John Lydon’s Public Image Ltd are back after touring to sell-out audiences in 2018, celebrating PiL’s 40th anniversary and the release of The Public Image Is Rotten.
As his colleagues line-up to the rear of the stage, the ever charismatic Lydon receives a warm Birmingham Institute welcome. With a half sneer, half smile, preparing lyric sheets on a lectern, he fronts the longest running PiL line-up since reactivation in 2009. His audience, the majority with at least some punk rebellion still running through their veins, watch on in awe.
For three songs I’m up close to the icon formerly known as Johnny Rotten. With arms spread, bellowing, contorting and raging through ‘Religion II’, it’s a sight to behold and an experience to savour. Still with that unique, eerie, anti-singing vocal, he sounds ferocious and unwavering. So what if he’s renounced the idea of anarchy; and so what if he’s decked out in one of those Cuban tour shirts you can pick-up for seventy quid; the man is a legend and a natural born entertainer.
Following on with ‘Memories’ and ‘The Body’. Scott Firth’s heavy bass and Lou Edmonds experimental guitar add to the dark, abstract sound of PiL.with Lydon at the heart of the performance. The set moves on to include a range of material, from 1989’s motivational mantra ‘Warrior’, to the 2015 single and love song for Nora, ‘The One’.
The bass line for ‘Death Disco’ threatens to crumble the Institute. From the classic 1979 album ‘Metal Box’ it’s an ode to the passing of Lydon’s mother. A raw and passionate affair, it appears to have every soul on the floor dancing; be it with arms in the air, or just a spot of shoegazing.
For many, John Lydon is a genius who speaks the absolute truth. For others he’s an attention seeker and shameless contradictor. Whatever the view, his cut-throat reference to Danny Boyle and the biopic series ‘Pistol’ comes and goes with no surprise tonight. More of a shock is a security guard receiving his wrath, when he appears to be trying to assist somebody in the crowd. Clearly John had seen something that wasn’t obvious to those of us in the balcony.
As the show enters its final stages we are treated to ‘This Is Not a Love Song’, that oh-so irritating, cheeky, yet brilliant 1983 hit. Then from 1978 the outstanding post-Pistols, debut single ‘Public Image’. My highlight of the night and no doubt for many others. Firth and Edmonds emulating the swirling, hypnotic simplicity of Wobble and Levene, with Lydon’s raw, rotten vocal floating over the top. The Birmingham audience lap it up, even if it does knock the stuffing out of you to realise it was released 44 years ago.
An encore of ‘Shoom’ and the 1983 Leftfield collaboration ‘Open Up’ precede the almighty ‘Rise’. The crowd know every word and bullet point the “I could be wrong, I could be right” and “May the road rise with you” sections, before Lydon has them whipped up for the final “Anger is an energy”. Graciously he bathes in the acknowledgement.
Tonight I’ve witnessed a captivating and powerful performance, which allows me to truly understand the general consensus of critics and peers alike, that PiL are one of the most influential bands of all time. With suggestion that new material is in the pipeline, they will continue to challenge and thrive for sure.
Review & Photography: Steve Johnston