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Public Image Limited - Public Image Ltd's Reformation

  by Jon Rogers

published: 27 / 8 / 2009

Public Image Limited -  Public Image Ltd's Reformation


Jon Rogers asks what music audiences can expect from John Lydon's decision to reform Public Image Ltd after an absence of seventeen years for some live shows

Is this band’s Public Image now tarnished? “Applause can be quite pointless. When you think about it, it’s ridiculous – clapping after every single number. It’s so bloody farcical. It’s a procedure and I find all procedures rather boring” - John Lydon. After an absence of seventeen years the former Sex Pistol John Lydon has reformed Public Image Ltd. The initial excitement wore off very quickly though once it was revealed that while the figurehead might once again be in place the main supporting pillars are nowhere to be seen. The likes of Keith Levene and Jah Wobble, who made a vital contribution to the band’s first two albums, 1978's 'Public Image' and 1979's 'Metal Box – by far the most important and groundbreaking – are absent. Instead there’s Lu Edmonds (a bit player with the Damned and the Mekons), Scott Frith (a multi-instrumentalist, apparently) and former Pop Group drummer Bruce Smith. Not exactly the golden age of the band, then. Jeanette Lee is also conspicuous by her absence. Along with the likes of Magazine and Gang of Four, PiL helped usher in a more adventurous and experimental music that built on the spit and sawdust approach of punk. The bands drew on a wider palate of musical tastes, most notably a love of funk and dub reggae, and with the likes of Levene could actually play their instrument. But still maintained punk’s DIY, rudimentary attitude. After the Sex Pistols finally imploded at the Winterland in San Francisco in January 1978, Lydon, then known as Johnny Rotten, returned to London to regroup. And with Levene and Wobble on board PiL rose from the ashes. The band left their calling card, their debut single 'Public Image', in October 1978. In fact the song is by far the most accessible on their eponymous debut album (aka First Issue) which is a brutal, discordant wail. The opening 'Theme' set the stage perfectly with its monolithic, industrial drums and spidery guitar runs as Lydon screams: “I wish I could die.” Listen to this if you want to know where Trent Reznor got all is ideas from for Nine Inch Nails. And the barrage doesn’t stop on the closing 'Fodderstompf' which uses a disco beat over Lydon’s self-hatred and nihilism. Where the likes of The Clash and the Sex Pistols used a 4/4 pub rock beat to express their alienation PiL, drew on more esoteric sources and weren’t afraid to experiment. Then came their defining moment,' Metal Box', which saw Wobble’s bass way up in the mix and drawing heavily on the dub reggae of the likes of King Tubby and Augustus Pablo. The band wasn’t in a healthy state at the time, holed up in Chelsea and heavily into drugs. And Lydon was suffering with the slow death of his mother. It all came pouring out in songs like 'Swan Lake' (aka 'Death Disco'), 'Poptones' and 'Chant'. 'Metal Box' was another gruelling, unsettling listen. Over the top of Wobble’s looping bass, Levene once again put spiky, angular guitar hooks and then Lydon would add his screams of anguish. But it hit a nerve and 'Death Disco' even got the band a slot on that hallowed music show BBC1’s 'Top of the Pops'. The band wouldn’t reach the same heights of creativity again. The original trio disintegrated and line-ups came and went and, apart from the odd notable highlight like 'Flowers of Romance' and 'This is Not a Love Song', it was downhill all the way. Who remembers anything from 1987’s 'Happy'? Not me. So what can be expected from this latest edition of PiL who have announced a short five date tour of the UK? If past gigs are anything to go by it could be interesting, to say the least. In their heyday a PiL concert was something. Most degenerated into a riot or at the least several fights would break out. The band’s very first gig in Belgium set the template. The band’s first set of the night consisted of a few of the band’s songs, instrumental versions of the same songs and a version of the insensitive 'Belsen was a Gas'. Hardly a crowd-pleasing set list which caused the audience to respond by barraging the band with a shower of bottles. And the second set was just as eventful. Lydon left the stage on several occasions – and had is back to the audience when he was on stage - leaving the rest of the band to carry on playing songs no one in the audience had heard at the time. Boos erupted and eventually once the band had left the stage they barricaded themselves in the dressing room for three hours to avoid an angry mob. Fighting also broke out at the band’s second gig in Paris as punks and skinheads clashed and once again the band came under fire for 'Belsen was a Gas'. Bottles and spit rained down on the band. Two dates in London at Finsbury Park’s the Rainbow weren’t much better with fighting breaking out again. The most notorious of all was when the band ‘played’ the Ritz in New York after the release of their 1981 album, 'Flowers of Romance'. The band took the stage behind a screen and started blasting out a barely recognisable version of the title track silhouetted by a blinding light show. Then the berating began, but not from the audience, Lydon himself: “Silly ------- audience,” he sneered. The band then launched into a 10 minute experimental noise jam with Lydon wailing over the top. The crowd tried to pull down the screen and the band was subjected to another volley of bottles. Lydon goaded the crowd by saying “You’re not throwing enough.” The booing increased and the band were herded off stage and the house lights switched on. Luckily the audience didn’t riot. The planned second night was swiftly cancelled. So it’s unlikely that these new shows are going to provide anything as interesting as some of PiL’s gigs but would I rather that or some unknowns belting out karaoke versions of their ‘greatest hits’? Gimme some danger any day.

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