Public Image Limited: Fodderstompf
tylus Magazine’s Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you’ve never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
The last most artistic waste of time I have heard on a record was DJs On Strike!’s I’m So Happy!, their 10th anniversary celebration of Kurt Cobain’s death. Besides the generic pep rally beats they slapped on Nirvana’s “Lithium” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” I fell for their grand prank. The CD closes with a 30-minute track, and as memory best serves me, there is a 25-minute gap of silence that forced me to fast-forward through. My carrot: a bell’s “bing!” The CD then finished. DJs On Strike!’s stint was good for one listen and a mumbled chuckle, but Public Image Limited’s time-waster “Fodderstompf” fell through several stories of crackled floorboards and landed on treasure.
The fable of PiL and its moral about becoming what you originally claimed to loathe and resist has been retold enough, so I won’t say much about it here. In 1978, the band arose from the fresh carrion pit where the Sex Pistols—the band, but not the brand—laid. John Lydon’s project was ultimately a disclaimer of everything he did in the Pistols and what Punk, if not rock ‘n’ roll stood for. They were to operate like a corporation or a “communication company” with Virgin CEO Richard Branson’s capital investment, never performing concerts, doing whatever Lydon damn well wanted, musically. With bassist Jah Wobble, ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene, and a session drummer in tow, Lydon supposedly deconstructed punk rock from the top down on their eponymous debut album, but actually wound up creating a more abrasive and powerful punk sound. Our man’s poetry was seemingly written during bouts of ulcer pain from memories of public opinion literally beating him on the street, his squabbles with Pistols string-puller Malcolm McLaren, and his church mouse upbringing. All of that post-punk music and image control is pornography for critics like me. But “Fodderstompf” is what ultimately sealed Public Image Limited’s best quality.
Despite their professed iconoclasm, PiL still followed its contractual obligations with Virgin. “Fodderstompf” came to be when they still had eight minutes left on their vinyl album to fill up. Hence, they took a piss. As a giddy Wobble put it in the song: “We only wanted to finish the album with the minimum amount of effort, which we are now doing very suc-cess-fully.” The track is little more than Lydon and Wobble squealing for the world to love them; egomaniacs roaming the streets and tubeways for another fix. “WE ONLY WANTED TO BE LOVED!” they yowl in a nose-plugged whine akin to Terry Jones as the Spam Café waitress in Monty Python. Lydon even tosses in his stuttering Elvis impression, quite tasteful as the King had passed a little over a year earlier. “Be bland / Be dull / Be boring / Be really, really, ‘ya know nothing a void…nothing, vacuum,” Lydon carps in the beginning. Elsewhere, another uneventful moment—one announces, “I’m just gonna go and get a cigarette, do you want one?” “Yes, please,” his mate replies.
But amidst all of the self-indulgence is arguably one of the finest basslines heard in rock. Wobble plays a locked, two-chord dub groove, equal parts Bootsy Collins and Robbie Shakespeare at a speaker-rattling volume. The tone is brooding and low enough to hypnotize with its swing, a sound I’ve heard in so many gangsta rap CDs blaring out of so many adolescent boys’ Tonka SUVs. In short, the music was damn well ahead of its time. Strengthening the sound’s urgency is Levene’s ringing synth and a mechanical rhythm smacked on a clackity snare, two elements well mastered two decades later by many artists on the “Crooklyn dub” label WordSound. “Fodderstompf” is all the more fascinating for how it equally attracts and repels. The rhythm section never grows exhausted and could still sound alive by going on for 10 hours, and yet, I just want to smack Lydon and Wobble quiet after hearing a minute of them blowing their noses with Branson’s money.
However, the vaudeville became a cult hit. Drag queens and hepcats at New York’s Studio 54 disco reportedly got together to scream along “We only wanted to be loved!,” whenever the DJ played the song. Narcissists hearing an anthem by artists who lit themselves on fire for public amusement and education – that’s high art. “I will show our frustration at society by picking up that fire extinguisher over there and spraying it at the mic,” Wobble declares by the song’s end, firing a few toots. Indeed.
By: Cameron Macdonald
Published on: 2006-03-09