Tonight sees the return to Birmingham of that ever entertaining, ever quotable pioneer of early UK Punk and then of post Punk. Some would describe him as grumpy and others avuncular but almost all would describe him as honest and that would be just like his musical output. I describe John Lydon, lead voice for PiL – Public Image Limited, or, a long time ago, Johnny Rotten, lead singer of The Sex Pistols.
Tonight, here in Digbeth, he returns with the longest serving line-up of PiL and in his own words, the best band he’s had and a band made of his best friends.
It’s hard for a bunch of men of a certain age to look cool, yet so many of them in bands try to keep up their youthful appearances ending up looking contrived. Not Pil. The band look resplendent in black, suited and booted, that is except for John Lydon. Opting for baggy trousers, chequered shirt and tank top he looks every bit the 50s avuncular lead part from a Graham Greene novel.
Taking to the stage without fanfare they lead away with the ten minute opening track from their “Metal Box” album, the powerful and soaring “Albatross”. For me tonight, this is more upbeat and less dark than on record and loses some of it’s appeal yet remains such a strong track. It’s arguable what the Albatross in the song refers to but if this was the last vestiges of the Pistols then that Albatross is long gone, from around his neck.
“Double Trouble” from the most recent album follows shortly after and whilst I struggle with this, a less serious song than many other of the bands output, there is no doubting the songs sincerity. This ode to domestic/domestos bliss (one side of an argument about fixing the household toilet) bubbles along in the manner that we’ve all been or will be involved in at sometime.
“This is Not a Love Song”, the song that made the band more accessible and introduced them to a slightly more mainstream audience has Lu Edmonds (ex-Damned and member of Billy Bragg’s ensemble) carving out some interesting sounds on his bazouki type instrument replacing guitar. Now I know many different instruments being multi-talentless as I am (I play several instruments badly) but even I don’t know what this one is exactly. What I do know is that Lu plays some lovely slide licks on it to counterpoint John’s rasped vocals..
“Corporate” is probably my favourite from the recent album. A discordant noise of metallic scraping, feedback and offbeat rhythms has John enunciate with venom. All the more powerful on stage than it is on disc. Lovely!
Lydon twists and contorts his face throughout “Death Disco” as he howls the lyrics. A song long time part of the set, it is a cry of pain to his mother’s well documented illness; “watch her slowly die, saw it in her eyes”, sees him wipe away tears from his eyes as the music fades. A more powerful live tune you may not see and is as hard for the audience as it is for the narrator.
My least favourite song of the night ,“Warrior”, from 1989s album “9” sounds somewhat dated to these ears and seemed to go on much longer than it’s recorded version of four minutes. Some songs you just can’t warm to and so I take this opportunity for a comfort break.
It sounds as though I am less than enthusiastic about some of the songs in the set or how they are presented but this is far from the truth. It’s an excellent set mixing new and classics alike. Other newer songs “Know Now”, “I’m Not Satisfied”, “The One” are dotted throughout the set whilst the band’s eponymous debut single gets the biggest cheer of the night, and rightly so! All are played with confidence and style by the band as John turns the sheets of music/lyrics/setlist in front of him on his lecturn.
As “Religion” throbs across the hall I recall the words that John Lydon used to describe a PiL performance. “We’ve been called Opera, and if you know anything about opera then you’ll know that it really isn’t an insult”. This song was reputedly turned down by the Pistols because it was too strong in content even for them. This unapologetic ditty to the hypocracy and money grabbing excesses of Christian organised religion is nothing but pure opera. The dub bass is repetitive and strong and towards the end of the song will get stronger. I don’t believe that a song as powerful and angry as this is the best place to introduce/shout out the band It feels misplaced to me and breaks the intensity but is widely responded to. The band deserve all plaudits that they receive and then some. Tight and powerful and perfect for these songs.
As “Religion” builds to a crescendo, Mr Lydon asks us “Do you wanna hear more bass?”. Not only do we hear more bass but we feel more bass. As tight as my jeans are, they feel like they are standing out behind me like a flag in a storm. The last time I felt bass like that was about ten years ago watching CULTURE (“Two Sevens Clash”).
“Religion” could easily have been the last song and I’d have gone away a happy man but we finish with a medley of “Open Up” and “Shoom” but prior to that a very important song for me. The song that flipped an inaccessible band very much on it’s head for a young version of me many years ago. “Rise” with it’s very apt refrain of “Anger is an energy”; angry and optimistic. We leave happy and optimistic but leave the anger in the venue.
Public Image Limited…. Never a let down!
Reviewer – Mark Veitch