Wednesday, September 30, 2015
Kicking Out at the World
It seems to be the current and popular view that John Lydon, the one-time anti-Christ and Sex Pistol, has undergone a rehabilitation, that he is now a reformed and respectable character. His recent interview with Piers Morgan on primetime, mainstream television saw a cuddly, joking John willing to play the game: he was happy to field the obligatory sentimental questions and be led to the brink of tears over the loss of his mum and his friend, Sid Vicious. It ended with Morgan playfully accusing Lydon of being a nice bloke, these days.
The probable truth is that he was always an affable character - his abrasiveness simply a defence mechanism. He was a teenager when he joined the Sex Pistols in 1975 and, within a couple of years, he found himself to be a public enemy, an immoral influence on the nation’s young. The words of a Libertines' song - “the boy kicked out at the world/the world kicked back a lot fucking harder” - come to mind. It is little wonder that he quickly developed a hard, spiky shell and a reluctance to engage with the media or any authority.
The irony of being condemned by those moral guardians of the 1970s, Parliament and the BBC, is surely not lost on Lydon. Recent revelations about the sexual practices of senior politicians and television personalities tell us that it was the likes of Johnny Rotten who were the ones with a strong moral compass. His railing against power and institutions, informed by his working-class Catholic upbringing, and his oft-expressed distaste for hypocrites and liars, make a lot more sense now.
Lydon is, of course, a survivor and his second band, the sublime Public Image Limited, arguably invented post-punk: the first three LPs the band made are still quite extraordinary to listen to for their experimentation and originality. With different line-ups into the 1980s and 90s, they settled for a more accomplished rock sound that brought success but less musical plaudits. The band then underwent a twenty-year hiatus – which Lydon filled with an autobiography, Sex Pistols’ reunions, reality television and butter advertisements - before re-emerging in 2012 with earlier members Bruce Smith and Lu Edmonds and new addition, jazz bassist, Scott Firth. Their LP, This Is PiL, was enthusiastically received for its post-punk, prog and reggae leanings.
Since then, the band have been gigging regularly and Lydon has written a second autobiography, Anger Is An Energy. Last year, I saw him promoting that book at the De La Warr Pavilion and, much as I enjoyed the evening, it seemed wrong to be in such a great venue listening to his life story rather than his music. Last night, he returned to Bexhill with PiL to put that right and commented that the book we purchased a year ago has probably make a good doorstop in the interim. I am sure it was a joke, like his comment that he had lived down the road in “far-superior” Pevensey Bay for a while as a kid.
Where Lydon seems happiest is on stage making music. It is easy to forget how remarkable his voice is, ranging from his familiar North London nasal whine to the deep bellow of a demented preacher and often both within one line of a song. The first two tracks on new album What The World Needs Now, Double Trouble and Know Now, were the set openers last night and they perfectly displayed his peculiar talent for hysterical, accusatory ranting. If the opening was frantic, it soon settled to a more thoughtful pace with a terrific version of one of their best songs, Poptones –“I can’t forget the impression you made/you left a hole in the back of my head” - from the ground-breaking Metal Box album, underpinned brilliantly by Scott Firth’s looping and spiralling bass. Lu Edmonds guitar work was inspired throughout and its piercing discordance illuminated the centrepiece of the set, an epic version of 1979’s Death Disco. There were also mid-period PiL treats with versions of Disappointed, The Body and This Is Not A Love Song.
A friend who had seen PiL a couple of years ago said that it was one of the loudest gigs he had been to and, as the evening wore on last night, the volume seemed to be increasing. By the time the set concluded with Religion, a savage attack on the world's faiths, I could feel Firth’s electric stand-up bass in my sternum and, as the song climaxed with Lydon chanting “turn up the bass!”, I could sense my scalp starting to tingle. The band’s two most iconic songs were saved for the encore: they returned to the stage with the rumble of first single, Public Image, and finished with the closest they get to a terrace anthem – “anger is an energy!” – the 1986 hit, Rise. The band seemed to have genuinely enjoyed the evening and lingered on stage as Lydon introduced them – pushing drummer Bruce Smith upstage - to the crowd’s appreciation.