The folks at Light in the Attic Records were kind enough to send me their nicely packaged recent reissue of PiL’s landmark First Issue album—the record that was thee line of demarcation between punk rock and post punk music—and I’ve been listening it a lot lately. It also caused me to go dig up some PiL stuff I haven’t listened to in a while.
When I was a kid, PiL were probably my main group (tied with Throbbing Gristle) and I even ran away from home, in part, so I could see them play in New York (it’s a long story). Along the way, I have collected a lot of PiL bootlegs and I still have every one of them, despite getting rid of 99% of my vinyl many moons ago. One of my favorite PiL rarities, though, isn’t a bootleg at all, it’s the one-off 12” EP that was released by Virgin in 1978 under the title Steel Leg Vs. The Electric Dread.
The EP was recorded at Gooseberry Sound Studios (the same cheap reggae studio where PiL finished off their debut album after spending all the money) by Jah Wobble, “Stratetime Keith” (Keith Levene), Don Letts and Don’s pal Vince Bracken, called here “Steel Leg.” The hooded figure on the cover was long rumored to be John Lydon but he had no involvement with this record whatsoever according to the PiL fansite Fodderstompf.
Nothing earth-shatteringly brilliant here—it’s damned good, though, I’ll go that far—but Steel Leg vs. The Electric Dread‘s four free-form, anarchic numbers most certainly point the way for what was to come next with the deliriously dumbfounding dub-heavy genius of 1979’s enigmatic Metal Box.
“Haile Unlikely by The Electric Dread”
“Stratetime And The Wide Man”
Here’s what Seth The Man wrote in his inimitable way on Julian Cope’s Head Heritage website. Pure rock snob poetry, I love this guy:
It goes beyond mere punky reggae partying—it’s a PiL t-shirt worn by Syd “Family Man” Barrett with the words “D-U-B” replacing “P-i-L,” as the Finsbury Park crew’s ancestral memories of multiple Hawkwind records works its way through the mix with electronics like Dik Mik meets The Aggrovators.
Although long an impossibly rare item to find, the Steel Leg vs. The Electric Dread EP was released on CD in 2005 along with two PiL-related tracks by Vivien Goldman (see below) and (not PiL-related) tracks by Glaxo Babies, Les Vampyrettes (a Holgar Czukay and Conny Plank team-up) and This Heat’s 15-minite-long epic “Graphic Varispeed” as The Post Punk Singles Volume One.
And speaking of the new Light in the Attic release of First Issue, it is incidentally, the first US release of the album. (First Issue was so heavily imported at the time of its original 1978 release that Warner Bros. Records opted not to even bother releasing it here because they thought the market had already been tapped out for an album deemed far too uncommercial for most Americans). The packaging is quite nice and stays true to the original release. “The Cowboy Song,” the B-side to the “Public Image” single is included on a second CD along with an extended 1978 interview with Lydon conducted by Vivien Goldman that’s quite fascinating [In it, Lydon makes an obviously knowing aside about the horrific BBC sex predator Jimmy Savile.]
I compared the new CD to the older UK Virgin disc that’s been on the market for ages and found that they sound noticeably different, although it would be a matter of taste to say which is better. The older disc has more raw THUMP to it, especially in the drums, and there is slightly more distortion present than on the newly mastered version. The new CD, well, here the drums CRACK across your eardrums more, and the bass is tighter. Usually when I A/B CDs, there’s a clear winner, but I can’t say that in the case of the older 80s CD versus the newly minted First Issue package from Light in the Attic (which comes with PiL decals, too), because I like them both. If I had to pick one, it would be the new one, just for the attention to detail in the packaging and the extras.
“Death Disco” on TOTP, 1980