Public Image Limited aka PiL @ Coventry Kasbah, 31st May 2011

Another review for Birmingham Live!

Photo by Ken Harrison – view the full pictures at Ken Harrison Photography

And so to the first night of two acts in succession I’m lucky to review. Much in common – punk upstarts, started in the 70‘s, done over (or not) by Malcolm McClaren, reinvented themselves and back out on tour (again) after a decade and a half. Tonight cometh the iconic godfather (probably phrases said lead singer wouldn’t like) of punk – John Lydon and his band he formed well over thirty years,Public Image Limited (PiL).


Formed in 1978, Lydon remains the only sole consistent member. Their musical sound covered a diverse experimental range of sounds – from screaming chants and bile ridden attacks of ‘Public Image’ and ‘This is Not a Love Song’ through the the ‘rise’ of their 1986 release – classically and simply marketed as ‘Album’, ‘Cassette’ and ‘Compact Disc’ – mixed with the Lydon sneer and haunting, rising melodies. Subsequent sounds kept Lyon’s trademark venom, but verged more into dance.Then in ’92 they called it a day, PiL officially in hiatus, Lydon occasionally appearing with the reformed Sex Pistols, and in a brilliant turn on “I’m a Celebrity…..” a total polar opposite of what one would expect, but no parody – maybe two fingers to the reality TV  genre, they clearly signed him because of his unpredictability. Far more astute than that, he walked, but we all knew he would have won, hands down.

To quote a comment on the PiL website “He also brings quality TV to the masses”. Too right.

Lydon’s ability to do the polar opposite of what people would expect of him, took him to “Country Life Butter’ adverts, and gave him the financial ability to reform and tour PiL in late 2009. Featuring earlier PiL members Bruce Smith (Drums) and Lu Edmonds (Guitars and Misc), plus Scott Firth(Bass), they play seven live dates for the first time in seventeen years. This is just one of a further few dates around the UK and at festivals in 2011.

Tonight’s gig is all about PiL. It’s about their music. All their classic songs. This is not about John Lydon misbehaving, spitting venom and winding the crowd up. If fact, unusually, he barely speaks. The crowd is mainly white and over forty – splattered with the occasional punk. One punk guy and his missus brought the kids along – the first time he’d had the opportunity to see PiL – to say he was excited was an understatement.

“Good evening Coventry.” Heckle from an audience member. “There’s always one that has to say a naughty word. Come all this way…..” and PiL start as they mean to go on – with ‘Public Image.’ Lydon, with spiked blonde hair, is dressed in docks, baggy trousers, white shirt, black buttoned jacket, is posing in classic Lydon style. He is mesmerizing to watch. Then straight into ‘Home.’

You could see different sections of the audience picking up on the diverse genres of tracks, whether it was old PiL, the more mainstream ‘Album’ era or later, dancier tracks. ‘This is Not a Love Song’ with the classic bass rhythm, was turned into a 12” mega remix – in fact, pretty much all the tracks ran on and on, in no way your three-minute pop song. Lydon stood in front of a surround of front facing monitors, to his side a music stand, with lyrics to give him an occasional reminder. No earplugs to help his vocals, they were, as unusual and warped as ever (“I sound like a bag of kittens thrown down the staircase”).

“Thank you for putting up with us – more disgusting rubbish….” and into ‘Ease’. The song completed, Lydon wiped the sweat from his brow – “Would you believe it – I’m f***** out of words! It must be ‘cos I’m happy!” The rest of the band are great musicians, Edmonds playing unusual guitars, what looked to be an electric sitar and a large banjo-like instrument with a violin bow. Meanwhile bass player, Firth, during ‘Flowers’ used an upright classical electric bass with fret-board only. Closing the main set with the whirling ‘Religion’, another track that rolled on and on.

Five minutes later, the band came back on stage, Lydon with a bottle on Cognac in hand.  “This is what you want! This is what you get!” and we’re off into ‘Order of Death’ before the classic ‘Rise’. “Anger is an energy…” the crowd sing along – Lydon – ‘Does anyone know the words?’ before the crowd totally bounce along to the final song of the night, somewhat bizarrely, to the stunning dance Leftfield / Lydon collaboration ‘Open Up.’

After a two hour set of rolling class, Lydon claps the audience in appreciation. “Good evening from PiL. Thank Coventry, you’ve been cool.”

Lydon has been accused of becoming almost becoming a cartoon character of his punk and eccentric image. But what he is, is far more. Fiercely articulate and intelligent, he is far more than just the obnoxious lead singer of a punk band that may have changed the world  thirty odd years ago – PiL over the years have created a series of foot stomping classics, utilizing rock, dance, folk, ballet, pop and dub. Tonight’s gig was serious, not just a Lydon misbehavior – and rumour has it, if they can get the funds together – expect new PiL tracks.

Punk changed the world of music. It gave a multitude of musicians the opportunity to create music for the masses that just wouldn’t have been thought possible to achieve. PiL are entirely a class act – and for all who have been inspired by the opportunity to create alternative music, then surely the opportunity to see one of the most eclectic and revolutionary artists of recent times, on form, is a must. Lydon is far more than a cartoon character and more than just a national treasure, he provides a masterclass in longevity, charisma and that chameleon approach to being open to create and vocalise, logic and music in a truly different and unique approach. If you get the opportunity, a must go and see.

Bizarrely later that night in Coventry there was a slight ‘disturbance’ at a nearby club. Nowt to do with the PiL gig, the fact there was a riot in a city where PiL played was a weird quirk of fate…

Public Image
Love Song
Pop Tones
Death Disco
Flowers of Romance

Order of Death
Open Up

Mr Lydon’s ramblings
Public Image Limited which features audio tracks of their best songs.