Now that John Lydon, nee Rotten, is no longer being targeted, feared and beaten in the street as a folk devil, it’s possible to see his constantly oppositional art more clearly.
On a sultry night in his north London home patch, among a fine crowd with an old-fashioned, leary edge, the first thing which becomes plain is that he is one of Britain’s great singers.
As the version of PiL he put together in 2009 play the band’s biggest, 1983 hit, “This Is Not A Love Song”, Lydon’s voice is a piercing, pure wail, then a guttural growl. At one point he appears almost to sing in tongues, or punk scat, even essaying a low croon. On “Deeper Water”, from the fine new album This is PiL (his first for 15 years), he sings “I will not drown”, a statement of indomitable intent.
For “Albatross”, a sister song from1979’s second PiL LP Metal Box, he caws and flaps his arms like a crow, as the band play rockabilly motorik.
“We are from chaos, you cannot change us,” he challenges on “One Drop”, a response to last year’s riots which makes London a place of eternal delinquency. “I will do you no harm,” he playfully promises, “only politicians do,” an anarchist stance he puts into practise as he repeatedly threatens security staff trying to stop fans in the balcony from dancing, declaring: “We police ourselves.”
Such grandstanding is less impressive than the music. Lydon happily meets the crowd’s request for more volume, after which his voice trades clarity for aggressive potency. “Flowers of Romance” is played as dervish dub on sawed banjo and stand-up bass. Then, as “Death Disco”, “Bags” and “Chant” run into each other, the pantomime aspects of Lydon’s persona disappear into benevolently dark, driven music, bass-heavy and inarticulately forceful. Someone behind me murmurs the words of the church-lacerating “Religion” like a catechism. And during “Rise”, the crowd sing its mantra, “Anger is an energy”, before Lydon does, and don’t stop - punk at its most unifying, freeing and visceral. Lydon grins, and does a gentle London Irish jig.
By now people are spinning wildly around me, to what feels like strange dance music even before the Lydon and Leftfield techno hit, “Open Up”. “My name is John,” the singer reminds us at the end, looking unusually humble and happy.