Image credit: Album cover image from PiL’s first album Public Image: First Issue (1978). © Dennis Morris – all rights reserved.
The ICA presents rarely seen photographs and ephemera relating to the early stages of the band Public Image Ltd’s (PiL) design from 1978-79 with a focus on the design of the album Metal Box. Original band members included John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten - vocals), Keith Levene (lead guitar), Jah Wobble (bass) and Jim Walker (drums). Working closely with photographer and designer Dennis Morris, the display explores the evolution of the band’s identity, from their influential journey to Jamaica in 1978 to the design of the iconic Metal Box.
Set against a backdrop of political and social upheaval in the UK, the years 1978-79 marked a period that hailed the end of the Sex Pistols and the subsequent shift from Punk to New Wave. Morris sought to capture this era by creating a strong visual identity for the band. His subsequent designs further aligned PiL with a style and attitude that announced a new chapter in music history.
For PiL’s debut single Public Image, Morris designed a record sleeve in the format of a single folded sheet of tabloid newspaper featuring fictional content about the band. His unique approach to design was further illustrated by the debut PiL album, Public Image: First Issue (1978). In a very un-Punk manner, its cover and sleeve design imitated the layout of popular glossy magazines.
The band’s second album – the critically acclaimed Post-Punk classic Metal Box (1979) – further reinforced Morris’ approach to branding and promoting the PiL experience. While the album’s title was conceived by Lydon, it was Morris who designed the cover – a metal 16mm celluloid film canister – embossed with the band’s new PiL logo reminiscent of a breakable medicine tablet. The album’s distinctive packaging was produced at the Metal Box Factory in Hackney, prior to its closure, revealing a bygone age of local manufacturing within London.