Last week, televisions were pumping out The Jam and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, as Channel 4 broadcast yet another Tube retrospective. For those who grew up with Youtube and iTunes, The Tube was not a docusoap about the London underground, but a pop programme from another time and planet. It was hosted by a boogie-woogie Blackheather called Jools Holland and a flirty punk fairy called Paula Yates, and it was filmed in Newcastle. You could be forgiven for thinking that Tyneside was a grim place in the 1980s: dole queues and Jimmy Nail in a hard hat. But for three hours every Friday, it turned into a noisy Freshers’ Week disco replete with inappropriate come-ons, exhibitionist dancing and impulse haircuts. The Tube was somewhere to the left of Top of the Pops. The chart acts of the day were well-represented – to think that one of Madonna’s earliest TV appearances was a Tube broadcast from the Hacienda! – but it also offered a chance to perform album tracks and one-offs. Then there were the interviews, sometimes dull, sometimes shambolic, sometimes completely unexpected (for example, a rare sighting of Scott Walker coming out of reclusion to promote Climate of Hunter). And, naturally, there was a hell of a lot of Howard Jones.
From Muriel Gray’s leftie squatter demeanour (she was a graduate of the Glasgow School of Art!) to Michael Hutchence’s Samson barnet, The Tube was the eighties in microcosm, just as the nineties yin-yanged between earnest old Later and the vanity and vomit of The Word. Every pre-internet generation had its spirit-of-the-age, sign-of-the-times music programming (and lo and behold, Later is still with us, a jolly old BBC institution). But for so many, it is still The Old Grey Whistle Test that proves most durable in the memory. The gatefold-sleeved seventies! Beards! Bob Harris proclaiming the greatness of Lynyrd Skynyrd! Not so old or grey, it seems, Whistle Test refuses to die a dignified death. The number of Tube retrospectives pales into insignificance compared to the frequency with which the BBC wheels out its archive of old Boz Scaggs clips. It seems that the phrase ‘music lover’ is a synonym of ‘seventies’ and a near-cognate of ‘hi-fi’. And Whistle Test erected an altar to that holy trinity, with a Strat for a crucifix.
Of course, that’s the rehearsed and rehashed version. Peek beneath the fug of smug and you get clip after clip of groundbreaking noise. The cliché is that Whistle Test didn’t know what to do with punk – Bob Harris’s infamous put-down of the New York Dolls, like a parent weathering an adolescent tantrum – yet here we have Patti Smith at the peak of her genius, and there we have The Damned smashing it up with glee. Harris gave way to Annie Nightingale, who reigned supreme from 1978 to 1981, and suddenly it was as if Peel’s festive fifty had gone visual. Many of the performances from those years, my favourite years in the entire history of pop music, are hair-raisingly brilliant. For all the surface anarchy, The Tube never cajoled truly great performances from its roster (though there are some pearls to be found). But Whistle Test? Just watch Gang of Four shredding their way through ‘To hell with poverty’ in 1981. Andy Gill, inscrutable of face but fleet of funk, gyrating over his guitar. John King, looking for all the world like a young estate agent who’s had his lager spiked with amphetamines, sweating his way through the slogans. I wonder if Norman Tebbitt ever saw it. Or what about Siouxsie Sioux, bathed in chilly blue light as she hiccups her way through ‘Metal Postcard’? On Top of the Pops you’d get the Banshees miming to one of punk’s greatest crossover hits, the irrepressible gongs-and-cymbals artillery of ‘Hong Kong Garden’; and on Whistle Test, despotic death-dirge. Fabulous.
Your legs might have twitched to Gang of Four: definitely danceable. And your head might have nodded to Siouxsie and the Banshees: metronomic, marchable. But what in God’s name would you have done in 1980 when Public Image Ltd performed ‘Careering’ to an unprepared public? Is that…Johnny Rotten there? The old punks were scratching their Mohicans in disbelief. And Sid barely cold in the ground! He’d be turning in his grave, though undoubtedly tangled up in a confusion of offbeats. And what happened to the golden rule of punk – three chords repeated over three minutes? This tune doesn’t even have chords! Not a single bloody one!
I first heard ‘Careering’ on a Rough Trade post-punk compilation in the mid-2000s. We were at the height of a revival of sorts, but while certain bands du jour clearly found inspiration in some of the other bands on the album (XTC, Delta 5), I found nobody attempting to emulate PiL. Nevermind the music itself, there was no-one around even entering into that spirit, that ethos: a vertiginous position balancing on the very cliff-edge of popular music, surveying the great canyon of nothing below. Of course, that frightening freedom no longer exists – PiL’s brave new world is, as they might have put it, a metal box now, contained, catalogued and knowable. Back in 1979, however, it was terra incognita. I’m not sure I would have even opened the box, for fear of what might have lurked inside. At least with Pandora it was butterflies. But with Public Image Ltd it was bacter-iaaaa. You thought it was clichéd to call a song ‘infectious’? Well, think again, friend. This one will have you running to the doctor for a prescription.
The Metal Box album had already been previewed by a hit single in the summer of 1979, ‘Death Disco’. I kid you not; it got to number twenty in the UK chart. Perhaps the public were expecting more bright fodder a la ‘Public Image’ itself (a top ten effort with chiming guitars and self-referential lyrics that now sounds tame compared to what followed it). Perhaps they were so hung up on disco at the time that they conveniently ignored the death. Well, you could sort of dance to it; it even plundered Swan Lake, though it sounds a bit like Tchaikovsky’s being murdered in a souk. It’s actually a song about cancer – surely the only one to have ever made it onto Top of the Pops. To think Mike Read would one day initiate a ban on Frankie Goes to Hollywood. That was in his regal, Saturday Swapshop days. It’s quite something to watch him in 1979, introducing ‘Death Disco’ just as he might have announced The Dooleys or Boney M. The next single, ‘Memories’, also had a crisp disco hi hat, though as in so many of the tracks on Metal Box, it’s processed and phased, and ever so slightly deprived of oxygen. It got to number sixty. There, that’s more like it.
There is a real case to be had that the hour-long (yes, hour-long!) Metal Box is the most far-reaching of all those post-punk albums released in 1979. As distinctive and original in its sound as Unknown Pleasures, it nevertheless takes rock music even further away from its origins in the blues. Only two years earlier – less than the time it takes your average band to write and record one album these days – John Lydon was fronting a group that played standard 1-4-5 progressions and mouthed off about rebellion. However thrilling The Sex Pistols were, they were trying to replant a seed, trying to re-water the roots of rock ‘n’ roll: anarchy and thrash. Metal Box pulls up the roots completely. ‘Poptones’, for example, is hilariously named. Whatever pop might be, it’s certainly not this spiralling, enervated shoulder-shrug. The album even ends with a track called ‘Radio 4’, surely the least rock ‘n’ roll of all stations. A synth instrumental of cool, neoclassical beauty, it’s the final shock of an artwork that defies all assumptions.
These tracks variously coil like snakes, bang off their own walls like spiders trapped in glasses, wind and bend like Borgesian mazes. And in the centre of the labyrinth, a Minotaur. ‘Careering’ is the most radical track of all, a ‘song’ which as its title suggests, constantly ricochets against its own sides. The fade-in beginning sends a ripple of electricity through the room. Detuned synthesizers, an anguished howl, a bang that could be gunfire, a door closing or an industrial machine clanking in an abandoned factory, and then Jah Wobble’s dubby bass right up in the mix. Mist and shadows; almost unbearably high and low frequencies spaced out, stretched, as if all previous pop music had been operating within only one octave. The sole anchor is that bass-line; in fact, it’s the only thing that seems to have anything resembling conventional pitch. Still, it’s slippery and uneasy. You have to work to follow it. And if you don’t follow it, you’re lost in something near to agony. Or ecstasy. I’ve yet to figure out which.
‘Is this living?’ asks John Lydon, which is really a question about dying, of course. We give birth astride of a grave, in the words of Samuel Beckett. Yet perhaps it’s a rhetorical question that actually yields an answer, and a surprising one: a resounding ‘yes’. Rather as I feel with Magazine’s ‘The light pours out of me’ (you can read my thoughts on that here), this is music that sees life and death as the same thing, and thus despair and release are also the same. To many people, ‘Careering’ will sound like torture; a thumbscrew record. But once you readjust your ears and clear your head, it really is the most marvellous noise. Perhaps watching the Whistle Test clip will convince you, as it did the rather shellshocked Annie Nightingale after Lydon’s bathetic ‘that’ll do’, that this is ‘the most powerful performance [you’ve] ever seen’ on a television music programme. Keith Levene doesn’t so much play the Sequential Circuits synth as karate chop it into battered submission; all it can do is spew out whooshes of air and cries of pain; his guitar is no less a percussion instrument here, completely denatured. The visual presence of Lydon is almost a distraction – spirit of ’76 stuff – but then, that’s also the point; this is a familiar figure gone utterly offroad, ironically thinking nothing of his ‘career’ and everything of his ability to create something unspeakably original with what little conventional talent he has. The whole package is almost queasy. It’s borne of that state of mind that usually only belongs to the ill and the fevered, where the body and mind are simultaneously both numbed and hyperaware. You see, it isn’t really a song at all. It’s a quality of air; a change of state; a visit from the afterlife. You also need an aspirin after you’ve listened to it. Or a bit of Haydn. Something clean and symmetrical, something with form and tradition. This thick, sulphurous stew of reggae, Krautrock, Eastern drone and microtone is pretty much British popular music’s Rite of Spring moment.
Three years later, and Public Image Ltd (sans Levene and Wobble) appeared on The Tube. You know what they played? ‘Anarchy in the UK’. Johnny, you can’t half be rotten sometimes! Still, there was a brief time when you were more Radio 4 than Channel 4. And more radical than either of them. And it’s all there in that metal box. Open the padlock, and set those bacteria free.