Public Image Ltd @ Hi-Fi, Brisbane (9/4/2013)
Johnny Rotten’s still inside John Lydon. Public Image Limited must have seemed like an exorcism of the character he’d played in The Sex Pistols at the time, both through the single ‘Public Image’ (“I’m not the same as when I began”), and their music giving room to the experimental tendencies that had been quashed by the persona, but it didn’t take. By the end of PiL’s original run he had them playing ‘Anarchy in the UK’, and later he re-formed the Pistols for as long as they could stand each other. While Lydon’s returned to PiL now – triumphantly, with last year’s This is PiL feeling like a genuine resurrection of intent and not a moneygrab – you’d probably need an old priest and a young priest to extract Rotten entirely from Lydon at this point.
So when he walks onto the stage in a loose striped t-shirt and striped pants like a rave convict, his first act is to rant about “his “misogynist appearance on The Project. His second is to wail like a Tuvan throat-singer to introduce ‘Four Enclosed Walls’, which is followed by the ten-and-a-half minute ‘Albatross’. Back to back these lengthy, endurance-testing songs are like a warning sign at a fairground ride: “You must be at least this forgiving of artistic indulgence to enter.”
When Lydon warbles for about 30 seconds and then theatrically puts his hand to his ear as if he expects us to repeat after him, the response is half-hearted. He’s unimpressed. We were hoping maybe he’d go off on one about Margaret Thatcher, but he seems more upset with us. When he does mention Thatcher it’s briefly, just to say, “Big Bird is dead. I mean no evil to anyone. Goodbye, Maggie!” Coming from him, that’s downright respectful.
“Anger is an energy, and it can be a positive one”
A few songs later Lydon and the band of skilful Fleetwood Mac-looking session musos he’s got standing in for PiL these days do ‘Reggie Song’ and everything picks up. It’s catchy; he gets to declaim like a preacher man with his arms stretched out and even do a bit of dad-dancing into the bargain. The response to this and the songs that follow is much more raucous. “This is how it works,” Lydon says approvingly. “You play, and we play.” Apparently it’s our fault he started the set with a couple of PiL’s dullest songs, but whatever. From this point on everything is love, enthusiastic clapping to the beat and singing the bits he wants us to sing. We even forgive him for spitting into a bucket between songs (he could at least spit on us) and saying he’s not impressed by Julia Gillard: “The only thing that nose is good for is sitting on.” When someone down the front starts screaming back at him for that, he apologetically replies, “Fair do’s, look at some of the shithawks we’ve got over in England. Peace.”
I’ve dismissed the current PiL backing band so far, but when they get to cut loose from the template in ‘Death Disco’, playing the ‘Swan Lake’ motif but then dancing around it and improvising in two different directions at once it’s actually pretty impressive. ‘This Is Not a Love Song’ and ‘Public Image’ follow, a run during which everything comes together and all the promise of Lydon’s punk sneer being combined with songs that go for more than four minutes is lived up to. When he sings that “goodbye” at the end of ‘Public Image’ now it’s a jaunty doff-of-the-cap, an “I’ll see you later for the encore” rather than a choking death rattle.
In the middle of that encore they play ‘Rise’, which is probably the reason half of us are here. The Rotten in Lydon is finally unleashed fully, rolling his Rs and reading the line differently as he repeats “Anger is an energy!” He holds the microphone out over the audience and there’s no hesitation in singing along this time, every bit of our anger – and maybe a fair bit of it’s been inspired by Lydon himself – is channeled back in this unified moment of catharsis. Anger is an energy, and it can be a positive one.
Instead of ending there, they finish with ‘Open Up’, the Leftfield song Lydon featured on in 1993. His band seamlessly transition into early ‘90s dance music while he asks us to make room inside of ourselves for a little bit of him, which would have seemed like a terrible idea an hour and a half ago but is a pretty tempting offer now. Johnny Rotten’s still inside John Lydon, but there’s probably some of that willfully offensive fuck-the-world stupid punk rage in the rest of us too. God help us all.