Forty years have passed since the summer of 1976, that long, hot summer when punk’s adrenaline rush threatened to sweep away anything and everything that threatened to get in its way.  The Sex Pistols were punk rock’s leading lights and singer Johnny Rotten was punk’s poster boy, although whether the band were a credible threat to the establishment or simply puppets – the punky Monkees –  of manager Malcolm McLaren’s situationist art project has become a moot point.  “Ever had the feeling you’ve been cheated?” sneered Rotten to an audience  the Pistols reached the point of self destruction.  I’ve never been too sure whether he was addressing the audience or himself.

Pilcroponline

The Sex Pistols ran their course and then some, Rotten bailing out and leaving the others to wallow in the death throes of self parody.  He quickly returned under his real name, John Lydon, with a new band PiL (Public Image Ltd) mixing punk with dub reggae and experimental influences from Krautrock pioneers Can. The band’s first album was a critical success and the second, Metal Box, an instant classic. PiL has continued over the years as an ever-changing cast of musicians with Lydon at its core, popping up every so often to release an new album or go out on tour.

Lydon also regularly appears as a television talking head where his permanently sneering, cynical demeanour had led me to fear that a PiL live show would see him merely going through the motions and having a laugh at the expense of the audience.  My expectations were not raised by the presence at the front of the stage of a music stand containing song lyrics in a font size normally reserved for the top line of an optician’s eye chart.

Tonight’s venue has a nominal capacity of 800 and is filled to at least that capacity.  The band, Bruce Smith on drums and vocals, Lu Edmonds on guitars and vocals and Scott Firth on bass, keyboards and vocals take to the stage, Smith and Firth immediately locking into a tight groove.  From my position immediately in front of one of the PA stacks, every thwack of Smith’s bass drum threatens to part my hair in new and interesting ways.  Edmonds teases out the familiar riff to Albatross from Metal Box and Lydon takes to the stage to the expected rapturous reception.  Lydon delivers his vocals with a mixture of stentorian bellows and falsetto yelps and I’m happy to say that any concerns that I had about going through the motions are quickly extinguished, he is giving this his all.  As the set develops I also begin to suspect that Lydon’s cynical persona is sham and that he secretly might be a bit of a sweetheart.PiLLIVEonline1

The set list covers the band’s history but a few more Metal Box songs wouldn’t have hurt – Death Disco is the only other to make an appearance.  At one point Lydon breaks off to shout “Oi, you – fuck off!” as a front of stage bouncer moves in to settle down a couple of enthusiastic fans.  After the song ends, Lydon speaks directly to the bouncer.  “We know you’ve got a job to do” he says in almost conciliatory tones “but these people have come here to dance.  Leave them alone.”  Being Lydon, he spies an opportunity for mischief.  “Come to think of it” he baits the audience “I’m sick of all this fucking dancing, I’m off home.  Three quarters of you don’t know how to dance anyway.”An announcement that today is Firth’s birthday leads to a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday To You from the crowd, resulting in Lydon looking genuinely touched.  “Fucking nice.” he says.  “That’s proper.”  The centrepiece of the gig is an extended version of Religion, Lydon railing against Angela Merkel and organised religion.  “Turn up the bass, turn up the bass, turn up the bass, turn up the bass” Lydon chants, looking in his draped shirt and trousers like a cross between Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Pilsbury Doughboy.  The bass is turned up, and up, and up until it seems likely that my kidneys might liquefy.

Rise provides a brilliant singalong finale and encores I’m Not Satisfied and Shoom bring the gig to a joyous close.  Ever had the feeling you’ve been cheated?  Not tonight, John.  It was proper.

Set list

Albatross

Double Trouble

Know Now

This Is Not a Love Song

Deeper Water

Corporate

Death Disco

The One

The Order of Death

The Body

Warrior

Religion

Rise

I’m Not Satisfied

Open Up / Shoom

John Scott

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