There's A Riot Goin' On
The Infamous Public Image Ltd. Riot Show
The Ritz- 1981
by Ed Caraballo (July 1997)
ED NOTE: this story was weeded out of Ed so don't think of it as an article so much as a guy who was there, telling you the story.
IN THE BEGINNING...
This all started when I met the members of Public Image because a friend of mine, Lisa Yapp (who's a producer for CNN now), was doing a cable show around '79. It was a gossip show where she did interviews. It was a syndicated show and she did the club scene. The show was called 'DIRT' and she did her interviews in a garbage can. I was the director of her cable show and I thought I was hot shit even though I was only 18 at the time. One day, she did an interview with Keith Levene. They weren't really promoting anything. They moved to New York in May '81. Keith and John (Lydon) decided that punk and rock were dead so they weren't going to do any more performing and they weren't going to be a band anymore. They were going to be a company- that was the concept of Public Image Limited as they explained it to me. Jeanette (Lee), who wasn't a musician at all, was in the band as kind of a performance artist. They planned to use John's vocal talents and Keith's guitar and editing talents. He was doing sampling back then which was pretty new, like on Flowers of Romance with those celtic, tribal sounds. They rented this loft on West 18th Street, looking to form this company to do soundtracks and make videos. Remember that this was before MTV started out.
They wanted to hook up with someone who was invovled with video and computers. Lisa talked me up and Keith said 'I wanna meet this guy.' So we met when she was taping her interview with him. We became good friends and somehow I started hanging out with Keith and Jeanette. Actually, Keith and John were starting to have a lot of fights then. They were starting to get on the out's with each other. It was creative things. They split up about a year after I was on the scene.
I was just a star-struck kid then. It was like winning a music contest where you get to hang out with the rock band. They were on Warner Brothers and they always seemed to be getting paid in cash. Keith always seemed to have this big wad of cash with him that he didn't know exactly what to do with. So I became their tour guide to New York and their buddy and their play mate. We would drive around in my beat-up '73 Plymouth Satellite. Keith would wave around his money so flagrantly sometimes that I just grabbed it once and threw it out the window in the Holland Tunnel. He yelled at me so I had to stop and go get it.
We were in a little dream-land. I started taking Super-8 movies and I owned a broadcast camera package that was state-of-the-art at the time. I started filming their lives. John is a very intense guy. He liked me and he liked my sense of humor but to him to I was 'Keith's guy.' I always seemed to be going out with Keith and Jeanette so we seemed to him like a little faction. He was a little bit paranoid about us and it wasn't until later that he and I got along. After about a month of hanging out, Keith said to me 'you should be in the band.' I told him that I wasn't a musician, just a video guy. Then I decided 'OK, whatever.' Keith actually made me a full member of the band.
So one day, we're up at Warner Brothers at Rockefeller Center. We'd go up there like spoiled brats. Whenever we'd come in, there'd be a whole staff of people and we'd walk in and demands drinks (John never came with us up there). It was really cool for me, being a high school drop-out from the Bronx. So we were there playing pool one day and one of the publicists gets a call from someone who wants to talk to Keith or John. We're deep in this game of pool and Keith said 'What do you want!' It was the Ritz calling, this big popular venue then. It was their first or second anniversary and they had Bow Wow Wow scheduled to perform. At the last minute, they cancelled after they spend all this money promoting the show. They were hoping that PIL would be able to fill in at the last minute. Keith said 'Fuck off! We're not interested!' I was excited though because the Ritz was the first video club in New York- they had this 40-foot wide screen with high intensity video projection. I said 'Wait Keith- they have all this fabulous video equipment there and we could do this really cool performance art thing.' He said 'yeah?' So we went down to check it out.
I'm very proud of this actually. I came up with this concept for the band where they would play live behind this huge screen. You would never actually see the band straight on. What we did was we used this whole row of parcans, high-intensity lights, really low. So these lights would shine the band's silhouette against the video screen. We could alternate that with a live camera that was shooting the band behind the stage and we would project this image on the screen. Jerry Branch, who ran the Ritz, was negiotating with us (he looked like a mafioso). Somebody said 'we're going to pay you $8,000 for the Friday and Saturday show.' I don't know why but I said 'no, that's not enough- we want $12,000.' It was like a surreal game but they said OK.
We made our intentions clear to them. Keith told them 'Rock and roll is fucking dead. We're not a band, we're a company. We're here to do performance art. This is going to be a show.' We told them to promote the show that way. They didn't do this though. They immediately went on the air with these radio stations and spent a lot of money promoting it. The Ritz was really exciting because PIL really hadn't done live shows for a while. John still had his core audience carrying over from the Sex Pistols and that was the primary audience for PIL. Both shows immediately sold out.
So we had to go to work really quickly. I had this footage and I had to use their editting equipment to put everything together. They gave me full access to all of their equipment. The video screen was on an electric motor that could be raised and lowered. We found a huge white tarp in their basement. Another crazy idea of mine was to make the precenium (the stage) this big white thing and where we'd put this tarp on the stage to drap over into the audience and it would be all white and pure looking.
We found this session drummer for the show in the Bowery (Sam Ulamo). He was this really cool, old guy who did blues. He met him in a bar and asked him if he wanted to play the gig. Keith took out his bankroll and slipped him a couple of hundred bucks. So we just told him to be there Friday. It was kind of organic and haphazard, the way that the whole thing came together. So we took his drum kit and all the rest of the instruments on the stage behind the screen. To keep and hold the tarp in place so it didn't fall into the audience, we weighed it down with all of the instruments. The screen was controlled back in the video control booth where I would be.
So we quickly used the editting system to put together the Super-8 footage I had. It was pictures of PIL taking helicopters rides and John in a hotel room getting obsessed with cable TV (he pretty much never left the hotel when I knew him). It was odd the way I was learning from Keith. Even though Keith was kind of lacadaisical, to him it was still a performance. That was just his style. Almost like a jazz vibe. Everything was improvisational, just taking and using whatever was there. The concept of the show was that it was like a mask. PIL would have this show playing behind the video and you could never actually get to see them live.
ON WITH THE SHOW
The evening of the show, we hired a limosine, maybe to impress or allude the press. There was a bunch of music press running around getting hyped about this show because this was their first show in a while. A guy from Rolling Stone was chasing Keith around. Even though no one knew me, I felt cool being the secret member of the band. We went around town, picking up supplies for the show. Meanwhile, John was back at the hotel doing his own thing. There was absolutely no rehearsal for the show- it was just going to be John singing, Keith playing guitar, Jeanette playing tambourine and other rhythm things and the drummer.
We get to the Ritz and it was pouring rain. There was a crowd a people lined up. They were getting soggy and Keith got out, looked at them and laughed. They started yelling and calling out to him and he ignored them. He wasn't disrespectful and didn't taunt anyone like John would. We got inside and got things ready but John is nowhere to be seen. There was an opening act that was weird- we just found them in a bar and hired them. The Ritz didn't let the opening band go on or even let the audience in until John arrived. The crowd was standing out there in the rain but Keith didn't seem too concerned about the crowd or John so I just tested the video while Keith did a sound check.
John finally showed up so the crowd was let in and the opening act came on. This was a full one hour later than when it was supposed to start. So the audience is wet, soggy and pissed. This opening band had a totally different sound from PIL. It was almost like a folk band. The audience was thinking 'what the hell' and the band eventually got booed off.
So now it was PIL's turn to go on. The crowd was really cranky and pissed by then, chanting 'PIL, PIL, PIL!' I was in the control booth with my headphones, nice and snug in there in the back of the club with a beautiful view of the audience and the stage: I felt like I was manning the Starship Enterprise. We felt that it would be appropriate to have a video of Lisa Yipp interviewing Keith and John in the trashcan she used for the show. Lisa gets on the headphones and says 'I'm not going out there- they're rowdy, they're screaming!' I told her 'you're a professional, go out there and do it.' So one of the stage crew drags out the trash can she used for her show with her inside and with the lid on top. The audience looked at it like 'what the hell' and she pops out like Oscar the Grouch and says 'HI, I'M LISA YAPP! I'M HERE TO TALK ABOUT PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED!' So now the crowd's really pissed and they start chanting louder. She starts to give an introduction about the band and we play this interview she did with Keith. In the interview, he's saying 'Rock and roll is dead. This is a new age of performance.' The crowd had it by then. They turned on Lisa for everything that happened. They pelted her with beer bottles but Lisa was such a trooper that she kept going with her introduction. She fended off the bottles with the lid of the trash can like a gladiator shield. Then she says 'AND HERE'S PUBLIC IMAGE LIMITED!'
The whole band's behind the screen and Keith starts playing and the drummer's playing this celtic rhythm to start the show. Then Keith starts playing the record 'Flowers of Romance.' He cranked it up and took all the equalization out of it- it sounded so cacaphonous. I started pulsating the parcan lights. It was really eerie and screechy. The crowd just loved it- they fell silent. You just saw the glow and the lights flashing. Keith's guitar was feeding back, playing off the record that was on and John was just silent throughout this whole thing. He just stood next to Keith. You could only see the silhouettes of them and the projections of them on the screen. The crowd is just loving this, thinking 'what a great introduction.'
The first song ends and John starts to talk to the audience for the first time. He says 'sil-ly fuck-ing aud-ience, sil-ly fuck-ing aud-i-ence...' He's slowly taunting the audience. Now the crowd's not quiet anymore. They start chanting 'raise the screen, raise the screen, raise the screen!' John's never been one who likes to be told what to do so he's chiding the audience. He says what fuckers they were to pay 12 dollars to see this, just taunting the audience. The more they say 'raise the screen,' he says 'we're not going to raise the fucking screen!'
So the band goes into another song that was this kind of improvisational kind of thing. It seemed to be directed by the drummer! John and Keith were just doing their thing. John made those sounds with his voice, almost like a yodelling type of thing. Keith is doing this screechy, primal sounding thing with his guitar, almost like a jazz number. They go through this and it's a ten minute number. The crowd is kind of liking it but you could hear them add their two cents by syncopating the rhythm with 'raise the screen! raise the screen!' At the end of this, John is really being abusive. So the audience starts pelting the screen with beer bottles. Even in the balconies, they were throwing bottles and some of it was hitting the audience down below. The more that they threw bottles, the more that John would chide them.
The manager of the Ritz comes to me then as I'm the only member of the band that was accessible- everyone else is behind the screen. Jerry says 'you gotta raise the screen! There's a riot happening right before our eyes!' I felt like Nero watching Rome burn, seeing these bottles all over and I never realized how abusive John was to his audience. So I tell Jerry 'No, I'm not raising it. You should have advertised and said that this wasn't a concert. It's a performance art show. That is what it is, that's what they paid for and that's what we're putting on.' I was guarding the remote control switch, not letting anyone touch it. Jerry kept yelling at me to raise it and I'd yell at him that I wasn't going to do it.
Then Jerry turns to the crowd and sees something going on as they let out a collective 'aaah.' The front of the crowd started pulling on the tarp and I start getting scared because the instruments and amplifier were moving forward like they were going to go into the audience. So Jerry says 'Are you crazy? Look at that!' I said 'you're probably right.' So I raised the screen just a little bit, enough to put on the parcans full blast so that we're blinding the audience with light. For a minute, they shrink back from this huge flash of light. It looked like the screen from 'Wizard of Oz' where everyone sees the magical workings of the Wizard, like 'pay no attention to the PIL behind the screen!'
The stage hands started scrambling to get the equipment off the tarp as the audience was still pulling at it. The poor drummer was freaking out as his kit was moving. One of the stage hands grabs the mike out of John's hand and starts screaming 'THE SHOW'S OVER! THE SHOW'S OVER!' They bring the house lights on but the audience is still pulling the tarp towards them. It was like 'we want our money's worth no matter how we get it out of you!' The stage hands rushed John and Keith off the stage for safety's reasons. My camera people got out of there. The management of the Ritz took over, saying 'the show's over. That was the show. Thanks for coming.' It was kind of funny because the crowd just slowly said 'oh...OK.'
For me, I was in 7th heaven. From the back of the auditorium, it was a beautiful site. It was a sick feeling because part of me said 'wow, I'm responsible for this carnage' and part of me said 'wow, I'm fucking cool!' The manager of the Ritz was freaking out still, wondering how many people were hurt because there were bottles all over the place. As it turns out, there was only one guy hit by the bottle. I made my way backstage to make sure the group was OK. On the way, I meet this producer friend of mine who I invited to the show and who I wanted to impress for a possible job in the future. He called out to me and I thought 'I'll never get a job now.' 'Ed, that was the most brilliant thing I've ever seen in my life!' he told me. I was like 'What? Oh yeah, that was great.' I couldn't believe it.
I finally got backstage and there was John, Keith and Jeanette, drinking beers and laughing. Right next to them was this punk kid with his head bleeding profusely. Jeanette got him an ice pack and they gave him a beer and he was hanging out with them. He couldn't have been happier- he was bleeding and he was with his heros. He was the only person that got hurt and not only wasn't he interested in suing us, he was happier than he could be. Actually 50 people asked for their money back and the Ritz actually gave it to them. Basically, it was a big fiasco and the next night of the show was cancelled.
The next Monday morning, Warner Brothers scheduled a press conference because there was a lot of press around there and it became a news event. So the four of us showed up and I set up my video camera behind Keith while he was fielding these questions from the reporters. I was filming the reporters as they were filming us. They asked 'how could this happen?' Keith was just being flippant and he basically told them to go screw themselves. A lot of the questions were positive, asking about the concept. Warner Brothers loved the publicity because it got written up in Rolling Stone, New Music Express and all those music magazines.
After that show, they later got a loft and we hung out for a little while longer. Then John and Keith were really getting on the out's. Keith was getting more and more paranoid. He just started getting really nasty to me. When I asked him about putting together a tape of that night to sell as a video, he thought I was trying to rob him. 'Ed, we have different contracts,' he'd say. I guess if I was older, I would have overlooked this because I knew why he was cranky. I was just as cocky as he was so I said 'fuck those assholes' and just stopped coming around. He called me and said 'why don't you come around the loft anymore?' but I didn't want to deal with that.
About a year after that, John and Keith split up. John hired a whole new band and that turned into Public Image Limited. Then Keith and Jeanette split up. I'd see John out at Danceteria and all those clubs. It was only after that show that John really started to like and appreciate me. He'd see me and say 'Ed, how's that fabulous gear you got?' and I'd say 'Good, how's that bright red hair you got?' We'd laugh and we'd see each other but then we fell out of touch. I went on to do my thing and John went on to do his thing and the rest is history.
I felt bad that Keith just dropped off because the whole idea of Public Image and the METAL BOX idea was all him. Everything that was cool about that band was him. Like FIRST EDITION, that's all him and also with all the sampling they did. John made a great contribution because he has a style nobody else has- that tribal chanting/yodelling kind of thing. He's a historical figure just for being himself. It's a shame that they didn't get along. For me, they had something brilliant going.
But looking back at that whole event, it's one of THE experiences of my live. Even that night, I thought 'I could die tonight and seeing what I've seen, I could say I've lived a complete life.' I was just really cool! I still think about it. I was almost like a fantasy for me. I got to ride in limos, fly in helicopters, push the paparazzi away. I got to live the fantasy of a rock star for a brief shiny little month.
Also see our Keith Levene interview and an overview of Public Image Limited
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