Public Image Limited
There’s nothing rotten about Johnny. The wayward totemic rag doll of British music is still out there on his own perverse trajectory and enjoying every minute of it. Tonight the sarcasm and scorn that made him so charismatic has taken backseat to the introverted, artful Johnny who seems genuinely sincere in the great reception he’s getting in a packed Ritz.
It seems like these days bad Johnny is dragged out for the Sex Pistols and media gigs, and good Johnny just gets on with what he does best- being a wonderfully idiosyncratic singer in a wayward band that sets its own agenda.
The reformed PiL have been in action for about a year now grabbing a lot of acclaim. The well drilled band have been creating a great vehicle for their iconic frontman to wail over. They take those old songs and stretch them tight and taut into long hypnotic pieces that fuse dub, disco, kraut rock and even folk into wailing trances.
The band are great players and really deliver the PiL template and even if you miss that unique tension and creativity that marked out the Wobble/Levene/Lydon axis that created this sound you are still left with this unique version. Your author has a different slant on the proceedings here having been lucky enough to play with Wobble and Levene earlier this year and I can still remember the one rehearsal we had and the 30 minute version of Poptones which was mesmerising and amazing to sing over, jamming out phrases and noises to compliment the powerful voodoo of Lydon’s former band mates.
When PiL appeared in the months after the car crash of the Pistols they took the punk generation on a trip. Lydon may have little time for punk now but many of the audience are still old punks who have been powerfully loyal to him and still understand that the feral power of punk can be transposed effectively into any style of music and made to
Once they were the future.
A fast forward into a world beyond rock n roll whose first three albums defined post punk. No one could keep up with them and they kept morphing into different sounds and shapes. They defined the future that kept up with their front man’s proclamations. Eventually they settled into a style of their own that still had its moments before imploding several line ups down the line.
The new PiL have released an album that touches on all their periods. There is a poppier version of that bass heavy, dub, Krautrock fusion they were so good at with the lead off single, One Drop, which makes for a great encore tonight with its biographical lyrics central to the song’s power. It’s moments like this that see the band hit a first gear with the elongated groove sounding hypnotic and Lydon’s enunciated vocal spat out with an intensity that is still punk but a different kind of punk from the media definition of the form.
From the start of the set it’s very much a case of like it or lump it as Lydon takes the mic with his lyrics in front of him on a stand and his dustbin for spitting into just behind him. The current PiL, featuring Bruce Smith from the Pop Group on drums and the bearded Lu Edmonds on guitar are fantastic musicians and they are not going to fuck up nailing the varying PiLs that are on display tonight.
They traverse a lot of territory, from those early explorations into post Pistols metallic skree and dub soundscapes to the tribal drum clatter of Flowers Of Romance, Albatross is elongated and eerie whilst Rise is shuddering pop that even has some kind of audience participation in it, they even play a version of Leftfield/Lydon collaboration that has been given the Public Image treatment. They don’t play their iconic debut single which was the exact point where punk morphed into post punk, maybe they don’t need to. Genius as it is, it just would not fit into the hypnotic pulsing tracks that make up the Public Image 2012 sound.
But it’s with a revamped Religion that the band truly hit an astonishing first gear, with the song stretched taut for what must be nearly fifteen minutes. There is a break down in the middle where Johnny gets the bass cranked up by the soundman and that tough old Wobble bass line sounds sublime as it rattles the PA with even Johnny’s tough looking assistant Rambo moves back with the sheer volume. The song is as intense and confessional as ever as the frontman howls his disaffection with organised religion still pained at its hypocrisy.
It’s a powerful song and and a reminder of the potent power and fiercely intelligent angst of Lydon whose confusion of conflicting personnaes are suddenly ditched for this powerful moment.
Religion is a set high and worth the ticket price alone but it’s not the only moment and some of the new material comes close to matching its powerful terrain.
Unflinching and unforgiving Lydon bows at the end of the city still loved in the city which he did so much to accidentally change with those two classic 1976 Sex Pistols concerts just round the corner from here.