Melody Maker, 31 December, 1978
© 1978 Melody Maker
Public Image Ltd:
Live at the Rainbow
by Jon Savage
If Rotten (with the latter-day Pistols) excelled at the theatre of alienation -- that gulf between performer and audience which, when stretched, could be intensely provocative and destructive of many of the false 'object relationships' endemic to entertainment -- then he crowned it on Christmas night.
The man looked at the crowd -- everybody's favourite nightmare: the audience looked at the band -- three nervous musicians and a nervous charisma. The vortex between them sucked everything out.
The video of the Hit 45 suggests a fair likeness of PiL on stage. Wobble sits throughout, 'skiving'; Walker holds the bottom down at a nod from the others. Levene stands stock still, occasionally turning his back or executing random passes with Rotten, at a stroke shifting the whole visual focus. This, however, as expected, is mainly Rotten's show.
Tonight he pulls some of the old SP stunts -- insulting the audience, being deliberately lazy -- while using the space that PiL give him to move around a lot. Except now there is a new element of preaching and self-justification: he whines about the Pistols, the press, the audience, Glitterbest, etc. more than is necessary. It sits ill with the traces of his previous persona, and subtracts from the still fragile freedom that PiL have provided. And it's all about him: pointing at himself, megalomania rampant, I Wanna Be MEEEEE!
With thousands of eyes bleeding him, he is still magnetic and mesmeric, but his gestures fall into the gap between the raw band and the audience, waiting only, if not to be loved or even led, to watch.
A year -- did you miss him while he was away? Unsurprisingly, he finds it hard to carve out a new relationship between himself, the audience, and the stage.
PiL play the album except 'Fodderstompf,' with an added 'Belsen was a Gas', the lyrics thankfully changed. The set starts brilliantly with 'Theme': the album beings to make sense, played live, as the massive Germanic structures boom and Rotten whirls, but bad timing, the harangues, equipment problems and a couple of crudely manipulative touches reinforce the alienation. From then on, it's all downhill.
The longer they play, the more the clapping decreases. Unable, unwilling to dance, the audience seethes and the fight starts. Rotten stops the song, yells in disgust: 'You skins -- wankers -- you got the wrong enemy again; will you never learn?' He's still in control, but it's a bit late to start housetraining the audience now.
After a perfunctory reading of the hit, the group splits. No encore. The audience feels had. The atmosphere is ugly idealism perverted into inept nihilism, liable to move into more dangerous areas.
PiL have great and undoubted potential; as their album is an infuriating, amusing mixture of the brilliant and diabolical, so was this performance. Behind obvious first-night nerves and inexperience, aggravated by PiL's insistence on getting their feet wet in the Rainbow, lie more fundamental problems: PiL and Rotten in particular seem to treat the business of making statements so seriously that they neglect to get their base right.
Rotten is quite right to pin the blame for much of what has happened over the last year on the biz, exemplified as much as anything by the vampirous mood of the crowd. It's an area where he has the power to effect change, but the music just isn't up to carrying the load.
PiL are also too prone to blame everyone except themselves: that tonight was far from a success can be laid fairly and squarely on them, just as much as on the audience. They will, no doubt, improve -- time will tell.
Meanwhile, the final frame is Rotten, alone (the group has fled) on the stage. In front of him a dozen burly bouncers face the crowd. They start to peel off, attack ... Oh, go, Johnny, go.
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