Released: January 27 1986
Label: Virgin/ Elektra
Produced by: Bill Laswell, John Lydon
Recorded at: Electric Lady Studios, The Power Station, Quadrasonic Sound Studios, RPM Sound Studios, New York City
Personnel: John Lydon (vocals), Steve Vai (guitar) Ginger Baker (drums), Tony Williams (drums), Ryuichi Sakamoto (Fairlight CMI), Bernie Worrell (organ, Yamaha DX7), Jonas Hellborg (bass), Nicky Skopelitis (guitar), Bernard Fowler (backing vocals), L Shankar (electric violin), Malachi Favors (acoustic bass) Steve Turre (didgeridoo), Aïyb Dieng (chatan pot drums)
IT WAS THE Arctic Monkeys who finally got around to filching the definitive Angry Young Man line from Alan Sillitoe and using it for the name of an album. But ever since the Sex Pistols ended, pretty much every record John Lydon has made – certainly those issued across the first fantastic seven-year stretch of Public Image Ltd from First Edition to Album – could have been released under the same title: Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.
For all the obstinate mutating, border crossing, genre melting and general refusal to be pinned down that had marked the various iterations of PiL since its inception, however, it was the record that appeared in the first month of 1986 that was, for many long-term followers, The Difficult One.
From Metal Box’s deep, dank anti-rock squat experimentalism through to the seminal hip-hop hook up with Afrika Bambaataa for the 1984 Time Zone single “World Destruction,” all Lydon’s explorations until that point had been conducted far out on the left field. With Album, though, it looked to some, as much as they could see with their blinkers on, as if he had made good on the promise delivered in “This Is Not A Love Song,” and gone over to the other side.
Lydon gleefully trashed and trampled over many sacred post-punk taboos here. For one thing, he had put together a supergroup: where Throbbing Gristle called an album 20 Jazz Funk Greats as a sneering joke, Lydon actually corralled together a gang of great jazz and funk players, some of whom brought didgeridoos along to the sessions. For another, among the longhaired muso mob he assembled, sat none other than Ginger Baker (strange as it might seem now, among the John Peel nation of the mid-1980s, invoking memories of Cream was really, really not considered a cool thing to do).
And for a damning third, with their help, he had produced a high-sheen, heavyweight, hard rock record. A record that boasted long, fiddly, screaming guitar solos by posing poodle-headed spandex clad fretboard licker Steve Vai. A, let’s not beat around the bush, fucking heavy metal album.
He hadn’t done any such thing, of course. Except, of course, he had. This is the wild, wide, unstoppable glory of Album. In its monstrous roaming, in the way it sucks up atmospheres and ambience from around the globe, alloys them to Vai’s howling squadrons of flaming guitar and the colossal beats generated by Baker and fellow drummer Tony Williams, then squats and spews it all out with some of Lydon’s most powerfully plangent and poisonous singing and ominous lyrics, it’s impossible to say what it is. To take a salient parallel, when Lou Reed teamed up with Metallica to make his “metal” album, Lulu, the results were never anywhere near so thrilling and strange. Album doesn’t sound like anything else. But it sounds exactly like Lydon. And, to this day, it sounds amazing.
It wasn’t originally planned to sound this way. Still feeling his way into a new life in LA as 1985 dawned, Lydon was also, for the umpteenth time, trying to put together a new PiL. The last thread connecting the outfit to its original group mission had snapped at the end of 1984 with the acrimonious departure of Martin Atkins, the drummer who had been with Lydon since Metal Box. (Album’s venomous opener, “FFF” – “Farewell My Fair-weather Friend” – is Lydon’s toxic, headbanging kiss off to all who have had the temerity to leave him, but considered by many, Atkins included, to be specifically about him: “On you no-one can depend… logic is lost in your cranial abattoir… shallow, empty inside, sly-witted, full of snide… the shutter-speed of your thinking process is small…”)
Lydon was left with the trio of very young LA punkers he and Atkins had recruited for live shows: guitarist Mark Schulz, keyboard player Jebin Bruni and bassist Bret Helm. Demoing at home, he sketched half of Album’s tracks (“Fishing”, “Round”, “Bags”, “Ease”) with the group, but when it came time to go into the studio in New York, in the late summer of 1985, disaster ensued.
To produce Album, Lydon had turned to Bill Laswell, the adamantly pigeonhole-smashing producer with whom he and Bambaataa had recorded “World Destruction” in one day a year earlier. As Lydon explained the situation in his second volume of autobiography, Anger Is An Energy: “[Laswell] was affiliated with that that big-arse studio The Power Station… and it really didn’t work. My little whippersnappers fell apart… they panicked.”
With high-end studio bills mounting as his inexperienced band struggled to get to grips with the process and the material, Lydon was forced to let them go. Laswell suggested ringing around his bulging contacts book for replacement players, and so a once-in-a-lifetime PiL was created: Baker, coaxed from semi-retirement to provide titanic drums alongside Williams, a veteran of Miles Davis’s avant-fusion groups; Ryuichi Sakamoto on keyboards, alongside Parliament/ Talking Heads man Bernie Worrell; Vai with his ridiculous, fantastic, shredding chugging, shrieking guitar; electric violin master Shankar; and, well why not, longterm Rolling Stones backing singer Bernard Fowler.
It was the sheer craziness of the personnel that inspired Album’s plain, inscrutable cover design, based on the same generic American supermarket packaging Alex Cox had riffed on in Repo Man a year earlier. Realising the musicians involved would make for quite terrific music press copy, Lydon and Laswell decided, with glorious perversion, not to tell anyone who was on the record.
In the midst of them all, Lydon, who credits Fowler for teaching him to strengthen his voice, which hits extraordinary places, is pushed beyond himself. He veers from the old raging spleen, sneer and black humour into abstract, Blakean visions of apocalypse: “mushrooms on the horizon… a factory where the children die… these altitudes! these dizzying heights! these bottomless pits!… drawn by the beauty of my own terror, close to the edge, swallow the void… what makes you happy? Your misery…”). Most extraordinarily, amid all the anger, bile, disgust and determination, he discovers new tenderness with the matchless “Rise” – that impossible hit, merging folk with rock with township bass and post-punk chime, and a lyric cut and pasted from old Irish blessings and the testimony of South African torture victims.
For many PiL fans, Metal Box is the masterpiece, and a masterpiece it is. But Album is its equal, albeit in an inverse way. Where Metal Box goes burrowing deep into an endless inner space, Album explodes outward, out into the world. It is a mad howling giant. It is total punk rock. Except it’s not. Except it is.