Monday, 21 December 2009

This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get

PUBLIC IMAGE LTD - Birmingham 02 Academy

As is usually the case in the run-up to Christmas, I find myself with more gigs than it is humanly possible to attend. What looks like turning into an exhausting week kicks off at the newly-opened Academy with the return, after a 17-year absence, of Public Image Ltd. I am expecting to be disappointed, for a number of reasons. The show marks the 30th anniversary of the band's classic second album, "Metal Box", but John Lydon is the only one present who played on that release. Original guitarist Keith Levene is nowhere to be seen and, more worryingly, Jah Wobble, whose basslines defined the band's early sound, has not been invited back, having fallen out with Lydon in the early 1980s. I am uncertain whether Lydon will be able to carry off the "Metal Box" tracks without these key players.

I am also concerned about how Lydon himself is going to behave, and whether he is going to make a mockery of PiL's reputation. In recent years, he has become something of a cartoon character, with appearances on "I'm a Celebrity..." and butter adverts, and many people still think of him as Johnny Rotten. I've always thought it a shame that he is remembered for the Sex Pistols, who were really just a short-lived novelty act, when PiL produced much more enduring material. Lydon seems to feel this way too, as he often talks of PiL as his first love. During the early years of the band, a lot of his lyrics (and not just the ones that were a blatant attack on Malcolm McLaren) seemed to express a desire for independence and to prove that he did not need anyone to run the band for him.

Despite this disproportionate media focus on his time with the Sex Pistols, PiL have become the latest name to drop amongst trendy, NME-approved newcomers, who I suspect have never actually listened to "Metal Box". Lydon makes reference to this before tonight's show has even started. He apologises for being "the band that taught all those fucking second-rate wankers how to play" before storming into the only song that could possibly open the set, the 1978 debut single, "Public Image". This is the most straightforward punk song that PiL ever recorded and is perhaps the closest they ever got to the sound of the Pistols, but it is still light years ahead of anything on "Never Mind The Bollocks". After that, the pace is slower, giving new bassist Scott Firth a chance to prove that he can handle the dub-inflected lines from the "Metal Box" songs almost as well as Jah Wobble. Lydon tells us that each one of the songs means something, and this is apparent from the emotion that he puts into the delivery. "Death Disco", a song about watching his mother die from cancer, sounds even more distorted than usual, while "Albatross" actually seems slightly more funk-influenced and maybe not quite as unlistenable as it did when it opened "Metal Box". I've always thought that this song referred to casting off the chains of the Sex Pistols, and perhaps celebrity in general. It is clear tonight that after 30 years, Lydon has still not managed to get rid of his own personal albatross, whatever that may be. Between songs, he is chatty and almost camp at times, joking with the crowd and sarcastically scolding us for cheering "Poptones", a song about being raped and dumped in a forest to die. The songs themselves are often very dark and Lydon's delivery of them seems to conflict with his otherwise jovial nature. It's not clear whether there are two contrasting sides to his character. I am inclined to think that the schoolboy prankster is just a mask he still feels compelled to use after 30 years, and only in his songs is the true, cynical John Lydon allowed to come to the fore.

The darkest moments come during the three songs from "Flowers of Romance", PiL's least-accessible album, consisting of just percussion and Lydon's wailing voice. I've always enjoyed this album but been wary of recommending it to anyone else, so I am heartened when a friend who has only just got the hang of "Metal Box" suggests that he might try "Flowers of Romance" next, on the strength of the live songs. We are also treated to a handful of songs from the tail-end of PiL's career, but it seems that Lydon realises that these are never going to stand up to comparisons with the early material, if the bias in the setlist towards the first few albums is anything to go by. More surprisingly, the set also includes two songs from Lydon's solo album (has anyone actually listened to that?) and as a final encore, we get "Open Up", his 1990s collaboration with Leftfield, making use of the laptops dotted around the stage. Despite this song being very different musically from the rest of the material, it highlights how Lydon's distinctive voice can be put to good use in different surroundings.

The full setlist, for those of you concerned with such trivia, went something like this, although probably not exactly in this order:
Public Image / Careering / This Is Not A Love Song / Poptones / Tie Me To The Length Of That / Albatross / The Suit / Death Disco / Four Enclosed Walls / Flowers Of Romance / Disappointed / Warrior / USLS 1 / Psychopath / Banging The Door / Bags / Chant / Memories / Annalisa / Religion
Encore: Sun / Rise / Open Up

I have to admit that I am often guilty of deciding in advance what my opinion of a gig will be. With PiL, I even had the basis of a review in mind weeks before the gig happened. I had convinced myself that I would need to use Lydon's famous catchphrase, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" I'm glad that for once, my preconceptions were shattered. With over two and a quarter hours of music, taking in some of the most innovative songs in Lydon's repertoire, I don't think anyone could complain that he had cheated us. Although no new material was aired, there is talk of a new album if Lydon can raise enough money from this tour to pay for the studio time. He clearly still has the attitude so let's hope he also still has the imagination to give us another "Metal Box".


edporteous said...

I'm almost a convert after seeing the gig. He messes with the musical hemisphere of my brain, I can never work out what note he is singing, but he doesn't sound out of tune.

Ringinglow said...

I really wish I'd gone to this now. I contemplated going when the dates were announced, but I never seriously gave time to the idea that they'd play a set of the older material and that Lydon wouldn't be a clown. Lydon's career trajectory since the mid-80s didn't really inspire confidence, not least when the last thing he did was an Anchor Butter advert... My loss, clearly.