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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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