Public Image Ltd @ Birmingham Academy – 15th December 2009

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John Lydon is an acquired taste. He is happy to alienate and aggravate both friend and fiend alike. He will endeavor to do what is least expected. He is confrontational with a touch of paranoia. He is the eternal anarchist. But like or loath him, you cannot deny his honesty and passion when it comes to Public Image Ltd. Born out of the train wreck that was the Sex Pistols, PiL eclipsed the pub rock of Steve Jones and Glen Matlock and immediately influenced the music world from their conception in 1978.

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In 1979, PiL released Metal Box, a staggering collection of songs, a beautifully packaged product, and an indication of how good music can be when produced by non-musicians with the courage of their convictions coursing through their veins. Lydon, Wobble and Levene were not conventional musicians and did not play conventionally, they did what felt right and showed everyone else that this was the only thing that mattered. Lydon apologises for doing this almost immediately as he steps onto the Birmingham Academy’s stage tonight, feeling the responsibility of unleashing a multitude of poor imitations and wannabees, some of whom are probably in the audience, the others making it all the way to TOTP.

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Thirty years on from Metal Box’s release and Lydon feels it is time to relaunch PiL, this is on the back of the Pistols reunion last year and a number of other anniversary and album tours (Specials, Pixies etc) this year. The cynicals amongst PiL’s fanbase see the tour as another money-spinner for Lydon and are equally unhappy that neither Levene or Wobble are involved. Lydon would cite the ‘least expected thing to do’ rule and carry on regardless, and what a good thing he did.

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I am strangely underwhelmed as I approach the Birmingham Academy’s new home at the old Dome (or old Night Out depending on how old you are). This is the first night of the tour and I have no pre-conceptions at all apart from the knowledge that John Lydon may just deliberately piss everyone off by playing jazz for two hours. This fear is quickly dispelled as the gig opens with the band’s first single released in 1978, “Public Image”; and it is a strong start. The music is replicated almost precisely by the ‘stand-ins’ for the original members and John’s vocals are powerful and better than he has ever sounded. For a singer who cannot sing, his control, delivery and use of vibrato are unmatched and always, totally original: no one sounds like John Lydon. The first thirty minutes of the show are like a dream come true as the band powers through masterful versions of “Careering”, “Poptones”, “Flowers of Romance”, “Four Enclosed Walls” (a drum sample just waiting to be used there) and “The Suit”. “Albatross” was never a particular favourite of mine back in 1979 (I usually would go straight to disc 1, side 2), but John Lydon pours all of his hatred and loathing into this diatribe against his old manager Malcolm Mclaren, and if anything 30 years has done nothing to heal the wounds; he sounds more full of contempt now than he did on the recorded version, it is exceptional (ironically without Mclaren, Lydon would not have been forced out of the Pistols and PiL may never have happened, so Malcolm did do something right after all).

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Without doubt the highlight of the night is “Death Disco” (‘Swanlake’ on the album). It begins with the wonderful Wobble bassline (played by Scott Firth without the correct emphasis in the right place, but close enough). Lu Edmonds (guitar) and Bruce Smith (drums) follow and then there is a minute or so when it feels as though Lydon cannot quite find his vocal entrance, and consequently the song becomes strangely disjointed. Then suddenly as if Lydon finds his place, his confidence explodes and the emotion pours from him, literally. I’m sure the memory of the song’s subject matter (witnessing his mother’s death) becomes painfully real again and he screams, and I mean really screams. The words “See it your eyes” swirl around the venue beautifully mixing with the pulsating bass and ear-shredding hi-hats. This is real. It is honest emotion and a rare site on stage these days when almost everything is manufactured and choreographed. I had a lump in my throat the size of a medicine ball by the end of the track believe me, and I am sure there are a few 16 stone punks around me wiping their tears away as well.

The vocal heroics begin to take their toll at this point and Lydon is clearly not fully fit to inflict that kind of damage on his vocal chords for much longer, but he continues on a prescription of throat spray and brandy by the look of it. It is amazing to see how far passion can take you.

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The second part of the show dips into PiL’s later releases, which I am not particularly fond of, but amongst them are some old songs: a fine version of “Religion” that surpasses the original; the exceptional “This is Not a Lovesong”; and a not great version of “Memories”, as its focus on the Metal Box version is totally lost tonight (which is a shame as I really love this song.. by the way check out the original version and the stunning change of focus at one minute thirty-three, the production shift there and at two minutes fifty is a wonder to your ears). The poor version may also have been affected by Lydon’s vocal, as I am sure he must have been thinking about getting through the rest of the tour without losing his voice altogether. “Annalisa” and “Chant” rise above a couple of less important songs towards the end of the show and Lydon’s energy seems to come and go, after nearly 90 minutes of non-stop music it is hardly surprising.

The encores of “Open Up” and “Rise” sound spectacular and are crowd pleasers, which surprises me slightly as I thought the true Metal Box aficionados would make up most of the audience; however, in hindsight, these were probably the ones horrified by the idea of a PiL reunion and preferred to stay at home on their high horses… fools they are.

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My only problem tonight is the way Lydon insists on saying how awful England has become (something he also did at the Pistols’ gig last year). It feels like a workmate who gets promoted, coming back to your office and letting you know how bad things are here, and then going back to his own sweet office, leaving you in misery. At least we live here and try to do something about the problems, we don’t run away to LA. He talks about being British when he has spent most of the last 30 years away from the UK: I love you John, but it is too easy to give advice when you are 7000 miles away from the problem, when you move back here, maybe I’ll listen. Until then I will stand in awe of a the man I have admired since I was 10 years old and advise everyone in the world with a heart and brain to witness this tour. It will definitely inspire, and maybe it will help stop the rot.

Review – Alan Neilson
Photos – Steve Gerrard

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10 Responses to “Public Image Ltd @ Birmingham Academy – 15th December 2009” Subscribe

  1. Mike December 18, 2009 at 11:42 am #

    I think it’s too easy to slate John for living in the states – he still loves the UK, has family here and as far as I know pays tax.

    One too many dawn raids by the police forced him away, as did poor health.

    Think about it, would we really expect him not to have an opinion on the country where he was born.

  2. george s December 18, 2009 at 11:51 am #

    I consider myself to be one of those ‘true Metal Box aficionados’ and have waited for too many years to hear Lydon performing these songs ‘properly’. I will be seeing PiL in Manchester on Saturday (hope his voice holds out!) and this is exactly the kind of review (truthfully honest and emotive, entirely fitting considering the subject matter) that I was hoping to see for the opening gigs. The new PiL seem eminently capable of delivering the goods live from the reviews I have read, would be great if they can make it into a recording studio at some point. Excellent pics too!

  3. Andy December 18, 2009 at 12:26 pm #

    I was at this show too and you are spot on about “Swanlake”. I’ve rarely seen a song delivered with such genuine pain-soaked intensity, it was absolutely astonishing.

  4. ivanthecat December 18, 2009 at 2:18 pm #

    Most informative review I’ve read so far, and very well-written–thanks!

  5. Steve December 19, 2009 at 3:54 pm #

    Fantastic review…and honest!
    Saw PiL last night in Glasgow and they were brilliant.Met John after the show and he was asking if we enjoyed the gig?…he really wants this to work..and it does.Far better than the last few Pistols gigs I had been to,then again..I was always more of a PiL fan!

  6. STEVE December 19, 2009 at 4:35 pm #

    The most intense & charismatic performance I’ve seen in 3 decades of gigs.
    The band played like their lives depended on it & JL sang like a man on fire.
    I’m glad we saw the 1st nite, that level of performance is impossible to maitain.
    He said he hated the American word AWESOME, but it fitted Tuesday nite perfectly.
    My companion (who’s seen some punk bands in his time) looked shell-shoked when we came out.
    Spot on review & pics & knowledgeable.
    Nice one! Steve

  7. Buzzp December 20, 2009 at 3:43 pm #

    Public Image Ltd

    Live @ the Manchester Academy 19.December 2009

    The dark chasam of the machester academy is packed with an equally dark collection of the antiscipant dispossed, builders, accountants, office wokers, web designers, shop assistants, council workers, lawyers, journalists, houswives all with there own story to tell, but this is not an arty crowd. Thirty years after the metal box, Mr Lydon and his travelling band roll up to face the manchester music public. And then it begins, Mr Lydon enters stage left, “Allo Manchester, here we are, real proper music for real proper people.

    Public Image basline launches and the unmistakable guitar riff of that post punk anthem launches the proceedings. Gentle Mayhem at the front as the old bones dont bounce like before, but real ehthusiam for the cause, Lydon, sneers and spits the vocal, “What you wanted was never quite clear”, and as the opening song subsides, a half full plastic beer glass is launched on stage, full on it soaks the singer, who with a calm but determined stare, rounds on the miscriant, they have one brief moment of fame, but its brushed aside, with a tirade from Lydon, “We are amongst friends here, you are not a friend, you are trash, selfish trash, the crowd joins the chant. From that point on, the scene is set, a real connection and strange bond is forged and we witness a passionate delivery of 90 plus minutes of some of the best live music you will ever see, lydon has real focus, energy and an unusual empathy with the crowd, its as if he has come home at last, he belives in this music and in this band, this music was ahead of its time and shaped many peoples lives, and influenced scores of bands to do something different. One of the best gigs of the last 30years, no hype, PIL and Mr Lydon have something worth while to say, and deliver a blistering set. I was glad to be there

  8. Al Neilson December 22, 2009 at 11:13 am #

    thanks for the Manchester review Buzz. glad to see Mr L is still firing on all cylinders.

  9. Andy W. January 9, 2010 at 11:19 pm #

    I purchased my Metal Box in ’79 and have been a fan of PiL from the start.
    I saw them on the last night at the Electric Ballroom and they were FANTASTIC. John said his voice ‘had gone’ but it sounded BBRILLIANT to us.
    When the dates were first announced I didn’t intend to go as it wasn’t any of the original line-up other than John and the tickets were very costly to say the least.
    I am SO glad I did go.
    The Band sounded very good and Lydon really put everything into it.
    I felt a lot of the later PiL stuff stood up pretty well but obviously the Metal Box + First Edition stuff were the highlights.
    I thought Religion was blinding and it was a great bonus that they played the superb ‘Open Up’.
    All in all DEF. one of the most enjoyable and absorbing Gigs I’ve been to for ages !!!!

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  1. Coachella 2010: John Lydon sounds off on the return of Public Image Ltd. and the fest itself - Soundcheck : The Orange County Register - April 13, 2010

    [...] from a December ‘09 PiL show in the U.K., courtesy of the Birmingham Live! blog and photographer Steve [...]

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