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Public Image LimitedPublic Image Limited
Electric Ballroom, London
Wednesday December 22 2009

 

 

 

It's 30 years since the release of Metal Box, the highly conceptual album-in-a-can which established Public Image Limited as groovy innovators, mashing up krautrock and dub to provide one of the key releases of the post-punk era. Some would say that album was Pil's finest moment. Even now, it sounds like nothing on this earth.

Certainly, in the years and albums that followed, as Pil explored other tangents before ultimately mutating into a fairly conventional alternorock outfit revolving around vocalist John Lydon and an ever-changing cast of musicians, the band never came up with anything that packed a remotely similar punch.

But now that post-punk has become one of the principal influences on contemporary music, that 30th anniversary can't be allowed to sail past unrecognised. Public Image Limited have reformed, over 15 years after the final version of the band called it quits - yep, the timescales are pretty lengthy around here.

It says much for the enduring power and influence of Metal Box that the reformation has caused such a stir. Something tells me that if Pil had reformed to mark the anniversary of one of their later, straightforwardly alternative albums, the indifference would have been deafening. You couldn't tell that to John Lydon, mind. Brimming with boundless confidence, ever-insistent that every move he's made is right, he's nothing if not a born leader. His trademark basilisk stare has always been fixed firmly on the main chance. But even Lydon must surely admit that Metal Box was - and is - a cut above. As a springboard for relaunching Pil, this anniversary couldn't be bettered. Nope, old Johnny  was never going to let this opportunity drop.

Public Image LimitedSo, Public Image Limited are back. It's not the Metal Box line-up, though. Two latter-day Pil-people have returned: Lu Edmonds, an itinerant guitarist who's been in everyone from The Damned to Shriekback before becoming part of the late 80s version of Pil, and Bruce Smith, once of The Pop Group  and more recently also of Pil's later incarnations. And on bass, filling in for absent original bassist Jah Wobble (apparently he was asked, but said no) we have newcomer Scott Firth...who previously played bass for the Spice Girls. Do we feel lucky there, I wonder?

Well, I can tell you this: they've certainly nailed the noise. It's straight in to 'Public Image', the first Pil single. The wall of guitar is as impenetrable as ever; the down-in-the-basement bass is hefty and implacable. John Lydon himself, decked out in a shirt that looks entertainingly like it's made of deckchair upholstery, unleashes his sardonic wail of a vocal, and for all the years that have passed, and notwithstanding the umpteen line-ups, there's no doubt that this is Public Image Limited. OK, chaps, you've done it. I'm convinced.

Tonight Lydon himself is in affable mood, describing himself humourously as the 'Local boy made good, and all that.' Here in Camden we're not exactly in his old stamping ground of Finsbury Park, but it's close enough for rock 'n' roll. He's clearly revelling in the air of celebration that surrounds the gig. It wasn't always like this, mind. I recall previous Pil gigs, years ago, where the audience bristled with misplaced punk rock hostility, as if they'd been instructed that was how you had to behave, and Lydon flung the antipathy straight back.

Perhaps everyone has mellowed over the years; perhaps it's taken this long to drain the dregs of punk. But tonight it all works, band and crowd swept along by a greatest hits set that - naturally - leans heavily on Metal Box songs. 'Death Disco' is a thunderous barrage, the bass crushing and nimble by turns; 'Poptones' is a nightmare soap opera, Lydon swinging an imaginary steering wheel - he looks like he's driving a bus - while stretching the vocal refrain ('Poptoneeees...' ) until his keening lament hits a frequency that almost knocks the dust off the lighting rig.

Although there's nothing new in the set, the new band has worked up the old songs and given them a fresh coat of paint. In the case of 'The Flowers Of Romance' the song has been elongated to more than twice its original duration, with John taking the chorus for several turns around the block, as Lu Edmunds switches from guitar to saz and back again in a flurry of middle eastern resonances. The late-Pil song 'Warrior', which comes up soon afterwards, sounds downright conventional by comparison. Its punch-the-air lyric - 'This is my land/I'll never surrender'- is about as close as Pil ever came to Bruce Springsteen-esque grandiosity, while the patriotic sentiment rings Public Image Limitedlike a cracked bell, coming as it does from a man who's been living in the USA for years.

But if we needed definitive proof that the original Pil mojo has been successfully coralled for the twenty-first century, here it comes in the shape of 'Religion', a throbbing behemoth in which Scott Firth demonstrates that despite a CV that's a little short on avant-rock credibility, he can still create the essential sonic boom. 'Turn up the bass!' commands Lydon, and the Electric Ballroom fairly shudders on its foundations. Now that's Public Image Limited.

It's been a long, strange, and somewhat disjointed trip for Pil, but perhaps the band's lengthy lay-off wasn't such a bad thing. It's prompted a reappraisal of Pil's achievements - not least, Metal Box itself, an album so far out on its own limb it could have been recorded yesterday. With Pil now back as a going concern - further gigs and new recordings are soon-come, we're told - could they crack it again? Will the present focus on the band's most experimental period concentrate the current line-up's collective mind?

I'm making no predictions - my memory of the band's later, somewhat underwhelming, alternorock period is still a liittle too fresh - but for now, for this, it's good to have 'em back. Turn up the bass, indeed.


Public Image Limited: Website | MySpace

The Fodderstompf fansite, the most comprehensive Pil info resource, is here.

For more photos from this gig, find Public Image Limited by name here.

Public Image Limited

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