"I don't want to live in history books," John Lydon told Rolling Stone in 1979 by way of burying his old band, the Sex Pistols, and praising his new one, Public Image Ltd. "We're trying to write the next chapter." However iconoclastic they had been, the Pistols were "just" a rock & roll band; PiL was an anti-Rock & Roll band, and if the members of the group were on a search-and-destroy mission, they found their target on Second Edition.
Guitarist Keith Levene says the album — which was also known as Metal Box because its original U.K. packaging looked like a small film can — represents the peak of early PiL and dismisses the idea that the anarchistic band was all a joke. "It fucking wasn't like that, okay?" Levene says. "We were trying to do something serious."
The band wanted a unique album cover and toyed with ideas such as a sardine can that would require a key (not supplied) and even what Levene describes as a "sandpaper-type record, which would fuck up all your other records when you put it in your collection." Eventually, the album was released in the U.K. in a limited edition of 50,000 as three twelve-inch records (recorded at 45 rpm for maximum sonic impact) crammed into an embossed tin can and titled Metal Box. The tracks weren't listed on the album or the labels, which were at least color coded. Much to the band's displeasure, the album was released in the United States with a cardboard jacket, a different title (Second Edition) and relatively inferior sound.
With Jah Wobble's reggae-drenched bass way up front and Levene's dissonant guitar forays, the band pumps out droning, fragmented dance music — disco, Samuel Beckett style. Lydon's disembodied monotone vocals sound like they were phoned in long-distance.
Virtually all the songs on the album were improvised in the studio. Bassist Wobble would play until the other two heard something they liked, then structure a track around it, using a clutch of session drummers; Levene says the best work on the record began as mistakes that were then refined and repeated. "There was a great lack of fear, a childlike innocence in the way it was approached," says Wobble.
Many saw in Lydon's lyrics an attempt to bury the Sex Pistols myth (significantly, he had changed his name back from Johnny Rotten). On the opening track, "Albatross," he sings about "getting rid of the albatross," perhaps a reference to former Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren. On "Memories," he wails, "This person's had enough of useless memories," and "Whatever's past/Could never last."
Second Edition also features three instrumentals, including the beautiful "Radio 4." But according to Levene, dropping vocals wasn't a conceptual statement. "Nobody was around," he says, "and I had to do something with the bloody studio time."