New York Times, May 19th 2010
© 2010 New York Times
New York, Terminal 5, USA, May 18th 2010
Back to Rage Anew, Fires Smoldering Still
by JON PARELES
“For your dubious pleasure!” John Lydon proclaimed as Public Image Ltd. started its set on Tuesday night at Terminal 5. That was Mr. Lydon’s famous cynicism. His corrosive mockery made him the voice of anarchy and nihilism for the brief, indelible punk flare-up of the Sex Pistols and then, from 1978 to 1992, a provocateur and post-punk pioneer as the leader of Public Image Ltd., abbreviated to PiL for the band’s logo.
Reviving the PiL brand after 17 years — the current group played its first shows last December — could have been one more jape by Mr. Lydon at pop, show business, the media and the audience. Public Image Ltd. is still remembered for a 1981 New York City show at the Ritz (now Webster Hall) where it performed behind a screen, with Mr. Lydon taunting the audience, until the crowd rioted, hurling beer bottles and pulling down the stage set. Band revivals are good box office, as Mr. Lydon knows from his Sex Pistols reunions. But this PiL is no joke.
Mr. Lydon sings the old songs with all their taunts, injuries, fury and sarcasm in a voice that’s as cutting as ever. And this lineup of PiL — with two members who joined the band in 1986, the guitarist Lu Edmonds and the drummer Bruce Smith, along with Scott Firth on bass and keyboards — finds its own way to make the songs bristle and churn.
PiL’s late-1970s rejoinder to punk was a repudiation of punk’s speed, quick-strummed chords and pop choruses. The band’s initial lineup replaced those musical elements with loping bass lines and untethered guitar parts, embracing dissonance and opening up spaces that punk had filled in. Mr. Lydon’s vocals straddled speech and song: declaiming, bleating, chanting, hitting notes on the sharp and discordant side of their underlying harmonies. It was improvisational but not arbitrary; there was seriousness behind the sneer.
Onstage with his latest PiL, Mr. Lydon fully inhabited his old songs. In hindsight, they hold as much pain as they do venom and contempt; birth trauma in “Tie Me to the Length of That,” mourning in “Annalisa.” But the anger hasn’t faded. Mr. Lydon sounded especially vindictive in “Religion,” a song from 1978 that declares, “There’s a liar on the altar.” He moved to the songs with squared-off shoulders, pointing fingers and jerking hips, dancing more than posing, and his face contorted as he sustained notes to give each one its most biting inflection. Between songs, he swigged from a liquor bottle.
The band didn’t copy old albums; it redrew songs within the original outlines. Mr. Edmonds, on guitar or electric saz (a long-necked Turkish lute), used reverb to build thickets of noise and brought out the Middle Eastern implications of songs like “Flowers of Romance.” The rhythm section kicked and swung; Mr. Lydon’s grudge match with the world no longer seemed only petulant, if it ever was.
“The public image belongs to all of us,” he sang, changing the lyrics of his 1978 song “Public Image,” and continuing, “It’s our entrance, our creation.” Mr. Edmonds set the major chords chiming; the beat surged forward; and Mr. Lydon was a figure of irascible integrity. Rock’s antihero had become, against all expectations, a rock hero.
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