Cynicism ran rife as John Lydon emerged from the cocoon that once housed Sex Pistols iconoclast Johnny Rotten. After all, once you’ve torn down the temple, what do you do for an encore? Many within the prevailing rock establishment had recently found themselves dismissed by Lydon as complacent, redundant, irrelevant ‘old farts’. Consequently, in the immediate wake of the Pistols’ implosion, hordes of ‘real’ musicians and sundry detractors were queuing up to smirk smirks in the face of this braying, here today, gone tomorrow, upstart oik’s inevitable fall from grace. But Lydon, it transpired, hadn’t read the script.
Sid Vicious killed the Pistols and it was Lydon who’d engineered his recruitment. Sid (in his pre-Nancy smack-free incarnation) had been John’s mate. He could barely play, but Lydon took a chance on him that proved incalculably expensive. Having apparently learned nothing, Lydon’s next move was to form PiL with bassist Jah Wobble. Another unproven novice, another mate. Oh, how the naysayers chortled.
Chosen PiL guitarist Keith Levene’s notoriety had only come courtesy of his bailing on the nascent Clash. What, the straight world spluttered, could possibly go right?
Incredibly, the chemistry within PiL was immediate and engaging, neither rear-view mirror punk, nor counter-revolutionary rock, it utilised an entirely different musical vocabulary. Accepted pre-punk history had been written by a middle-class rock press who’d neither use nor time for reggae, funk or disco; proletarian dance music was frowned upon by this chin-stroking hiptelligentsia.
Lydon and Wobble, meanwhile, grew up in discos, on terraces, and when they made their double Metal Box (9⁄10) masterpiece (following the feet-finding First Issue), they used unfamiliar building blocks – dub, disco, free jazz, Krautrock – to construct an audio edifice so unique it could only be enormously influential.
An excellent remaster accentuates the nuances and stresses the space in a mix that’s by turns claustrophobic and widescreen, crisps hi-hats, sharpens ice-pick guitar shards and further fattens bass subsonics. There are extra tracks, B-sides, Peel sessions, a live ‘rehearsal’ set from Manchester’s Factory, and it’s only a joy.
Fast forward seven years. Another line-up, another Lydon. On April Fool’s Day, NME joked that Ginger Baker had joined PiL. So Lydon, alongside production genius Bill Laswell, recruited Baker, Steve Vai, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Tony Williams to make Album (8⁄10). Here, new colours (Afro-Celtic, metal, oriental) are splashed across a fresh canvas to reveal another kind of genius. Similarly expanded, similarly dazzling, Album’s anger has never sounded so energetic.