Musician Player and Listener, May, 1980

Transcribed by M

© 1980 MPL

New York, Palladium, 20th April, 1980

Public Image

by Chip Stern

On April 20, Public Image Ltd. made their New York debut at the Palladium, and a month later they turned American Bandstand into a puppet theatre of controlled chaos by dancing and goofing their way through lip-synchs of "Poptones" and "Careering." Dick Clark looked none too pleased as Lydon roamed through the audience like a death-star Dennis The Menace: the band played in direct opposition to their pre-recorded material.

I'm not sure that anyone will take me at face value if I say that Public Image's Palladium date was the best rock concert I've ever heard. After all, singer Johnny Lydon—speaking pistol-in-cheek—has gone to great lengths to posture himself as far from traditional rock stardom and song forms. Who could imagine that this wise-ass street urchin's grey, existential indictment of all values and history could be so affirmative and uplifting. PiL isn't preaching nihilism, but freedom of the human spirit. If "Radio 4" affirms a belief in something infinite and peaceful, the majority of Public Image's music speaks of the tensions that bind us, the misconceptions that blind us and the system that subjugates our spirit. At the center of their sound is Jah Wobble's inexorable electric bass, thumping away like a heart; skipping a beat here and there, avoiding the usual harmonic resolutions; anchoring all the confusion and dissonance in something steady like the basic beat of reggae. The Palladium concert began with Wobble and drummer Martin Atkins in a duet that was melodically free but physically immediate, so much so that the entire audience pogoed without let-up. Lydon and guitarist-keyboardist Keith Levene then came on and the band launched into "Careering," overlaying a thorny surface metallic blips and beeps, synthesizer murk and power chords against the grain. Lydon's frenetic, charismatic singing gave everything unity and direction, a sort of avant-garde dub. "A face is raining / across the border / The pride of history / the same as murder / he's been careering ... is this living?" Lydon sang over the barren, post-war soundscape. He turned his pantonal ravings into melody much as an avant-garde jazzman would do it, by following a rhythmic contour with an unshakeable feeling for the beat. And in the process of atomizing civilization, Lydon often eradicated distinctions between himself and that which he criticized ("I've been careering"), which is a humanizing touch.

Public Image is the apotheosis of a thousand garage bands trying to play with the free form energy of a Cecil Taylor or Ornette Coleman, the maturation of what the Velvet Underground proposed on "Sister Ray." The emotional power of Public Image far exceeded their technical limitations, and their combination of free textures, drones, ethnic suggestions and dance rhythms is gripping and unprecedented in rock. The Clash have already outflanked the forces of corporate mind control, armed with rock 'n' roll they've attacked the underbelly of pop. Public Image has taken their ugly music straight into the enemy fortifications — party music for the Great Depression, a real dance on the grave. Where do I sign up?


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