Like it or not, Public Image Limited's First Issue (aka Public Image) was an album that helped set the pace for what eventually became known as post-punk. In England a vacuum had opened up in the wake of the breakup of the Sex Pistols in January 1978, and many punk fans and rival groups were impatient to see what ex-Sex Pistols frontman John Lydon aka "Johnny Rotten" was going to roll out next. Disheartened owing to events in his legal proceedings against the Sex Pistols management company Glitterbest, and disgusted by the punk scene in general, Lydon was determined to create something that was neither punk nor even really rock as it was known in 1978. Working with ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene, first-time bassist Jah Wobble, and Canadian drummer Jim Walker, Public Image Limited produced an album that represented the punk sound after it had shot itself in the head and became another entity entirely. Embracing elements of dub, progressive rock, noise, and atonality and driven by Lydon's lyrical egoism and predilection towards doom, death, and horror, First Issue was among a select few 1978 albums that had something lasting to say about the future of rock music. And not everyone in 1978 wanted to hear it; contemporary critical notices for First Issue were almost uniformly negative in the extreme.
Not all of the material on First Issue was necessarily forward-looking: "Attack" and "Low Life" could almost pass muster as latter-day Sex Pistols songs if it weren't for their substandard production values. These two numbers were recorded late in the project, and on the cheap, as the fledgling Public Image Limited had already been kicked out of practically every reputable studio in London. And there was a bracing song about Lydon's pet peeve, "Religion," presented in both spoken and sung incarnations. It is about as vicious and personal an anti-Catholic diatribe as exists on record, and in its day was considered a high holy turnoff by many listeners. But from there it gets better -- Public Image Limited's debut single, "Public Image," was also included on First Issue, and Keith Levene's guitar part, with its tasty suspensions and held-over-the-bar syncopation, was an important departure from standard punk guitar language absorbed so quickly by others (the Pretenders, U2, the Smiths) that listeners and musicians alike forgot the source of the sound. First Issue's opener, "Theme," was a force to be reckoned with, a grindingly slow dirge with wild, almost Hendrix-like figurations on the guitar and Wobble's floor-splitting foundation. This was punk with the power of Led Zeppelin, but none of the pretension. Lydon's anguished mantra in "Theme," "...and I just wanna die," was the exact reflection of what his generation was thinking about in the wake of the collapse of classic punk. "Annalisa" is the hardest-kicking rocker on the album, with nosebleed-strength guitar from Levene; it is so good that Nirvana in all practical purposes purloined the whole number, with minor alterations, as "Radio Friendly Unit Shifter" on In Utero.
But even with all of the calculated controversy seemingly built into the various cuts on First Issue, none attracted quite so much attention as "Fodderstompf." Faced with a serious shortage of material to fill out the album and with its release date looming, Public Image Limited decided to conclude the project with a track 12:55 in length, consisting of no more than a disco beat, chattering synthesizers, a bassline, and Jah Wobble singing, shouting, and screaming the phrase "we only wanted to be loved" in a joke voice. Rock critics savaged the song as a deliberate attempt to rip off the public, but it became hugely popular at the Studio 54 disco in New York; the drag queens and hipsters sang and screamed right along with Wobble out loud on the dancefloor -- nothing like that had ever happened at Studio 54. As it is perhaps the earliest extended dance mix that has little to do with disco or dub, it is apparent that "Fodderstompf" is an obvious precursor to the acid house and techno that began to evolve in the mid-'80s, although it is seldom accredited that distinction.
After it was released in December 8, 1978, First Issue peaked at number 22 on the British album charts, and import copies were snapped up in America practically as soon as they were loaded off the boat. But Warner Bros., the American label to which Public Image Limited were signed, was unhappy with the album, particularly in that the label felt the bass was mixed too loudly -- no one had ever recorded the bass so hot on a regular LP before. Public Image Limited protested, but Warner Bros. stood fast and the band ultimately relented; in the early weeks of January 1979 the whole of First Issue was re-recorded for the American market. But the only portion of this project ever to surface appeared on the backside of the U.K. 12" single of "Death Disco" in July 1979, a mix of "Fodderstompf" minus the vocals, retitled "Megga Mix." Warner Bros. never released the remade album, and the remainder of it has since disappeared. By early 1980 Trouser Press was joking that the American issue of First Issue was the "longest rush release in recorded music history," but clearly long before First Issue was a "dead" issue with Warner Bros. Right after the remake session concluded, drummer Jim Walker surprised Public Image Limited by departing with no notice to join the interesting but now forgotten English group the Pack. In came ex-101'ers drummer Richard Dudanski, and by their next album, Metal Box, Public Image Limited had already worked out an entirely different sound and approach.
© Uncle Dave Lewis /TiVo