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I bought a re-issue on LP of the first Public Image Ltd record a couple of weeks ago, and I have been playing it over and going back to my other PiL records, particularly the key four of the first albums (including Second Issue, Flowers of Romance and Album). I don’t know why, but I hadn’t had these out in a while. Maybe they still have a certain repulsion about them, wanting to push listeners back and keeping them estranged. It’s not exactly likable music. In their specific ways, they also have a raw immediacy and a loose fierceness – not just in the dissonant snarl and visceral whine of John Lydon’s vocals, but in the way the music assembles itself – that shake me every time I put the needle down. Even as each track locks palpably into its particular, febrile groove – and from Jah Wobble to Bill Laswell, these remain definitely groove-based records – you often get the sense that things could also shatter at any moment; songs, particularly on the first album, hang vestigially in scissions and fractures. Sometimes, they sound like the reassembled shards of songs, songs that can’t quite piece themselves together again, if they were ever whole to begin with. Setting the new-age steady on-the-beat pulse of “Public Image” against the unkempt noise of its b-side, “The Cowboy Song,” suggests the antithetical aural tug-of-war in which Lydon and companions consistently engage: centripetal and centrifugal sound. The attenuated slow drag of Wobble’s bass on “Theme” teeters on the verge of collapse, then lurches forward a bar at a time, still locked into its deep rhythmic pocket. These are compelling and unsettling collaborative performances that take aim at the sonic foundations of popular music.
The uncertainties and incommensurables inherent in the collaborative process – that there are differences among performers that can’t be overcome, and instead need to be embraced – seem to me to play a significant part in PiL’s music, in how it unfolds. Still, the track I most want to repeat on the player is “FFF” from Album (1985), and what draws me to it isn’t this uncertainty, but rather a sense of its absolute, unshakeable beat: the confident, driven heaviness of Tony Williams’s drumming, and Bill Laswell’s bass-line. In contrast to the dehiscence that I have been suggesting lies at the heart of PiL’s output, “FFF” and most of the tracks on Album (or Cassette or Compact Disc) feel intentionally stable and powerfully coherent (Lydon’s singing aside, perhaps). Album is famously a Bill Laswell project, assembling studio musicians and colleagues from Laswell’s Material bands, mixing funk players with avant-gardists, to produce a set of tracks onto which Lydon’s vocals could be overdubbed. Lydon’s liner notes to the 1999 compilation Plastic Box admit as much:
In some ways, Album was almost like a solo album, [guitarist] Keith [Levene] and [drummer] Martin [Atkins] weren’t around, and I worked alone, with a new bunch of people. Obviously the most important person was Bill Laswell.
Importantly, Laswell employs a number of forward-thinking – some might even say inappropriate – improvisers to lay down tracks on the record, most peculiarly perhaps acoustic bassist Malachi Favors Maghostutfrom the Art Ensemble of Chicago, although any potentially startling or obvious improvisational work seems to me to be largely lost in the mix here. It’s the idea of employing Favors, perhaps, rather than the quality of his actual contributions, that seems to matter – an instance of artist cred derived from public-image-making, no doubt, although Laswell also withheld the musicians’ names at the time of the record’s release, toying with the weight of notoriety in music marketing. My point is that Laswell’s pool of players offer substantial potential for creative, rule-breaking performances, although he also very audibly, musically, reins every one of them in.
Lydon’s note continues with another significant moment of name-dropping:
But it was during the recording of this album in New York that Miles Davis came into the studio while I was singing, stood behind me ands started playing.
Later he said that I sang like he played the trumpet which is still the best thing anyone’s ever said to me. To be complemented by the likes of him was special. Funnily enough, we didn’t use him.
There isn’t any corroborating evidence that this encounter took place, and it’s not clear what Miles Davis would have been doing in that specific studio at that time. I’m not sure how well Laswell (who had elevated his credentials working on Herbie Hancock’s Future Shock LP, which may have put him in Davis’s viewfinder) knew Davis. (Tony Williams, who would collaborate on Laswell’s Arcana, was one of Davis’s greatest drummers, but the instrumental tracks were done, and only Lydon would have been in the studio that day. Davis may also have been working on Steve van Zandt’s anti-apartheid Sun City project around that time, so their paths may have crossed around those recordings in New York.) Panthalassa, Laswell’s “Reconstruction & Mix Translation” of Miles Davis’s 1969-74 music, only happened years after Davis’s death. (Wikipedia offers another account of a fabled unreleased Laswell-Davis session from the period: “Laswell has stated in numerous interviews that he met with Davis a number of times and discussed working together, but busy schedules kept them from arranging such a recording before Davis’ death, though Laswell’s chief engineer reports an unreleased Davis recording session from 1986.”)
But there are some very real connections that might be worth pursuing about this missed encounter between Lydon and Davis, illuminating something about their respective senses of “voice” and phrasing. Paul Tingen quotes PiL bassist Jah Wobble praising Laswell’s “mix translation” of On the Corner: “The weird thing is that when I thought of On the Corner, I have always heard it in my head the way Bill mixed it. That’s how it really is. Bill’s in the one. That’s the real deal” (Tingen 140). Wobble goes on to associate the music of Davis’s pre-retirement period, the mid-1970s, with the early performance style of PiL:
Dark Magus is my favorite Miles album of that period because it is so raw, with such a hidden power, such a mixture of dark and light. When I first heard it, in 1978, it was one of those magical moments. It had an overall sound that was similar to what Public Image Ltd was about. I couldn’t believe it had been recorded several years before us. I imagine Miles deliberately threw in these new musicians at the last moment because musicians get complacent. I can imagine how he wanted to affect their psychology, and so the music. I also know that musicians can think something is not representative of their best work, and yet it’s actually great and a lot of people love it.
This doubled sense of an improvisationally rough, groove-driven music pushing itself forward even as it seems to come apart at its seams links early Public Image Ltd directly to Davis’s aesthetic, though as (what he called) “social music,” Davis lays claim to a racial provenance that both eludes Lydon and company, and also becomes an ironically appropriated foundation for their work. (“I could be black I could be white / I could be white I could be black” Lydon yawps in “Rise,” rejigging lines from a South African torture victim as a provocation against prejudice; the shock-tactics title of his memoir, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs, venomously throws racist signage into its reader’s faces.) But when Lydon recounts Davis saying he sings like he plays, he creates a collision of similitude and difference that results in a species of violent fragility, or fragile violence: an antithesis, a negative identity, that emerges not through or against but as voice: “Like me, / you are unlike me,” Lydon snarls in “Fishing,” recalling Shakespearean manipulations of self-image from Twelfth Night and Othello, in which both Viola and Iago assert that “I am not what I am” – or, perhaps for the latter, “I am what I am not.” Selfhood – as (public) image, as seeming, as performance – consists in its own negation.
And how does that negation sound? (Or maybe better, what does it sound like?) How is it voiced? Lydon may not be much help here, but Davis suggests in his autobiography that he derives his own sense of line, of musical phrase, principally from the human voice:
See, music is about style. Like if I were to play with Frank Sinatra, I would play the way he sings., or do something complementary to the way he sings. But I wouldn’t go and play with Frank Sinatra at breakneck speed. I learned a lot about phrasing back then listening to the way Frank, Nat “King” Cole, and even Orson Welles phrased. I mean all those people are motherfuckers in the way they shape a musical line or sentence or phrase with their voice. (70)
And later on, near his book’s close, comes another version of the same claim:
I had a chance to work with Frank Sinatra a long time ago. [. . .] But I couldn’t make it because I wasn’t into what he was into. Now, it ain’t that I don’t love Frank Sinatra, but I’d rather listen to him than maybe get in his way by playing something that I want to play. I learned how to phrase from listening to Frank, his concept of phrasing, and also to Orson Welles. (395)
There are some structural ironies here as well, given that the text is principally poet Quincy Troupe’s imitation of Davis’s speaking voice, culled from hours of taped conversations: it isn’t really Davis speaking directly here at all, that is. But, more importantly for my purposes here, is the recognition that Davis appears significantly to mishear his own voice. In practice, his fractured, bent phrases – no matter how lyrical they may be – have very little in common with Sinatra’s mellifluous, soporific baritone or Welles’s theatrical declamations. His connection with Lydon comes through, if at all, in the steely and fragile awkwardness of his lines, their bent uncertainty. The Barbadian-Canadian novelist Austin Clarke once told me he heard anger and fierceness in Davis’s Harmon-muted horn; this was no soothing balladry. “Anger,” sneers Lydon, “is an energy.” What’s valuable for me in the early Pil sessions isn’t so much the audible anger as this vicious, cutting lyricism, the probing, needy and breaking articulation that, for me, also makes Miles Davis’s bittersweet electric music of the 1970s so vital.
Davis, Miles, with Quincy Troupe. Miles: The Autobiography.
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.
Lydon, John, with Keith and Kent Zimmerman. Rotten: No
Irish – No Blacks – No Dogs. New York: St. Martin’s P,
Tingen, Paul. Miles Beyond: The Electric Explorations of Miles
Davis, 1967-1991. New York: Billboard Books, 2001.