“Your alter-ego is a moron, 30 years too late, No closet is private, Can see the crack in your face”. Tonight in Leeds John Lydon is spitting out the words to ‘Low Life’, a song that first appeared on Public Image: First Issue, the debut offering of Public Image Ltd a band that in 1978 rose phoenix-like and in a completely different form out of the scattered ashes of the Sex Pistols. He could now be very well singing about Johnny Rotten, his other, former self; a man who was vilified by polite society as he led that group of miscreants in what was the explosive and thrilling vanguard of British punk music. Looking back through the telescope of the present day it is perhaps difficult to fully comprehend the shockwaves caused by the Pistols at that time. Banned most everywhere, their anarchic non-conformist stance, characterised by an almost treasonable disregard for our monarchy may today appear rather tame, but in the two and half turbulent years of their existence the Sex Pistols’ power and fiercely independent spirit had an almost immeasurable creative and cultural impact upon the face of popular music. And John Lydon was the most recognizable face of that change.
It is hard to reconcile that snarling, vituperative image with the man who has since appeared in the jungle in I’m A Celebrity…., revealed himself as a compassionate animal lover in Mega Bugs and been featured in what given his past were the strangely jingoistic adverts for Country Life butter. But that advertising campaign did at least enable him to finance the re-emergence of the Public Image project in 2009 and then embark upon their first live appearances in more than 17 years.
While the Pistols’ stripe was marked by a nihilistic take on more conventional rock and roll, Public Image Ltd wore a coat of a wholly different colour. Their hue may have been shaped by the dub reggae of Lee Perry, the early ‘70’s Krautrock of Can and the last vestiges of punk, funk and disco but the colossus of sound that they created had an altogether unique stamp. It was, and still is music that may have many imitators but does not in itself imitate.
PiL, in its most abbreviated form open with ‘Deeper Water’. Taken as it is from last year’s album This Is PiL and with its dark, claustrophobic and incessant groove it shows that Lydon and his band are never going to opt for the more comfortable shallows of the end-of-the-pier show. ‘One Drop’ and ‘Out Of The Woods’, both taken from the same record, further emphasise that this isn’t merely about the recreation of former glories, but that said it is the earlier material which particularly highlights the sheer distinctiveness of PiL in the canon of contemporary music. ‘Albatross’ from their second album Metal Box will never be extinct; it is an exorcism of the freedom of expression. ‘Death Disco’ is truly terrifying, the lower level of the bass frequencies creeping up into your rib cage and reverberating uncomfortably therein. And ‘Warrior’ sees Lydon at his most political and confirming that his voice is still one of the greatest instruments in music; an angry, defiant, rebellious scream doused in the brandy which he intermittently gargles and then spits out all over the Academy stage in true punk fashion. His faux-pantomime villain persona may today owe more to Wilfred Bramble and Frankie Howard than Johnny Rotten but boy can he still sing.
For sheer intensity this show could never hope to match their marathon two and half hour performance here in December 2009 which must surely go down as one of the greatest gigs in living memory. It even pales slightly when held up against the triumph that was Glastonbury earlier this year, but it is nonetheless a most remarkable exercise in self-determination. PiL has always been Lydon’s first musical love and you sense it will probably be his last and by just being here this evening we can only feel blessed to have been a very small part of that on-going affair.