Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated? I naively hoped that the Public Image Limited show at the 9:30 Club on October 8—their first in years—would feature a reunion of Jah Wobble and Keith Levene playing First Issue and Metal Box. God knows where I got such a notion.
Instead I discovered—much to my horror—that Public Image was touring to promote This Is PiL, its first album of new material in 20 years. And what a disappointment the album is: enervated, self-parodic, and so musically thin that I immediately relegated it to the seventh circle of suck. At least, I thought, it lacked anything as bad as “This Is Not a Love Song,” by far the most execrable song in the PiL canon. Composed by more of the talented ringers Lydon favors—he put the band together using the proceeds from a UK television commercial he did for Country Life Butter, I swear to God—the album falters from its title track onward, a sub-sub “Public Image” that is an embarrassment to all involved.
So, I attended the 9:30 with much trepidation. There a diverse crowd—where else are you going to find a 10-year-old girl standing side by side with a spiky haired lad wearing an Exploited Jacket?—waited for the band to come on.
Imagine my disgust when PiL opened with “This Is Not a Love Song.” It was my worst nightmare, come to life. Then imagine my surprise when the band—Lu Edmonds on guitar and banjo, amongst other instruments, Scott Firth on bass and keyboards, and Bruce Smith on drums–employed a chugging beat and a ringing attack by guitarist Edmonds and by so doing transformed an abomination into a rock’n’roll song so high energy it completely made me forget the original.
The band followed that up with “Deeper Water”—one of the few decent songs off This is PiL–then totally transformed “Albatross” off of Metal Box into a rave-up, with frenetic guitar work but nary the dub reggae that made the original such a work of genius. “Albatross” may never be the same—Lydon’s submerged vocals on the original give new meaning to the word dread–but it takes on a respectable second life under such treatment.
“One Drop”—the single, if one can be said to exist, off of This Is PiL followed. It’s not much of a tune, but the band did its best. “We come from chaos, you cannot change us,” sang Lydon, to a peppy backbeat that didn’t even come off live. Fortunately it was followed by “Flowers of Romance.” With its syncopated drumming by Smith—once upon a time, believe it or not, the drummer for the Spice Girls—and an incantory middle eastern bowed banjo break by Edmonds. Its hypnotic groove did complete honor to the original and was one of the highlights of the show, as was “Disappointed” that followed.
“Well isn’t that what friends are for?” sneered Lydon, who was in fine form all night, his trademark warbles, screams, and derivise asides making me forget all about the singing on This Is PiL. He was also unremittingly charming and funny, despite his habit of blowing his nose and spitting on stage “(“I’m not a well man,” he said in amusing explanation.)
“Warrior,” with its dub beat, was absolutely definitive, a swooping and revelatory whoop of tribal rock’n’roll that had the crowd singing along. It was followed by the disappointing “U.S.L.S. 1”–PiL’s downtempo song about the terrorist attack on Pan Am Flight 103 in December of 1988—and featured Lydon imitating the dips and dives of an airplane and singing “this devil takes care of his own.” Then came “Reggie Song,” definitely one of the stronger tracks off This Is PiL (along with the bizarrely peppy “Lollipop Opera,” which the band didn’t, unfortunately, see fit to perform).
“Shine like a beacon in the garden of Eden,” sang Lydon ecstatically, with the band singing in chorus “Shine” behind him. After that highlight came “Death Disco,” and the band’s hard rock treatment of the song just couldn’t do it justice. Some songs benefit from radical transformation, and some don’t, and “Death Disco” just didn’t cut it with the disco taken out—not to mention Jah Wobble’s rubberband bass treatment. But maybe I’m wrong, since it was undoubtedly high energy and the pogoing audience loved it.
The unfortunately repetitive “Bags” from Album ensued—just how many times can you hear the words “black rubber bag” repeated, anyway?—followed by a similarly monotonous version of “Chant” from Metal Box that just didn’t come off. Lydon then demonstrated that his hatred for organized religion remains quite alive by performing “Religion” off First Issue. “Lock up your children, the priests are coming” he spoke, his voice filled with bile, over a bass-heavy background, then the band took off and played exquisitely explosive variations on the original.
With that Public Image left the stage, and returned for an encore of “Out of the Woods,” a dub and bass-driven ode from This Is PiL to—who says Johnny Rotten doesn’t read his American history?—Confederate general Stonewall Jackson. This bizarreness factor aside, the song benefited from the live treatment, with the volume turned way up. Why, he even cried out “Rebel Yell” at the end, with his fist raised, like an ersatz Billy Idol. The band then turned to—lucky us— “Rise,” probably the best of Lydon’s post-early period songs. The band gave it a suitably hair-raising treatment, while Lydon—audience participation anyone?—shouted “What is anger?” to which the crowd responded “Anger is an energy!”
What are we to make of John Lydon, then? Visionary, huckster, and apostle of loathing, his best song-writing years may well be behind him. They may in fact go back to Metal Box, an album so utterly sui generis—with its dub, Kraut rock, and Middle Eastern influences, not to mention its tone of utter fear—that not only has its sound never been repeated, it’s never likely to be.
But Lydon remains at his best a truly incendiary performer—his nihilism comes out with every note he performs live—and only a fool would write him off as a has-been. So I was wrong about being cheated. Wrong because John Lydon, despite his more mercenary inclinations, is still one of the best proofs we have that anger is indeed an energy. He remains a vitriol-filled individual in an anodyne world, and his vision of a life corrupted by education and religion is still as vital now as it was some thirty years ago. The Who wrote won’t get fooled again. That may be true of his albums. But I remain a believer in the man, who was never fooled in the first place.
Photos: Julia Lofstrand Photography