All of the above was proved anew this week as John Lydon and his band Public Image Limited stopped in Seattle for an incendiary show as part of their 2010 U.S. tour.
Know your PiL History
More on the gig in a second, but first a quick history lesson for those of you not familiar with PiL. You may know Lydon under another name - Johnny Rotten. Yes, the lead singer and lyric writer for the seminal and highly influential punk rock band the Sex Pistols. While the Pistols delivered a blistering, political attack and a DIY approach that influenced the formation of bands around the world, their heyday was played out by late 1978 as they broke up for a number of reasons that year.
At that point, Lydon re-took his real name and started a new band called Public Image Limited - or PiL for short. If the Pistols were rock and roll through a bright major chord buzz saw, PiL were rock and roll in a dark minor chord blender set to grind. Lydon was truly looking to do something completely different - for himself and for music. So followed three great and very cutting edge albums that accomplished just that - First Issue, Metal Box and Flowers of Romance.
For the second time in just a few years Lydon and a set of band mates again re-defined what new music is all about, again launching a wave of influence across music. The lineup of the group changed continually going forward into the 80s with Lydon as the lone constant. They also achieved more commercial success with songs like "Rise," "This is Not A Love Song" and "Seattle" in the mid-1980s.
By 1992 Lydon put PiL on hiatus and most of us thought we'd never hear from them again. Sure, he re-formed the Sex Pistols a few times in the 1990s and early 2000s for gigs, but nobody seriously thought we'd hear live PiL again. Surprise! In late 2009, bankrolled by Lydon's payday for his stint as TV spokesman for British Country Life Butter, he put PiL back together and on the road with a UK and now US tour. No record deal, no label support...just Lydon and band mates playing shows because they wanted to.
With that history, I was thunderstruck when I read that PiL was coming to Seattle. No questions asked, no doubt in my mind that I was going. I saw Lydon with the reformed Sex Pistols in 1996 when they played Bumbershoot in Seattle, but that was 14 years ago and in a big venue. Meanwhile, over the years the PiL cannon of songs really grew on me to become one of my favorites in my music collection. And, any chance to see John Lydon up close and personal with PiL is a no brainer in my book.
So, my buddy Paul and I checked out the show this past Tuesday at the Showbox at the Market in downtown Seattle. This is a small but nice venue with good acoustics. The gig also happened to be an "all ages" show, so management did not allow alcohol onto the show flow. Rather, if you wanted to have a few drinks with your PiL experience, you had to stay towards the back in the specified bar areas. Lydon noticed this during the show and admonished the crowd farther back for being "too elite" or something. He probably didn't realize the bar/under 21 situation. I'll give him a pass.
Ok, so...how was the gig? Flamin'. That's my answer. On fire. Lydon and his band were spot on, passionate, talented and engaging. You could feel the music and the message coming off the stage. This was not necessarily surprising given Lydon's history, but it was really welcome to hear him and the band so committed, so into it and sounding so good.
I would estimate the venue was about 80 percent full. This is a little disappointing considering how good this band is live and how influential they are. With no record label to flog ads and promote the gig, I thought the turn out was pretty good. I'd also estimate that the crowd was mostly in their 30s and 40s, with a few younger peeps smart enough to check it out.
Hitting the stage just after 9 p.m., a black-clad Lydon sporting a wildly spiky head of blond hair said hello to the audience, advised them not to jump on stage, offered that if respect was given to the band that respect would be given back...and then announced, "let the celebration begin!" And it did as the band jumped right into This Is Not A Love Song. Which it wasn't. But it was good. Real good.
Appetite whetted with that first song, I was really pleased that John then led the band through several all time classic PiL songs from their early career - Poptones, Tie Me To The Length Of That, Albatross, Death Disco and Flowers of Romance. Each of these sounded great...possibly even better than the recorded versions as the live, in-the-moment rock and roll treatment amped them up and made them drive as much as grind. A wicked cool balance that, well, was stunningly impressive to me. I'll give Death Disco the nod as best of this part of the set - just incredible.
As mentioned earlier, PiL has seen many lineups over the years, and none of the original members are in the band now. However, Lydon has clearly assembled a great live group, bringing in two musicians who played in PiL before - Lu Edmonds on a scorching guitar and other instruments, and drummer Bruce Smith. The four man team is rounded out by expert bassist Scott Firth.
Next the band tackled a series of songs from the album 9 sandwiched in between a pair of songs from Lydon's solo album, Psycho's Path. In order of performance, they were Psychopath, Warrior, USLS 1, Disappointed and Sun. To me the standouts were Warrior and Disappointed. These were tight performances from the more pop-oriented era of PiL's career and Lydon was particularly talkative to the audience introducing those tunes. For Warrior, he said that he was becoming a U.S. citizen and that soon this would be "my land" too - echoing a line from the song. He also advised the crowd to stand up for what they believed in and - I think - said something about how the Republican Party should be dismantled.
Among the many things I was instantly impressed about the band was the quality of Lydon's voice stood out to me. Never one to be called a classic rock singer, he has always relied on pure energy and guts to belt out his lyrics. This has served him well over the years as his is a truly unique voice in rock, but you wonder how a 54 year old guy is going to sound. Well, he sounded great through the entire show.
The home stretch of the main set was completed with performances of Memories from Metal Box, Bags from Album, Chant from Metal Box and Religion from First Issue. Again, wow. To me, Religion was just superb. Before the song started, Lydon called out to the sound man, Walter, at the back, "Oh Walter, give us more bass...more bass Walter!" Walter obliged. What followed was a blistering version of the anti-organized religion song, Religion. With all that's happening with the Catholic Church these days, not to mention the general rise in religious fervor here in the U.S. and other places in the world, this song is just as relevant, cutting and needed today as it was when it was written back in the late 70s. This gets my vote for song of the night.
At the close of Religion, Lydon thanked the crowd and said, "We'll be back in two minutes. Smoke break. Back in two minutes." And they were.
The show concluded with the performance of two of the best known PiL songs - Public Image, Rise - and then one of Lydon's biggest solo hits, Open Up. Delivering the goods right up to the last note, this seemed a perfect ending set for the show.
Paul and I couldn't have been more pleased - a long time music hero blowing away expectations by delivering a high quality set of music with a tight band in a small venue. And here's another thing...Lydon, this band and these songs sound as fresh, important and vital as they ever did and certainly more so than 95% of what passes for rock music today. To me, this was the big "ah ha" of my night.
Lydon has said in interviews leading into the tour that if goes well, this PiL lineup may record new music. If they do, I'm sure it'll be good and worth checking out. But, I am not sure it could top what we just saw this week.
You can view a clip from the show on YouTube - Lydon's opening comments and then This Is Not A Love Song HERE. But, I warn that the sound quality of the recording is not very good for the song as the PiL sound system blows out the microphones of whatever device the person recorded it on.
Photos taken by Marc Osborn at the PiL gig in Seattle on April 20, 2010
PiL logo taken from the the Johnny Loves Fuzztone Blogspot blog