Morning Star, January 10th 2009

© 2010 Morning Star

Public Image Ltd
Manchester, Academy, December 19 2009

by Richard Burgon

Public Image Limited - or PiL - are a delightfully strange and challenging musical beast. To own the eight official PiL studio albums released between 1978 and 1992 is to have instant access to almost the full gamut of musical styles shaping modern “alternative” music.

Is there anyone other than John Lydon - the artist formally known as Johnny Rotten - who can justifiably claim to have fronted and provided the defining impetus to two of the most ground-breaking and influential bands in music history?

PiL, especially their first four albums, were so musically challenging that they alienated most of those who had pogo-ed and posed to The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks album.

So what to expect of the first PiL gigs in 17 years? Much more than the beered-up fun and nostalgia of The Sex Pistols reunion gigs.

And a truly diverse audience at Manchester Academy is treated to two-and-a-quarter hours of undiluted PiL musical challenge.

A plethora of instruments are involved, some of which I could not even name. There is dub. There is dance. There is rock. Even prog. There is post-modern poetry shouted and screamed over deliberately brutally simplistic drumming.

And best of all there is music that defies categorisation.

This is no nostalgia trip - PiL have reworked many of their most famous songs. Spontaneity and improvisation seem to be the order of the night, the “old” songs becoming alive and evolving musical explorations rather than staple classics bashed out by dinosaurs on the reunion circuit.

Musically, and as an event, seeing PiL is no sanitised experience.

An idiot who slings a full pint of lager over Lydon’s jacket at the beginning of the set is verbally dispatched by the vocalist with withering and controlled contempt.

Before the last song, a scuffle between a group of absolutely wasted cliche punks and some less conspicuous bystanders sees Lydon intervene to defuse the situation.

When singing Death Disco - a hypnotically emotionally raw song which Lydon wrote for and played to his dying mother - Lydon looks in a distraught world of his own and those close enough to the stage can see drummer Bruce Smith asking him: “Are you OK?” at the end of what must be an incredibly painful song for the singer to perform.

Thirty years since the release of the groundbreaking Metal Box, PiL remain an important and challenging cathartic experience for band and audience alike.


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