Artists-On-Albums: AOA#4 (Chris Brokaw on Metal Box/Second Edition)

Chris Brokaw on…

Public Image Ltd.’s Metal Box/Second Edition (Virgin Records/Warner Brothers, 1979)

Public Image Ltd. - Metal Box/Second Edition

In 1977 I went to London with my mother and sister for a holiday. I turned 13 that summer. “Pretty Vacant” by the Sex Pistols had just been released.  I saw the huge posters for it on lorries. I went to the Virgin store and listened to it on headphones and the whole thing scared the hell out of me.

Never Mind The Bollocks came out and I completely fell in love with everything about it.  I listened to it every day, and collected every article and photo I could find about them.  My father had been a jazz drummer, and his drums were in the basement, and I began to teach myself to play drums, modeling my drumming almost exclusively upon Paul Cook’s drumming on Bollocks (my other drumming models at the time were The Buzzcocks, The Damned, and The Dead Boys).

The Sex Pistols came to America, and every night I watched the news to see what they had done the night before in the Deep South.  I tried to convince my parents to let their 13 year old son fly to Texas to see the Sex Pistols, and they weren’t having it.

Like everyone else, I heard the first PIL single “Public Image” everywhere I went, and it was wonderful.  I was reluctant to buy the album, though – the photos were weird and freaked me out, and I’d heard “Fodderstomp” and that freaked me out even more.

Metal Box came out and it was too expensive – $25 or $30 or something.  It was daunting – everything about it seemed daunting.

Eventually it was released in the US as the double album Second Edition and I finally bought it.  At the time I lumped it together with Joy Division’s new album Still – grey double albums of spiny, cold, alien rock music. Heavy, desperate music by British people.   They felt like companion pieces; they felt like a totally new world.

Both albums had an enormous influence on me – how I looked at art and at the world, and I how viewed the playing and the architecture of rock music – but Second Edition is the one that has stuck with me the longest. Year after year I have included it in my ‘desert island disc’ list or ‘top ten albums of all time’ list. Ultimately, I think it’s my favorite album.

I think it creates a world that is very hard to describe.  The best I can do is to recommend listening to it. Alone, with headphones, whatever you need to do to create immersion.  When John Lydon sings “Words cannot express…” over and over at the end of “Swan Lake,” he’s talking about this album.  It’s scary and it’s thrilling, and it’s contemplative. And, bafflingly, it sounds as fresh and mysterious to me now as it did then, except that I’ve been listening to it for almost 30 years, and it feels like home.  And I hear new things all the time. It keeps changing.

It took many years for me to learn a few things about it – that “Poptones” is based largely upon a song by Yes (who Keith Levene had roadied for at the age of 12); that several of the songs on the LP, like the staggering opener “Albatross,” were not only ‘first takes’ but actually the very first time the songs had ever been played.  I’ve been listening to this album for so long that it’s hard for me to reconcile the fact that many of these songs were peeled off in an almost improv manner (and then, apparently, greatly labored over in the mixing process) – I know every note, every beat so well, they feel like novels, or plays, or scrolls, that were mapped out a long time ago.

I regret never seeing them.  I had a chance to see them in New York, in 1980, and missed it.  Several years ago I bought a bootleg of their Atlanta show, from the same tour, and the guy at the store started jumping up and down, screaming “That, that’s, that’s the best show I ever saw, ever!”  I knew he wasn’t kidding.  The CD is pummeling, chaotic, you feel like you’re going to have a heart attack – the rhythm section is absolutely relentless, Levene’s playing is totally out of control, Lydon surfs on top like a bemused psychedelic witch.

In some ways, Second Edition makes Never Mind The Bollocks sound pretty traditional but I still think they’re both thrilling rock and roll albums. Second Edition seemed to suggest that rock and roll could be wide open, could be open to new ways.  So that the ways that guitar, bass and drums – and singing – work together could be elastic and could be pushed forward in innumerable directions.  I think this lesson has been incalculably important to the ways I’ve hoped to approach rock music since then.

Notes On The Artist:

Chris Brokaw

Chris Brokaw’s curriculum vitae is so densely packed and dripping with quality that it must regularly embarrass those with lesser musical work ethics within his peer group.  Since the early-‘90s he has (deep breath) served time in Codeine, Come, Pullman, Consonant, The New Year, Empty House Cooperative and Dirtmusic, as well as guesting on records by Evan Dando, Steve Wynn, Evan Dando, Thalia Zedek and innumerable others.

Besides all that, since the early-noughties, Chris has also found time to work on several film scores, to collaborate with theatre/dance companies and to release seven diverse solo albums across various labels.  His most recent long-player is the inspiring instrumental vinyl/download-only VDSQ – Solo Acoustic Volume Three available on Vin Du Select Qualitite Records

Chris has most recently been working a new vocal/song-based solo album in Texas, due for release later this year all being well.  In the interim, he will be touring the UK in March with ex-Karate man Geoff Farina, in support of their largely-acoustic collection of pre-WWII covers/standards/traditionals, entitled The Angel’s Message To Me, due on Chris’s own Capitan label in the US – and licensed to Damnably for the UK – in the same month.