Interview by Jason Gross: Part 3 of 4
Our story continues once again in an exclusive, extensive interview with Clash and Public Image Limited founder, Keith Levene. This time out, Keith talks about record company battles, Jah Wobble's departure, feuds with Martin Atkins, Flowers of Romance, the Ritz riot and video projects. In case you missed all the previous fun, please see part 1 and part two of the interview.PSF: After Metal Box, there was a lot of interest to have the band play shows, right?
When I worked with Bernard Rhodes in the Clash, we had this thing where if you pick up the papers and looked in it, you could see the same bands every week. You'd think 'Oh bullocks, we can see them any old night.' We also had this thing that the whole fucking thing about being in a band was not punching a time clock. I really hate tours. I don't hate performance or doing gigs. But what I really don't like is absolute, complete duplication reproduction. Hence, a lot of crazy gigs that PiL did.
The other thing was that I thought it was wrong. I understand from an economic point of view why you do tours and why you promote records, but I think it was more fun to be more creative about doing that. It's something I'm gonna maintain now when I start doing Missing Channel. It's the same thing. It's really important to think about the way you do things. PiL was a band that was supposed to be different.
PSF: When you say 'supposed to,' you mean that things were going wrong?
Yeah, that's it. There was some friction going on in the band. This is my linked with my total share.
I can't be bothered to hate the guy but I've got no regard for the guy whatsoever and his name's Martin Atkins, that drummer. I will say this for the guy- he plays drums fucking great. But that's where it begins and ends for me. As far as I'm concerned, he destroyed PiL. The reason that happened was because NEVER, ever have a guy in the band who's a fan of a guy he's in the band with. I didn't know it but he was a real Johnny Rotten fan. I don't care who he likes- he can like who he wants but it was insane. It's like me joining the Beatles because I love John Lennon. That's where it all (was) rooted from.
So what was going on was that John had this dual relationship where Martin would do anything for him. John knew that and anyone would make use of that. How could you not? I just fucking put up with him because he worked. He hated (me) and I didn't have much regard for him. But I accepted the fact that he worked as a member of the band.
So we're doing this tour in New York. I can't put it into words but me and John both knew what was going wrong with the gig and what it was about. It was about... Wobble was already gearing up for his fantastic solo career. He'd had it with PiL. I know this now but I had to work this out at the time. All I knew about was the friction. And Martin's just so ambitious and climbing this ladder, having some agenda. So we're just picking this up on radar.
This particular gig, I was playing great and it was all fine. Something happened and it was like... What happened on stage was we all knew... It's hard to put it in words. In life, people pretend certain things aren't happening. Otherwise, it would be total chaos. So people do jobs they don't like because they have to and make a living. What was happening with us, a band can't be about that. It really helps with bands if you're crazy about the people you're working with. It was just so obvious, between the four of us on stage what the fuck was going on. It was just so OFF that it made me wanna puke. What would normally happen would be to take a step back and get immersed in the sound and make that work. I'd really just set it up to make John look great, and just hope he sung great. I controlled the sound. John would never do a song the same way twice. Because I had the guitar and the synth, I had control of when the music was playing and when the music was just a backing track. I'd often not play so we'd get a sort of live dub-type sort of thing.
What happened was that they figured that was what happened. With me and John, we had this thing if we'd start a number and it just wasn't working, we'd stop. And then he'd do it again or do something else. The audience didn't much care though sometimes we'd (have) really rowdy audiences and we'd just wind them up even more. At this particular gig, they were just watching and taking it all in. It was just very, very flat. I think that's what made what was going on between us come out. That's very unprofessional but that's just what happened.
Somehow me and John at the same time just had it with this fucking gig. So I stopped by hitting my master power switch and turning everything off. I think they (Wobble, Martin) just figured 'here we go.' I think that's what we set them up to do. We just wanted to see how fucking far they were into this. John just gave me a nod and we walked off. Me or John walking off start wasn't unusual- it could happen at a gig. Sometimes John would sing with a cordless mike from the dressing room. We just did stupid things that were funny. I might be in the audience for a number. Nobody would notice I was there playing until I jumped up on the stage.
So we stopped and we're behind the stage and they're playing. I said to John 'I wonder how long Wobble's gonna do this? I bet if we went back to the hotel, he'd still be playing.' So he bet me that. We got back and tuned in on the radio and they were still playing. It was really funny. What wasn't really funny was (that) they didn't have a fucking clue. They obviously eventually stopped this number. (They) didn't know where we were, started another one. They just fronted it out. The next thing for me was I was sitting in a coffee shop in New York. A couple of people I knew who were at the gig said to me 'How could you be here?' I said 'what was the gig like?' They said 'it was kind of weird. What happened at the end?' 'Oh, there was some confusion.' After I saw these guys, I was walking around these dark streets in New York around Chelsea. When I got back to the hotel, I was feeling really confused about this gig and what was going on.
We were going to play somewhere else like Chicago or Boston after that. Somehow we had five days in between so we played Gildersleeves. I told John 'do you want to do another gig?' He went 'not one like the one last night.' I said 'let's do our gig!' 'You mean without them?' 'No, I mean like a place that Warners would think is the wrong fucking place.' I told him about this bikers' bar where they (the bar) wanted us to do a gig. It was just a great gig and we settled up at the end and bagged the money. The tour manager came and asked for the money. I told him it was wrong so I said 'fuck off.' I said that we were just further promoting the product, which is all he wanted us to do. It turns out that him and Martin Atkins became fast friends. This guy ended up being the manager of PiL after I left it.
I think after that, Martin was still playing with John after I left. Was Martin playing on Album?
PSF: No, it was a lot of fusion people that Bill Laswell assembled.
I tried to get Bill Laswell to play with us a few years later. The reason he didn't play with us is that we couldn't afford to pay him what he wanted to get. I said 'It's not like we don't think you're worth it, we just don't have the money.' Virgin had put us in this ridiculous position of not giving us our advance for the American territory and were playing hardball. We had to do gigs to get the money to record the record that we're promoting with the gig. So we were pre-promoting a record that doesn't exist with gigs.
What happened was that we were really getting better as a band but we needed a bass player. If we could have gotten Bill, instead of the guy we had which was Martin Atkins' friend... He was OK. He did this other tour too also while we were based in New York. We didn't have an American label so we were on this other tour where basically, every time we could get a gig worth doing, we'd do it. What came from that was... the music was getting really good. But it would have been so cool to get Bill in the band. But that didn't happen. I was really fucked off that when I left, Bill Laswell was playing with them. And they were doing stuff with Ginger Baker, which was totally not in the Johnny Lydon book of rules. But it was all over by then. I arranged the Japanese tour myself before I left because I was doing everything.
Because of Martin, I left. I left to get a band together to do this tour or to blow the tour off. I think I might have had this idea of them coming to me and saying 'What is it you really want? How do you want it to be?' That was after me REALLY, really trying to fix the situation and just having Martin tear it down within two days. I really meant it when I left. I really didn't wanna be drafted back into the band. That's when they ended up with that awful band from New Jersey (heard on Live in Tokyo). Fuck 'em- that's how I felt. I had put everything into it. I got so much together. All this guy could do is destroy everything. It was just so fucking whacked. Not having Johnny's trust as well... What was the point?
PSF: What kind of light can you shed on the infamous 'riot' show at the Ritz?
I went to New York for a two week holiday. I ran into this guy called Ed Carabello. (Cable show-host) Lisa Yap got me tied up, sitting in a garbage can doing an interview. I was there just to chill out and check it out. It was just so interesting, with the cable TV. Everything was all beginning with that. I ran into Lisa and she said 'I know this really cool guy who's smart and young.' I was really into video so I made fast friends with him. We were knocking about and he's showing me around New York. He was taking to me these places I would have never gone to. We'd always talk about ideas.
Then a few clubs in town got wind that I was around. The interview went out on TV and a few magazines did interviews and the word was out. These guys who were running the Ritz said 'Bow Wow Wow cancelled this gig for us so will PiL play instead?' I said 'Yeah but we're really not here, it's just me.' They said they could get the band here. I told them 'you have a video projector there? We'll do the gig if we can use all the equipment and do a video gig.' They said 'what's a video gig?' I was making this up as I was going along. I said 'You got the band on stage with two cameras live and the screen down. It's as if we're making a video but it's happening in front of the audience. You should advertise it as 'Public Image Limited video appearance live.'' They said it didn't make sense- you can't appear on video live. I told them 'you watch us do it.'
So we did the deal. I got them to give me equipment like synths. I told them I wanted the screen down and Eddie doing technical direction and two guys on cameras, occasionally filming the audience. They said 'that sounds OK.' So that was just me talking out my ass.
I found John and told him about this gig. He said 'do you think we should do it?' I said that we definitely should 'cause I couldn't remember the last time we did a gig. He said 'Keith, have you noticed that we're in England and you're in New York.' I told him that it's cool, that would get him out there and we'd have everything set up. So he says 'But Keith, we don't have a band.' I said 'it's you and me and we'll get a bass player and a drummer. I'll take care of the backing track.' I really didn't know what I was going to do. I was so involved with the pre-production part of the video set-up that I really wasn't thinking about it. I was just thinking that John was gonna show up, be co-operative and we were going to get this on somehow.
I had a basic set-up on stage- a drum kit, bass stand, guitar stand, my synth, a mike for John and the screen down. The idea was for John to come over and do some more pre-production. We didn't know what it was going to be until he got there. Me and Eddie were discussing different ideas and just trying to get this thing on.
The next thing I found out, it was really naive of me, what 'Bridge and Tunnel' crowd meant. It turned out that the Ritz was a Bridge and Tunnel club. I had no idea- I was expecting a New York audience. So I had an audience that had more or less come to see the Sex Pistols. John turned up with Jeanette (Lee).
PSF: What was she doing for PiL?
She was supposed to be in the band as the video person and she hadn't done shit for ages. I got her in the band based on that. I thought it was cool to get band members that didn't play instruments. She was working with Don Letts. I was having this thing with her anyway. She'd been with Don for five years- this is why we hate each other. I got her away from him and I was crazy about her. It was whoring except for one thing- because I was crazy about her, I didn't know that she wasn't doing anything. She knew how to be in the right place at the right time. She was really good for making sure we were in the right place at the right time.
Wobble said (before) 'What's she gonna do- be a secretary?' I said 'No, she's gonna do video.' He hated her. It didn't matter 'cause he was gone by them. By the way, his parting words were 'I thought this was supposed to be an umbrella company with all these things under the PiL banner.' Well it was- he had Betrayal out and that was the problem. He just figured that we weren't letting him do anything. But it wasn't a question of that. He never told us that he wanted to do different things. He said he put out these records and I couldn't see the problem. The problem was between him and John. Again, John decided he didn't want.
Indirectly, that's why we didn't have a band at the time. Atkins wasn't around at this time. That was definitely engineered by me and that backfired that we didn't have a drummer. But we weren't doing gigs anyway. I just figured that this gig was gonna be different and it wouldn't matter what the band was. What mattered was that we were in a live video situation. That's really what I was trying to capture. I knew this intuitively at the time. It was a bit like performance art- we should have done it at the Kitchen or something.
The whole fucking thing went crazy. We had this whole thing where John hated Eddie because he was with me. He didn't like the progress that had been made in PiL territory. I think I already had this understanding with Eddie that I wanted him in the band but John's not going to want it. I told him that he'd have to do it 'cause he wanted to do it with me. As far as credits go, I saw it that he was doing the technical direction on a PiL gig. I was looking forward to a few more of these types of gigs.
It was known as the Ritz riot. Ever since that gig, they had plastic cups in there instead of glass. It was a sea of glass. People throwing bottles at the screen, screaming 'where's the band?' They really didn't think anyone was there.
PSF: What were your impressions of the Riot gig afterwards? Did you see it as a success?
Yeah, I can remember vividly how I felt after the show. A big bouncer waltzed me from the stage and to the spiral staircase where John and whoever else was (backstage). There were already kids in the dressing room with blood running down the side of their faces. Everybody was saying 'Ah man, that was so fucking great.' Somebody turned out and said 'Keith, don't you think it was a bad thing to do?' I said 'No, it was never meant to be violent. I think it's been a really fantastic experience.' There were a lot of misunderstandings and lot of things went wrong from what I had in mind. But overall, it was a really great gig and I'm really glad it happened. I really hoped that nobody got hurt too bad.
At the same time, more people were coming into the dressing room. It was a very chaotic situation 'cause this fucking riot just happened. There just seemed to be a lot of kids around and everyone was going 'WOW!' I think at the same time, we had this sinking feeling that the record company was just going to drop us now, that they'd be so pissed off. I was really worried about the guys that ran the place 'cause they said 'Whatever you do, don't hurt the equipment, don't let anyone touch that screen.' They were throwing bottles and tables at this fucking video screen. You know, it's New York and these guys (Ritz owners) are supposed to be Mafia guys. (laughs) I was about 21 and I was shit-scared about it. They actually believed my story, which was 'I never meant this to happen. Your screen is OK. Most of our equipment got trashed.' We got away with it.
PSF: Did you think the video concept you were trying to use worked there?
Well, I was in New York with Ed Carabello, doing technical direction for us. There was a big buzz about video and I really wanted to incorporate it live. MTV wasn't really around then. I thought it was going to be musical wallpaper but I thought it was going to be successful. I thought it should be more than adverts for your records.
PSF: Do you think John shared your enthusiasm?
What was going on between me and John was a big communication lapse. He was really suspicious of what I was doing in New York. I'd gone there to relax and I liked it there. I got more done in two weeks there than what we'd done in the last two years in England. I wanted to shift Public Image Limited to New York and just work from there. It solved a lot of problems we were having in London at the time. Being as famous and accessible as we were, we'd walk about and a lot of people knew where we lived and we had to run away a lot of times. I'm not saying we were big celebrities but you know what I mean.
By then, we had shed Wobble, which wasn't a conscious shedding on my part and I couldn't really do anything about it. I was just trying to continue with the thing. I wasn't getting any communication or support or back-up from Jeanette Lee. I was communicating with her what I was doing, pre-production for visual stuff, doing cable shows. So I with Eddie and I wanted to get him to be part of the company. I wasn't getting any positive responses whatsoever. There were a lot of people involved but they weren't band people. It was Jeanette, John the CEO, Dave Crowe. They all had input to the situation. But I wasn't getting any response- they were saying 'Keith's in New York being crazy.'
But they didn't know what to do and they didn't particularly want to do anything. They just wanted to sit in London and be famous and expect another album to appear. I really don't know what they were thinking. I didn't even know who was in the band all the time!
I said 'There's a lot going on over here that isn't going to happen for 20 years in England. This whole thing we want to do with video is going to happen here. There's too much of a snot infrastructure there. Here, we can do it 'cause we don't know anyone and because of who we are, we can get into places.'
Then the gig offer came up. I thought it was great- we could focus on what we're doing. I told John that was the reason to come over. He was pretty blase about it and I was pretty excited. They said 'Bollocks! Why should we come over!' I said 'Fuck it. I'll still do it as Public Image Limited. There's no rule that says you have to be there. It's not a band, it's a company so I'll represent the company.' That got him and Jeanette over there in about three days.
So I introduced him to Eddie but John was just being a miserable git. Really difficult to deal with. Anyone that got close to me, John saw as a threat- that's why he didn't like Eddie. Everything Ed did was wrong in John's eyes so we just got on and did the best we could. But we could not get John to co-operate- we couldn't get any film or tape of him, doing anything.
Jeanette wasn't sure who to side with. So she was playing both ends against the middle. I was trying to get Jeanette to pick up on the video concept and get ideas out of her. She was very noncommittal and didn't know what to do. I told her that we had to get stuff on tape really quick 'cause we had a gig in two weeks to incorporate it into the gig, all of which I didn't know what it was going to be- it was supposed to be a spontaneous live situation.
I just set up all the equipment, bought a synthesizer and hired a 62-year-old drummer from Sam Ash (music store), Sam Ulamo. He said he could handle the gig but I mustn't make these rash decisions 'cause that was a mistake. It didn't occur to me that he couldn't rock out.
PSF: Weren't you worried at the show when things got out of hand?
Yeah. I was annoyed more than worried. Things were going wrong because John didn't know what he was doing. Therefore, he did what he always does, which in a way, was cannily quite clever of him. He picks up on things that I don't even think about. He just picked up on the straightforward thing that he didn't exactly have an art crowd there, it was the bridge-and-tunnel crowd. He sussed out the demographic of the audience. So he started playing whatever would piss them off, just to get a response.
What was annoying me was the same old things. 'Oh, we came to see the Sex Pistols.' The usual kind of stuff. But more to the point, and this was good, 'where's the band?' We were behind the screen and they didn't understand that what they were seeing on the screen was behind it. Which I wanted. I wanted it to be that we could switch to other stuff that wasn't behind the screen. It never got that far though.
PSF: Was there fall-out from the gig though?
It did a lot for the band. It saved us from doing about fifty gigs in the future that we might have to have done. It really boosted the band's interest and popularity in America. We were going around videoing everything we did. There was a press conference the next day at Warner Brothers. I walked in with Eddie with a camera. We were videoing that- we just wanted to video everything. We're both wanna-be film directors anyway.
John realized that even though the gig was a riot and it didn't get across artistically, we scored a success. I don't think he realized what it really meant or what we could do with it. All the record company was thinking 'Great- we can make these guys bigger stars.'
PSF: To backtrack for a minute, since we fully didn't discuss it, could you talk about how Wobble left the band?
Wobble had put out an album called Betrayal. It was apparent to me eventually but I was a bit slow at first about what was going on. I don't pick up on the soap opera aspects of life- I'm too busy doing what I'm doing.
So it took me some months to suss out. 'Oh, he used the backing tracks from Metal Box.' That what the argument probably was with John. The bottom line was that Wobble felt that I got much too much access to the studio and that I used John to get that access. John would stop Wobble from doing things he wanted to in the studio with PIL. Wobble was saying 'This was supposed to be an umbrella company. We were supposed to be doing other records.' But on my side, we did do that. Me and Wobble put out that EP with Steel Leg. It was John that wasn't co-operating in the multi-faceted possibilities of Public Image Limited. If was look at the track record, there really weren't any problems between me and Wobble. We were doing it the way we laid it out, PIL-style in our little manifesto: 'we're not a band, we're a company. Yes, music is our primary focus but we are going to do other things.'
I think Wobble wanted more hands-on access to the controls, which he got a lot of. Everyone had a good play around with the knobs in the studio. It was expensive time. I didn't there was this whole drama going on behind the scenes, during the whole Metal Box period. When it went into production, it happened in two phases: we made up a lot of the tracks in the studio and then we went through it again and refined it and made up other tracks at the same time. On this second phase of whatever the fuck we were doing, that's when this tension... I knew there was this really big tension between Wobble and John (Lydon). John was really gunning to get Wobble, he had him in his cross-hairs. I was just ignoring it, hoping it would go away. I knew John was looking for a way to kick Wobble out but I never thought it would happen. All I wanted to do really was subtly refine Wobble. (laughs) The only interference I played with Wobble was I said 'Look, I'm going to teach you how to tune the bass but I'm not going to show you what notes to play.' And that was it. I left the rest up to him and he pursued his own interests and that was it.
Overall, we liked each other. We had our pet dislikes, which were very personal. But they didn't really foul up the works. So whatever this thing was about, it was more about John and Dave Crowe's previous friendship with Wobble than it had anything to do with me. So really, John drummed up extra power from Dave Crowe, who was one of the six members of Public Image Limited. Wobble hated the fact that Jeanette was in the band- he really didn't like that. Of course, John got Jeanette's vote so that they didn't even really have to ask me. They just figured 'We just want Keith in so as long as he's not out, that's cool.'
You have to realize that we had already lost Jim Walker and he was an incredible fucking asset to Public Image Limited. He was the most incredible fucking drummer in the world. Therefore, he transcended being a drummer, he was more than that. He's a film-maker now.
So we already lost one really crucial member to an otherwise fairytale-perfect band. Wobble was responsible for that. He fucking bullied this guy and turned him into a basket case, that he would be so fucked off that he would leave PiL when it was like akin to being in the Beatles after Revolver had come out. Maybe that's a bad analogy to draw! (laugh) But it felt that exciting to me at the time. So I was shocked when Jim left the band. And they were also using that: 'it was Wobble that made that happen.'
PSF: Flowers of Romance had quite a different sound from the previous two records. How did that come about?
We had to make another record. We hadn't replaced Wobble. I was the only one left in the band that could really play anything. But that I did have this habit of going around and finding these weird instruments, like these acoustic violins that have got these big horns as amplifiers and soprano saxophones. And there was this weird bamboo instrument that I used on "Hymie's Hymn"- Richard Branson had gotten some in Bali and gave me one of these things. We went to the Manor Studio and we had three weeks of blocked out studio time, which was a fucking fortune. We're signed to Virgin Records and we're using a Virgin studio and we're using a Virgin advance.
We'd turn up there and go through the process of setting up the instruments. And nothing was happening. Nobody was doing anything. It was the third day we were there and still, nobody was doing anything. I hadn't talked about this with anyone and there were people around... (laughs) Fuck, this is so long ago!
Because nothing was happening, I started getting really indulgent about... I started really over-focusing on the drum sound. I started thinking 'Wobble's not here and John's expecting me to do this.' I could do it 'cause I could play bass. I was prepared for that. Then I thought 'This is interesting- maybe I'll do everything but play guitar. Maybe I shouldn't think about this and just get on with it.' By the fourth day, I set up this really fucking weird situation in the studio where we got these 36-channels in and I'm using eighteen of them for the drums and this weird bamboo instrument that I had set up in the drum booth. I was just on a high-energy pitch and said 'We got to record something! I'm going into the fucking drum room, we'll do a quick mike check, then I want you to just put me into record.' And the engineer was ready because everyone else was just standing around, playing Space Invaders and snooker. Meanwhile, I'm freaking out, wondering what the fuck was going on. So I did the check and told him to hit record and bang! I just did "Hymie's Hymn." I listened back to the take and said 'that's great. Go back to the top and record me again, turn the snare mike off.' Then I did another take. Then I knew exactly what I wanted to do so I told him to turn the bamboo mikes on and told him to just record it. So I made that tune "Hymie's Hymn."
What this ties into is that I had been offered to make this film soundtrack for Wolfen. Michael Wadleigh (who directed Woodstock) took me out on the Warner Brothers lot when I was in L.A. and took me to this 17mm movieola and said 'This is how wolves feed in the dark. This is the plot of the movie. What I need is an urban jungle sound.' So I came up with "Hymie's Hymn" as my pilot for the score for the movie. He fucking loved it but... (laughs)
John and I ended up in New York to do the Tom Synder show (NBC-TV). He really bollocks'ed us out during a commercial and said 'Stop behaving like this!' When we came back on, John said 'I believe you were just throwing a tantrum.' It was just so funny! Synder was saying like 'Just me one example what you mean when you saying you're not a band.' John said 'Like movie soundtracks... We're going to be doing this fucking movie, Wolfen.' Right then, I got a sinking feeling in my stomach, that we weren't even going to be getting a lift back to the hotel. I already knew during the show that the record company was ready to drop us again. (laughs)
After this, people were walking up to us saying, 'Oh, that was great!' It didn't take the record company long to pick up on that so they loved us again. But I lost the soundtrack because of that, what John said on the air. I had it in the bag and Wadleigh loved it. I really wish I'd done the movie (soundtrack). That was some of the stuff I was thinking about while I was doing Flowers of Romance.
PSF: So you see that as the genesis of the album?
Well, it is to the point that I focused in on all this percussion and I was pretty much... I felt like I was fucked. We didn't get guys in to play with PiL. What I realize now is that anyone you got in, John just vibed out so badly, they didn't want to do it or it was such a drag that it wasn't worth getting them in. So if we had someone that had some weight, they'd just didn't want to do it or they'd charge us so much that we couldn't use them. Or we'd have a wanker who'd freak out and just couldn't stay. A lot of people got on with me with no problem but they just got completely vibed out by John. John just didn't like ANYONE. In retrospect, this fucker just did not work with anyone.
I knew that by Flowers of Romance. It wasn't a question of me making a phone call to London and getting a few keyboard and brass guys down and put something interesting together. I had to come up with a PiL record all on my own. But I hadn't realized it at the time.
PSF: So was the recording of the rest of the record similar to what you were describing before?
Yeah, in a way it was. If you notice, the record is very, very sparse. The single "Flowers of Romance" has no guitar on it- it's just a cello'd bass, all drums. One track I played guitar on is "Go Back," which I played drums also. So I made the backing track and I'd go in and play guitar and John would sing. He'd hear the backing track on the headphones and he's got me there and he's singing. So he's just pretending (that) everything's normal. With our stuff, like "Flowers of Romances," we'd put the backing track together and we were getting into computer mixes, which was keeping John interested. He did a sax solo on it- he didn't know how to play but that's what came out. I said 'it's OK, we can use it.' It was very experimental like that. It's almost like a documentation of me finding out about other instruments and having someone (John) who can't play any instruments being recorded in a state-of-the-art situation. My outlook was that a child's painting can be as far-out as a Van Gogh. That was where I was coming from, that I could use John's total ineptitude to an artistic advantage. At the same time, I realized that I was really branching out.
I did the best I could. I always felt the album was not quite enough but I think it really stands the test of time. I always felt that I should have played more guitar on it. There was stuff on it that I could have done but I didn't do. One thing that did happen was that Martin Atkins got re-recruited. I had to get someone in who could really play drums. Sequencers weren't really around then. As much as I can't bear Martin, he is a great drummer. I think we worked with him already on Metal Box, so that was the connection. He plays on "Banging the Door," "Under the House" and "Four Enclosed Walls."
PSF: Did having Martin there change the way you were working?
No, we made the songs from the ground up. "Four Enclosed Walls" was made around Martin's watch and its ticking. I could hear it through the mike so we recorded it. That's what the basic metronome is. So then he comes up with this dun-da-dun-dun dun-dun-ba! which was a ridiculous beat but I recorded it. I made that backing track and with a fantastic drum sound. We definitely accomplished something there- it was a real production experience. John comes up with this vocal and I told him to go ahead. He used this saxophone thing for this neeeee-eeeeeewwwww thing. So I reversed it and did all this weird shit to it. I thought it was really cool- drums, a watch and John and the backwards sax that sounds like a cat being stretched. That set the tone to the simplicity of a lot of the tracks.
With "Under the House," I had the TV hooked up to the console. It was really hard for me to get the engineer to take me seriously, that I wanted the TV online and I wanted it assigned to a track so we could put it into record any particular time I pressed the button on that particular track. At the end, where it sounds like a big choir, I happened to put the TV track into record and it did that. It was kind of spooky but cool.
We worked with a guy called Nick Larney, who was the tape-op when we started. I told him that I wanted him to co-produce it with us because he was really cool and I liked him. Also, he was amazing with John and he made it a lot easier for me. I was really into helping people that were good if I could. I probably saved him five years of political game-playing. He came out of that project a done-and-dusted producer and then he got production gigs immediately. I, or PiL, produced it as much as he did- he was invaluable for a number of things. So he became another member of PiL for the record.
PSF: How did "Banging the Door" come about?
The words were exactly what John felt about all these people that were coming around the house when we lived in Chelsea. That was his attitude toward ANYONE and everyone anyway. 'Keep banging the door, I won't answer the door.' When it comes to the backing tracks, again it's a very strong drum track because of the way we were recording the drums. I did the synth with Martin- that was one we laid down together. I'm pumping out this low-end synth stuff while he's going dun-dun-dun-chhhhh. We sort of built the tune up, track by track, with overdubs. At some point, John put the vocals on and I always like to have two or three vocals of John so I put that on as well so I could do things with it. John wasn't much for doing harmonies and stuff like that. I don't think he was really experienced enough and it never occurred to me to ask him to do that. It was too musical for PiL at the time to say 'Could we do this in three-part harmony?' We just used John as this singular instrument.
Basically I did fall into the role of producer of the band but we said that PiL produced it. I'd always like to get two or three takes of John. I'd often put him on a two-track and fly lyrics in another place- it's like an analog way of using a sampler. He wasn't there when I was mixing it and I couldn't get him to sing where I wanted all the time. Sometimes he didn't know I changed it but he just knew that he liked it.
PSF: What was happening between that record and the next one?
There weren't many shows. We did the Ritz riot after Flowers. We recorded Flowers and we honestly thought it was our first commercial record. I know it's not now. But we did get on Top of the Pops and get in the top 20 (UK) with "Flowers of Romance" as a single. I felt the album had an overall consistency of production. We were getting a lot of flack from the record company that we were too different all the time, there was nothing for anyone to latch on to. I said 'that's the whole point, that's what PiL is about. It's about scope, variety.' I felt that when we delivered Flowers to them, we were delivering a truly commercial album that had a string of production values all the way through the album that was consistent, because of the drum sound we had.
PSF: That's interesting because many people thought it was actually an extremely un-commercial album.
That's absolutely true. (laughs) It is one of the least commercial things. That's why I'm laughing at that. I think it's so funny that I thought it was commercial. But when I think about it... There's a tune on there called "Track 8." That came together because there was tape on the cutting room floor. I said 'Let's pick that up, loop it and see what's on there.' It made that backing track. John liked it and said he had some words for it. I knew who he singing about. 'Stand-ing in the cor-ner/suffering suffragette.' He's actually referring to a certain journalist and he certainly had a way with words when he was on form.
It probably was the least commercial record delivered (to a company). But at the same time, in a way, it was... I hate to say things like this 'cause they sound so trite but it was like our Sgt. Pepper. It was us reaping what we sowed. We were making this record and who were we? It was me and it was John. When I think of it as 'we,' I think of PiL and this entity. I always think of PiL in the plural as this 'we' situation.
NEXT TIME: the final split, Keith’s work in the late ‘80’s and ‘90’s and the Missing Channel project.
See Part 4 of this interview
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