I confess I didn’t venture to the Club Nokia on Sunday night with any interest, or for that matter, knowledge of the music of Public Image Limited outside of the handful of commercially available singles that popped up over the years. It’s probably for the best that I had no exposure to them since I had no pre-conceived notions about what to expect, what songs I just had to hear, or even any knowledge of their catalogue.
I went to Club Nokia to see a fucking legend; Johnny Rotten. John Lydon hasn’t been Johnny Rotten for a very long time, but there were glimpses of that surly politically incorrect rude son of a bitch that fronted a band that altered the course of musical history on Sunday night forever, when the Sex Pistols exploded onto the scene in the late 70’s and became the pioneers of Punk Rock.
Although the Pistols were gone within 3 years of their formation, they changed the world. Some would say for the better, and some would say for the worse. The Sex Pistols were a drunken, heroin influenced train wreck. Their front man couldn’t carry a tune, and didn’t care to try, their Bass Player, well he wasn’t really a Bass Player at all, offed himself on heroin and the band was dead and gone by 1978. But make no mistake, they were one of the single biggest influences on music and culture of the past 40 years. That, to me, was worth a trip to see Johnny and PIL on Sunday Night.
After spending the first hour of the show fixated on photographing Lydon and his band mates I packed my cameras away and tried to absorb what PIL was doing. The music was anarchic, disjointed, and monotonous but surprisingly pretty damn good. To be honest, listening to PIL reminded me very much of a show I saw several years ago where Sean Lennon Ono repackaged his mother’s “music” and surrounded her with masterful musicians making her incessant howling, not only tolerable, but actually pretty palatable. He made sense of it.
Make no mistake, no one wants to hear Yoko Ono without those masterful musicians behind her and it took Sean’s unique approach to turn her compositions into something that actually resembled music. But once he did that, you could actually, for once hear and understand that Yoko had a very unique sound that was in fact music. It was at its inception something more like performance art as opposed to music. I would make the exact same analogy to what I saw Sunday in PIL’s performance.
PIL is an assemblage of oddball virtuoso musicians who filled in and made logic of Lydon’s completely non-musical lyrical vision that was in many ways very much like Ono’s performance art howls. If Yoko had the good fortune of being in London in 1977 and had met Malcolm McClaren it would not be difficult to see her fronting a ground breaking new band with no musical ability and that howl would now be legendary. Fortunately for the world she wasn’t.
Cut to Johnny Rotten who was in London in 1977 at the right place and at the right time. England was in economic turmoil. The Cold War was in full force and effect and England was ready to be turned on its head. The palpable anger, turmoil and rage in the streets of London was channeled through the persona of Rotten (a stage name) and his band mates and Punk Rock was born.
It’s hard to imagine what would not have been possible if it weren’t for the Pistols. Johnny Rotten took on all comers including the Queen. They were both adored and reviled depending upon what side of the political and economic fence you were on. He was a menace and unapologetic about it. He hasn’t changed in that respect.
In reseraching this piece Lydon, in 2010, responded to assanine criticism by the British Rock establishment when he took PIL and played in Israel. In response to the crticism Lydon said:
|“||I really resent the presumption that I’m going there to play to right-wing Nazi Jews. If Elvis-fucking-Costello wants to pull out of a gig in Israel because he’s suddenly got this compassion for Palestinians, then good on him. But I have absolutely one rule, right? Until I see an Arab country, a Muslim country, with a democracy, I won’t understand how anyone can have a problem with how they’re treated.||”|
Lydon has also commented:
|“||I will play to the people. I don’t play to the Government of anything… I’m playing to human beings, and to deny me that right and turn music into some kind of political joystick is quite repulsive to me, and really, really wrong. And hello, Arab countries, you ain’t inviting me. I’ve got no prejudices playing both sides of those borders. Of course, there are all sorts of terrible politics going on down there but there is just about all over the world. You cannot separate yourself from your audience because of the political powers-that-be. I mean, I’m anti-government—I have been all my life no matter where I go—and I shall be making that loud and clearly proud once I’m in Israel. We’ve received a lot of hate mail, as it happens, going to Israel is some kind of political faux pas. I say, ‘Don’t be so ignorant – it’s John speaking here and I’m going there to cause trouble and I will do it musically.|
The man calls it the way he sees it. And he wasn’t too far off the mark.
John Lydon is a 50 something, overweight, substantially more civilized guy these days. He did have a few moments on Sunday where Rotten came out when he hurled a few choice insults to members of the audience that had the place in stitches. It wouldn’t be Johnny without some digs and cuts and was glad to see the guy still had it in him.
He was, on the whole, sincerely committed to the performance and his current band’s legacy. While I found the material to drone on after about an hour, I still kinda dug it. I don’t know what to call it. It’s avant garde, experimental, performance art rock. I think. There is just no genre for PIL and I’m pretty sure that was exactly what Lydon wanted. He has never been one to conform or allow himself to be placed in any kind of box.
I left the venue in absolute awe of the guy. I was in awe he survived, of what he meant to the culture when I was coming up and of the continued influence he has on the culture still today. PIL’s music is probably an acquired taste. If you have an open mind and open ears and give it a good listen, there is substance and talent and vision there, even if John still can’t carry a tune, and still clearly doesn’t give a fuck. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
Much thanks to Aaron, Todd and Linda and the good folks at Club Nokia.