PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED
Lydon, Hammerstein Ballroom, NYC, 10/13/12
Photo: Joe Russo
He (still) means it, man
by Van Halen Kurtz
"Welcome to Public Image Ltd. -- all the rest is fucking shit."
That may or not be the most show bizzy of opening stage pronouncements ever uttered, but when the words come from John Lydon, a certain era's music aficionado will stop to obliquely consider the possibility at face value. That face; that voice. Anyone who noticed the return of PiL, after an eternity away from the stage, and paid prompt money for such an evening's performance would expect to return to a very specific show biz place, an exceedingly precision line between utter antagonism and implausible satisfaction. Hubris must precede such a balance, and such a challenge will, in almost equal measure, bewilder and empower such a specific audience, always relatively minuscule but always recalcitrantly critical, those who remember when rock music was big as life and death and worthy of both allegiance and contempt.
I was 19 in 1979, and susceptible. I grew up listening to certain earlier records that provided a modicum of preparation -- Lick My Decals Off, Baby and Yoko Ono/Plastic Ono Band foremost, but even preferring Tales From Topographic Oceans ("The Ancient" especially) over all the other Yes albums would work itself into my mix of readiness. Like most Americans, I heard Metal Box first. It sure was hard not to notice that "album cover" on display at the local indie record shop. What is that? This thing, truly a thing, succinctly stated: here is something you have not heard before. As it turned out, Metal Box didn't actually shock or stupefy me, jaundiced hipster that I was, already throwing together my own feedback, poetry and Moog tantrums onto tape; but it sure hands-down beat anything else that was happening. By a fucking few hundred miles. The 70's, terminated. Incredibly enough, Kurt Loder's review in Rolling Stone fairly got the gist of it; confused, and fascinated. Exciting times, then -- start a band, make a zine; hell, my first professional music article was on PiL (Noisy Paper #1 [St. Louis, MO, June 1981]).
I believe of all the stunning, idiosyncratic elements cohabitating Metal Box, the most singular accomplishment was how Lydon reinvented the idea of the singer into a more elastic character: a vacillating narrator beholden to no one, nothing, not even the damn song, some of which sounded written right on the spot, and spot on at that. The mistakes were as illuminating as any other component. They were almost the idea. Of course, there was more. Like the first album, soon eagerly consumed after the second, there was not only a mad troupe (primarily Lydon with guitarist/synthist Keith Levene and bassist Jah Wobble) inventing chords by the measure, not to mention individually sabotaging their own concatenation of measures, but the sound. Bass as big as the universe. Guitar, tucked in and folded over. Voice of sonar braille -- SOS. Drums assuming all was all systems go. And no one up to that time had so included room sound into a recording as PiL. Beefheart and Ono put a lot of thought into their respective insubordinations but there was something charmingly offhand about that fire extinguisher on "Fodderstompf" that communicated everything is permissible and anything is possible.
And, according to Paris au Printemps (now bringing in formidable Martin Atkins on drums), it was even possible onstage. Hard to believe that sort of inspired noise could be performed, what, professionally. But, blink and that edition was gone. Next up was an obscure little track (on the Virgin sampler Machines) called "Pied Piper," a banging clanging dirge of sarcasm, heralding the fact that there would not be a Metal Box number two. Leave that task to lesser idols. Instead, there was Flowers of Romance, PiL's dyspeptic psychedelic shock of a tribal sendup. Considering the era, 1981, PiL already had its influence -- Sonic Youth, to cite one example, had emerged -- and, to retain its caustic claims of innovation, PiL pushed their intrepidity forward. I knew a guy who attended the Ritz show and he could only describe it as, "I'm not exactly sure they're even making music anymore." Rebellion had its limits, as the equally uninteresting issues of both This Is What You Want... This Is What You Get and Commercial Zone proved. We know it's not a love song, lads. By 1984, the bar had been raised, apparently over the heads of those who did so much to get it so high. The stupid live album after that was a no-go, for sure.
Lydon's rebound was announced on the Afrika Bambaataa single "World Destruction," demonstrating that, although he couldn't necessarily make avant garde magic in a vacuum, he could still start fires with others, in this instance Bill Laswell. Album did the trick. Before side one ended, all the elements of the future PiL were assembled: hardrock guitars, exotic colorings, pounding drums, slippery bass and, no doubt, theatrically raging vocals that addressed the listener with equal amounts of conspiratorial sloganeering and confrontational dissociation. (Was it heavy metal? Wasn't "Theme" metal?) Assembling a touring version, centered by well-traveled John McGeoch's respectable riffing, Lydon leveraged Album into a career save. The subsequent product Happy? did sort of piss off the faithful -- that huge, weird room sound was replaced by board tropes and it couldn't be said PiL was inventing chords anymore -- but on a track such as "Fat Chance Hotel," Lydon revealed a sense of absurdity that would later become an essential asset. The following LP's and assorted singles were slicker, but who at that level wasn't getting slicker as the Eighties got on? Lydon continued to make a worthwhile howl of it on occasion, even if everyone was distracted by newer sounds and prettier faces. That's simply show biz.
Then the ice age arrived. And spread out. Lydon seemed generally retired, with a lackluster Pistols tour, the inevitable memoir, and an uneventful solo album. Only the Pistols' kiss-off to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame served a reassuring reminder that, even in abeyance, Lydon was still nobody's fool. Then came the TV shows and a slow revaluation occurred: Lydon could be a fool, and a right entertaining one at that, but he still appeared on his own terms, his own fool. The emerging persona, evincing coy splashes of wit, wasn't entirely unwelcome, even if it wasn't entirely trustworthy either. If any celebrity got us used to distrusting celebrities, it was him. Then the silly butter ads, followed by a public and media sneering that suggested, pro or con, Lydon hadn't exactly been forgotten -- which, by 2008, was sort of uncanny proof of, what, something significant, or something. Who was this guy? Another typical used-up rockstar or was the man still letting himself do the defining of who he was? And why would that matter to anyone at that point? It almost implied that not all the defiant fealty had been squeezed out of the bottle yet.
Then PiL, apparently on butter earnings, hit the road. And hit it the hard way. Indie. Small. Half-filled. DIY. Not surprisingly, most people were skeptical, lamenting the "non entities backing" Lydon, if not outright expecting Levine and/or Wobble (as they were going to put their everything into, say, "Rise" which even the art partisans would demand). Actually, the 2009 PiL was essentially, give or take a few exigencies (such as the usual addictions and death), the PiL that left off -- with one salient refinement: Lu Edmonds, recovering his hearing (which truncated his membership after the legendary Glasnost Rock gig) moved from second guitarist/exotic strings/keys to the position of PiL's sole guitarist (form gigs also included stints with Mekons and the Damned). That's no small job and, more than any other factor, his command of the material, all of the material, is what exceeded expectations on the road. Calling Edmonds a "non-entity" is particularly shitty history, and got corrected abruptly. In the words of Daiana Feuer, attending Coachella 2010: "Public Image Ltd. could not take Jay-Z's audience away from him, but I'll be damned if PiL wasn't the best show all day." The sentiment was not isolated, and word got around.
From town to town, Lydon, Edmonds, Smith and Firth, Ltd. fearlessly played any and all variations of PiL with respect and freshness. And they found, people wanted to remember. The evolving setlists -- containing moodier peregrinations such as "Albatross," "Tie Me To The Length of That" and "USL.S.1" -- provided a reasonable guide to what a matured PiL album would draw upon in execution. Self-produced and released, This Is PiL made a credible reentry for a band blessed and cursed with an especially incredulous audience. First off, PiL issued a full hour of the goods (unlike, say, Devo who thought shortening an already short album would make clever marketing strategy) but, then, PiL has always exacted endurance from their listeners. This Is PiL certainly contains several features of a "classic" presentation -- room sound, tensile bass, angular chording, intuitive drumming, abstracted lyrics -- but its central successes are finding some satisfying new moves, and that's where Lydon has to assume primary accountability. It's the seemingly minor moments -- "It Said That," "The Room I Am In" and "Lollipop Opera" -- where he experiments most: here is a full-grown-up Lydon, amused as much as indignant, wistful as much as consternated; older, more ridiculous and yet prouder. Something as scruffy as Shakespearean. The big ballads ("Deeper Water," "Human" and "Reggie Song") command consideration; musically linear and vocally emotional, sure, but they are not cheap. Is this PiL's blues album?
It is PiL, and it's not all been done before.
They got back on the road and worked their reputations. In the words of Simon Godley (from the God is the TV publication), attending the 2009 O2 Academy show: "Purists may well argue that without Jah Wobble and Keith Levene this cannot possibly be the real PiL, but the presence of other former members Lu Edmonds and Bruce Smith, ably assisted by Scott Firth give lie to any such ridiculous assertion. [...] This was the best gig of the year by a country life mile. It may even have been the best gig of the decade. God bless John Lydon. Let us treasure this national treasure for he has not burnt out, sold out nor has he faded away." By 2011, Dara Higgins (from State magazine), catching Pil in Dublin, wrote: "Initial misgiving that the soul of band may be missing when they attempt to reign in the power of early PiL are utterly unfounded. PiL is Lydon, and he lets us know that he owns all of these numbers, and that frankly, he owns the audience too. [...] Ignoring the occasional missile that lands on the stage and being, ultimately, the consummate professional somehow, that cool, knowing detachment of the man, with his statuesque peroxide hair and air of satisfaction is, of course, the most punk rock thing in the room. This is what we wanted, and this is what we got. A legend delivers." By the time PiL hit Glastonbury in 2013, they started looking and sounding like they might be ready for a larger stage.
And if PiL is PiL, they'll resist that temptation. And others. As always. Lydon's career has, if nothing else, adhered to one simple, stubborn premise: he could give the public everything they want, but that would be an insult to his fiercest listeners. I'm (still) in.
Also see our Keith Levene interview and our insider look at the infamous 'Ritz Riot' show
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