PIL ‘Commercial Zone’ – Missing gem of an album… or just an unreleased demo?

In light of the recent PIL activity; Lydon and Co. playing two sellout gigs in London, the recent Wobble & Levene ‘Metal Box’ gig in Manchester we take a look back at the bands ‘Commercial Zone’ project.

Commercial Zone” the unreleased follow up album to “Flowers of Romance” presented PIL as a band in the conventional sense of guitar, bass, drums and vocals for the first time since the unconventional “Metal Box”!

PIL’s last album “Flowers of Romance” had been a victory in itself, you lose your influential bass master Jah Wobble – choose not to replace him, but instead create a percussion led album; but what next for PIL? Since Wobbles departure Public Image Limited as a band had a distinct lack of gigs under their belt, just the odd riot in New York’s Ritz Club in 1981 with John Lydon and Keith Levene providing the musical backing to the fighting – for the next album a return to basics was required, and gigs for future development needed to be considered.

PIL in 1982 were relocated to New York, John Lydon and Keith Levene remained from the original Public Image Limited line-up, Martin Atkins was now back on drums after parting with the group after the “Flowers of Romance” sessions ready to provide his inspired drumming to new material. The line-up was completed in the summer of that year by Pete Jones the bassist in Martin Atkins other group “Brian Brain”. Pete Jones was thankfully his own man not trying to imitate Wobble (who could) but bringing a funk bass groove into the PIL sound.

By the time Jones became a fully paid up member of PIL, the band had already entered Park South Studios in New York with Producer Bob Miller keen to lay down new tracks, these tracks along with others that Jones would partake in later in that year presented the band with a fresh sound, in some ways perhaps with a more commercial edge – indeed as the bands posters for several gigs they performed in America and Canada that year stated “You are now entering a Commercial Zone”, and also as the band themselves would state in interviews that year their new album was called “Commercial Zone”, the making of that album would provide the soundtrack for the breakup of the relationship of Lydon and Levene and provide the group with their biggest hit single “This is not a Love Song” but as the curtain came down on the two remaining original PIL members some stunning music was been made; that it has never been sanctioned for official release beggars belief. Indeed the bulk of this album was re-recorded after Levene had left the band and released in 1984 as the album “This is what you want this is what you get”, Keith Levene was to release “Commercial Zone Limited Edition” in America at the same time as the official PIL album this is the overview of the album that never was “Commercial Zone”

“Commercial Zone” opens with “Mad Max” later renamed “Bad Life”, “Mad Max” perhaps does not possess the sledgehammer production of “Bad Life” on “This is what you want” but it provides a looser funkier version with Pete Jones on bass and is a great album opener to “Commercial Zone” that PIL would remake it and release it as their sole single in 1984 shows the regard they held for it, in many ways the two versions are different animals perhaps “Bad Life” just edges it over “Mad Max” but it is a close call.   “This is not a Love Song” one of only two songs from “Commercial Zone” to see the official light of day is an amazing song, simple perhaps in its minimal delivery a solid beat from Martin Atkins in stark contrast to the complexities of his drumming on the tracks of “Flowers of Romance” but it works well here as it does not detract from the stunning music on offer but drives the 4/4 bass which is an integral part of the track Pete Jones providing a Funk feel almost disco like sensibilities taking the song to even greater heights mixed with some stunning guitar work from Keith Levene along with good use of keyboards. Lydon is on form with vocals and lyrics spoken and sung, the inspired lyrics say it all Lydon creating a song gloriously repetitive but staying true to form and not singing a Love Song, the song builds well an instant classic and one that you never want to end. Such an energetic burst of a track that draws you in and has you captivated when PIL were on form like this they really were out of sight.  “This is not a Love Song” would be remade for “This is what you want” more of a funk sound with good brass playing was the order of the day for the remake which remains a very good song but not a patch on the original, the “Commercial Zone” line-up nailed the song with real intent.

“Young Brits” was later re recorded and renamed “Solitaire” for “This is what you want”; both versions remain quite similar it shows the band in workmanlike form perhaps not reaching the heights of other songs on “Commercial Zone” it is more of a listen able song than much on “This is what you want”   “Bad Night” of all the songs on “Commercial Zone” this song is the most frustrating to listen to as it is mind-blowingly good! It is head and shoulders above so much that was subsequently officially released on “This is what you want” and indeed many future PIL songs on future album releases barring the excellent “Album”.

“Bad Night” has never been played live at any PIL gig nor had any official release on PIL product, the song was initially the foundations for “This is not a Love Song” or maybe “This is not a Love Song” were the foundations for “Bad Night “either way the initial song was split to leave two separate and stunning songs. Opening with Atkins drumming then some laid back guitar work from Levene the band as a whole provides fantastic backing to some honest Lydon lyrics and vocals acknowledging that he is human and sometimes the words that come out of his mouth can get him into trouble. “Bad Night” is perhaps light on verse / chorus numbers but that’s by the by as Keith plays out with some catchy blues guitar that you don’t want to end. In short “Bad Night” is a song and a half it could have been a hugely successful follow up single to “This is not a Love Song” that it has never been fully appreciated is either a trick that has been missed or a case of cutting your own nose of to spite your face.

PIL on previous albums had offered up instrumentals perhaps to reinforce the idea that this was a band in its own right but also to demonstrate what innovative musicians they really were. On “Metal Box”, “Graveyard” and the phenomenal “Radio 4” take that particular album to new heights. On “Commercial Zone”, “The Slab” the first of 3 instrumentals follows this pattern it is an inspired track, Keith Levene and an acoustic guitar lead the track it is gentle but thought provoking with minimal percussion and atmospheric keyboard backing. “The Slab” would be given a “This is what you want” makeover and renamed “The Order of Death” still a great song with keyboards and Lydon’s repetitive vocals “This is what you want this is what you get” to the fore but it lacked the intimacy of “The Slab”. John Lydon during 1982 had been acting alongside Harvey Keitel in a film titled amongst other names as “Order of Death” the money from this film would keep PIL afloat there was also the possibility that PIL would provide music featured in the soundtrack this came to nought but it was perhaps with this in mind that “The Slab” was conceived. “Lou Reed Part 1” has the feel of a very competent film soundtrack, again like “The Slab” it is stunning, again Levene is on form and Pete Jones on bass provides cool backing, Atkins is minimal in his backing as he is on much of “Commercial Zone” giving the songs time to resonate. You can lose yourself in that blues guitar of Levene you’re walking with him on some dusty road in the Deep South, Keith can play the blues and some, this Public Image Limited Wilbury guitar work is as inspirational as ever.

Keith Levene the blues guitarist has a strange ring to it but as his recent collaboration with Jah Wobble on “Mississippi” he demonstrates his affection for the blues.   Then the more traditional stinging guitar work of Levene that we associate with the guitarist brings us back to the here and now as “Lou Reed Part 1” goes straight into “Lou Reed Part 2”, Lydon is again on form with his vocal delivery and lyrics as a whole the song purportedly about Jeanette Lee abandoning the PIL ship it is straight from the hip a driving song that would again have produced a remarkable and no doubt successful single. As it was “Lou Reed Part 2” received another “This is what you want” makeover renamed “Where are you” resulting in a cluttered mess, the original song deserved so much better PIL deserved better.   “Blue Water” mooted at one time to be the next single it ended up b- side to “This is not a Love Song” and along with this has received other official releases, it is haunting and continues Lydon’s love affair with life below the sea which continues today with PIL’s new song “Deeper Water”. “Blue Water” is different to much on the album and indeed any previous PIL output. “Blue Water” sees the band on form Lydon, Levene, Atkins and Jones a line-up with so much potential but in the end so little official output.   “Miller High Life” closes the album the last of the three instrumentals featured it is mostly attributed to Atkins and Jones a busy instrumental with driving bass and drums and assorted effects.

“Commercial Zone” as an album is listenable from start to finish very compelling highlighting a great line-up with a fresh sound and lots of potential they were gelling well live as can be highlighted by the many bootlegs of this line-up in fine form. If “First Issue” and “Metal Box” are sometimes perceived as been dark then this album represents the light – happiness and sunshine as Lydon would sing at the close of “This is not a Love Song”. But this album also represents the end of what could have gone on to be a classic line-up, Jones was gone by May 1983 fed up with the internal politics of the band; Levene departed the band the following month after a bust up with Lydon over the mixing of “This is not a Love Song”. Lydon was adrift with Atkins; a gifted drummer but percussion and vocals could not sustain a band without a strong minded musician like Levene who was not going to be a yes man.

There was clearly a market for PIL in 1983 as can be evidenced by “This is Not a Love Song” getting to number 5 indeed John Lydon himself proclaimed from Liverpool Royal Court stage after playing the song that it should have been number 1, that it was not properly tapped into is a trick completely missed, the only other offering from PIL in this year was the hastily released live album “Live in Tokyo” unfortunately this did not feature the “Commercial Zone” line-up but instead the fabled Holiday Inn line-up, even that demonstrated how much of a market was at PIL’s disposal by reaching Number 28 if “Commercial Zone”, “Bad Night” or “Lou Reed Part 2” had been released in the wake of “This is Not a Love Song” they would surely have fared very well! After all it was the same line-up and some very sound ideas had been committed to vinyl. As it was the remade songs from “Commercial Zone” on “This is what you want”  did not see the light of day until July 1984 people have short memories and either that or any perceived lack of quality in the album accounts for its dizzying high chart placement of number 56. True PIL aren’t and should never be about chart placements but the good work of “Commercial Zone” was going unrecognised. PIL certainly continued to make remarkable music but apart from the fantastic “Album” there has been no PIL album since this time that could compare to the innovative “Commercial Zone”.

“Commercial Zone” is the last PIL album to feature Levene on guitar the end of the road for his and Lydon’s musical relationship it remains unreleased in an official sense many have not had the opportunity to listen and judge for themselves and until any such official release is sanctioned the jury will remain out as to the question is “Commercial Zone” just an unreleased PIL demo or a missing gem?

 

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