Album: Metal Box
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If there was ever a genre that people seem to constantly write-off as a lesser form of musical achievement, it is punk rock. Perhaps due to the straightforward, often more simple nature, the great albums from this style are often seen as secondary to those of rock or jazz, and yet within punk rock, the seeds for many later genres can be heard. Also, if one follows some of the icons of punk rock, in a number of cases, as they move on in life, the music they create becomes far more diverse and pioneering than when one considers a similar time lime for other musicians. Though many may not realize this reality, there is perhaps no better example than when one listens to the music of Public Image Ltd. Formed in the wake of the break-up of The Sex Pistols, the band were in many ways the quintessential post-punk band, and their albums pushed the boundaries of what was possible within any form of music. Without question, much of the PiL catalog is heavily experimental, and yet underneath the often wild musical swaths, one can easily hear the presence of the spirit of punk rock. Though their first album did gain some commercial success, it was their second effort, 1979's Metal Box, that stands as their finest work. Filled with some of the most stunning and captivating performances in history, there are few song that better define the band, as well as the post-punk sound as perfectly as one finds in Public Image Ltd's 1979 song, "Memories."
The band wastes no time in setting the tone for "Memories," as it kicks off with a rather loud and exceptionally heavy bassline from the one and only Jah Wobble. There is a presence within his tone that is unlike any other bassist in history, and it is this looming, aggressive feel that enables "Memories" to become a rather dark affair from the onset. Wobble's performance also gives the track an amazing amount of tension, and along with this comes a feeling of unease, which serves as a perfect compliment to the vocals. It is also the way that Wobble's playing seems to bounce off of drummer Richard Dudanski's playing, and yet the drumming easily stands on its own as well. The drums are far more forward in the mix than almost any other recording in history, and it is the sharp tone and nervous pace with which he plays that makes this aspect of the music so superb. The final musical aspect of Public Image Ltd is guitarist Keith Levene, and he also adds the harsh, winding synthesizer track on "Memories." It is Levene's performance that pushes the song to an almost maddening level, as the unsettling nature becomes almost overwhelming in his seemingly scattered notes. Yet it is perhaps because he played both instruments that the way in which the guitar and synthesizer intertwine is nothing short of brilliant, and taken as a whole, there is simply no other musical arrangement in history that is even remotely comparable to that found on "Memories."
However, while the musical contributions are truly extraordinary, it is the vocal performance from the man once called Johnny Rotten that is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the song. Now better known as John Lydon, there is a certain calm and clarity within his performances throughout Metal Box that can make many not even aware that this was the voice that fronted The Sex Pistols. Yet his trademark bite is not absent in any way, but the way he controls the volume of his voice shows his maturity as a performer. Present are still the caterwauling moments, and the angst and frustration that were his trademark are not lost in the least, yet as Lydon works all over the vocal scale, one can only stand in sheer awe of his performance. Completely giving himself to the tension and flow of the music, Lydon's vocal track on "Memories" may very well be his finest moment, as it shows just how knowledgeable and talented a musician he was capable of being. One can even argue that in comparison, his work with his previous band was holding back his true talents, and this is also supported by the brilliantly poetic lyrics he delivers. If one ignores the music around him on "Memories," the lyrics can be heard as just as forceful a rant as anything he did previously, and the song can be summed up by the line, "...this person's had enough of useless memories..." Retaining the attitude, but presenting it in a completely different light, few vocalists can boast as much true range as one hears in John Lydon's performance on "Memories."
Truth be told, there have actually been three completely different releases of the tracks that were initially released as Metal Box. The original was put out only in the U.K., and would be followed in early 1980 on both sides of the Atlantic as the double album, Second Edition. On this version, the song order is rearranged, and it was shipped in a standard gate-fold package, as opposed to the film canister which contained the Metal Box release. Well over a decade after this, Metal Box was reissued on CD, and on this version, the sound quality was greatly enhanced, and in many ways, this is the definitive version in terms of acoustic superiority. Yet regardless of which version one hears, the power of the music is never lost even in the least, and there are few records that can boast a sense of urgency that comes even remotely close. The chemistry between the bands' core of Lydon, Wobble, and Levene is similarity extraordinary, and in many ways, this is as close as punk ever got to "jam" based music. It is within this fact that one can even make an argument for the proximity that "Memories" has to a jazz form, and yet many still try and write it off as "just" punk rock. Though the spirit of punk is certainly intact, it is the way in which the band was able to push this into such a distant form that makes it so amazing, and there may be no other song in history that blends as many styles and debunks as many musical assumptions as one can experience on Public Image Ltd's phenomenal 1979 song, "Memories."