When Metal Box was released
at the tail end of '79, it was a strange time in the UK, depressed
& bleak, more so I would argue, than at any time during the decade.
Intentionally or otherwise, Metal Box was both the perfect fit and the
perfect antidote. It was greeted with rave reviews & multiple
plaudits, although John himself would later quip that the reviewers
liked it for the wrong reasons!
Levene & Wobble
combined to paint a stark desolate landscape for Lydon to colour with
his poetry and cutting delivery. And what poetry! Rich, visual, &
evocative. Free from a regular rock song structure, Lydon was enjoying
a new found freedom of expression. There were no hiding places in the
space provided by PiL's music, and there didn't need to be. John's
vocal was as much an instrument as the bass, guitar, and drums and the
lyrics themselves merely add to this premise. Lyrics that can be fully
absorbed thanks to the superb 70+ page book that accompanies the set.
Disc One contains the original LP - so you should/ought to be familiar with this.
Disc Two, B-sides, Mixes & BBC Sessions compiles the
re-mixes and variations originally released in '79, plus TOTP audio, the John Peel
December '79 session, and the Old Grey Whistle Test appearance the
following February plus Pied Piper from the Various Artists LP
Machines. Special mention here for the 12" Death Disco & its B-side
Half Mix/Megga Mix. Released in the summer prior to Metal Box, this
became the alternative soundtrack for the holidays.
Disc Three, Rare & Unreleased Mixes.
While discs 1 & 2 bring together the material previously
available in one form or another, disc 3 is another thing
altogether. It's brilliant and deserves a track by track
Poptones (Version 3)
is injected throughout with subtle sounds, at times edgy, at times
psychedelic. Always a visual song, the back of the woods now seems even
more dangerous with John's elongated snarl of "Poptones" surrounded by
a jagged element unique to this version. There's a Hitchcock film in
here somewhere. Frightening.
Swan Lake (Monitor Mix)
clocks in at just under 10 minutes, and is for now at least, my
favourite version of the song, due to the unfamiliar crisp metallic
mix. You've a feeling they could have gone on forever, and may have
done if John hadn't decided "that's long enough for anyone, innit?"
Albatross (Monitor Mix)
is noisier than the more familiar cut. It's a touch busier as
well, remaining haunting and hypnotic throughout. One of John's finest
lyrics of the period as he breaks free of the millstone placed around
his neck, this mix is just as valid in delivering his escape from the
Swan Lake (Master)
may differ little in the rhythm stakes from the other takes of the
song, but it varies greatly in texture, guitar and ambience. It's 7
minutes 44 seconds of unfolding terror with sinister vocals to match.
This is essential for any PiL fan seeking solace in a truly frightening
Unknown Instrumental Jam 1 (Chant)
is the kind of sonic indulgence that is hard to shake and shows how
skilled Levene & Wobble were at developing distinctive sounds.
Unknown Jam 2 (Megachant)
is a strange one. John's in there warbling amongst the keyboards and
thudding of drums. A bit like a nightmare come to life during a church
service. Take cover behind the pulpit as "Mob, War, Kill, Hate" emerges
from the mist.
Music From An Oven (aka Memories) is an early mix of the single, not vastly different, but certainly enough to warrant inclusion.
Radio 4 (Symphony Suite)
expands Metal Box's most unsettling piece by 3 minutes. The track which
originally used to bring Metal Box to a melancholy end, is now epic in
length and drama. The result is a living and breathing soundscape in
its own right.
Home Is Where The Heart Is (Original Mix)
with Wobble on bass finds its perfect home on this disc following its
more familiar placing as the B-side to Flowers of Romance, which never
sat quite right. It's no classic, but now in the correct setting in a
more concise form, it seems more alive.
In a similar vein, the closing track Unknown Instrumental 2 from March 1980 is Wobble-fest extravaganza which should please connoisseurs of Jah.
Disc Four, Live in Manchester.
This was a good bit of thinking, including a live representation of the
work. With PiL playing only 3 shows during '79, what could be better
than this one from June, recorded during the making of Metal Box? PiL
were an enigma at the time, and the hastily arranged nature of this gig
only added to this. Although not the same quality recording as
the 1980 Lydon/Levene/Wobble live document Paris Au Printemps, it is
more authentic, more satisfying. Relaxed chaos abounds as PiL, when
they feel like it, deliver the goods, and do so spectacularly. Swan
Lake cuts like a knife. If proof were needed that they were powerful
live, here it is.
The rough & ready nature
of the recording has left the humour and chat in situ, with
contributions from Keith, Jah & of course John, '"we admit our
mistakes!" New drummer Richard Dudanski, making his live debut, gets
ribbed also. These guys are having fun; it's not all doom & gloom
Away from the music, both
the CD & vinyl versions of the set are packaged in either a square
(vinyl) or oblong (CD) metal tin, and look amazing. Within the sets
lies the afore mentioned booklet, packed with lyrics and track
information, and scores of contemporary press cuttings, magazine
covers, adverts, and reviews which tell their own story of PiL during
this phase. A poster and art cards complete the collection.
you wish to push the boat
out, treat yourself to the 4 LP vinyl version. Everything looks that
grander, and let us be straight here, Metal Box was originally
envisaged with 12" vinyl in mind. It makes sense. The original LP is
spread over 2 vinyl discs, with the live show occupying a 3rd. The
final LP includes the Peel session and monitor mixes of Swan Lake &
Albatross. No excuses if you can't/won't play vinyl as you get a download
card which also includes all the additional tracks from the CD set. Super-deluxe is
exactly what it is.
Metal Box lives and breathes once more. Four hours of it.
Review by Phil Singleton
'Album' Super Deluxe review >