John Lydon and PiL: real music for real people.
|You gotta love John's sense of humour. (Image copyright: PiL)|
Picture, if you will, a musically naïve 13 year-old sitting in front of Top of the Pops in 1977. He doesn’t know much about pop but he knows what likes, namely Boney M and Clout. On this particular night, his eyes widen, his mouth drops open, it feels like his hair really does stand on end and his perception of music – and, yes, his life – instantly change: it’s a genuine Road to Damascus moment. Blasting out of the screen and transforming him forever in its sonic maelstrom is ‘Pretty Vacant’ by the Sex Pistols.
John Lydon (a.k.a. Johnny Rotten) changed my life. From that Top of the Pops onwards it was Rat Scabies, Jet Black and Joe Strummer rather than Jeff Lynne, Bjorn Ulvaeus and Freddy Mercury (although, if you think about it, Freddy is the John Rotten of pomp rock, and, oddly, I love him as much as I love Mr Lydon… which is worth a blog post all of its own). I was so excited about seeing bands that when I got to 1980 and the Sixth Form, I began organising coach trips to gigs at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, the nearest venue where groups I liked played. Seeing The Skids, The Teardrop Explodes, Wall of Voodoo, The Stranglers and many more over the years was all down to John. He was the punk rock progenitor.
29 September 2015 and I’m back at the UEA. It’s been a nostalgic week, showing the lady friend around my old haunts, but this PiL show has nothing to do with nostalgia, as indicated by a stripped-down, brick wall backdrop with that ingenious, timeless ‘PiL’ logo. There’s no support band, and John’s four piece play for nearly two hours, with a set of half new songs and half old – particularly ‘Poptones’ and a spine-jarring, terrifying ‘Religion’ – that sound like they were written yesterday. So what if John uses a lyric stand these days? Mark E Smith has for years, and it’s only for tracks from the latest album. Besides, it gives Mr Lydon the demeanour of a particularly volatile hellfire preacher, which couldn’t be a better image for him.
He’s a man who’s never given in and never given up. From the Bill Grundy Incident on, this was a boy that lived his life his own way. John’s said what he liked, even it’s sometimes been uncomfortable to hear – he does it tonight, snarling at some over-enthusiastic fans, ‘Get off my fucking stage. Show some respect: I’ve earned it’ – and, against the odds, has made music the way he wanted. OK, John did some adverts for a well-known brand of butter; but he did it to finance a new PiL album when no-one would sign them, which strikes me as a very punk rock thing to do. Since 1976, he’s been the unofficial spokesman for anyone who’s felt marginalised, victimised, ignored or alienated from the mainstream. Over thirty years on, John Lydon is the alternative Queen Mum – a national treasure.
His life and attitude is all there in the songs. ‘Death Disco’ is about the passing of John’s mother and, stretched out to nearly 10 hypnotic minutes, is as full of pulsing, primal rage as ever. Effortlessly switching styles from the avant garde dub of Metal Box to the soft metal of PiL’s 1980s incarnation, ‘Disappointed’ (a personal favourite) is the defiant anthem to being let down by someone close – something we’ve all experienced – while ‘Warrior’ is about the best kind of nationalism. ‘Public Image’ is still a floor-filling call to arms (and, mindful of the old ticker, my only mosh of the night). ‘Rise’, the last song, throws self-belief against self-doubt to produce something truly inspiring, summed up in the line ‘Anger is an energy’ which we bellow at the top of our voices back at the stage.
A couple of history punks were standing next to us, beginning the evening with an air of ‘Alright, old man, impress us.’ By the end, they were clapping and shouting for more along with the rest of the crowd. At 59, John can still take on unbelievers and win.
PiL didn’t play any Sex Pistols numbers. They didn’t need to. As the man said, ‘Real music for real people – that’s why we do it.’
Long may that be the case.