of those people felt very rejected. Punk was like all
those people getting their own back. But that's what happens,
karmically - you get your own feelings of negativity back, you're
trapped in it. Whereas I'm a greedy bastard, I want everything in
life. You can't just pretend that neurosis and feelings of
rejection don't exist; you have to embrace that. But you've also
got to embrace the need to connect, to love and be loved. You get
people who were involved in the punk thing, and then they think
'this is all so negative', and they decide to become a Christian
or a Krishna. And that to me is like deciding to take smack or
something. It's another form of unreality. And me, I want
everything. You've got to own everything about yourself. And then
you can integrate when and where you want to integrate.
"The reason I've put so much work into myself is as much to
do with understanding the music as for personal therapy. Punk
was doomed to failure for the very same reasons that it had to
come into being. Did it fail? I don't think I ever thought it
could change the world."
As Greil Marcus put it, punk didn't change the world, but it
did change the way some people walked through the world. The
WHAT KEITH LEVENE DID AFTER PiL
From my Wire interview with Levene:
When PiL re-recorded You Are Now Entering a Commercial Zone sing session musicians and released it as This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get, Levene retaliated by putting out Commercial Zone, a record some PiL diehards believe is the real fourth PiL album, the record that could have restored both their aesthetic credibility and their fortunes.
The immediate post-PiL years were tough for Levene. “At the time I quit, I thought I still had a deal with Virgin. Legally, I did. But they were like, ‘we’re supporting John’. I was like, ‘no problem, but how about I just carry on with my artistic experiment, put out a solo record?’ And they just put me on a shelf for a good four years. And they were scaring other record companies from signing. There was this period when getting a response from Virgin was like I was calling from Addis Abbabba.”
By 1985, Levene was resident in Los Angeles. He worked on the soundtrack for a Penelope Spheeris movie called Hollywood Vice. “It was a total nightmare, the movie was awful.” Some of the music he made during this period resurfaced on 1987’s '2011- Back to Black' EP, and on 1989’s Great Spirits Have Always Encountered Violent Opposition From Mediocre Minds. The latter record, credited to Keith Levene’s Violent Opposition, drew on the services of his new LA rock buddies like Hillel Slovak and Flea from Red Hot Chilli Peppers. “Flea actually tried out for PiL, he auditioned, but when he found out I wasn’t in the band anymore, he just said ‘no’. I was quite pleased by that!”
During the LA period, Levene earned a living working in computers and desktop publishing. For a short time in the early Nineties, he moved back to London and worked with another Ex Pistol, Glen Matlock, in an ill-starred group called The Mavericks. Then he returned to Los Angeles. And then…. silence.
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“PiL went so fast,” says Levene, with a soft, disbelieving shake of his head. “What happened between 1978 and the middle of 1980 – I’ve done less in ten years!”
The last few years, though, have witnessed what passes, in Levene land,for a frenzied burst of activity. Having returned to the UK in 1997, Levene set up a website/label, originally called Missing Channel, then renamed Murderglobal. And this autumn he’s made available his first new solo recordings in 13 years, a five track EP entitled Killer in the Crowd.
It’s a mixed bag, ranging from surprisingly orthodox hard rock (“Object B”, for instance, sounds like PiL if they’d been Free fans and played the American arena circuit--Levene says it’s actually him trying to do something on a par with Led Zep’s “Kashmir”) to the intriguing if frustratingly brief instrumentals “Aztec Legend” and “Aztec Dub”. As their titles suggest, these two slivers of soundtrack-for-imaginary-movie evoke the eerie ceremonial majesty of an alien civilisation, sacrificial rites in mist-shrouded temples in the jungles of Central America. “That’s what I thought it sounded like,” Levene nods. “The titles came afterwards, but when you start out using a didgeridoo, you know you’re not going to end up with the next Ozzy Osbourne record!”. Some of the weird bombastic sounds on these tracks come from brass, or from “this fucking big tympani that I flanged out of existence”.
Better than anything on the EP is “The Camera Dodgers”, a long instrumental track from his as-yet uncompleted album. A group improvisation recorded in a single, first take, “Dodgers” is a lustrous haze of harmonic distortion and cymbal spray, at different points in its aleatory drift recalling Neu!, A.R. Kane, Talk Talk, Dead C, and Eno’s Another Green World. Inspired by CCTV, it’s the soundtrack, says Levene, for a yet-to-made “cartoon or a small 20 minute digital video movie”.
The Killer EP is less a real release, though, than a calling card to the music biz. Despite the massive upheavals in the industry, with prestige artists being downsized left, right and centre, Levene is angling for a major label deal. He says that EMI funded his home-studio set up, as part of a development deal giving them first options on his material. But when he relates some of the perplexed reactions of A&R folk at that company and elsewhere, it’s obvious that Levene’s dreams about finding a niche in the mainstream music business are hopelessly out-of-touch with today’s market realities.
When I gently suggest that he would actually fare better in the current music industry context (forget punk, it’s like rock never happened) if he developed his most esoteric and uncommercial impulses (as glimpsed in “Camera Dodgers” ) and became a cult artist in the independent sector, Levene is unconvinced, though. He’s had terrible experiences with indie labels, he says, and feels that ““if I go the independent route, I might as well do it totally independently and put the record out myself.”
It’s poignant because clearly Levene imagines somehow returning to the situation he enjoyed with PiL: total artistic licence, with a corporation picking up the tab. “We were lucky we were on Virgin,” says Keith wistfully. “Of course, it was John who got me that freedom”. It was a unique historical moment: the record industry thrown off-balance by punk and prepared to take risks for fear of missing out on the future. That was then, this is now: if Levene could just shed his “useless memories” of corporate-subsidised avant-garde mayhem, find the right support and the right accomplices, he could still make amazing music.
All non-pictorial contents copyright Simon Reynolds unless otherwise indicated