Saturday, 13 August 2011

“The public image belongs to him”: Public Image Ltd. live at OFF Festival, Katowice (7/08/11)

Set list:
This is Not a Love Song
Public Image
Flowers of Romance
Religion II

Death Disco
Open Up (Leftfield track)

Back in 2007, a friend and I managed to get tickets to see the Sex Pistols on one of the small number of gigs arranged to celebrate the thirty-year anniversary of Never Mind the Bollocks. We were both so fucking stoked that I think we ignored the fact that, deep down, we knew it was not going to be the same as it would (or might) have been thirty years ago. Older and fatter but still belligerent as hell, Lydon did not seem at all comfortable with his role as Johnny Re-Rotten as he paced the stage of Brixton Academy. ‘Rotten’ was of course the nickname he had famously denounced pretty much as soon as he’d left the stage of San Francisco’s Winterland Ballroom on 14th January 1978 on the final date of the Pistols’ tumultuous US tour, having uttered those immortal words, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” following a disastrous rendition of the Stooges’ ‘No Fun’ .

Come 2007, he was wearing this odd neon-tinted white smock over blue tracksuit bottoms and often resorted to embarrassing stereotypical punk gimmicks and Sid-type face-pulling. Backed by Matlock, Jones and Cook, the pub rock chug that was always at the heart of the Pistols was all-too evident. Alongside the Pistols classics, Lydon insisted on having us sing Oh I Do Love to Be Beside the Seaside, spitting, “This is your fucking heritage, England!” as he glared out a crowd of granddad punks in pristine leather jackets. I got the sense that he really didn’t want to be there. Ultimately, it was a less than convincing performance and one that, what with the Country Life butter fiasco, left me wondering why on earth I’d ever idolised the man.

I see now that, much like in ’78, Lydon was again trapped by the Sex Pistols’ notoriety and its cultural significance. Music writers of and on the Sex Pistols and punk have often stated that if Lydon had had his way with the musical direction of the band, the majority of it would have been practically unlistenable. No doubt this would have been a more adequate reflection of Lydon’s diverse musical tastes which ranged, at one point or another, from Hawkwind to Captain Beefheart, stacks of reggae vinyl and an awful lot of obscure Krautrock. However, although PiL is completely different to the Pistols, both musically and conceptually, it certainly is not unlistenable to anyone with any receptivity to contemporary post-punk and the fusion of punk, dub and funk that would transpire in music by bands like PiL, Gang of Four and the Pop Group. (Note: interestingly, PiL’s current drummer, Bruce Smith, is the former drummer of the Pop Group.) The truth is that PiL have never ever been recognised for what they are which is a totally separate thing from anything Rotten or Vicious, and a project responsible for music that was far more intricate than anything the Pistols did. PiL has never been given its due credit, and, in my opinion, nor has Lydon for raising himself from the ashes of Winterland and creating a body of work that is often difficult and sometimes not entirely convincing, but always remains compelling. The John Lydon I saw perform at OFF Festival was just stunning. These days, PiL includes only one of its original members…and that’s Lydon himself. However, ignoring the absence of founding stalwarts Keith Levene and Jah Wobble, PiL was primarily Lydon’s project and at OFF, he really owned it, and I mean, really took possession of his legacy. To quote Lydon in Public Image, “The public image belongs to me”. A phenomenal presence throughout, he was dressed in a smart black mackintosh and had his words sat on a music stand in front of him, squawking the lyrics like a deranged imam. The vocal delivery most resembled Flowers of Romance-era PiL and I was rapt.

The set was varied, opening with crowd-pleaser This is Not A Love Song and the aforementioned Public Image, the latter of which was an absolute joy to finally hear live since it is easily one of my favourite songs. Current PiL guitarist Lu Edmonds almost replicates the searing, slicing guitar of early Levene-era PiL and the bass-lines received extra prominence through execution on not only bass guitar but also some kind of electric double bass. The pace shifted from up-tempo numbers like Warrior to the slow, elegiac funk drag of Metal Box’s eleven-minute opener Albatross, an unexpected choice for a festival set but one to which I very much enjoyed sliding along in the mud.

I wish I could say that I gave all the current members of PiL their due attention but the truth is that I was suitably mesmerised by how different Lydon was to the one I had seen almost four years ago. Bar a few “Would you like to hear some more?” enquiries from Lydon, he was every inch the enigmatic frontman. Retreating only every now and then to swig beer from a bottle by the drum kit, there wasn’t a gratuitous snarl in sight. This was serious and sustained artistic rock (or even ‘post-rock’ if you prefer). In actuality, Lydon’s vocals are technically a lot better these days, though, of course, that was never really the issue with the Pistols. It’s interesting to note all the same though and confirms Lydon’s importance in musical history beyond his Sex Pistols persona. The painfully personal ‘Death Disco’, written by Lydon in response to the death of his mother, was especially powerful in its extended live version. Lydon howled the lament of “See it in your eyes” as sincerely as ever, but with the added dimension of three extra decades that lent this rendition an even more beautiful, brittle quality than the recorded version

However, the gig was obviously not flawless. The spitting rain and the ensuing mud hole that formed behind the barricades was a small price to pay for the performance and was easily bearable. The annoying cretin in the front row holding the Sid Vicious t-shirt up to the stage however was not. I wanted to punch him. My friend convinced me it was a bad idea which was probably sensible. Also, there were a few songs from a much later version of PiL (‘Warrior’ and Leftfield song ‘Open Up’) and not enough from either First Edition or Metal Box. I’d have loved to have heard ‘Poptones’ or, dare I say it ‘Fodderstompf’. However, that’s just a personal preference and I still found them all enjoyable. Overall, PiL was utterly convincing, though perhaps the current PiL should be labelled ‘John Lydon’s PiL’ since it’s him who carries the whole performance and lends it such self-assurance and credibility.


  1. This is an excellent review but whilst Lydon is indeed fantastic I feel you don't give enough credit to his backing band who are absolutely superb at both recreating and reimagining (in some cases) the PiL recordings. Add to that the fact that they sometimes have to deal with Lydon's unpredictable delivery and remain fluid structurally and I really think he's picked a fantastic bunch of musicians. Really looking forward to new material!

  2. That’s a fair point-and I think I do acknowledge the fact that the review is mainly concerned with Lydon (see beginning of second-to-last paragraph). Then again, I always did consider PiL to be a medium through which Lydon could renegotiate his musical sensitivities and a bid to move away from the press associated with him as Johnny Rotten in the Sex Pistols. Although PiL undeniably evolved away from being so Lydon-orientated, it was always, at least in my eyes (and ears), primarily the result of his input, and so much of their material reflects this. But yes, I do see your point. However, the piece was less an attempt to document every facet of the performance and more a reflection on its execution through the structuring device of this comparison between Rotten 2007 and Lydon 2011. A little self-indulgent perhaps, but unavoidable given the sheer differences between the two that I perceived to be present.