There are, perhaps, no artists more deserving of the term “post-punk” than those who are recognized as the forefathers of the punk movement in the first place. Ironically, those who have had that mantle thrust upon them are often the most unwanting and abhorrent of such a term, as the entire focus of the original scene and movement was the antithesis of labels and stereotypes in favor of doing something that upset the common thread of order that society had comfortably settled into for so long. The English quartet known as the Sex Pistols — the oddest choice of icons, as they themselves were “manufactured” from a ragtag group hand-picked by designer Malcolm McLaren — birthed one particular member who took the concept of turning pop music upside down to a further extreme: John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon, the vocalist of the group and the founder of the collective known as Public Image Ltd.
Abandoning the fiercely atonal chanting, abrasively-distorted licks and obnoxious, nose-thumbing lyricism of the Pistols, Lydon’s new project embraced haunting, deeply-personal subjects, hypnotic basslines, and songs that marched past the 10-minute mark with no sign of slowing down in the process. Instead of his rhythmic shouts, Lydon adopted a vibrato-soaked operatic vocal style, paying little heed to precise meter or time signature as he bellowed and brayed. Such a complex and wildly experimental style of delivery was the polar opposite of the unkempt chaos that the Pistols would soon become famous for, but Lydon embraced it as his new art form and began the career of Public Image Ltd. thusly. 35 years later, even after a 17-year hiatus, Lydon and the current lineup of PiL — guitarist Lu Edmonds, bassist Scott Firth and drummer Bruce Smith — continue to plow through the current musical climate with a stubbornness and unyielding energy that, for some, is an endurance test in the longevity of its tunes — while for others, a glorious phenomenon to witness as it continues to howl its way through existence.
The 2012 appearance of PiL was very similar to their 2009 re-ignition — a two-hour evening with no opening act, and so minuscule an encore break that it could be seen as a simple breather between pieces — but this time around, the quartet was armed with a collection of brand new tracks from their latest work, This Is PiL, released back in May. The new pieces fell seamlessly into place with the fan favorites, pairing numbers like “One Drop” along with “Albatross” or “Reggie Song” with “Death Disco”, and the steamroller that was the four-piece continued plowing on through the night with no sign of stopping. Edmonds moved effortlessly from guitar to saz to cümbü? as the set called for delicate changes to the instrumentation, while Firth and Firth chugged along with machine-like drones and beats that rattled the walls and floors of the Regency Ballroom with staggering menace.
Lydon himself was an all-encompassing spectacle that eclipsed both the sound and antics of his onstage companions, both with his erratic movements and his multi-faceted performance as frontman, vocalist, and sinister agent of disorder. He swayed back and forth, hurled his arms to and fro, and caterwauled at his audience with the fury of a madman and the grace of a dancer. He beckoned and eschewed, clawed and caressed, jerked and slunk, and all the while asserted his onlookers with a look of satisfaction and amusement upon his face. This was a man who knew how precisely how to play to his audience, and was fully aware of how ensnared they were by his galavanting about; in moments where he encouraged the crowd to clap to the music, he would abandon his gesturing at the precise moment that everyone began to parrot him, dancing instead to the rhythm of their applause. Only between songs did Lydon offer a delicate nod and curt acknowledgement of the assembled faces and bellowing cheers, moments before he and the rest of the band went careening into the next song of the night.
For all of its hypnotic, brutally-persistent rhythms and songs that seemed to continue onward in a deliciously self-indulgent manner, PiL’s set was marvelously timed at precisely two hours and fifteen minutes, even despite a quarter-hour-late start time. This even included a short restroom break, a 5-minute howling wash of interrupting feedback, and an extended section within the cult classic “Religion”. The latter event unfolded with Lydon, a sadistic glint in his eye and a wry grin upon his face, snarling at the sound engineer to turn up Firth’s bass to an skull-crushingly loud volume, the foundations of the ballroom quaking and rocking as the denizens within held their ears and watched in fear and wonder as they felt their organs and skeletons rattle and hum. A shared moment with the audience was offered in the conclusion of “Rise” as Lydon and his fans hurled the mantra “anger is an energy” back and forth at each other, and the night came to a roaring conclusion with a rousing performance of Leftfield’s “Open Up” before the quartet departed from the stage.
John Lydon and the men of Public Image Ltd have braved the ever-shifting tides of popular music trends, aging generations of fans, and the harsh new climates of the music industry to revive their work after a break of nearly two decades, and their commitment to fiercely challenging music has not wavered in the slightest. In concert, the band plays and moves with uncompromising precision, clashing magnificently with the frenetic gyrations of Lydon as he howls and croons his way across the stage, and it is clear that his personal connection to the songs has not wavered in its intensity. With the release of This Is PiL, Lydon and his cohorts have firmly planted themselves back in the world of modern music and dug in their heels against the possibility of stagnation or decrepitness. Perhaps another two decades are in store for this merry band of tricksters, with even more opportunities to bend the envelope along the way.
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2012 Jonathan Pirro.