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Public Image Limited

Heaven, London – 1st April 2012

When approaching rock concerts, especially in this era of droves of once cool super-annuated bands going back on the road now they realise that royalties are not going to pay their pension plans, I think there is a lot of wisdom in the maxim: you should never go back. This is why I avoided the Sex Pistols when they reformed like the plague. Johnny Rotten's subsequent antics, trying to maintain a sneery high ground while pursuing fame and fortune on I-want-to-be-a-celebrity-please-keep-me-in-here and then a series of adverts for butter completely validated my decision. I was pleased I could keep intact those grainy images of the Pistols demolishing Bill Grundy on TV and the feelings of possibility and freedom that listening to 'Anarchy In The UK' in my bedroom evoked. So it was with some trepidation that I decided to go and see PiL; I was in the UK for just a few days, a good friend was going, so to speak in text for a moment: WTF!

And what a curious event it was. I have to hand it to John Lydon though, much more comfortable with his real name than his punk rock moniker – it was clear he really wanted this to be a great gig. In fact it feels like he has realised that life is short, for once he wants to give something his all, and PiL is his shot. Maybe it was his step daughter, the irrepressible Ari Up, dying recently, so young, or maybe just the passage of time, but this seemed like a man wanting to leave something behind. And for that alone it made this a very special event. There was something raw about it, and something very real. The merchandising looked handmade (and not very good), there was little memorabilia, no corporate sponsorship – and Heaven is a rare venue these days, a mid-sized old fashioned and ungentrified space that perfectly fitted the crowd and sound. Perfectly fitted meaning it felt just a bit too full and a bit too loud.

What did I think of the gig itself? Difficult to say. In many ways it mirrored the midlife crisis that a lot of the crowd looked like they might be going through. At times it was nostalgic, at times desperately trying to evoke a life and time that never was back in the day, and at others offering the possibility of a new, more mature and emergent future. Spun together though the whole was far greater than the sum of the parts: there was an affection between crowd and performer, the familiarity of a timeless old pair of Levis, and an authenticity to the whole thing that touched me deeply and left me feeling like I had witnessed something special. In many ways it reminded me of when an old sporting champion tries to make a comeback, as the Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe recently did when he attempted to make the Olympic team. The raw power of youth, the cocksure confidence that is given by youthful ignorance, was gone and however hard they tried to find it, it just wasn’t there to be drawn on. But with that came a humility, a sense that achievement wasn’t just going to come but was going to take effort, and with that a sense of humanity and paradoxically a sense that what was produced had far more value. John Lydon never had a good voice and now it is ageing and he is keen to produce good music rather than deliver channelled anger it is even more exposed. But like the ageing sportsman, power has been replaced with craft – who’d have thought anyone would ever say that of the former Mr Rotten? PiL have clearly practised; their highly talented guitarist puts the mentalist into multi-instrumentalist, and the bass and drums do what a great rhythm section should do – provide a thumping rhythm. At times their sound was epic, and certainly never predictable or dull.

I am a progressive, not someone keen on looking back, so the test for me of a good gig is would I go back based on the sense that next time I will get something new and better not just another retread of what I had just seen – and I would. And for that I think we have to take our hats off to Johnny Rotten and perhaps accept his story that he did the TV and adverts so he could finance this and do it the way he always wanted. There is a huge irony for me that while so many people and bands seem to be focused on cynically packaging what they do for maxim ROI, it is John Lydon of Finsbury Park who turns out to still care. Maybe a bit of LA has crept into Mr Lydon as I came out of the gig feeling happy and better connected to my fellow man. ‘Ood ‘ave thought it?!


Words and photo by Neil Gibb

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