Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Public Image Ltd.

  • Second Edition [Island, 1980] A-
  • Flowers of Romance [Warner Bros., 1981] C+
  • PiL [Virgin EP, 1983] A-
  • This Is What You Want . . . This Is What You Get [Elektra, 1984] C+
  • Album [Elektra, 1986] B+
  • Live in Tokyo [Elektra, 1986] C
  • Happy? [Virgin, 1987] B
  • 9 [Virgin, 1989] C+
  • What the World Needs Now [PiL Official, 2015] *

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Consumer Guide Reviews:

Second Edition [Island, 1980]
In which former three-chord savage J. Lydon turns self-conscious primitivist, quite sophisticated in his rotten way. PIL complements Lydon's civilized bestiality by reorganizing the punk basics--ineluctable pulse, impermeable bass, attack guitar--into a full-bodied superaware white dub with disorienting European echoes. Much of the music on this double-LP version of the exorbitant three-disc, forty-five r.p.m. Metal Box is difficult; some of it fails. But the lyrics are both listenable and readable, and thanks to the bass parts even the artiest instrumentals have a leg up on, to choose a telling comparison, Brian Eno's. Don't say I didn't warn you, though--it may portend some really appalling bullshit. No matter what J. Lydon says, rock and roll doesn't deserve to die just because it's twenty-five years old. J. Lydon will be twenty-five years old himself before he knows it. A-

Flowers of Romance [Warner Bros., 1981]
J. Lydon's right--rock and roll is boring. And needless to say, so's rock criticism--in a multimedia age I should be able to write my reviews in scratch-'n-sniff. If I could, this one would smell like an old fart. I mean, rock and roll may be boring, but at least it's boring in an engaging way. Bassless Araboiserie is interesting in a boring way. C+

PiL [Virgin EP, 1983]
Comprising the "Public Image" theme song that made us believe Johnny was forever back in innocent 1978, the magnificent recent A side "This Is Not a Love Song" in two versions, and the self-indulgent recent B side "Blue Water" in one, this is obviously some kind of rip-off. But since it's possible that he'll never record anything else you want to own, you might rip him off back by scarfing it up while you've got the chance, thus avoiding messy compilations later. A-

This Is What You Want . . . This Is What You Get [Elektra, 1984]
The howls of outrage greeting this album come from smart optimists who just realized they'd been had. In fact it's no more cynical than The Flowers of Romance, and since it does maintain a groove as well as glinting sardonically on occasion, it's also more fun to listen to. But that's not to say it's fun to listen to. Where Second Edition throbs and The Flowers of Romance thuds, this shrieks, with some of history's ugliest and most useless horn parts--including the one that ruins "This Is Not a Love Song"--leading the way. C+

Album [Elektra, 1986]
John Lydon's name on the sticker, combined with his sudden eagerness to shoot the shit with representatives of the press, has everybody confused. This isn't a Lydon record that (the conveniently uncredited) Bill Laswell happened to produce, it's a Laswell record custom-designed for Lydon, with whom the auteur shares a disappointed revolutionary's professional interest in power. Just abstract the production style Laswell's adapted to artists as diverse as Mick Jagger and Herbie Hancock, think Sex Pistols, and you'll get something like this, as clinical as brain surgery and as impersonal as a battering ram, with unlikely virtuosos playing the Cook and Jones parts. It kicks in because they're both cold bastards; it feels out of whack anyway because Lydon can't match Laswell's commitment and still has too much integrity to fake it (and maybe also because he has never been in the same room with most of the musicians in this "band"). B+

Live in Tokyo [Elektra, 1986]
This 1983 U.K. release was PIL's second live album in three years. It documents the lost work of a pickup band that toured for money. It was brokered in the U.S. as part of the price of their commercial album ha-ha. For a new label ho-ho. Bizzers--they never learn. C

Happy? [Virgin, 1987]
As sheer aural sensation, this may be PIL's best, synthesizing the deep dubwise pessimism of The Metal Box with the sharp studiowise pessimism of Album. But as total experience, it's product. My favorite line was "We want your money" until I realized it really went "We want your body"--another antisex rant, jeeze. Transcending John's unwavering self-regard is "Fat Chance Motel," a definitive piece of aural sensation apparently conceived during a desert vacation he apparently didn't enjoy. B

9 [Virgin, 1989]
Johnny's gotten so tired and cynical he can't cut to anywhere new: no matter how hard he tries (and as a working professional he does try), he's stuck with his own ideas. Stephen Hague is a tabula rasa--when he does the Pet Shop Boys he seems smart, when he does Spigue Spigue Sputnik he seems false, when he does Erasure he seems blank. So when he does PIL he seems blank with a few harsh cross-rhythms. And if you consider it corny of me to pick on Johnny's electrodance record, let me observe that if he'd gone to Iggy Pop or George Clinton things would be just as bad. Maybe worse. C+

What the World Needs Now [PiL Official, 2015]
There was always Peter Hammill guff behind the punk guff, and as long as Rotten-Lydon is excoriating busted toilets or corporate capital it's amusing enough--but not, please Jesus, when he's roaming the "Big Blue Sky" for eight minutes ("Corporate," "Double Trouble") *

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