I beared witness to this band’s Metal Box around two hours ago in order to brush up on their capabilities in the studio before approaching this thing, where its love language is the repetitive post-whatnots clamouring with Lydon’s delivery just a few notches departed into irregularity when compared to the generally regular energy of previous foundational UK punk-rock, which has now melted into equally contentious mantras sharing a flavour similar to that of white bread with paperclip spread. You’ll also detect the itty razor blades of late Levene’s guitars (which shares similar probabilities of striking one as being uninteresting), Jah Wobble’s bass which is the icon of both the album’s mixing and their need to set themselves apart from their contemporaries in utilising dub as a means of bringing their machinery machinations into a newer level of originality, and keyboards that contribute little more than atmospheric squalor. Thank god it all comes together in just the right way (for the most part), cause the end result is definitely much closer to the top of the pyramid of UK post-punk than it will ever approach the bottom. Forgive me for those descriptors are hollow, Gentle Giant was next in my rotation virtually right after.
Levene and Wobble are arguably the band’s premier instrumentalists. Wobble left around 1980, leaving the bass guitar responsibilities to Levene for their following Flowers of Romance, where he also had a wheel behind the guitar, synthesizer, cello, piano, and a few percussions alongside Lydon. That album happens to up the ante in terms of Lydon evolving from your ol’ avant-rock chants to droplets more of pure mania, with any semblances of dub traded out for the challenge and mystique of industrial and musique concrete. It’ll tickle you to know that neither Levene or Wobble are present in this live album. This new lineup of Joseph Guida on guitar, Louis Bernardi on bass, Tommy Zvoncheck on keyboard, and Martin Atkins on drums (who had already played a part in Flowers), was given little prep time for this outing in Tokyo. They’re on the hunt for a reason to keep goin’ on, it seems.
Live in Tokyo was recorded in July of 1983, in which the band reaches the exact number of years we tend to see as the life expectancy of post-punk bands from the late 1970s before they start to expire from a famine of original ideas, a dwindling boldness to twist the genre forward or fuse it with other genres, or apex bandmates leaving and leaving a party of one to assemble a hangover of an ensemble. Television, Magazine, Gang of Four, Chrome, MX-80 Sound, Wipers, the Pop Group, they’ve all fallen victim to this indefinite slump and it seems that Public Image Limited shall share that same maladious fate if they don’t hold up accordingly.
We are currently forty seconds into the album as I speak: dear god, that studio was a panacea. The single flaw that binds all these songs together into a death grip is that the vocals of Lydon border on being terrible very often, if not already qualify as such. Annalisa opens the live outing with vocals completely flaccid, reduced only to troublesome whines and moaning that stages as a means of attaining pantomime akin to 1981-era David Thomas without any backbone or performance arts, a vocal trend that tends to persist in most if not all songs present here. Other worthwhile comparisons are the scaling whines of Tom Verlaine, and the warbling of Jello Biafra (given it was ‘83, I would not be surprised if Lydon heard at least a scrap of Kennedys).
Sometimes he’s a little more in the bag with a cut like Low Life, yet still compromises a good share of the song’s momentum. Given the fact that the song is cut short to transition right into Solitaire without missing a beat, perhaps there wasn’t much momentum backing the track overall. That’s a shame, because the drumming in that song is much better than the two that precede it, as well as the energy in general. Actually, I’ll quickly dwell on the drums, which tends to fall to numerous sins in this record.
Annalisa has it rattle all over the snare on top of an already declawed rhythm, Flowers of Romance has it completely exposed as the drumming occasionally slips in and out of time constantly, perhaps the main takeaway from a rendition that has very little worth outside of what it presents then fails to achieve (that cymbal at the start, whether a China or a trash can lid, works wonders for the atmosphere on the contrary), and Banging the Door has the drums constantly reach little highs to the point only apathy is extracted from it. That chase towards the crash and snare every damn beat is a sin that is common in the realms of forgettable post-punk, where the energy and need for emphasis in a soundscape dominated by empty repetition call for anything but a busy snare drum. Of course, the sound of the drum kit itself is drowned in a cave chamber’s echo that is generally just a massive issue I have with the 1980s as a whole. It can be half-forgiven given it is a live recording.
Continuing on regarding the opening track Annalisa, it generally fails as an opener. Where else does it take you rather than completely into its hubris? It peruses about as if it’s attempting to simulate a high that is too pathetic to ever have existed in the first place, like it’s daydreaming of attaining it, some kind of revelation you’d find in the conscience of a hopeless romantic. Even if the guitar is fine and is nothing horribly nauseating, no futuristic keyboard magic and splendour is disguising the holes this song is composed of. It stays this way until the end.
Religion maintains similar vocals courtesy of Lydon, this time opening decently as an organ sets the malaise for the track that is then complimented by the sensation of being suspended in the air through cymbals, despite some struggles to blow the listener away. Then the rest of the song happens, where we witness a hamfisted decrying of religion and its effect on every facet of the world and on current society, a bass guitar that generally sits about, a spooky keyboard warble that signals the only sense of change in the song, and a vocalization shuffling about as if its messaging is the only thing needed to carry the song to the finish line, unaware of how trivial the message is when its ambassador is running on fumes and lazing stumbles. The entire piece stays in that boorish bedlam until the end.
Improvement arrives, as previously mentioned in comments regarding Low Life, though not without the same progression faults. Of course you can indulge in repetition, as long as you’ve got enough backbone within what’s currently going on to keep it going, the greats of German rock at the start of the 1970s knew that best. Then comes the part in the song where you realize maybe it does have that backbone, but before the song has a chance to prove it, it’s ripped away to present Solitaire next. You know, there were a lot of bitty synth twinkles present in this song which makes me wonder how the song would go if it were stripped of vocals and the keys did the talking. I’d argue the end result would likely be much more interesting, even if the run-time would need a slight shave in half. As a means of a historical example, I present Neu’s Hallogallo.
If you want a song in this whole mess that has a damn good rhythm, Solitaire fits the bill, so amusingly that Descioux would probably approve of it. Even then, we still see the shadow of the average state of this entire project, the same greyness threatening the beauty of this one rhythm. Regardless, we witness a song that is more keen to bubble up, boil over, and erupt in its own lobotomized triumph, which provides so much more excitement especially when given the evidence of the keyboard’s own tremors. The bass is absolutely crucial in this track, because otherwise the keyboard would be devoid of any chemistry to latch onto and its boiling beer-belly would be left completely exposed and a victim to heavy critique. For the first time, the band finally feels like a unit, even if the guitar is as forgettable as it will remain for the rest of the record, devoid of Levene’s tendencies to treat the guitar as a tool of incision rather than musical nourishment. Even better news is that everything else is so (on average) interesting, that Lydon’s singing now fades into the background. It’s a shame it’s followed by the nigh-worthless recreation of Flowers of Romance.
Lydon’s castrated David Thomas impression is at an all-time high at being conspicuous in (This is Not) A Love Song, and it’s at the worst possible time too thanks to this specific cut having the potential to be a very good live rendition. The backing melody provides enough gas in the realms of charm and intrigue to keep the listener on its toes until around the four-minute mark where it all wears off, overstaying until the crowd participation begins. Thank goodness for that crowd because a break from the song’s normalities was needed. Eventually, the band plays in tandem with the crowd but unfortunately you cannot hear the crowd during that period at the very end. Still, they’re better at the song than Lydon was. Most of the lyrics is a chanting of the title, isn’t that agonizing?
The album then concludes with a quartet of four boring joints: the famished plateau of Death Disco where stripping anything back only causes further turmoil but the entire product in itself is terribly uninteresting (even though the little Swan Lake homages on the keyboard are nice), the slab of mildly pertinent funk elements in Bad Life which is the most inexcusably forgettable song on here, the annoying and crammed lyricisms of Banging the Door, and the hissing crowd-driven limp closer Under the House. That’s around seventeen minutes of material with around 40 seconds of silver worth storing. None of these last minutes deserved immortalization onto record, and further tarnish the pacing faults detectable all over this joint. The whole is of poor quality and that is the bluntest I can put it. The death of this band’s freshness, among many other bands of this genre sharing this fate, was cemented.
I sincerely urge you to stick to the studio outings of this band if you are not looking for an album like this that is appropriate for the following activities:
A cold shower during a blackout.
Ordering lists of minute data statistics.
Seeing how long you can keep your tongue in the waffle iron.
The toughest PiL to swallow.
Trajectory of listens past the first: indefinite.
Written 11/7/2023, 11:00 AM - 2:18 PM.