The Times, December 17th, 2009

© 2009 The Times

Public Image Ltd
Birmingham, Academy, December 15 2009

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Public Image Ltd at the Academy, Birmingham

by Stephen Dalton

Even in a year overstuffed with middle-aged rockers milking cash-in comebacks, the return of Public Image Ltd feels like a genuine cultural event. John Lydon may have become a minor embarrassment recently with his panto-style Sex Pistols revivals, reality TV tantrums and clownish butter adverts, but PiL have only grown in critical stature.

The ground-breaking post-punk collective that Lydon formed 31 years ago are now endlessly canonised as a key influence on countless artists, including Massive Attack, Primal Scream, Radiohead and even the current dubstep scene — a remarkable range of acolytes not lost on Lydon himself. “This is the band that taught all those f***ing second-rate w****** how to play music,” the 53-year-old enfant terrible sneered by way of introduction in Birmingham. “I apologise.”

PiL’s 17-year absence has, of course, made critical hearts grow fonder. Rose-tinted legend has cast them as fiercely innovative pop futurists who redrafted the rules of rock much as Miles Davis revolutionised jazz. Indeed, they even worked with Davis at one point, although this collaboration was never released.

Thankfully, for much of their Birmingham show they confirmed their lofty reputation. Although the current PiL line-up of Lu Edmonds, Bruce Smith and Scott Firth is not the much lauded original, they opened strongly with thrilling versions of Public Image, Careering and This Is Not a Love Song, all unassailable classics, combining the hurtling energy of punk with the sinewy rhythms of dub reggae and howling screeds of atonal guitar. The shimmering, dreamy Poptones was another highlight, and remains one of Lydon’s most unapologetically beautiful compositions.

However, revisionist rock historians tend to overlook PiL’s latterday incarnation as cerebral heavy-metal plodders in the vein of David Bowie’s Tin Machine. Slightly too much of their Birmingham set was given over to ponderous grinders such as USLS1, a song inspired by the Lockerbie disaster.

Spanning more than two hours, this show could have been shorter and tighter. But it climaxed impressively with the fearsome punk-funk epic Rise and a dynamic reworking of Open Up, Lydon’s post-PiL collaboration with the techno duo Leftfield. At the end, the caterwauling Quasimodo of avant-rock dropped his defensive mask of withering scorn and thanked the Birmingham crowd effusively. Living up to his legend, he finally became the iconic innovator John Lydon, not the cartoon clown Johnny Rotten. It’s good to have him back.

Glasgow Academy, Fri; Manchester University, Sat; Brixton Academy, Mon; Electric Ballroom, NW1, Tue and Wed


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