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The packaging of PiL's sophomore release became as famous (if not more) than its little-heard music. The original idea was to release three 12-inch records in a metal canister, but as that proved a mite too expensive for the average record buyer, the concept didn't fly, so it was re-released as this normal double-LP with standard packaging.

All of that is moot to today's record buyers of course, who would presumably now purchase the album as a single-CD. Or download it, but I wouldn't recommend that, as unless your computer speakers have a great soundsystem, the tinny screech of MP3s doesn't do the album justice. For this is not a song album, but a groove album, and it has to be 'felt'.

PiL achieve a mutant, Europeanized art/funk groove here, that utilizes effectively the spaces between sounds as much as the instrumental work, a lesson they learned from dub reggae. The spacey, expansive songs center around Wobble's melodically throbbing basslines, as shards of Levene's guitar coat the surface, synth lines moodily fade in and out, the various drummers from track to track lightly brush the beat, and Lydon's caterwauling vocals howl from a disconcertingly distant void deep behind the mix.

It's a brilliant, dazzlingly innovative sound, owing equal parts to the kraut/rock motorik rhythms of Can, disco, dub reggae, and punk, so much so that the band seem to lazily coast on that sound a bit too much, as several of these dozen songs seem underwritten, merely grooves, or even groove ideas as opposed to fully fleshed-out songs, as is the case with "Pop Tones" and "Bad Baby".

Though Wobble is clearly the star here, Levene's guitar sound was even more influential. Playing the rare Veleno guitar, which is all-aluminum and rarely used by guitarists, Levene coaxed out of it a thin, metallic, sharply screeching sound that was later widely imitated but ultimately unique to his tenure in PiL - nobody before or since quite sounds like Levene does on this album.

The tribalistic "Chant" is perhaps the best track to sample Levene's scratchy, choppy riffing, as is the opener "Albatross", which at over 10 minutes allows him plenty of room to improvise, with his seagull-honking tinny cleek-cleek-cleek anchoring as the song's abrasive hook. Perversely, "Albatross" - the longest and most plodding track - opens the album (or perhaps not so perversely, given PiL's mission to weed out casual listeners not ready to commit to their sonic vision).

The twelve tracks all stick roughly to the same style as I've already described, with individual tracks less important than the overall gestalt. Lydon was dealing with his mother's dying at the time, so the prevailing mood is dark, brooding, and ultimately pessimistically resigned. Lydon's howls sound more anguished than angered on most of the songs: the title of the pre-album single, "Death Disco" puts his lyrically preoccupations nice and bluntly (retitled "Swan Lake" on the album in deference to Levene's accidental plagiarism of that tune).

That doesn't preclude the band from delivering the peppy bleep'n'bloop instrumental "Socialist", or Lydon engaging in some customary sneering finger-pointing in "The Suit".

For such a highly influential dance album, the downbeat mood and cerebral devotion to sonic textures make it unsuitable for the dancefloors. The dub spaciness and psychedelic devotion to sonic textures suggest the album is better suited for smoking a joint in the bedroom and zoning out to (unsurprising, given it was recorded by a group of reggae-obsessed potheads). Not very punk then, but much more interesting than complaints about the British economy over yob-metal guitars.

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Posted: Wednesday 13th Feb 2019 9:47 AM

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album review
Who's Next is the closest the band ever came to making a great album, and it is a great album in some ways, albeit not a flawless one.

"Getting in Tune" and "Song Is Over" are bloated beyond listenability, and just what is generic crap like "Love Ain't for Keeping" doing here? ... about a third of these songs I could comfortably live without, so it might reasonably be asked why I'm rating the album just short of perfection? Well, the reason is the good third, and even more the great third.

The teenage-wasteland of "Baba O'Riley" stands as the greatest of all Who performances; the '60's-are-over' realpolitik of "Won't Get Fooled Again" is the second greatest; and the peering into the cold-hearted abyss of "Behind Blue Eyes" takes its place as the greatest Who ballad.

"Going Mobile" is snappy ecology-rock, and "Bargain" rousing lust-rock, though my fave part has always been the tender Townshend vocal in the middle. And I'd always overlooked Entwistle's "My Wife", but for some reason when I picked up the reissue it leapt out as the great song it was, a comic Andy Capp tale about running from the old lady 'cause he spends too much time boozing in the pub.

The bonus tracks on the reissue aren't that great, abandoned Lifehouse tunes presented in inferior live versions for the most part, and the best of the lot, "Pure and Easy", was done better on Townshend's first solo album. The liner notes are extremely extensive though - it takes longer to read them than to listen to the album!

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Posted: Thursday 14th Feb 2019 9:14 AM

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