Down Beat, August, 1980

Transcribed by M

© 1980 Down Beat

Public Image Ltd:
Olympic Auditorium, Los Angeles, California

by Chris Lord

As debacles go, Public Image's Los Angeles "anti-rock" debut was a wild success.

As in a pitched battle, customers assaulted the stage and sometimes each other in this old boxing arena. PiL counter-attacked with a wall of drums and bass mixed uninvitingly loud and a jangly, intense guitar mixed barely below this. Live, PiL experiments less with tone and texture than on record, sticking to mostly bass-heavy rock. The vocal sound, as always, was alienated, hollow and dire, the lyrics gloomy and disjointed, the melodies scant and repititious.

PiL assaults easy targets: our complacency and the insanity of blind good manners in a dying world. The singer gloomily mocks well-manicured lives, while the band seethes with a manic hum. The guitar expresses the chaotic anguish hidden behind both the singer's gloom and society's polite acquiescence to a life of "twisted amenities" in "allotted slots" ("No Birds").

Yet PiL claim that it is not a "political" band, and that entertainment is the first priority. Paradoxically, in "Poptones" they tell of people figuratively eating each other alive while listening to pop music; "Poptones"' initially inviting guitar line becomes drab and anti-pop in its monotonous repetition. One is entertained by PiL only if one agrees with their point of view. They have neither set out to spread a message, nor to cop rock's "entertaining" brains-in-crotch attitudes. The lyrics and the entertainment simply come from representing musically who they are.

The high point of their May 4 show was the song "Public Image," which attacks the money making attitudes that reduce musicians to "product" while fostering a ludicrous star system. The tune is based on Lydon's experience as Sex Pistol Johnny Rotten, who attracted the very worshippers he initially scorned.

Now, two years and a new band later, all his old battles have yet to be won. The morons are still out in force.

When Wobble and Atkins come on alone to play five minutes of bass and drums, many in the crowd still don't get it. Levene and Lydon join the show. As the band unleashes "Careering" and "Annalisa" over a clear sound system, the crowd heaves and pitches, showering PiL with punk spit. It is not well taken.

The sneering, abusive Sex Pistols expected to get spit on. But tonight, Lydon had seemed almost friendly, and willing to entertain. He dances, skanking loosely in a tight black deacon's robe. He regards his raiment, now covered with spit.

Levene looks blasé, uninvolved, at times hurting the music with only nominal guitar playing. For all the "anti-rock" elements, though, the sound is not unlike good rock and roll.

The spit continues to fly, undiminished by Lydon's sarcasm. "The likes of you and me is an embarrassment" he sings in "Chant," as he sprays the crowd with beer, squatting to take whatever comes back. His vocal is anguished in "Swan Lake," but Levene is playing with lessening energy until, disheartened and mad, he stops altogether. Atkins has long since retired to a rather small corner of his large drum kit, but with Wobble he cranks out the song for several more minutes, while Levene and Lydon half-heartedly wander the stage, sing, and noodle on synthesizer.

PiL regroups with "Poptones," Lydon repeating the title with dire, drawn out moans. His sarcastic epithets continue through "Religion." The band appears to go through the motions, but still sounds good.

Customers yank monitors off the stage. Somehow, being surrounded by catastrophe provides and appropriate setting for the gloomy music; the prophets of doom are surrounded by present disaster. They play on. It sounds great. Still, the hassles have killed a lot of energy. Lydon mourns an appropriate "Bad Baby," first sharing the mike with a kid in the crowd, then bringing him onstage to sing it alone. Lydon hands him a lyric book, striking another blow for "anti-rock," deflating star images with an "anyone can do this" attitude. He encourages the ten year old, exhorts the crowd, and some of the show's energy returns.

Suddenly, when PiL unleashes "Public Image," all the energy is back. But this is a night of extremes, and the energy is lost when Lydon tells the kid to make the next song up. The kid hasn't a clue. Lydon sings a few lines; the band, as always, grinds on. A few fans thrash and holy-roll around on the stage, while the first kid adds to the chaos by playing synthesizer notes at random. Finally the song dissolves in disparate nothings. A short pause. "Ah, we've had enough. Goodnight." Lydon shakes the kid's hand. Half the crowd sits in wonder. The other half claps for a long time. More fights break out. The band is gone.

Though I wanted less spectacle and more music, I was definitely entertained.


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