Saturday, September 10, 2011

Another Look: Album

Another Look is a recurring feature in which I re-examine albums from back in the so-called day.

Public Image Limited--Album (1986)

I missed out on the early days of punk. I was just getting into music in the mid- to late '70s, but it was first top 40 and then album-oriented rock before I turned to hard rock and metal in the early '80s. Punk was something I saw clips of on TV whenever there was a concert riot or some news commentator was remarking at the crazy safety pins and mohawks the punk kids were wearing. I heard about Toronto-area bands like Teenage Head, but that was about it. Johnny Rotten (nee Lydon) was a familiar face, but I didn't hear any Sex Pistols songs until the '80s.

My first real introduction to Lydon came through his Pistols followup band Public Image Limited and its fifth studio album, which was called either Album, Compact Disc or Cassette, depending on which format you purchased. At the time, I was into vinyl so that's what I picked up. The punk band Flipper had released its own album called Album a few years earlier, with similar cover design and concept. Flipper was rightly pissed off at Lydon's pilfering of its idea and later in '86 released an album called Public Flipper Limited Live.

I heard the lead single "Rise" getting airplay on local rock stations WFNX and WBCN, and I may have seen the video on MTV. But another thing that drew me to the album was the involvement of guitar virtuoso Steve Vai, who I knew from his days in Frank Zappa's band and later as Yngwie Malmsteen's replacement in Alcatrazz. And later in '86, he emerged as the guitarist in David Lee Roth's post-Van Halen band, just destroying the shit out of the Eat 'Em and Smile album.

But "Rise" was different than the other stuff on rock radio at the time. Sure, Vai's guitar wove in and out, but it was Lydon's unique vocal style that really grabbed me, as well as the refrain "Anger is an energy." A great song that remains fresh to this day.

Album was essentially a Lydon solo album, because he recorded it with session men after getting rid of the rest of PiL. In addition to Vai, Ginger Baker and Tony Williams (jazz great who played with Miles Davis among others) played drums, Ruichi Sakamoto provided keyboards and Bill Laswell produced the whole thing. Definitely not who you would expect to play with the clown prince of punk. But just before making Album, Lydon collaborated with hip hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa to record the single "World Destruction," so playing with Steve Vai shouldn't have been too much of a surprise, I guess.

"FFF" is a classic Lydon kiss-off to music industry types, as the title is short for "Farewell, my fairweather friend." Booming drums and Vai's squealing guitar propel the song. Gotta love the line "Logic is lost in your/cranial abbatoir." The rest of the album follows the single-word title theme: "Fishing," "Round," "Bags," "Home," "Ease," and all the songs are fairly long, especially for someone who came out of the punk scene; the shortest song is "Round," which clocks in at 4:24, while "Ease" is over 8 minutes long. As with all his material, Lydon delivers his lyrics with a sneer. "Fishing" implores his target to "go crawl back into your dustbin."

Laswell keeps the danceable sound that PiL had established on previous albums while incorporating Vai's technical profiency on the geeetar into the mix. It's a propulsive and enjoyable album/compact disc/cassette. On a side note, in the late '90s I purchased a CD copy of the album from Newbury Comics because I didn't have a turntable set up. I get home and pop it in and instead of "FFF," I hear a gospel song along the lines of the Blind Boys of Alabama. Turns out the disc was mislabeled. I had already thrown out my receipt by the time I realized this and couldn't return it, so somewhere in my belongings, there's a decidedly non-rocking version of Album.

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