NME, 2nd February, 1980
© 1980 NME
Paris, le Palace, France, January 1980
Heavy Metal Boxed
by Frazer Clarke
There would be no irony in the name Public Image Ltd if the band didn't have such a strong penchant for annoying and irritating, generally disappointing expectations to the point where their following is only a tiny fraction of it's potential public. So it is with PiL's attitude to playing live. A British tour might have helped the 'Metal Box' become a chart album, but the band have chosen to shun home audiences and emerge from the studio to play only a handful of continental gigs.
None of the group seen to gain any pleasure from being on stage: Keith Levene reacted to the spitting faction with a petulance of a teased school girl ('Cunt that spit make me sick'); and John Lydon's words of wisdom were 'I'll walk of this fucking stage if you don't stop spitting' and 'Good ain't we?'
In fact, no one who's seen both Bowie and Lydon live would dream that the latter is being touted the face of the 70's. When he's not frozen to the microphone, his movements comprise a few effeminate attempts at dancing and for one number the clever trick of turning his back on the audience.
Lydons strength lies in the persistant whine of his voice, which is as provocative and disturbing as his lyrics. He looks bored, but his voice gives the impression he's performing under torture. There are obvious parallels with David Byrne's psychotic stage presence. Wobble has the voice and manner of a thug, but the constant throb of his bass provides PiL with their only source of warmth. His ludicrous overcoat was the one reason for smiling during the evening. Throughout, Wobble competes for the attention with Levenes obsessively strident guitar, which itself enough to make PiL outstanding. On 'Bad Baby', Wobble wins by brute force, but Levene is generally deft enough to sustain his pre-eminence.
PiL are essentially a democratic structure, although Levene seems to be in charge of the orchestration. He adds the synthesiser touches which sound like breaking glass to 'Careering' and on one occasion he appeared he appeared to be telling Martin Atkins how to play the drums. Atkins role in the band is little more than to give out a steady, a musical may pole for the others to decorate; and he's the only member without a public image.
The music was mostly from the 'Metal Box' - compulsive listening, impressive and powerful without being exhilarating. It is not PiLs intention to furnish cheap thrills or amusing diversions for the masses. 'Public Image Limited' was the only pop tune played, and even this was rapidly dispensed with. The commercial potential in the dance rhythm of 'Swan Lake/Death Disco' is sacrificed to Lydons agonised vocal and the guitars chilling combination of discordance and touches of Tchaikosky.
Far more typical of the evening as a whole was 'Chant', a formidable depressant. Lydon is pained and annoyed and he wants you to feel that way too. The song has a manic sense of urgency, which is re-fuelled each time the chant begins. The French have likened Lydon to Cammus' homme revolt ('The man who says NO'), and here it's easy to see why.
Rejection of the societies norms is also the theme of 'No Birds', during which Lydon stretches each syllable to an obscene length in order to make his point. Around him, the tune churns forward with a nagging insistence. The set ended as arbitrarily as any of the songs: 'No Birds' over, Levene, Wobble and Lydon had a union meeting and downed tools. As he scampered offstage, Lydon snatched his exercise book/lyric sheet from the music stand which had served as a superfluous prop.
The audiences irritation was obvious, and took it upon themselves to shout 'Sex Pistols!... We want Johnny Rotten!' I've never seen a band give an encore after being jeered off. This was an alienating performance, but if it were John Lydons aim to be a popular sucess he'd be singing re-treads of 'Pretty Vacant', or perhaps a new wave version of 'We Wish You A Merry Christmas'.
We should be grateful.
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