Alex Nelson gives his verdict on Public Image Ltd live at Norwich UEA
The last time I got the chance to catch Public Image Ltd live I left halfway through due to the influence of a then girlfriend bemused by the caterwauling of John Lydon (it “wasn’t for her”).
That’s exactly the sort of thing that would probably get you a slap from ol’ Johnny Rotten, and half of the congregation at tonight’s Norwich UEA show if the vintage punk shirts and spiked haircuts are any indication.
Thankfully, I’m in older (and wiser) company this time, and sticking around to the very end of the prominent post-punkers’ two-hour set reveals a treasure trove-like musical schooling that won’t be forgotten in a hurry.
The inimitable Lydon is on fine form tonight; at times sharing tales of a regional family holiday he took as a youngster (“I spent a whole winter in Bacton so I’m practically a local… it was fucking shit!”), at others passionately berating the crowd for letting the smoking ban creep into legislation (“You have to get breathalysed at the door for gigs… you let this happen you bunch of wankers!”).
While those who idolise the rebellious anti-hero may be left wanting for the sneering, rotten days of his Pistols punk heyday, the music backing the 59-year old’s pantomime-esque diatribes ain’t half bad either.
Cuts from this year’s What The World Needs Now… like ‘Corporate’ and opener ‘Know Now’ pale in comparison to their influential, more long-form cousins from earlier in the band’s catalogue, but still pack an uncomfortable punch that’s refreshingly hard to put your finger on.
Highlight of the evening comes in the form of ‘Poptones’ from PiL’s seminal 1979 record Metal Box, a queasy blend of discordant guitar chords snaking around an insistent bassline. That it hardly changes direction over the course of its eight-minute span only adds to its unnerving qualities, and it sounds captivatingly ahead of the curve 36 years on from its inception.
Lydon calls to “turn up the bass”, projecting to the sound engineer with clasped hands during a thrilling closing rendition of ‘Religion’ (at first a tounge-in-cheek request, then a mantra repeated ad nauseum as ear drums flap and speaker cabinets wobble). As the melting pot of rhythms gets embedded into any brain open to its infectious cadence, it wavers gleefully as it passes the ten minute mark. The longer the track could go on, the less we want it to end.
But indeed, eventually, the lights come back up and we’re returned to the real world with a thud, back outside for a cigarette, passing signs for Bacton on the country roads home. You’re right John. We are wankers.