The Guardian, December 16th, 2009
© The Guardian 2009
Public Image Ltd
Birmingham, Academy, December 15 20099
* * * *
by Dave Simpson
"This is the band that taught all those second-rate wankers how to play music," begins John Lydon – nee Rotten – by way of sneering introduction to his hugely influential post->punk dub band's first gig in 17 years. In the meantime, he has reformed the Sex Pistols twice, walked out on I'm a Celebrity and appeared as a tweed-wearing English squire to advertise butter. Indeed, in recent years, punk's former enfant terrible has often seemed more pantomime villain than musician, popping up to make naughty faces at middle England. Here, shouts of "Country Life!" prompt him to tackle the slippery subject of the butter advert early on. "My pants are falling down," he splutters. "All that butter and I've still lost weight." However, jokes are otherwise thin on the ground as Public Image Ltd's reactivation finally allows him to leave that persona behind and get back to being a serious artist.
In recent interviews, Lydon insisted that his "first love", PiL, allows him freedom to express "emotions" – which aren't particularly expected from the man who once sang Pretty Vacant. But wailing through Death Disco – a song written in 1980 as his mother lay dying, and which sounds like Swan Lake crossed with the Blair Witch Project – he is putting himself on the line in a way he never did in the Pistols. Hair on end and wearing what may well be a straitjacket, this is Lydon as few have seen him: intense, unburdening and utterly compelling.
His timing is perfect. Days after The X Factor final, it's startling to be so thrillingly reminded that pop can sound this contrary, malevolent and cathartic. PiL may have lost Jah Wobble and Keith Levene, added laptops, and the 52-year-old singer requires an inhaler, but the rejigged lineup delivers the dark sorcery that made the Metal Box album such a difficult classic. The dub-heavy Albatross is so disorienting it sounds like two songs played simultaneously at different speeds, and Lydon relishes informing us after the disturbing Poptones that "you're applauding a song about brutal rape". Equally pointed is his insistence that – in a two-and-a-quarter-hour setlist with few wobbles – "every one of these songs means something".
Lydon sounds genuinely angry when he rails against Blair for taking us to war, and defends multiculturalism, but in the main, he leaves his songs to vent his feelings, from Religion's timeless attack on organised faith to Rise's "anger is an energy". This could so easily have been a shoddy cash-in, but in throwing down the gauntlet for pop music to provide more than entertainment, Lydon is back where he belongs.At Academy, Glasgow, tomorrow. Box office: 0844 477 2000. Then touring.
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