The sneering "'ello 'ello 'ello" that began the song "Public Image" and the band Public Image Ltd in 1978 reintroduced both last night, as John Lydon fronted the equally great band with which he followed the Sex Pistols for the first time in 17 years. Then his trousers nearly fell down. "Fucking hell," he moaned, not missing a beat, "all that butter, and I've still lost weight..."
The one-time Johnny Rotten advertising butter isn't incongruous, because he remains irreducibly honest, even as he contradicts or lets himself down. Few performers are so thin-skinned, both woundable and wounding. Even his last revival of the Pistols bent with his psychic weather, ripe English music hall at early shows becoming stormy provocations later. But he's acknowledged the Pistols are a musical dead end.
PiL was when he started digging at the scars celebrity and his deprived, diseased childhood inflicted. A jagged, supple musical language was built for the purpose from Jah Wobble's dub-funk bass and Keith Levene's needling guitar. Both were gone by 1983, and neither returned last night. With late-period members Lu Edmonds (guitar) and Bruce Smith (drums) and new bassist Scott Firth for less challenging company, this was Lydon's very personal show.
He was at his most imposing at the start, when the set-list was weighted towards PiL's first two albums, Public Image and Metal Box. The latter effectively started post-punk three decades ago, and has proved as permanently influential as punk itself. On "Poptones" especially, it feels as discomfortingly modern as ever. "Drive to the forest in a Japanese car," Lydon sings with opaque romance, as if an old existential art film is playing in his head. A pretty guitar line loops unsteadily behind him, the tune collapsing several times, then picking itself up as if nothing's happened. "Shame on you," he pretends to scold at its end. "That is a song about a brutal rape. And you're applauding! I told you this was going to be a difficult show. And I didn't mean for me..."
The most unsettling moments of the song, and his 1979 response to his mother's slow death from cancer, "Death Disco", too, are when he adopts a mask of weeping, mouth down-turned like kabuki, but real, wrenching sadness perhaps possessing him. He's as happy emoting spoken-word passages as if finally tackling the Richard III his urchin Rotten persona (hunched by spinal meningitis in his case) grew from. But there's a sense in these songs of rare emotional drama, drawn from music and memories he can't ever fake. His vocal extremism, from a pure echoing howl down to soft contemplation, is just as remarkable.
PiL's decline gets thrown in too, with the Americanised rock of the aptly named "Disappointed". A gig by them with this line-up in their final year, 1992, would have been roundly ignored, and as a Lydon who expectorates between every song (though "not at other people", he lectured the crowd's many fellow ageing punks) admits he's "run out of steam", so does the gig.
But maybe exhaustion is an energy, because he rallies for a raw, angry "Religion". He pretends delight at the Lockerbie bomb, too, as he and his wife had tickets, and "they missed me", while "The Warrior" sails close to the dodgy, LA exile's bulldog patriotism that stud all his recent gigs. He turns that theme on its head, though, with an angry denunciation of Blair and the Iraq war, and declaration of multi-cultural pride. Public Image Ltd gave Lydon his freedom to be frighteningly honest 31 years ago. It did the same in last night's best moments.
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