Saturday, 8 August 2009

Tunes I Never Tire Of #6: Public Image Ltd `Death Disco'

I am one of those music nuts for whom bands can lie dormant in the collection for long periods, only to bloom in all their glory once again, triggered by a single track, or a magazine article, becoming an obsession once again for a few weeks to the exclusion of just about everything else.

As I wrote my previous entry, I inevitably dug out a bit of PiL to refresh the senses. Here I am a couple of weeks later driving everyone in the house mad with `Careering' at 8 o'clock in the morning, and the criminally ignored and vastly superior single version of `Memories' for elevenses. It's one thing to catch up with a band via their recordings when their prime has slipped past (on account of not being born soon enough in the case of too many of the artists I love), but quite another to live through a band's development in real time, and between 15 in 1978, and 20 in 1983 when I left home, and they lost it, Public Image Ltd were one such band for me. Their debut single in late '78 had been a corker, and despite sniffy `king's new clothes' jibes from journos hell bent on hearing the Sex Pistols mkII, (yawn) the debut album acquitted itself pretty well, without being a masterpiece, it was certainly a statement of intent, and it certainly wasn't "goddam awful rock'n'roll either" as John Lydon would say.

However, nothing could prepare anybody for the shock of `Metal Box' as it slowly unfolded over the pivotal year of 1979 via advance singles and a couple of legendary TV appearances until it finally arrived as 3 x 12" 45's in a heavyweight film cannister towards the end of the year. It was £7.49 which I couldn't afford, so I taped it from the scary acquaintance who had once thumped me for liking Yes (see previous entry !). I eventually bought the LP version`Second Edition'. It wasn't the same, but at least it didn't turn to rust like the boxes apparently did, although that in itself was pretty cool really I suppose.

The calling card was `Death Disco' which emerged in the summer. A true cacophony was the only word for it. When I first heard it I wasn't sure if it was the worst thing I'd ever heard or the best, but I had to have it. The incredible thing about it was that it was played on daytime radio. Imagine that ! I don't think many of the poptastic DJ's of the time greeted it with anything other than indifference or incredulity, but played it certainly was. It reached the Top 20 ! Economics dictated that it was the 7" single I bought, which came in a scary picture cover with, strangely, the slot to get the single out at the bottom of the sleeve rather than the top. I never knew if this was deliberate or not.

There had been chart songs before about dying (the sickly sentimental `Seasons In The Sun', the comic strip `Leader Of The Pack' or `Tell Laura I Love Her') but nothing like this. This was a catharsis of stark, honest, harrowing reality as John Lydon lost his mother to cancer. "Watch her slowly die, sorry in her eyes. Choking on a bed, flowers rotting dead"; to a disco beat, with a bastardisation of `Swan Lake' as the guitar theme ! For sheer subversion it must be the greatest thing ever seen on `Top Of The Pops'. What a glorious racket, and note Jah Wobble's frankly deranged grinning throughout. These people were genuinely frightening.

Check It Out here:

P.S. Speaking of `Check It Out', PiL's July 1979 appearance on the dismal Tyne Tees `yoof' programme of the same name, is possibly my TV highlight of all time. My brother and I watched in awe (twice !), in the pre-VCR days, my Mum was less than impressed. Most of it is viewable across these two links, although neither are complete despite claims to the contrary.

The hapless berk with the `Sid The Sexist' hair arrangements is one Chris Cowey, who rightly disappeared into obscurity very shortly after this farce. Hang on, no he didn't, he became the producer of `Top Of The Pops'. You couldn't make it up...

For the full story/transcript behind events which led to what you see here, have a read of this from the magnificently authoratative `Fodderstompf' PiL fansite.

PPS: A couple of years ago I was down in London to see Van Der Graaf Generator with my friend Russell. I was in the midst of my last major PiL `phase' and had been hammering `Death Disco' having discovered the full 10 minute take which had just been issued. Being a cheery sort of soul, who knows how to show somebody a good time, Russell suggested a walk in the enormous cemetry between Archway and East Finchley in North London. As we ambled along chatting I was somewhat stunned, when out of thousands and thousands of graves I came across this one quite by chance: "In Loving Memory of Eileen Lydon. Wife and Mother. Sadly Missed".

Life can sometimes floor you.


Custardracer said...

Nice one mate - keep 'em coming!

Still waiting for 'Pop Quizes, f*nny batter & the answers you wanted!' tho'!
(ah, the memories)

Custardracer said...

Steve - just heard that PIL are refoming to do 5 UK gigs in December. Lydon was on Radio 6 this morning saying that one of the things that spurred him on to do it was relistening to 'Death Disco'! Synchronicity rules!

Steve Dinsdale said...

Nige ! Sorry, I all too rarely check my blog messages...I am amazed at that. Seems like there's a lot of synchronicity about that song. If PiL had Wobble or Levene I would be keen, but alas no although at least Wob and Lydon are still mates.

How goes it anyway ? Drop's a line sometime !